Esprit de Course: Little Country Gentleman's grand tasting menu lays down the gauntlet

Slideshow: Photos from Little Country Gentleman

Esprit de Course: Little Country Gentleman's grand tasting menu lays down the gauntlet
Jennifer Silverberg
Course three — "Cow" —; is beef prepared two ways with parsnip miso, root veggies, pearl onions and Maytag blue cheese.

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A small mound of steak tartare sits at four o'clock on the broad rim of a large plate. Here and there specks of chopped cilantro stems dot the meat with green. Three thin rice crackers jut out at odd angles. Atop the tartare glistens the dusky orange yolk of a quail egg. At the center of this plate, in a shallow indentation, is an amber daikon-radish consommé. Per your server's advice, you spoon the tartare through the consommé, and the daikon's mild sweetness and hint of earth pairs beautifully with the meat's mineral sharpness, while the silken egg yolk, no bigger than a quarter, gives the dish a luscious, lasting body.

A server brings you a bowl containing a single seared scallop and a tangle of oyster mushrooms — some cooked, some dehydrated; "mushroom jerky," your server calls the latter, and you both chuckle. A second server steps up with a tureen and pours thick sunchoke soup over this arrangement. How these flavors work together is tough to describe. But they do. Sweet, buttery, nutty, earthy and even, thanks to that jerky, a tad meaty: You can't imagine an additional element this soup could need, and you don't leave so much as a drop in the bowl.

There are moments of sublime beauty and pleasure to be found at Little Country Gentleman, the new concept from Mike Randolph, owner and chef of the SLU-area Neapolitan pizzeria Good Pie and the gourmet breakfast spot Half & Half — dishes so remarkable that, at three months old, Little Country Gentleman deserves mention in a discussion of St. Louis' best restaurants.

Location Info


Little Country Gentleman

8135 Maryland Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63105

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Clayton


8135 Maryland Avenue, Clayton; 314-725-0719. Hours: 6-10 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
(Bar opens at 5 p.m. Tue.-Fri.)

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Yet there are also dishes as confounding as any I've encountered anywhere. Plump hunks of lobster claw meat, orange segments and a sprig of tarragon bob in a bowl of what looks to be melted vanilla ice cream, right down to the little black bits of vanilla bean. In fact, this liquid is potato aerated through a whipped-cream charger; the black bits are sesame seeds. But the potato concoction is flavored with vanilla and bourbon, so the dish really is like eating lobster in melted vanilla ice cream (and New England weeps). The orange reinforces the incongruous dessertlike preparation, a misstep for which the tarragon and a touch of Thai dragon chile can't compensate.

This inconsistency isn't that surprising, given Little Country Gentleman's back-story. What's more, it suggests what could be, in the long run, the restaurant's greatest strength.

Little Country Gentleman replaced MEDIAnoche as the other restaurant inside the Half & Half space on Maryland Avenue near the western fringe of "downtown" Clayton. Whereas MEDIAnoche focused on modern Mexican cuisine, Little Country Gentleman follows the whims of Randolph and chef de cuisine Dale Beauchamp. The menu highlights local, seasonal bounty — though only to a certain point. Root vegetables figure prominently right now, as you would expect in the late autumn, but purveyors go unmentioned on the menu, and only once, and then as an aside, did a server mention the origin of a specific ingredient. (Randolph originally pitched Little Country Gentleman, named for an heirloom breed of corn, as featuring Midwestern produce exclusively. In practice, as the presence of lobster and scallops show, the restaurant draws from a broader marketplace.)

Slideshow: Photos from Little Country Gentleman

The space has received a slight makeover. The half of the restaurant featuring the bar and the open kitchen remains more or less the same as before. That includes a large swath of unused space lighted like a cafeteria and with a plate-size drain in the middle of the floor. The dining room proper has a new coat of paint (a deep midnight blue), a sleek wine fridge and low, warm lighting. Billowing white fabric conceals the ugly drop ceiling.

Ambitiously, Little Country Gentleman offers diners no choice other than one of three prix-fixe tasting menus: three courses, six courses or the "Grand" tasting menu. For the three-course meal ($38 per person), you choose one of two savory options for each course. The six-course progression ($68 per person) brings five of the options from the three-course menu in succession, followed by a dessert course. Both meals start with an amuse bouche; the six-course version includes a palate-cleansing intermezzo in the form of a cocktail.

Which brings us to the grand tasting menu ($98 a pop). On the evening I ordered it, this featured an amuse bouche, six savory courses, a cocktail intermezzo, four more savory courses, a glass of housemade eggnog, two cheese courses and a snickerdoodle in a little bag to take home.

Though the least expensive, the three-course option presents the greatest risk. You could easily end up with a sequence of the restaurant's most disappointing dishes, beginning with the "Relish Tray." This is an artfully arranged plate of raw, roasted and pickled beets, radishes, potatoes and okra. The pickled component overwhelms the palate. I couldn't taste the dish's other components (a housemade "ranch" sauce and a strange puddle of pulverized pine nuts), let alone figure out how they worked with the vegetables. Next you could choose the aforementioned lobster. Then you could finish with the dish called, appropriately, "Pig," which is too much of a good thing: deep-fried croquettes of pork cheek meat; smoked pork loin; pork belly; and a chicharrón. Similar to the pickle plate, all that pork obliterates nuance.

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