Hardened as I've become to gimmicks and fads — to bacon-wrapped this and deep-fried that — I confess that the pork "wings" at Market Grill got my attention. The primal pleasure of chicken wings combined with nature's tastiest critter? Sure, I'm game. Besides, $9 for three four-ounce "wings" isn't a bad deal.
The "wings" don't look like wings so much as individual ribs, each a plumpish hunk of deep-fried meat surrounding a bone roughly six inches long and no thicker than a finger. These are served dry, with three sauces on the side for dipping: barbecue, mustard and a honey-chipotle blend. Of these I liked the tangy, mildly spicy barbecue best; the mustard is zippy but conventional, the honey-chipotle much too sweet. The pork itself has enough flavor — a rich, almost gamy quality closer to uncured belly or cheek than the "white" meat of a chop or tenderloin — that the sauces are more accent than necessity.
It turns out that the pork "wing" isn't a creation of Market Grill or even of a chef, per se, but of pork processors, a new way to market an underused cut of meat from the shank. It is brilliant in its own way, making something "new" from something that isn't new at all. For many of those involved with food, from processors to cereal makers to restaurateurs, it is the holy grail.
Market Grill opened in February in Soulard, which has to have the highest concentration of bars and restaurants of any St. Louis neighborhood. A new place must stand out, even more so when it has an unassuming name — an obvious nod to Soulard Farmers' Market, which is just across Soulard Park from the restaurant — but its interior, with wood floors, brick walls in the bar and neutral paint in the dining room, evokes nothing but a hundred similar restaurants and bars.
The menu tries to distinguish itself by offering a little bit of everything. The "wings" share space on the appetizer board with actual hot wings, fried crawfish tails (too heavily battered) and even bulgogi, the Korean dish of grilled marinated beef. There is a lengthy list of sandwiches and two separate groups of entrées, one dedicated to comfort food, the other to typical midpriced-restaurant fare: crab cakes, grilled salmon, blackened tuna and sautéed pork tenderloin.
The comfort foods might be your best bet. The country-fried steak is an impressive slab of the South: the beef beaten thin and tender and then coated in so much batter that you might not notice there is meat inside its crunchy, gnarled exterior. The steak is doused with a traditional white gravy, a little peppery, a touch sweet and utterly indulgent. Of course there are mashed potatoes — airy, for the most part, but with definite lumps — on the side.
Mac & cheese is another comfort-food entrée. You can add one of several proteins to this — bacon, chicken, shrimp — but even unadulterated it's a meal in itself. Elbow noodles swim in a thin (though not at all watery), piquant cheese sauce. The noodles are topped with herbed breadcrumbs that provide a welcome verdant accent to the rich cheese.
I had less luck with the other group of entrées. The "Maryland" crab cakes do use blue crab meat — true crab cakes should use no other species — but otherwise don't resemble anything I would find in my home state. Maryland or not, these crab cakes suffered the all too frequent indignity of not tasting very much like crab. The meat is cut with bell peppers and chives and, given the cake's very soft texture, too much binding agent. Here the crust of herbed breadcrumbs adds texture but further distracts from the flavor.
The pork tenderloin is served with what the menu calls a red currant and whole-grain mustard sauce. On my plate, this had been cooked down to the point where it couldn't fairly be called a sauce but something like a glaze, though stickier. At any rate, it imparted only a simplistic tart note to the pork, which itself was overcooked, lacking flavor and juice. That this occurred to Berkshire, rather than commodity, pork was especially unfortunate.
My favorite dish here was one of the sandwiches: beef brisket with caramelized onions and a Gorgonzola cheese sauce. The brisket, though sliced on the thick side, was tender, with a lovely, moderately smoky flavor. The dense sauce was strongly flavored, a perfect counterpoint to the beef.
Entrées and sandwiches come with one or two sides from a pedestrian list: fries, sweet potato fries, vegetable of the day, cole slaw, etc. The dessert list is very brief and also perfunctory: cheesecake or crème brûlée. Market Grill's signature note is its chipotle-honey cornbread, a slice of which accompanies most entrées. This is good (though, like the chipotle-honey sauce that accompanies the pork "wings," more honey than pepper), provided the kitchen sends out a relatively fresh batch. On my first visit, the bread was as dry as day-old toast.
Granted, cornbread was a minor component of the meal, but the fact that the kitchen sent out a poor example of it suggests the challenges confronting Market Grill. When you face so much competition, not only in your neighborhood, but in your large, amorphous category of casual American "grill" fare, little touches are what set you apart. Without those touches, you are merely the next new thing, passing time until the novelty wears off.
The truly original, memorable restaurant might not be as rare as the proverbial flying pig, but it sure can feel that way sometimes.
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