This past June, Gerard Craft invited a group of food writers and friends to Niche for what he'd only say was "coffee and an announcement." Once everyone was assembled, he admitted something that sent a gasp through the room. "We open the restaurants we want to eat in," Craft said. "And sadly, I don't want to eat at Niche."
What followed was a heartfelt explanation for why Craft had decided to close his flagship restaurant on June 11, at the peak of its success. It had nothing to do with money, he explained. Niche had survived leaner times and had even weathered the beating that the financial crises of 2008 inflicted on fine dining restaurants nationwide.
No, this was about something larger and much harder to quantify, though infinitely more important than balance sheets. Craft had simply lost his passion for Niche. It was his firstborn, the place that launched his career, the lauded restaurant that earned him his James Beard Award, the name that was synonymous with his brand — and it had turned from a labor of love into an obligation. What had started out as a fun bistro eleven years ago in Benton Park had become a chore, and the burden that came from feeling like he had to stay at the top took its toll on Craft and his team.
He'd only won that James Beard Award just one year before. He could have kept things going, relying on his executive chefs to take over for him while he rested on his laurels and counted his money. But that's not Craft's style.
Instead, he decided to blow the whole thing up. He's putting the final touches on reinventing the space as a more casual breakfast, lunch and dinner spot, Sardella — a concept that, he says, will better represent where he is not only as a chef, but as a family man too. And doesn't that matter far more than food awards any day?
Ask any random group of diners to name the best restaurant in St. Louis and, chances are, you'll get the same three or four places. It's equally likely that every one of this select group is a fine-dining establishment. This is understandable. Not only do fine dining restaurants provide the backdrops for our most precious moments — a birthday, a graduation, a proposal — they also represent the pinnacle of the restaurant business. They are where the top chefs push us out of our comfort zones, the up-and-comers earn their chops, the food is impeccable and the service goes far beyond merely taking an order. Fine dining is about more than just food; it's about creating experiences. In that sense, the credit is not just deserved, it's earned.
But what about those other experiences? Maybe it's the joy that comes from being at a diner at 3 a.m. and biting into a greasy grilled cheese on butter-soaked Texas toast, flecked with old bacon drippings from the flat-top. Pair it with a cup of sludgy black coffee and conversation with friends, and it's as beautiful a match as foie gras and Sauternes. A dish like this, from one of the city's venerable all-night institutions, wouldn't likely make it on anyone's top ten list, yet it can bring as much joy as a five-star meal.
And it's not just the usual crop of diners or old-time doughnut shops that are spreading this edible mirth. Over the last few years, the opportunities to have a memorable culinary experience outside of white tablecloth settings have expanded in St. Louis, making us rethink what is meant by "great food." There's the thrill of discovery that comes from wandering into the quickie mart on a Saturday and finding Sabor Si (1133 Bellevue Avenue, Richmond Heights; 314-647-2696), a secret pop-up taco shack. Or the surprise that comes from discovering that the catfish and Philly cheesesteak signs outside North County Worldwide International Market (7238 N. Lindbergh Boulevard, Hazelwood; 314-731-3500) are actually a front for some of the city's best falafel. And who can say that Mrs. Kahn's lamb vindaloo at the unassuming Spice N Grill (6800 Olive Boulevard, University City; 314-721-2421) doesn't belong in the conversation about St. Louis' best dishes?
Fine dining isn't dead — it never will be. It's just no longer the end of the conversation and the only measure by which food should be judged. And more importantly, fine dining no longer has the monopoly on quality. Consider the delicious Neapolitan pies Joey Valenza is making at Melo's Pizzeria (2438 McNair Avenue Rear, 314-833-4489). You won't get a salad here, much less a sommelier, but sitting at a picnic table outside the garage where he bakes his pizzas, beer and slice in hand, you won't miss them.
Or check out what Ted Wilson and company are doing at Union Loafers (1629 Tower Grove Avenue, 314-833-6111), the fast-casual bakery and café in Botanical Heights. Wilson's naturally leavened sourdough is not just bread; it's art — good enough on its own and just as good as a canvass for former Niche chef Brian Lagerstrom's cooking. Ask any chef, and they'll speak of his baking prowess with the reverence reserved for those at the pinnacle of their craft. And to think, this edible bliss costs a few dollars and can be torn into on a park bench.
Even the city's top chefs are getting in on the casual action. Gerard Craft's Porano Pasta (634 Washington Avenue, 314-833-6414) is an exercise in seeing how gourmet a fast-casual spot can be, with its housemade products and commitment to sustainability. Kevin Nashan's Peacemaker Lobster & Crab (1831 Sidney Street, 314-772-8858) is the lively yin to Sidney Street Cafe's elegant yang, a place to enjoy some of the city's freshest seafood with as much reverence as you'd muster at a beer-fueled beach party. And some of the most exciting, innovative food being served in St. Louis right now comes from Brian Hardesty and Joel Crespo's Guerrilla Street Food (3559 Arsenal Street, 314-529-1328) brick-and-mortar, a gig Hardesty came to after years in white tablecloth ventures.
