You can't go home again? Nonsense. Bethalto, Illinois, native Jennifer Cleveland returned to the metro east last year from the oft-extolled climes of California, and the restaurant that she and her partner, Eric Heath, opened in downtown Edwardsville has had mouths watering on both sides of the Mississippi River since day one. Cleveland-Heath's out-of-the-gate success shouldn't have come as a surprise. Between them, its namesake duo had already amassed serious culinary cred: Heath at the acclaimed St. Helena, California, farm-to-table establishment Farmstead; Cleveland at two of the great Thomas Keller's restaurants, the French Laundry and ad hoc. At Cleveland-Heath they bring their experience and considerable skill to bear on what you might call "comfort" foods, or what Cleveland, in an interview with this publication, called "favorite" foods. Which is what makes the Cleveland-Heath experience especially remarkable: Yes, your entrée is a pork chop, but it just so happens to be the best freakin' pork chop you've ever eaten — thick and juicy, topped with a sunny-side-up egg and served with jalapeño-cheddar bread pudding that just so happens to be the best freakin' bread pudding you've ever eaten. Such exclamations are commonplace here, uttered between mouthfuls of seasonal dishes like this past summer's smoked onion barley risotto, or sandwiches (a pulled-pork sandwich and a cheeseburger, both dynamite) or even sides (the deep-fried Brussels sprouts are the best freakin'...well, you know). Thanks to Cleveland and Heath for bringing their restaurant to the area. The town oughta give 'em a parade.
When the front doors open and the angle and breeze are just right, the subtle but unmistakable aroma of garam masala floods the strip mall at Delmar Boulevard and Interstate 170 like one of those plug-in atomizers set to "India." (Somebody needs to get on the stick and invent that.) House of India is the senior-citizen siren of St. Louis Indian cuisine, luring diners to its tastefully decorated dining room, time and again, for seventeen years. You want to believe that a better lunch buffet exists in St. Louis — maybe someplace closer to your office — but it doesn't. At $7.95, HOI's lunch buffet is unbeatable in price, freshness and variety. Once you've loaded your plate with creamy vegetable korma, red tandoori meats straight out of the (clay) oven, doughy naan and a rice pudding that will make you believe in, well, rice pudding, you'll know your trek to the western reaches of U. City was worth it. If you need to take your buffet eats to go, House of India charges a flat rate of $5 per pound — a generous and unique option for the true power luncher. The environs, wine list and proximity to Jilly's Cupcake Bar & Cafe (about eight feet) make House of India an ideal pick for a date night. If you're there for dinner, try lamb vindaloo or chicken karahi — both are chock-full of character and red chiles. Fun fact to bust out on your dining companion on a first date: Vindaloo originated not in India but in Europe; Portuguese explorers brought it to the Goa region sometime around the 16th century. Its name is derived from vinha, the Portuguese word for wine vinegar, which was once the dish's main ingredient. If his or her eyes start to glaze over as you impart this tidbit, this first date ought to be the last. And don't even think of letting the bum in on the glorious secrets of the lunch buffet.
According to an old Japanese proverb, "A frog in a well does not know of the great sea." Here in 100 percent ocean-free St. Louis, it's hard to know the great sea and its delicious culinary treasures, which is why we are so grateful that we have Bob's Seafood to broaden our horizons. What with the miracle of modern shipping, Bob's receives, processes and sells — retail! — fresh fish that less than 24 hours prior were, ya know, knowing the great sea. Nearly 200 local restaurants get their seafood fixins from Bob's: Gorgeous grouper, snapper, pompano and oysters (whole or in the shell) from the Gulf; perky live lobsters; blue crab (alive and pinching, steamed and picked or, in season, sumptuously softshell), sushi-grade tuna and more. Bob's is a perennial "Best of St. Louis" institution. Which, ipso facto, is to say that it ain't no frog in no well.
