These days, you can't swing a rack of ribs in this town without hitting a new barbecue restaurant. With stiff competition from nationally acclaimed veterans, new smokehouses must stand out from the crowd. One way to do this is by perfecting a rub or creating a standout sauce. The wrong way is to be singled out as the worst barbecue spot in town. Unfortunately, after dining at the Salted Pig, I'm ready with the envelope.
One would expect anything placed on the moneyed corner of Conway Road and Lindbergh Boulevard in Frontenac to do gangbuster business, but the spot has trouble maintaining a tenant. Coco's Bakery came first, followed by a hair salon. Mike Faille (of Talayna's fame) transformed the space into the upscale Frontenac Grill, but just one week before opening, Faille passed away. The business proved unsustainable in his absence. Then this past March, St. Louis chef and prolific restaurateur Michael Del Pietro opened the Salted Pig, a barbecue and Southern fare restaurant. It's quite the departure from his numerous Italian ventures (Sugo's Spaghetteria, Babbo's Spaghetteria, Tavolo V, Via Vino Enoteca), but walking into the restaurant, it looks like he had the right idea. A wooden bar and walls give the space a rustic, refurbished-barn feel, while canning jars filled with pickled vegetables line the walls. And yet, at the same time, there was a telling polish to the room — where, I wondered on my visits, was the characteristic aroma of smoke?
I won't beat around the bush: My biggest problem was with the entreés. The St. Louis-style barbecue ribs were fair, but they don't come close to rivaling those of the city's other smokehouses. The sauce was plain, the meat had zero caramelization and I could only discern the faintest hint of smoke. The ribs were leaps and bounds better than the brisket, however, which tasted like it came from a heat-and-go container at the grocery store. Again, the smoke component was lacking, but the meat's biggest offense was how tough and chewy it was, as if it had been taken out of the smoker about six hours too early.
Other items were so improperly cooked that I would have sent them back were I a regular customer. The house burger, made from Rain Crow Ranch short ribs, had a tasty backyard barbecue flavor, but it was totally raw throughout — steak tartare raw. This was an odd, unpleasant surprise: Usually when a server fails to take a temperature (as mine did), it comes out overcooked. Conversely, two fish dishes were so overdone they were practically inedible. The roasted red fish tasted like cheap, dried-out tilapia, while the crayfish accompaniment had a kind of funk to it, like potting soil. I was even more distraught over the halibut — a fish known for its buttery texture and large, luscious flakes — which had been cooked until the meat turned stringy. It was supposed to be "blackened" — it arrived tan and flavorless — and was served on a bed of runny creamed spinach.
See photos: The Salted Pig Disappoints in Frontenac
The Salted Pig does know how to do fried chicken, and, judging from the number of orders I saw flying out of the kitchen, it's the restaurant's signature dish (never mind the "pig" in its name). The fried bird is lightly coated in seasoned flour and cornmeal, and served in a generous heap in a cast-iron skillet. The meat was juicy, the breading was crisp and the creamy mashed potatoes and collard greens (which I dubbed "browns" — despite their pleasing flavor they were ghastly looking) created a quintessential Southern feast. This was the sole enjoyable entrée I tried.
The restaurant does better earlier in the meal — marginally. The highlight of the appetizer selections was the fried shrimp which was crisp, well-seasoned and served with two respectable sauces: a lemon-zested tartar and a sweet, spicy house barbecue glaze. The "Chips & Cheddar," a barbecue-style play on loaded nachos using housemade potato chips, was also decent. The pulled-pork topping was moist, smoky and drizzled with tangy sauce. Melted cheddar cheese added a pleasantly sharp and creamy component. Unfortunately, the chips were spongy and tasted liked they were fried in advance and then reheated to serve. The Brussels sprouts appetizer was a skillet of little green heads drowning in so much bacon grease and caramelized onion jus it looked like a soup. Equally soupy was the bland blue crab mac & cheese. It was underseasoned, watery and tasted very little of crabmeat.
Bread pudding is a fairly foolproof dessert, but our waiter delivered an overworked version akin to a chocolate and banana terrine with none of the stickiness that makes the classic preparation so good. The mixed berry cobbler, on the other hand, was loose with hardly any topping. Whoever decided to serve it without ice cream should have failed Pastry 101.
The Salted Pig has a long way to go if it hopes to stand out among the pack of barbecue eateries in St. Louis. If Del Pietro thinks it can compete as is, that's a sad load of hogwash.
See photos: The Salted Pig Disappoints in Frontenac
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