But what's equally exciting is that you don't need these chefs' pedigree to knock it out of the park. Outstanding food these days often comes courtesy of unknown cooks at unexpected, low-key places —and as they democratize our vibrant restaurant landscape, they show us that there is more than one way to define "fine" dining.
Across the nation, chefs boast of their farm-to-table ethos — even while they're dumping recyclable empties in the dumpster and buying their veggies right off a Sysco truck. In the status-obsessed food industry, "greenwashing" that sounds good without actually doing much is far more common than it ought to be.
But a program established locally in 2011 by the nonprofit organization St. Louis Earth Day aims to change that. For eateries that are genuinely committed to sustainability, the Green Dining Alliance (4125 Humphrey Street, 314-669-4432) provides a certification process to quantify (and continue to improve) their performance. Its mission recognizes that everything is connected and that eco-conscious restaurants have the opportunity to make a significant impact on our community, customer health and employee satisfaction.
The alliance's rating system covers everything from waste management and food sourcing to energy and water usage, purchasing and education. Additional points are awarded for innovative solutions. All members are required to meet a few core concepts: ban indoor smoking, No. 6 plastics and Styrofoam; utilize single-stream recycling; phase in efficient lighting; set waste reduction and diversion goals; and share waste and utility data with the alliance. Points are awarded for each item achieved, with restaurants ultimately earning one of four levels of certification from two to five stars.
To date, more than 100 restaurants have been certified, and the alliance has also certified the first two green dining districts in the nation. In both Maplewood and the Loop, 25 percent or more of the locally owned restaurants in the community have reached the alliance's standards.
Collectively, the work is having a big impact: Program directors estimate they've diverted 188 tons of material away from local landfills.
When Chris Bork announced two years ago that he was leaving Blood and Sand, the St. Louis food scene waited with bated breath to see what he'd do next. When he eventually made known his plans for a ramen shop, many reacted with confusion. Why was a rising star chef known for elegant, modern cuisine jumping on the food trend bandwagon du jour — especially one that seemed out of step with his culinary identity?
Folks needn't have worried. Granted, Vista Ramen (2609 Cherokee Street, 314-797-8250) is designed in the style of a noodle bar, and every main course offered contains ramen. And, well, it's named Vista Ramen. But at its core, this exhilarating Cherokee Street spot is fundamentally a contemporary take on (dare we utter the culinary f word?) fusion cuisine that happens to serve ramen — not, as you might expect from appearances, a ramen shop. Bork has assembled a selection of small plates that draw from classical French cooking to modern Thai and Burmese, each showcasing the expert technique and creativity you'd find at a Michelin-starred restaurant. And yes, there's ramen too, though there's no doubt Vista will outlast the trend.
To the uninitiated, Comet Coffee (5708 Oakland Avenue; 314-932-7770) looks like any other third-wave coffee spot, complete with a large pour-over setup, an elaborate espresso bar and a staff capable of espousing the virtues of single origin coffee at greater length than it takes to make a batch of cold brew. The small pastry case that sits to the right of the coffee bar, however, tells the other part of Comet's story: the top-tier baked goods that place co-owner Stephanie Fischer in the upper echelon of St. Louis' pastry scene.
For this xylophone-player-turned-chef, pastry has been a part of her life ever since she was a little girl correcting her mom's baking mishaps. Her scones, cakes and croissants showcase her talent, but Fischer's piece de resistance is her chocolate chip cookie. This specimen of perfection is the platonic ideal of the ubiquitous sweet: A crispy exterior that tastes like toasty brown butter yields to a soft interior filled with discs of still-molten dark chocolate. A few flakes of sea salt over the top bring out the cookie's savory notes. It doesn't get any better than this.
The gossamer strips of citrus-cured corvina arrive from the raw bar in a coconut, but you don't need the reminder — the sheer freshness of the Peruvian ceviche at Boundary (7036 Clayton Avenue; 314-932-7818) is all you need to be transported to the Pacific.
Chef Rex Hale certainly knows a thing or two about seafood, having spent a good part of his culinary career in the Caribbean. After tasting his ceviche, though, you'd think he came up in a coastal Peruvian kitchen. Boundary's version of the cured seafood dish is spiked with aji amarillo, a fruity chili that's said to taste like sunshine itself. He softens its barely-there heat with some coconut milk, which helps to underscore the corvina's creamy texture. Close your eyes as you take a bite and you'll be convinced you were on a beach throwing back pisco sours rather than at a hotel hotspot in the middle of the country. If only Hale could make us a life-sized replica of Machu Picchu, we really could skip that trip.
