Best Of 2011

Tucked into a tony retail strip on Clayton Road, the Woman's Exchange seems oh-so decadent with its gift shop full of frilly collectibles and its "tea room" catering to the city's distaff society set. But then that's before you learn that the Woman's Exchange is a 120-year-old charity established to market the crafts and handiwork of working women (thus the gift shop) and raise money for the less fortunate. Speaking of the tea room, this well-lighted restaurant appointed with floral fabrics of pastel is the place for the ladies-lunch circuit. Salads — especially the "Famous" Woman's Exchange Salad Bowl — rule the roost here. Sandwiches are tasty too. Be sure to save room for dessert. The gooey-butter brownies (does it get more St. Louis than that?) are to die for!

Remember how frustrating it was last time you needed dried sea cucumbers and you couldn't find them anywhere? Doesn't it just set your teeth on edge when all you want is a fish head, but the guy at the fish counter won't sell you a head without the body still intact? We feel your pain. Fortunately, so does the Olive Farmers' Market. OFM stocks all the weird odds and ends you never thought you'd need (and still might not ever need) for just about any Asian cooking exigency. But in addition to all the stuff you've never heard of and/or can't pronounce, the store carries plenty of everyday-type produce, fresh seafood (and teas!). As befits the time-tested Asian grocery template, the aisles are narrow and crammed with everything from ramen to candy to dishware. Another point in OFM's favor: It passes the Goldilocks test. You see, a whole passel of Asian grocers crowd Olive Boulevard near U. City's western reaches. Some are intimidatingly big. Some are too small. Olive Farmers' Market is just right.

Shopping for cheese at the Wine Merchant presents a challenge: not walking out of the place with two or three or four more cheeses than you intended to buy when you walked in. Challenge...or opportunity. The folks behind the counter aren't merely willing to let you taste something different; they're dying for you to do so, whether you're considering a mild and nutty cave-aged Gruyère, a pungently ripe Camembert or any of the unique American farmstead varieties that fill the cheese case. Bear in mind that the Wine Merchant isn't called the Wine Merchant for its cheese spread, carefully curated collection though it may be. No, they've got wine here, all right, from the value-priced to the credit limit-busting collectible, and even we know that nothing pairs better with cheese than wine. (Except maybe beer, which they've also got by the truckload.)

Steven and Heidy Song haven't reinvented the chicken wing at O! Wing Plus, the husband-and-wife team's bright, welcoming restaurant in Overland. What they have done is return the fun to a staple snack that has been buffalo-sauced into generic oblivion. The Songs' Korean heritage is the key. Not that the wings convey distinct Korean flavors; you won't find kimchi wings here. Instead, taking a cue from Korean cuisine's modus operandi, O! Wing Plus offers sauces that balance complex flavors with perceptible heat. The "Beast Mode" is the hottest sauce, fearsomely so to all but the bravest chile lovers. "Hot Mama!" is a little tamer and provides a lovely honey note, while "O's Original" softens the chiles with brown sugar and soy sauce. Yes, you can order traditional buffalo wings here, but if you must have them, pair them with one of the trademark sauces -- you can split an order of ten wings between any two sauces -- and you'll come to understand that the exclamation point in the joint's name isn't braggadocio. It's a mission statement.

A few years ago, Shawn Askinosie was a hard-driving trial lawyer in Springfield. He worked on high-profile cases and was respected in his field. This did not make him happy. In his spare time, he began making chocolate from raw cacao beans in his law-office kitchen. This grew into a full-time business. Now Shawn Askinosie is a happy man. It has been scientifically proven that chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a chemical that stimulates the pleasure center of the brain. And Askinosie chocolate tastes divine in all its different varieties: dark, milk, even white (which defies the preconceived notion that white chocolate must taste like wax). But that's not the only way Askinosie Chocolate makes people happy. The company shares its profits with the farmers in Africa, Central America and the Philippines who grow his cacao and buys books for their village schools. He invites the students of his own village's schools into his factory and involves them in the chocolate-making process; last summer a group joined him on a trip from southwest Missouri to Africa to source beans. The lawyer has made his case: Happiness -- and chocolate -- come in infinite, unexpected forms. Askinosie Chocolate is available locally at the Whole Foods in Brentwood and Town & Country, Local Harvest Grocery, Straub's, the Wine and Cheese Place, the Wine Merchant and Winslow's Home.

Wanna know what makes Kaldi's coffee so delicious? Go to the source. Actually you don't have to go to the source, because Kaldi's already has. The local coffeehouse chain offers two "Relationship" coffees: Over the past few years, Kaldi's buyers have forged relationships with farmers in Ethiopia (the Koke cooperative) and Costa Rica (Helsar de Zarcero) to pay a fair price for coffee grown in an environmentally sustainable manner. Oh, and did we mention delicious? This is serious coffee, with the sort of notes of fruit and spice that gourmands usually associate with fine wine. That commitment to quality extends to all of the coffees that Kaldi's brews, from the basic blends to the single-origin beans the company's buyers have sought out, cupped and brought back to the States. You don't have to know all of this to enjoy a cup of Kaldi's coffee, but as you lose yourself in flavors far more complex than what the mini-mart and national chains sell, you'll want to learn more about the beans and the journeys Kaldi's has taken to bring them to your cup.

