In truth, writing this many words about the dish feels excessive. You don't have to think about it, just enjoy it, one forkful at a time, until, suddenly, the bowl is empty. When your server stops to ask if everything was OK, you reply, "It was good."
The Tavern opened in October in a Valley Park shopping plaza. Its owners also run the Corner Pub & Grill, which is located in a separate retail strip in the same plaza. Of course, this column often dwells in strip malls — revels in them, really — though usually not for restaurants like this one. In design and execution, the Tavern is a thoroughly contemporary operation, smartly outfitted in dark wood and neutral shades. There is a bar and a dining room, as well as a couple of alcoves for private parties. The focal point is the open kitchen. If you like, you can sit at a sort of bar along one side of the kitchen and watch the action while you eat.
The chef is Justin Haifley. A St. Louis native — to anticipate the inevitable question: Parkway West — his résumé includes a lengthy apprenticeship under Roy Yamaguchi, best known as the founder of Hawaiian fusion cuisine. At the Tavern Haifley serves "upscale comfort food." Of course, there is pork belly.
Specifically, there is an appetizer called "Bacon & Eggs," a familiar, but not unwelcome, entry in the New American canon: a hunk of pork belly paired with an egg poached sous-vide style — sealed in a bag, then immersed for an hour in a hot-water bath — and toasted brioche. The egg white and yolk alike seem to dissolve at the mere rumor of a fork, creating a luscious sauce for the bread and meat. This is a can't-miss dish, or should be, except I was served what might have been the least-fatty piece of pork belly in existence, robbing the meat of much of its charm.
High-end riffs on toasted ravioli are a tired St. Louis joke, but the toasted lobster ravioli, another appetizer, makes up in excess what it lacks in creativity. Bites of buttery lobster fill each plump square, and on the side is an outrageously rich truffle-Parmesan cream sauce. The best appetizer might be the most basic: crisp housemade potato chips, served state-fair-style in a brown paper bag spotted with grease. These come with two dipping sauces: chunky, mildly spiced guacamole and a blend of buttermilk and blue cheese with bits of bacon folded into it. The latter, playing on Americans' love of all things ranch dressing-flavored, is dangerously delicious.
The entrée menu exercises a broad definition of comfort food. There are the pastas: linguini with clams and sopressata, tagliolini with pancetta and a fried egg, and, of course, the pappardelle. There is also seafood, both upscale (salmon roulade over asparagus risotto) and not. The fish and chips is as good as any in town, the cod tender in its crisp jacket of Schlafly American Pale Ale beer batter.
Yes, there is meat loaf, three miniature slabs, each wrapped in perfectly cooked bacon. The meat loaf's flavor is more beef than seasoning; its dressing of earthy hunter's sauce — a classic French brown sauce with an earthy mushroom flavor and a slight tomato tang — makes it even richer. This sits on a parsnip purée, which provides a bright counterpoint to the meat loaf's heft.
A separate entrée category titled "Meat" includes steaks, pork and chicken. My rib eye was a decent cut, if a little leaner than I like. Sadly, the kitchen served it closer to medium than medium-rare. I had much better luck with the pork tenderloin. The surface was seared to an intensely flavorful dark brown, the interior an ideal blushing pink. Apple and rosemary were the sensible seasonings. If you're set on eating beef, consider the braised short ribs. The tender meat is served with a strong, but not overpowering, honey-mustard sauce over pungent blue-cheese polenta, with Brussels sprouts on the side.
Of the side dishes available, two are likely to catch your eye: a truffle-mushroom mac & cheese and a tater-tot casserole. Opt for the latter. The mac & cheese doesn't have a very strong cheese flavor, and while you can never call anything seasoned with truffle oil "subdued," this certainly doesn't convey the overwhelming indulgence of truffle. The tater-tot casserole, however, is a trashy delight, the fried spuds adrift in a sea of gooey cheese.
It's no complaint to say the tater-tot casserole is the menu's sole surprise — and not simply because the surprise is more along the lines of "I can't believe I ordered this, and it's good!" The Tavern isn't seeking to reinvent the wheel. Pork belly, braised beef short ribs and housemade pasta have been trendy among a certain group of restaurants — New American, contemporary bistros, whatever you want to call 'em — for several years now. But there is value to a restaurant that does such things well and dares to do them in a suburban or even exurban setting more likely to house a fast-casual or bar-and-grill chain.
Is it "upscale comfort food"? Sometimes. Whatever you call it, more often than not, it's good. Which, most days, is comfort enough.
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