As far as food trends come, perhaps none is more grating than artisanal toast. Not because charging upwards of $10 for something that could be made by someone with the culinary IQ of a potted fern is extortion — though that can seem awfully obnoxious. No, what makes the toast trend so annoying is that it's so goddamn twee, it may as well been plucked directly from Wes Anderson's brain.
On its face, Milque Toast Bar (2212 S. Jefferson Avenue, 314-833-0085) seemed to fit this stereotype: the name, the toast, the overly cutesy crockpot selections named after a children's book about hippos. Then you bite into one of Milque Toast's "spiffy toasts" — maybe it's slathered with goat cheese and covered with truffled mushrooms, or perhaps it's covered with luscious blue cheese, spiked with Louisiana hot sauce — and you're suddenly transported. So this is what all the excitement is about! More an open-faced sandwich shop than a fancy toast spot, this McKinley Heights gem will make a believer out of even the most trend-averse skeptic.
Fleur de Lilies (1031 Lynch Street, 314-932-5051) is one of those culinary fusion ideas that seems horribly wrong on its face. Sure, bulgolgi tacos are a genius invention, but Korean-Creole fusion? The last thing anyone wants is crawfish bibimbap.
In opening this Soulard spot, though, owners Misha K. Sampson and Alexis Kim weren't merely chasing after trends. They wanted a restaurant that would honor their respective Creole and Korean heritages — not simply mishmash two different genres for the sake of something different. To do this, they smartly kept the different styles separate, opting for a predominantly Creole menu with accents of Korean-inspired dishes here and there. Their efforts result not only in some of the town's most delicious Creole food, but also in a few fun dishes, like the bulgolgi burger, that push the fusion concept as far as it needs to go without getting too far out there. Add to this an always-hopping Sunday brunch service and a fabulous rooftop patio, and Fleur de Lilies shows that fusion, if done right, can still be relevant.
One is the king of 'cue in the Lou; the other is a James Beard-nominated chef. There was no question that Mike Emerson and Rick Lewis' Southern (3108 Olive Street, 314-531-4668) would be the place in St. Louis to enjoy a plate of Nashville-style fried chicken. The real surprise is that the year-old chicken joint may be every bit as good as what they're serving in Music City, U.S.A. Some serious R&D went into developing Southern's searingly spicy fried bird, with Lewis plucking ideas from the country's best purveyors of hot chicken. His efforts yielded a juicy, deep-fried chicken that is dipped in such an addictive chili oil glaze, you can't stop eating it even as beads of sweat dot your forehead and smoke comes out of your ears. Regardless of the spice level — whether you order mild, medium, hot or "clucking hot" — Lewis has managed to concoct a seasoning blend that allows you to experience the flavor. Sure, they call it Nashville-style hot chicken for now, but the version Lewis is serving right here in St. Louis might make them think twice about it.
If you want to be daring with your hot-dog consumption, you have two options: Squirt ketchup all over your Vienna beef in front of a bunch of Chicago dog purists or try the Taiwanese sticky rice hot dog at Tai Ke (8604 Olive Boulevard, University City; 314-801-8894). Since introducing the St. Louis community to authentic Taiwanese street food last year, owners Calvin Koong and Brian Hsia have been challenging local diners to be a little more daring with their food choices.
Sure, you can get buns and dumplings at the University City restaurant, but Tai Ke's most exciting dishes are the ones that may push you to rethink your preconceptions. Maybe it's an omelet studded with salt shrimp, a pork chop that simmers in pickled radish soup, or even the beloved hot dog, which here is placed atop sticky rice and dressed with a sweet and sour glaze. Whatever you previously thought of these dishes will get turned on its head at Tai Ke — and you'll be the one who's head over heels.
Dining at Edibles & Essentials (5815 Hampton Avenue, 314-328-2300) is less like going out to a restaurant and more like being a guest in Matt Borchardt's home. One minute, the chef and owner is popping open a bottle of wine at your table; the next he's scrambling back to the kitchen to pull some mushroom tarts out of the oven. It can get a little chaotic, especially during patio season, but the former chef consultant and culinary educator wouldn't have it any other way.
Borchardt opened the tiny Southampton cafe as a way to connect with people through food and hospitality, and he thrives on the interaction with his guests, spending as much time mingling out front as he does in the kitchen. On any day, you can find people from the neighborhood popping in for some white bean dip and a beer, grabbing a few provisions and bottle of wine to go, or chatting up Borchardt about a catering gig. And no matter how busy he is, Borchardt is there with a smile on his face and asking how he can help you, like a good neighbor. – Cheryl Baehr