Think carefully before bringing Mom and Dad or Grandma and Grandpa to the Tavern Kitchen & Bar. Here the kitchen takes the dishes you love from childhood to another place entirely -- a place you won't want to leave. There is no trick here, no gimmick. There are simply classics, such as meat loaf, Tater Tot casserole and mac & cheese, prepared with top-notch ingredients and great care. The meat loaf, bacon-wrapped, is sauced with a mushroom gravy that wouldn't seem out of place atop an expensive cut of steak. Housemade pasta (shrimp linguini or pappardelle with tomato and sausage) is so straightforward and flavorful that you'll never look at a box of dried pasta again. Want to keep the family happy and still enjoy the Tavern? Direct them toward one of the more contemporary dishes: mahi mahi with coconut curry or the "Saimin Wonton Bowl," which includes an egg cooked sous vide for an hour. And should they figure out that the Tavern has supplanted them in your heart, take comfort: They might be disappointed in you, but you'll never be disappointed in the Tavern.

Cupcakes from the Cup are exactly what cupcakes should be. They're pretty, clean, inexpensive and, most important, deliciously light and fluffy -- moist of cake and sugary of dissolve-on-your-tongue buttercream icing. Eating one modest-size cupcake will not leaving you feeling on the verge of a diabetic coma, but rather euphoric and satisfied. A wide variety of flavors appeal to a mouth full of sweet teeth, from the rich and chocolaty "Tuxedo" to the fruity "Strawberries 'n' Cream." With seasonal, limited and special featured flavors, the variety is always changing. The location in the Central West End is bright, tidy and comfortable, with friendly staff to help you choose the perfect cupcake. All in all, the Cup is an excellent choice for the guiltiest pleasures.

Corned beef on rye with a pickle. It's really the only thing you need to order at Protzel's Delicatessen. Five days a week if you want to -- and why wouldn't you want to, seeing as how it's made fresh every day? Maybe even for breakfast; hell, the place opens at 7:30 a.m. But those who prefer a little more variety needn't worry. Since 1954 this family-owned establishment has been serving a wide array of fresh deli meats and cheeses. Rather than the corned beef (did we mention it's made fresh daily?), you might try the knishes, potato salad, deviled eggs or fresh Jewish rye-bread chips. You could also cruise the joint for European goodies, taffy and sweets -- three entire shelves are devoted to mustard! If you're lucky, you might snag one of the two tables outside on a lovely, tree-lined stretch of Wydown Boulevard in Clayton. Protzel's offers seven-days-a-week catering services, but bear in mind that the deli itself is closed on Mondays.

The dessert menu at Gerard Craft's Central West End restaurant is deceptively simple -- and always elegant. Pastry chef Summer Wright of course serves the sweet fare that is expected from a casual French restaurant, namely profiteroles and crème brûlée, but she does so with little touches that make them memorable and distinctly her own, like honey and lavender in that crème brûlée. Wright also makes sure to include seasonal fare; this summer was a festival of peaches, with roasted peaches paired with a financier cake (and verbena ice cream), and a special dessert, produced as part of local bakery Companion's annual "CollaBREADtive" program, of a roasted peach-almond galette. For those who prefer that their meal conclude on a more subtle note, Wright's floating island, a classic meringue-based dessert, is as light and sweet as the dream of a first kiss.

Walking into Lu Lu Seafood Restaurant midday on a Saturday can be overwhelming. Metal carts weaving in and out among tables packed with big families, old families, young families, couples, colleagues, friends or lone rangers. They have all gathered at Lu Lu for one reason: The chefs here are expertly trained in the preparation of authentic, regional Chinese cuisine, and in particular, dim sum. The carts, guided through the dining room by outgoing and friendly servers whose English is, well, better than your Chinese, contain sizzling portions of bold and fiery Szechuan dishes, like pungently seasoned meats and spicy bean curd, as well as milder Cantonese cuisine, like chicken's feet and sublimely steamed Chinese broccoli. It's a lot for a first timer to take in, but trust us: That's part of the experience! Dim sum at Lu Lu is a terrific place to venture out of your culinary comfort zone. What's in those delicate-looking dumplings? Eat one and see! Oh, my God, is that a basket of fried whole smelts? Yes, indeedy -- and they taste great! Do I dare eat this chicken foot? Come on, you weenie! What is a turnip cake? Shut up and take a damn bite! It's like our mother used to say: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Of course, Mom was also known to declare, "'There's no accounting for taste,' said the old lady as she kissed the cow." But she did love her some dim sum.