Whiskey screams meat-eating machismo — steaks the size of one's head, raunchy music and maybe a cigar. Whiskey is the punk-rock Devil on the right shoulder; vegetarianism, the jam-band angel on the left. So I had to raise an eyebrow as soon as I heard about the bourbon-vegetarian concept behind Small Batch. Perhaps this is the reaction owner Dave Bailey was going for. After all, the whiskey-bar market is dangerously close to the point of oversaturation. In the last few months, St. Louis has seen the opening of at least four restaurants explicitly dedicated to the hearty liquor. With the competition so stiff, perhaps the way to separate oneself from the pack is to do something completely unexpected. The problem, as I discovered, is that it has to work.
Small Batch occupies midtown's old Ford Motor Building, rehabbed in a style that embraces its vintage roots. The original black-and-white tile floor provided the inspiration for a stunning, retro dining room decked with white marble bistro tables, a black wrought-iron mezzanine and a two-story shiny black wood and mirrored bar. Crystal candleholders and vintage photographs create a Prohibition-era scene.
Small Batch does not bill itself as a vegetarian restaurant. Instead, Bailey hopes that diners will be so satisfied with the vegetable-focused menu that they will simply fail to notice the absence of meat. Unfortunately, with nearly every dish, I felt myself wanting for more: more richness, more depth, more heft.
The gratin appetizer, for example, was advertised as a mélange of caramelized grapes, shallots, rosemary and goat cheese. I expected the rich goat cheese to be the centerpiece, but instead I was presented with a bowl of super-tart warm grapes tossed with the shallots and only a sparse sprinkling of the earthy cheese. On their own, the grapes were acidy; they would be better served as a garnish. The appetizer was meant to be eaten with the accompanying crostini, but it was sliced so paper-thin that it did not hold the weight of the grapes. The vegetables on the fritto misto appetizer were snappy and coated in a light, tempuralike batter, generously flecked with sea-salt flakes. The accompanying vegan garlic aioli, however, was loose. It tasted like a tangy garlic water. The smoked brie was not at all smoky, and I detected little heat in the habanero marmalade. I did, however, enjoy Small Batch's take on the egg roll — the crispy wonton wrapped a rich, earthy mixture of mushrooms and blue cheese. The accompanying red-wine fig sauce was thick and tart, although it was overpowered by rosemary. This was the best appetizer on the menu by far.
The entrées were also a mixed bag. My least favorite was the gnocchi. The little dumplings were chewy, dry and borderline burnt. They were tossed with a sautée of tomatoes and arugula that was overcooked to the point of breaking down. There was barely enough brown butter to coat the pasta, and a few pine nuts and Parmesan cheese shavings did little to assist.
The falafel was fair, if a little mushy. Purists will note that it is more of a soft chickpea cake than the traditional crispy round fritter. The tahini yogurt sauce was rich and tart, but the accompanying salad of tomatoes, radishes, celery and grapes would have been better served as a garnish. I found myself wishing for pita or something to make this more of a composed plate. It seemed incomplete.
I fared better with the Israeli couscous. The firm, BB-size pasta was topped with vegetable schwarma — a mix of carrot, onion and peppers tossed in a fiery blend of Middle Eastern spices. The creamy tahini yogurt toned down the heat and added richness to the dish. And, amazingly, this pork lover did not miss bacon (or pancetta) on Small Batch's vegetarian carbonara. The smoked mushrooms provided depth of flavor, and large pieces of roasted cauliflower added meatiness. The housemade pasta (cooked to a perfect al dente) was coated in cream sauce and pecorino cheese. This was a bowl of pure comfort.
Without a doubt, the best thing I ate at Small Batch was the burger — a sweet, salty corn-and-black-bean fritter that would have fit in on any greasy spoon's menu. The patty was topped with mild Chihuahua cheese, a generous dollop of guacamole, and was served with a side of "Rooster Sauce" — Bailey's signature, tangy mayonnaise-based sauce.
While the food tended to falter, Small Batch nails its cocktails. The smoked cherries, bourbon and rhubarb on the "Smokeysweet" tasted like I was drinking a tart punch by a campfire. The "Rickey" is elderflower liquor, grapefruit juice and lime mixed with a mild corn whiskey — a refreshing, summery treat. These nightcaps paired well with the orange- and caramel-laden whiskey bread pudding and the sinfully dense chocolate brownie topped with homemade Baileys ice cream.
I commend Small Batch for taking the whiskey trend in an entirely unexpected direction with a thoughtful, vegetable-focused menu. However, hearty booze needs hearty fare. If it's not going to be meat, then those better be some darn good vegetables.
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