Bob Weir is coming in for dinner next week," our server informed us. "Seriously. Jimmy used to tour with the Dead. He was their chef."
A Deadhead isn't exactly who comes to mind when casting an executive chef for Nathalie's. The digs are decidedly more silk brocade than tie-dye. Then again, Nathalie's is much more than a fancy restaurant in a swanky mansion. It's actually the latest way that the eponymous Nathalie Pettus showcases the bounty of her Overlook Farms. And Jimmy? That's Jimmy Voss, the culinary Renaissance man who toured with the Dead as their personal chef, ran the kitchen at the shuttered Central West End institution Duff's and also serves as the executive chef at Overlook Farms in Clarksville.
A hippie chef at a farm-to-table restaurant — now it makes sense.
Hyper-local cuisine is the restaurant trend du jour, and local chefs' commitment to the movement ranges from lip service to substantial local sourcing. Nathalie's raises the concept to the next level, with most of the food coming directly from Overlook, hand-selected by Pettus and Voss. The result is an ultra-seasonal menu and plates filled with a cornucopia of vegetables, minus the middleman.
The food is only part of the story at Nathalie's. The building, a magnificent 19th-century mansion, is one of the most ornate restaurants in St. Louis. Venetian chandeliers hang from the ceilings, gold paint trims the walls and red roses decorate the white linen-clothed tables of the dining salons. (The term "dining room" just doesn't do the space justice.) Even the restrooms are a sight to behold — there's a marble fireplace in the ladies' room, for goodness' sake.
Nathalie's could quickly go stuffy, but the low-key Voss opts for an eclectic mix of dishes rather than haute cuisine. At first, the menu seemed all over the place, but then I realized that Voss doesn't need a concept to bring it all together. The ingredients, fresh from Overlook, are the common thread. I began with the blue quiche, a delicious execution of the classic savory pie made with farm-fresh eggs. The creamy, blue-cheese laden custard was baked into a crust that was so buttery, it crumbled apart with just the slightest touch. The quiche was served with a simple salad of greens, cranberries, pears and walnuts — the sort of dish one might see at a tea room. From here, we went Middle Eastern with the vegetable kofta. Traditionally, kofta is made with ground beef, but Nathalie's version uses a mixture of zucchini, carrots and celery, bound together with gluten-free breadcrumbs, that resembles a cross between a falafel and a veggie burger. The kofta was served with smashed spicy red lentils and a perfumey coriander-mint chutney. It was a delightfully complex mix of flavors, though I wished for a little more crunch on the plate.
Voss brings Duff's famous French onion soup to Nathalie's. Oddly, it lacked a substantial amount of onions and was a little bland, save for the melted Swiss cheese topping. The housemade pâté, on the other hand, could not have been more flavorful. The mild pork and chicken liver was flecked with pistachios and brandy-soaked cherries and was served with a sweet red-onion jam, dried cherries, grain mustard and cornichons. It had an ideal texture for pâté: soft enough to spread without being pasty.
Like the appetizers, the entreés provide a culinary world tour. Classical French is represented by coq au vin, a rich, slow-braised chicken leg and thigh that was so tender it slid off the bone. It was served on a bed of creamy root-vegetable mashed potatoes and was crowned with a huge helping of chard, carrots, Brussels sprouts and kale. Unfortunately, the lamb moussaka was overwhelmed by thick slices of eggplant; it tasted like lamb-flavored eggplant Parmesan. The accompanying quinoa pilaf, however, was topped with a pleasantly pungent Goatsbeard Farm feta mornay sauce.
Voss' feijoada, the national dish of Brazil, is filled with large chunks of tender pork and black beans. The thick, hearty stew is one of the chef's favorites. (He was inspired to learn how to cook it after jamming out to Brazilian music.) It had a deeply smoky flavor, but the Spanish rice accompaniment needed more of a kick.
Nathalie's offers a daily cut of its grass-fed beef based on what is available from the farm. On the night of our visit, it was a thick bone-in strip, seasoned with herbs, cooked sous vide to keep it juicy, and finished off on a grill to a perfect medium rare.
It was difficult to narrow down a dessert selection from the assortment of housemade treats. The Ibarra cake was a thick layer of bittersweet, flourless chocolate, served atop a cinnamon-and-orange-flavored almond crust. It practically begged for a Grand Marnier nightcap. The apple streusel pie was even better — its delicately flaky crust could barely contain the caramely spiced apples. A dollop of whipped cream topped the dessert to add to the decadence.
Voss brings diners so close to Overlook and yet, simultaneously, all around the world. It was a long, strange trip, but, overall, I enjoyed the ride.