By Tara Mahadevan
By Ian Froeb
By Ian Froeb
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Gut Check
By Ian Froeb
By Ian Froeb
By Gut Check Guides
The special at Taste this sticky spring evening is simple fare: two slices of toasted bread, each rubbed with garlic and the cut side of a tomato, soaking it in pulp and juice, and then topped with a gossamer slice of house-cured prosciutto. The prosciutto is salty, porky perfection, like silk on the tongue, while the tomato's acidic bite adds a burst of summery brilliance. This is as pure and delicious a thing as you will eat all season.
7734 Forsyth Blvd.
Clayton, MO 63105
4584 Laclede Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63108
Region: St. Louis - Central West End
A simple dish to be sure, but for Adam Altnether, Taste's 24-year-old chef, it marks the culmination of more than a year's work.
"It's kind of like my baby," Altnether says of the prosciutto, which he began curing from the shoulder of a pig of the prized Mangalitsa breed in February of last year. At the time he was chef de cuisine at Niche, and Taste (then known as Taste by Niche) was a cozy spot adjacent to Gerard Craft's acclaimed restaurant. By the end of 2010, Craft had announced first that he intended to move Taste to the address next door to his latest venture, Brasserie by Niche, and then that, while he would remain an investor in Taste, he'd sold the primary interest in the restaurant to Altnether, who in the meantime had left Niche and Benton Park for a spell at Brasserie in the Central West End.
(A couple of months ago, Craft made Altnether a partner in his restaurant group, bringing Taste back under the same ownership umbrella as Niche and Brasserie.)
The early returns on running a restaurant of his own? Altnether laughs. "To say it's been a learning experience would be the biggest understatement. I'm learning every day. I'm the luckiest restaurateur since I have Gerard to coach me through it."
Craft's presence cuts both ways, however. Taste isn't simply a new or relocated restaurant but the reimagining of a concept that won acclaim for being vastly different from every other restaurant in town. Though the original Taste wasn't even a year old when I cobbled together my list of the most important restaurants to open in St. Louis during the Aughts, I ranked it fourth: "At Taste, the barrier between diner and chef is broken down, the intimate confines encouraging a freewheeling conversation with the staff and fellow diners...about how the food is being prepared, what this or that ingredient is, why your cocktail is so good."
At the new Taste, that barrier between diner and chef is back. It is by no means impenetrable, but it is definitely there. Put it this way: At the original Taste, a server didn't have to inform you about a special like the tomato bread with house-cured prosciutto. You could watch as the cooks, working on the other side of the bar where you sat, prepared it; you could hear the little exhalations of pleasure from diners who already were enjoying it.
The new Taste is laid out more or less the same as the restaurant that preceded it at this address, Eric Brenner's Moxy Bistro, was. You enter into the main dining area, a long, narrow space with the bar along one wall and tables along the other. At the far end of this room is an open kitchen just big enough for a couple of cooks to work at once. Stairs lead down to a larger prep kitchen and up to a mezzanine seating area. (There is also a room on the building's second floor for overflow seating and private parties.) Gone, though, is Moxy's slick, nightclub-aping vibe. Taste is all dark wood (including the gorgeous bar) and faint lighting — intimate when you sit across from your beloved, irksome when you attempt to read the menu — from old-school Edison bulbs hung above each table.
The menu has grown both in the number of dishes available and in the scope of those dishes. Although everything is grouped together as "Plates (designed to be shared)," several of the dishes could pass as small or even average-size entrées. Though the fare changes based on seasonal produce and availability, there is less daily variation than there was at the original location.
Explains Altnether: "The cool thing about the older Taste is that we were able to base the menu on things we had in [Niche's] walk-in [refrigerator]. Now, we're actually running a restaurant."
Still, casual is the watchword here — casual and, of course, pork. There are, for example, "pig fries," which look like nothing so much as cheese sticks: pork with a texture rougher than pâté but smoother than sausage that is battered and deep-fried; on the side, for dipping, are a mint sauce and a pungent curry aioli. A pork burger is one of several sandwiches. I opted instead for the mortadella panini, the warm spice and light pistachio notes of the mortadella beautifully complemented by nutty fontina cheese. Also excellent (though of necessity available for only a limited time) is the soft-shell crab sandwich, the crab sensibly paired with nothing more elaborate than lettuce, tomato and — the star of the dish — an aioli flavored with charred green onion.
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