Plush. The very name is suggestive. The morning after, when your head is pounding and your stomach is roiling with perilous waves of still-undigested booze and you don't want to be around anything with any sharp corners or anything that sounds like it may have sharp corners, Plush is just right. It's soft. It slides right out of your mouth without any extra effort. And on the morning after, this midtown behemoth is true to its name. The abundance of tables and booths, spread out over two floors, all with comfy chairs, means you'll be seated right away instead of spending an hour propped in a corner watching in impotent rage as other people shove food into their gobs, heroically suppressing the urge to vomit on them. The paucity of light means you can open your eyes wide enough to read the menu without excruciating pain. About that menu: No matter what time you drag your pathetic carcass out of bed, you can get a good, basic breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast. But the rest of the menu appears to have been designed with the hangover cure in mind: potpie, fried chicken, grilled cheese, shrimp and grits, mac & cheese, shepherd's pie potato skins. Even the meat-loaf cupcakes (despite their unfortunate name) evoke the comfort of Mom. And they taste better than Mom's ever did. (Sorry, Mom.) It's simple food, all expertly prepared from fresh ingredients — meats are ground and/or cured in-house — greasy enough to slide down without any trouble and substantial enough to stay put. Naturally there's coffee, and ginger ale and bloody marys aplenty. Plush is a place that knows its purpose.
Companion founder Josh Allen added miche to his bakery's bread roll late last year. To those not fluent in the wonders of flour, water, salt and yeast, this round loaf might impress only in its dimensions: Weighing in at three pounds, it resembles a boule on steroids. Or an elephant's wart. Or an old-school catcher's mitt, one of those pie pans guys like Ernie Lombardi used to use. (Or Ernie Lombardi's own legendarily homely pie pan.) Yet as St. Louis breads go, the ungainly miche is, like Lombardi, worthy of inclusion in the Hall of Fame. By no means a delicate product, the miche offers subtle pleasures. Lest our crack about steroids lead you to believe otherwise, rest assured that Allen makes his miche from a starter — no processed yeast here. He lets it rise twice, then bakes it on a stone hearth. It emerges crusty and dark, with a yeasty aroma and an assertive texture all too scarce on the local bread-making landscape. Companion only makes miche on Friday night, only sells it on Saturday morning and only from the bakery's Early Bird Outlet, located amid a patch of industrial nada in south city. If you meet a fellow customer leaving the outlet on a Saturday as you're arriving for your fix and that stranger is lugging one of Companion's grocery-size paper bags, the two of you might exchange what you'll swear is a brief conspiratorial glance. It is precisely that. You've never laid eyes on one another before, but you both know you've come for the same thing.
We worried in 2011 that the Pratzel's dynasty was over. Turns out we were right to fret. Though Jon Mills managed to resuscitate the area's only kosher bakery (much to his credit), the life-support span didn't last through 2012. One might argue that Pratzel's demise earlier this month was good news for multiyear "Best of St. Louis" honoree the Bagel Factory. We think the expert bagel boilers and bakers at the Creve Coeur-based Factory would be the first to differ. (Wasn't it Warren Buffett who said, "Competition makes for better bagels"?) As fortunate as we are to still have the Bagel Factory to count on for our lox-and-a-schmear vehicle, in this bagel-deprived Midwestern wilderness, to lose a decent bagelry is to be diminished as a community. All hail the Bagel Factory for keeping the oven lit, but let us all pause for a moment to acknowledge — sorry, there's no other word for it...the hole Pratzel's has just left.
Several St. Louis outfits make their own ice cream, but none do it quite as creatively or splendidly as Baileys' Range. Commissary chef Stephen Trouvere starts with the basics — eggs, sugar, cream — to whip up a silky-smooth Philly-style custard. From there he adds natural ingredients to create some of the most inventive flavors to be found in the 314 (or the 636, the 618 or the 573, for that matter): "Three-Chili Chocolate," a pistachio that's both nutty and minty, "Baileys" (as in Baileys Irish Cream) and what just might be the finest salted-caramel ice cream in the land. The "Sweet, Sweet Bacon" shake — salted caramel ice cream, Kentucky whiskey, topped with a piece of candied bacon — will turn the most jaded anti-hipster into a believer in the pairing of ice cream and smoked meat. Even with fifteen divine flavors (plus three sorbets), Trouvere keeps himself on his toes with a weekly "Battle of the Ice Creams," in which customers can vote on their favorite of two new experimental flavors. A recent Battle pitted "Banana Nutella" against "Watermelon Sorbet." How could you choose?
