Looking back over the restaurants that I reviewed in 2011, I see no undeniable trend, no overarching theme. I found as much happiness in the red beans and rice at an unpretentious Soulard bar as I did in the clever "smoked" scallop dish at an ambitious new chef-driven restaurant in the Central West End. If there was a constant, it was the sheer number of restaurant openings — more than I can recall in any year before the economy tanked. (And that's not even counting the food trucks.)
I'll be reviewing the Class of 2011 (trucks included) well into the new year. So if I don't mention your favorite new restaurant in the rundown below, check back exactly twelve months from now. In the meantime, here are my top ten dishes for 2011.
10. The porchetta sandwich at Market Grill (728 Lafayette Avenue; 314-436-7664) Chef Jonathan Olson needed to balance his ambitions against consumer expectations as he reinvented the menu at Market Grill. He did a fine job: There's tasty fare to be found in that middle ground. Porchetta is a famously indulgent pork dish, and Olson doesn't hold back on the fat, wrapping a bone-out pork shoulder in pork belly and then slowly roasting it. But rather than make this the centerpiece of an entrée, he piles slices of the tender, luscious meat between halves of a housemade bun and serves it as a sandwich. The lone condiment, a sharp rapini pesto, provides the perfect counterpoint, sparing the diner an otherwise inevitable pork coma. (from "Eighty-Six the Pork 'Wings,'" December 15, 2011)
9. Carnitas at La Tejana Taqueria (3149 North Lindbergh Boulevard, St. Ann; 314-291-8500) If you can visit this charmingly shabby taqueria/liquor store/cowboy-boot emporium only once, make sure it's on a weekend, when the kitchen makes carnitas. That La Tejana treats as a special what many Mexican restaurants serve daily should signal the seriousness of its intent. This is rendered pig at its finest — the most flavorful carnitas I've had in St. Louis. The exterior is walnut-brown and crisp, the interior fork-tender. The flavor is exactly what you would expect from pork simmered for hours in its own copious fat: a touch sweet, a touch funky, most of all piggy. (from "Home Is Where the Taqueria Is," January 20, 2011)
8. Red beans and rice at Riverbend Restaurant & Bar (701 Utah Street; 314-664-8443) As is traditional in New Orleans, red beans and rice is available only on Mondays at this small Soulard spot. It is worth planning a visit around: The sauce itself has a rich, porky flavor, with smoked sausage adding brightness and spice. The beans are perfectly al dente. As with most of the dishes here, there is (intentionally) only a whisper of heat, but both Tabasco and Crystal hot sauces are available, and the menu explicitly states, "If the chef catches you shaking hot sauce onto one of his creations, he will not be offended." (from "Louisiana Purchase," September 15, 2011)
7. Chengdu spicy beef at Joy Luck Buffet (8030 Manchester Road, Brentwood; 314-645-9982) It's not a new restaurant, but getting tipped to the authentic Szechuan menu at this otherwise unassuming Chinese joint in Brentwood just west of Hanley Road was a highlight of my year. Dive right into the Szechuan-peppercorn sensation that the Chinese call ma la ("hot and numbing") with a bowl of Chengdu spicy beef. Though it isn't listed as such on the menu, this is a soup: thinly sliced beef in a broth of the deep red hue usually associated with a child's drawing of a fire truck. The broth packs the expected one-two punch of chiles and peppercorns; the flavor is rounded out by the beef and accented with a subtle sour note. (from "What's in a Name," February 3, 2011)
6. House-cured prosciutto at Taste (4584 Laclede Avenue; 314-361-1200) A one-off summer special that captures the essence of Gerard Craft and Adam Altnether's restaurant: two slices of toasted bread, each rubbed with garlic and the cut side of a tomato that soaks it in pulp and juice, and then topped with a gossamer slice of the prosciutto Altnether began curing from a prized Mangalitsa pig back in February 2010. The prosciutto is salty, porcine perfection, like silk on the tongue, while the tomato's acidic bite adds a burst of summery brilliance. (from "Flavor of the Month," June 9, 2011)
5. The burger at Home Wine Kitchen (7322 Manchester Road, Maplewood; 314-802-7676) One of the few mainstays on chef-owner Cassy Vires' ever-changing menu, the burger shows the commitment to quality she brings to every dish. It's easily one of the best in town, grass-fed ground beef beautifully seasoned and cooked medium rare, topped with cheddar cheese, bacon and — why the hell not? — a fried egg. Remarkably, as strongly flavored as those three toppings are, the taste of the beef sings clearly and powerfully. (from "Take Me Home Tonight," September 22, 2011)
4. Smoked prime rib at Bogart's Smokehouse (1627 South Ninth Street; 314-621-3107) Yes, pork is the main attraction at this terrific barbecue joint from Pappy's Smokehouse pitmaster Skip Steele. Give the prime rib a try, though. You can order it naked, with sides, and enjoy the thinly sliced, impossibly tender, mildly smoky meat soaked in its own rich juices. But for the full effect, opt for the hoagie sandwich version, on which strands of smoked onion bring just the right amount of bite — and a bonus hit of smoke — to the party. (from "Bogart This Joint," April 28, 2011)
3. The "Hunter's Egg" at Mad Tomato (8000 Carondelet Avenue, Clayton; 314-932-5733) The "Hunter's Egg," one of the antipasti on the menu at Vito Racanelli Jr's latest venture, is an egg poached in tomato broth and then served in that broth over thick polenta, with tomato, al dente white beans and chopped pancetta. It could easily be a satisfying main dish for one. It is rich, yes, with the egg yolk and the creamy polenta, but the brightness of good tomatoes keeps it in check. This is the sort of dish you crave on the first cold morning of fall. (from "Hear, Hear," September 1, 2011)
2. The seared scallop at Salt (4356 Lindell Boulevard; 314-932-5787) Chef Wes Johnson sears a single plump scallop, dresses it in a cracked-mustard sauce and then seals scallop and sauce with a puff of cedar smoke inside a Mason jar. The aroma strikes you as soon as you open the jar and then, having whetted your appetite, quickly dissipates. It's a clever trick — it isn't Johnson's own, nor does he claim it to be — and it would be nothing more than that if the scallop weren't so tasty, its buttery sweetness nicely offset by the sharply flavored sauce and your memory of the woodsmoke. (from "Duck Yeah," July 28, 2011)
1. Pork ribs at Salume Beddu (3467 Hampton Avenue; 314-353-3100) An occasional special at the acclaimed south-city salumeria, which began serving lunch this spring, these ribs are the most beguiling — and delicious — thing I ate all year. The dish begins with a dry rub called ras el hanout, a Moroccan blend of more than twenty different, warming spices; ginger, mace, clove, nutmeg, cardamom and even a little ground-up rose petal among them. After curing, the ribs are steamed at low temperature for three to four hours and then, when you order them, given a quick charring. The flavor is almost indescribable. An initial hit of olive oil and lemon slices through the browned exterior then gives way to the complexity of the ras el hanout, whose warmth and pungency fills out the pork's natural blend of savor and sweetness. The meat is so tender that if you didn't know, you might assume it had cooked low and slow over smoldering wood. (from "Grand Salami," May 26, 2011)
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