By Cheryl Baehr
By Nancy Stiles
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By Cheryl Baehr
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"A rabbi, a vegetarian and an Irishman walk into a bar" might sound like the start of a joke. But to restaurateur Gershon Schwadron, it sounds like the start of a lucrative investment.
Schwadron is the owner of nine-month-old Shmeers Café, a kosher eatery located in a strip mall off I-170 that's perhaps best known as home to Vietnamese restaurant Mai Lee. Folks seem inclined to call Shmeers a deli, but that's just the Jewish thing talking: The display case near the register contains not whitefish salad and pastrami, but croissants and chocolate-chunk cookies.
Shmeers' three-a-day menu does speak basic Yid. At breakfast, six classic kinds of bagels (onion, poppy and sesame -- no berry-studded or cinnamon-crusted farcockt monstrosities) can be spread with sixteen mostly unorthodox (yet still Orthodox) shmeers, like pineapple -macadamia cream cheese or teriyaki salmon, and at lunch there are blintzes. But the bill of fare also knows some 101-level Mexican (quesadillas, nachos), Israeli (falafel, hummus, tabouleh), Japanese (California rolls), Italian (veggie frittata; brick-oven, East Coast-thin pizza) and Californian (Mediterranean tuna wrap, a hearts of palm/artichoke heart/ grape tomato/cuke/avocado salad).
8440 Delmar Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63124-2109
314-991-2113. Hours: 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. and 5:30- 8 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun. Open Sat. from an hour and a half after sunset to 1 a.m. (midnight in fall and winter)
Schwadron's eclectic offerings reflect an adulthood spent hopscotching around the globe before settling in the St. Louis area in 1999. An Atlantic City native and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Schwadron has apprenticed under a Swiss chef in Israel, spent time in corporate and restaurant kitchens in Manhattan, and once served as personal chef to the Crown Prince of Thailand.
Shmeers sits within the confines of western University City's eruv, a mapped-out religious boundary adhered to by Orthodox Jews on Sabbath. Certain activities that are forbidden or strictly limited outside an eruv, such as pushing a stroller or carrying a purse (both considered tantamount to working, which is prohibited on Sabbath), are allowed within the eruv, which is one reason why Orthodox populations like that in U. City tend to be geographically concentrated. Since the eruv was designated about ten years ago, six shuls have been established in the area, and Orthodox Jews are Schwadron's built-in, unleavened-bread-and-butter clientele.
By the owner's estimation, 75 percent of Shmeers' customers are Jewish, and 80 percent of those keep kosher. Shmeers is not Schwadron's first endeavor into U. City's cottage kosher industry: A practicing Orthodox Jew himself, he was involved in the now-gone Empire Steak Building, a kosher meat restaurant off Olive Boulevard that opened on September 12, 2001.
After Schwadron walked away from there and from doing some catering, friends and neighbors encouraged him to open another kosher restaurant. In fact, 30 local families were so stoked by the idea that each agreed to put up $2,500 for Schwadron's seed money, which they recouped in the form of running tabs at the restaurant. Less than a year later, Schwadron reports, half of those accounts have already been tapped out.
Shmeers' melting-pot approach may take inspiration from continents and cultures hither and yon, but what virtually every dish shares is just how downright agreeable it is. This is very friendly food. Eggplant parmigiana and three-cheese manicotti (Parmesan, mozzarella and, most noticeably, ricotta), buttressed in paste-thick, house-made marinara with little evident seasoning, are stupendous in their hominess. They may not rank as wowee-zowee, future-forward entrées, but they're great comfort dishes. A spinach salad, tweaked for summer, plays delightfully fresh strawberries and mandarin orange sections off sharp red onion, chunks of smoky blue cheese and an orange vinaigrette. A taco salad, caged in by one of those Venus-on-the-half-shell, wavy-shape tortilla bowls, treats shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes and sliced black olives to a sweet-tinged, refried-bean accompaniment. (One salad that really fell flat: the Caesar, a dank, mushy blob of lettuce and runny dressing with no croutons, anchovies or grated cheese in sight.)
Kosher restaurants can either serve meat or dairy (with fish allowed), not both. With Shmeers, Schwadron opted for the latter, and so meatless-meat products from Soy7 are pressed into service on plates such as Buffalo poppers ("chick'n" nuggets slathered in Buffalo-chicken-wing sauce) or a chick'n parm sandwich. A "meatball" sub tastes like it came from a street vendor on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. There's no telling this ain't real cow, and the meatballs (which really hold the heat) come slathered in more of that terrific marinara with just the right amount of melted mozz on top. The menu notes that this hero comes with lettuce and tomato on a baguette. Thankfully, this is not the case; there's no lettuce or tomato, and the bread is more a sesame seed-sprinkled hoagie roll, chewy and right-on.
Come dinnertime, pasta and fish comprise the main courses. Salmon, mahi-mahi and tilapia are served daily, along with a catch of the day; all varieties come from Bob's Seafood in the Loop, and can be prepared baked, poached, sautéed, teriyaki-seared, walnut-crusted, blackened or crusted with a lemongrass-curry sauce. "Blackened" is a bit of a misnomer. Though the customary Cajun rub is applied, there's no ultra-charred exterior -- and it's not the best option, as the seasoning's over-the-top spiciness feels like fire ants crawling up the sides of your tongue. A piece of salmon, gently but properly cooked through, didn't really make itself known, even with the lemongrass-curry topping, until drizzled with a side cup of soy glaze.