The "OR" in OR Smoothie & Cafe's name stands for "organic." But (as the café's website suggests) it could also easily stand for "original." When OR opened in 2002, serving fresh, healthful smoothies, it was a local pioneer of several food trends: juicing, meal-replacement smoothies and gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan cuisine. Its ability to survive for ten years proves that St. Louis has taken notice — including RFT, which awarded it "Best Smoothie" in 2009. Fruit smoothies, "power smoothies" and non-dairy smoothies are just a few of the colorful categories on offer; if you want more than liquid for your breakfast, lunch or dinner, you can order from a selection of wraps, soups, salads and sandwiches, not to mention desserts, bubble teas and more. The menu is a sufficient draw in itself, but an encounter with Mai Truong, OR's feisty founder, is likely to be just as memorable. She's pushy and particular (ignore the "No Cell Phones Allowed" signs at your own peril) and at the drop of a hat will aggressively explain the benefits of açai berries, rice whey protein and why OR's sherbet and ice is hand-selected for its superior flavor, texture and quality. Make no mistake: Truong's not rude. She's simply straightforward and no-nonsense — just like her café.
Looking for tuttifrutti Jarritos, buñuelos mix, the perfect quinceañera dress or a pound of menudo? How about right next door to "Best Taqueria" alum (2010) Taqueria Durango. The two establishments are all that remain in a forlorn strip mall just off Page Avenue in Overland. But you wouldn't know it once you're inside the neighborhood store, where Angelica Lopez, who, along with her parents and sister, owns the place, greets customers by name and often knows who in Mexico they're calling from the shop's phone bank. A meat counter offers all the expected cuts (and parts), and you can also pick up Mexican cuisine-friendly produce, cheese and, oh, yes, beans, beans and more beans, and enough dried chiles to keep your party sweating. Speaking of parties, Durango's tequila selection is something to behold, in particular the Scorpion mescal, which substitutes — you guessed it — an auténtico pickled scorpion for the traditional agave larva. Eat that, gringo!
In March 2010, Mary Samuelson opened Mama Josephine's, bringing to the Shaw neighborhood deep-fried chicken, macaroni & cheese, chicken and dumplings, chicken-fried steak, catfish, pulled-pork sandwiches, fried okra and all the other stick-to-your-ribs fixins' that define comfort food. The dining room is small, but the friendly staff saves it from ever feeling confined. The vibe at Mama Josephine's channels a crowded family dining room: There's always room for one more, and everyone can stay as long as they like. Samuelson engages with each customer who passes through the door, eager to chat and share the food and story of her mother, Josephine Spallino. Though Southern comfort food dominates, Samuelson also serves a sampling from other regions and cultures: eight-layer lasagna, meat loaf, Philly cheesesteak sandwiches. It might not be what Mom made, but it's what Mama did, and St. Louis is the better for it.
Be it the décor, the food, the drinks or the conversation, it's hard not to find something to like at the Brentwood Houlihan's. For those who recall the previous mid-county Houlihan's that for years occupied the north end of the Saint Louis Galleria, this new stand-alone location is a definite upgrade — soft lighting, spa-like walls of stone and wood, cozy booths and an ample outdoor patio. The food isn't bad, either: everything from a $26 filet mignon to a $5.75 order of spicy chicken and avocado egg rolls. (We've taken a liking to the $4.25 Tuscan white bean salad.) Even more expansive than the food menu is Houlihan's list of drinks. There's beer, of course, and a dozen white and red wines that can be ordered by the glass or bottle. But it's the froufrou drinks that really impress, from chocolate martinis to strawberry gin lemonade and — gulp! — nine Long Island iced tea versions. The Brentwood location sits adjacent to the SpringHill Suites hotel, which means Houlihan's horseshoe bar almost always hosts a few out-of-towners looking to engage in idle chitchat. Start by asking them how many varieties of Long Island iced teas they can name.