Best Of 2007

Every now and then a giant squid will wash up on a beach or get caught in a fisherman's net. And by giant we mean freakin' monstrous — just this year a squid measuring 26 feet from top to tentacle tip and weighing 550 pounds was found along the Australian coast. Whenever this happens, adventurous seafood lovers imagine a fantastic calamari feast, with fried rings you could wear as a bangle. Sadly, scientists tell us that there is so much ammonia in a giant squid's body that its meat would taste like industrial-grade window cleaner. But maybe we should give Chris Kramer a chance. The owner and executive chef of Trattoria Two has a way with squid. His calamari is no mundane appetizer, all fried bits and staight-outta-the-jar marinara sauce. Kramer spikes his batter with ground pistachios, adding a depth of flavor to the light, crisp crust, and he pairs the calamari with a fresh basil purée. These innovations are small but welcome — even if you don't have 550 pounds of squid to eat your way through.
National Public Radio draws plenty of sponsors. One hour is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the next owes its existence to a civic-minded law firm. But one morning last fall, the honey-voiced announcer imparted, "This hour is brought to you by Noodles & Company, soon to open in Creve Coeur." Noodles & Company! Just the name fired our imagination. It sounded kind of funny, kind of kids'-show-esque: What sort of adventures will Noodles & Company get into this week? When the restaurant did open (first in south county, then in Creve Coeur, south city and Chesterfield), our curiosity turned to delight. Delight then turned into addiction, as Noodles & Company always just happened to be right on our way, right exactly at lunchtime, for real. The food comes out fast but tastes lovingly crafted. And the options are far, far healthier than the Deep-Fried Crunchity Crunchers (with Cheese) available at most fast-food joints. The menu's divided into three general areas — Asia (Indonesian peanut sauté, perhaps?), the Mediterranean (whole-grain Tuscan fettuccine, anyone?) and America (Wisconsin mac & cheese, everyone!) — and the noodles keep company with equally excellent soups and salads. No matter what dish you choose, you'll be the proud sponsor of deliciousness.
The Church Key is owned by the Bellon family, who a few years back brought Bellon's Market Deli and Pizzeria (located just down the block, at Vandeventer and Chouteau) to the neighborhood known as the Grove. Boasting of "heavenly spirits" and "sinful merriment," the Key is holds up both ends of its double-entendre. The booths are fashioned from pews — which, like much of the décor, were salvaged from a recently demolished church. And the cocktails are delicious, the bar staff helpful and friendly. Worship inside or outdoors on the bar's often-overlooked patio.
Owner Tom Schmidt and executive chef Justin Keimon didn't reinvent the wheel when they opened Franco late last year in Soulard's stately old Welsh Baby Carriage Factory. The menu fits squarely into the lightly French-accented modern bistro mold so beloved by the city's better restaurants. Though you might order sweetbreads, foie gras or frogs' legs, even the most conservative palate will find something to love: steak frites, braised lamb, steamed mussels. Yet Schmidt, Keimon and their staff pull off this tried-and-true formula with élan: The utterly beautiful dining room has a cosmopolitan sparkle, servers understand your surprise and joy to see something like sweetbreads on the menu, and if Schmidt himself doesn't deliver your dinner, he'll probably stop by your table to say hi. In a year when so many new restaurants were either too timid in their offerings or too concerned with the PR push behind their launch, Franco is a bracing reminder of what makes dining out so enjoyable to begin with: It's a celebration of good food, good wine and good company.
You may not remember Ryder Murphy, or know that he has ever served you at Mangia Italiano. Maybe all you have is some vague recollection of last Friday night, one that involved double-fisting cans of Schlitz while dirty dancing to John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" with a total stranger (even though you hate jazz). Maybe you don't remember ever being at Mangia Italiano — or maybe you have a problem. But maybe — just maybe — you vaguely remember the bartender being a really nice dude and foggily recollect that last Jack-and-Coke you didn't really need being mixed just right. So on Fridays, call up your buddy who was nice enough to drive your befuddled butt home on the Coltrane night and ask how to get back to South Grand. Ryder will greet you with a modest smile, engage you in casual yet concerned conversation, and quite possibly call you by name. And then he'll make you your favorite drink — because he already knows what it is. Even if you don't remember telling him.
Pizza-a-Go-Go neatly sidesteps the contentious which-thin-crust-is-best debate. A pie from this modest, rec-roomesque south-city joint — there's a piano in the dining room and a fridge for your BYO beer fer chrissake — is neither the cracker-crusted, Provel-topped pizza of St. Louis nor the nearly paper-thin grease bomb of New York and New Jersey. Instead, you get a deceptively simple pizza: crust just thick enough to support the toppings and with a perfect, slightly chewy texture; a thin layer of ever-so-tangy sauce; the cheese melted to the ideal consistency. Frank LaFata opened the original Pizza-a-Go-Go in Gaslight Square in 1964, moved to South Grand a few years later and then to the current location ten years ago. You'll find his son, Paul, overseeing the kitchen these days. Proof that while run-of-the-mill pizza joints come and go, greatness endures across decades and generations.
"Sweetbreads" isn't a scientific term. It's a euphemism some clever chef long ago gave the thymus gland and pancreas of veal, pork and lamb. Veal sweetbreads (which you're most likely to encounter in a restaurant) look something like white-meat chicken, when seared. Their flavor is very mild and ever so liveresque, and the texture is soft, almost creamy; it's the sort of food that takes well to other flavors yet keeps its distinct identity. Sweetbreads have always been popular among gourmands, and in past years one or two St. Louis restaurants might have featured them as a special. But over the past twelve months sweetbreads have been on the menu at Franco, Atlas, Balaban's and Bistro Alexander — and those are just the places we know about. It suggests we've reached a sort of tipping point between diners' growing knowledge and curiosity about food and chefs' desire to explore the culinary possibilities of the animal "from nose to tail," as the famed British chef and offal fan Fergus Henderson likes to say. We won't believe St. Louis has taken a step toward becoming a serious food town till we can order tripe at high-end restaurants as well as at our favorite taquerias and Vietnamese joints — but if the past twelve months are any indication, we're close.
Husband-and-wife owners John and Ann Piazza offer three crust options at their Daggett Avenue institution, Pizzeria Della Piazza: a thin semi-St. Louis style (made with mozzarella instead of Provel), a thick "Pan Style," and a monstrous "Stuffed Pizza." They're all dandy, but we're all over the Chicago-inspired "Stuffed" version. The dough, made fresh throughout the day, is adorned with mozzarella and cheddar, your choice of toppings, a tangy, tasty tomato sauce and a top crust. A small Stuffed is probably sufficient to feed a family of four. At eighteen inches, the extra-large could satisfy hot dog-eating champ Joey Chestnut, the reincarnated corpse of Marlon Brando and those fat twins who ride around on little motorcycles. A caveat: A pizza this big can take up to an hour to bake, so be sure to block out sufficient time and choose your dining companions wisely. And it might be a good idea to bring a defibrillator, just in case.
One of the newest bars to pop up on South Grand, Urban is dark and cool, and on most nights a DJ spins down-tempo house in the back room. But we come for the cocktails. Yes, they go by cutesy names ("Purple Rain" and "Raspberry Beret," to name two Prince-inspired ones). But many of them go above and beyond, with the addition of genuine hunks of genuine fresh fruit mixed in. Prices are reasonable, especially when you consider the generosity of the Urban pour. We suggest you start with a pomegranate martini. After that it's up to you — but be sure to finish with a cab ride home. Yum.
Is there a compliment more backhanded than to say a restaurant is the best — but only when someone else pays? What does that even mean? It means the restaurant is likely opulent. It's a good spot, exotic, perhaps, and definitely an experience worthy of consideration — but only if you're not the one forking over the cash. Well, let's dispel that myth right now. In Pomme, owners Diane and Bryan Carr have created a bistro of such cozy charm that walking into the small restaurant is almost like entering the dining room of an old friend — an old friend who is a fabulous cook, that is. From a dish of shelled mussels that's brought to your table, then doused in a delicate broth, to a simple duck confit with apples and Cognac, each creation is a study in culinary honesty. You'll find no 40-ingredient experiments in gastronomic alchemy at Pomme. Instead you'll find carefully chosen flavors that are allowed to shine forth in all their unmuddled glory. Priceless? Hardly. Everything on Pomme's menu comes at a price. But you know what? It's worth every penny — no matter who happens to pay.
International Society for Hamburger Improvement Executive Board Annual MeetingSeptember 27, 2007Present: Mid-Priced Chain Restaurant, Four-Star Chef, Llywelyn's Pub, the HamburglarAbsent: Backyard barbecueQuorum? Yes- Meeting called to order at 7:30 p.m. by the chair, the Hamburglar.- The Hamburglar solicits ideas for creating the best burger in St. Louis.- Mid-Priced Chain Restaurant suggests gimmick in which a customer can order a burger whose weight in ounces is the same as the customer's age. If customer finishes burger, it's free.- Hamburglar expresses interest. Other board members scoff.- Four-Star Chef suggests a burger made with the highest grade of Kobe beef and topped with seared foie gras and shaved black and white truffle.- The Hamburglar expresses interest. Other board members scoff.- Llywelyn's Pub suggests taking your basic, high-quality grilled burger, topping it with sharp cheddar cheese, bacon and caramelized onions and then serving it atop an English muffin. It would be called the Pub Burger.- The board expresses interest. The Hamburglar requests more details.- Llywelyn's Pub explains that the slightly sour flavor of the toasted muffin is a perfect foil for the tangy cheese and savory meats. It's especially lovely how the melted cheese oozes into the muffin's nooks and crannies.- By a show of hands, the board votes Llywelyn's "Pub Burger" Best Burger in St. Louis.- The Hamburglar adjourns meeting, then steals sack full of Pub Burgers.