Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life!

It's a bury-the-body-and-then-kill-your-accomplice kind of secret: La Dolce Via's doing dinner!

La Dolce Via

La Dolce Via
4470 Arco Avenue, 314-534-1699. Hours: Dinner 6-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. (Café open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 8 a.m.-11 p.m Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.)

Mussels $11
Chicken confit with salad $10
Copper River king salmon in split-pea broth $25
Chocolate espresso torte $8

I don't want to write this.

I'd prefer to write a review about anything besides the dinners I had at La Dolce Via. The sandwich I made for lunch today, for instance: capicolla, salami, sopressata and provolone on French bread. Frankly, it could have used some greens. Or maybe the dinner my girlfriend cooked last night, vermicelli in a garlic, shallot and white wine sauce. Sorry, sweetheart, but it needed butter.

No, I don't want to write this. I don't want anyone to know about dinner at La Dolce Via. I've sworn everyone I took there to secrecy, but I'm worried even that isn't enough. It's a bury-the-body-and-then-kill-your-accomplice kind of secret.

Sadly, my grudging respect for the free market and a sincere desire to see good people do well compels me to admit the following: Dinner at La Dolce Via is — make that was — the best-kept secret in St. Louis. If you already had dinner plans for Friday or Saturday, change them. If you didn't have plans, you do now.

La Dolce Via itself is no secret. It's off the beaten path, for sure — an unassuming corner storefront in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood behind the vast Barnes-Jewish complex — but in 2003, and again in 2004, this paper named it the Best Bakery in St. Louis. Mention it to those who frequent its small, homey café and their eyes will glaze over. In hushed, awed tones they'll tell you about a bowl filled with the freshest, fattest, juiciest berries they've ever eaten, a scone too ethereally light to have been crafted by mortal hands.

In 2004 La Dolce Via began offering weekend brunch. Ramon Cuffie, formerly the head chef at the late, lamented Jaboni's Bistro, oversaw the creation of that menu, and he's in the kitchen for the new Friday- and Saturday-only dinner service. There's no set menu. Cuffie visits the local markets for the freshest, best-looking ingredients and prepares them simply, letting the natural flavors shine. Each night's selections — a few first courses, a few entrées, a salad or two — are written on a dry-erase board the servers gamely carry to each table, annotating the brief descriptions as they go. In a phone interview, owner Marcia Sindel told me this was simply an extension of La Dolce Via's philosophy: "We're guided by what we buy."

A celebrated chef cooking only the best ingredients whatever way catches his fancy on a given night. The place should be packed. But when we arrived for dinner on a warm, clear Friday evening, La Dolce Via was nearly empty. One couple was eating dessert as we took our seats on the patio. Later, a pair of couples sat at the table beside ours. Other than that our only company was a stray kitten who meowed once to introduce himself, then trotted right up.

"That's Patio," our server explained. "We call him that because he lives on our patio. Don't give him any food, or he'll hop right up on your lap."

He certainly appeared to have eyes for the pyramid of glistening black mussels we'd ordered as a starter. I didn't blame him. How enticing were those mussels? I risked my life to try one.

I can't eat bivalves. Clams, oysters, scallops, mussels — they're all off the menu, personally speaking. Or so I've thought ever since I was seven. I'll spare you the details, except to note that the day I got sick after eating scallops, I'd previously consumed some Keebler E.L. Fudge cookies. Quite a few Keebler E.L. Fudge cookies. Too many, really.

I haven't eaten scallops (or E.L. Fudge cookies) in more than twenty years.

Fuck those elves, man. I ate a mussel. It was delicious, tender and briny, the taste of the ocean kissed by butter, garlic and white wine. I wanted more, but my professional obligation to finish the rest of the meal — and another the next day — held me back. Baby steps.

Other first courses available during my visits included a cheese plate — Parmigiano-Reggiano, ricotta salata and a fantastic Gorgonzola, sweet and nutty, which Cuffie had aged himself for seven months — and prosciutto with melon. The latter is the sort of classic combination a chef less respectful of his ingredients might have messed around with (prosciutto with melon foam, maybe, or vice versa), but Cuffie offered simplicity itself: thin sheets of prosciutto draped around juicy hunks of cantaloupe, with olive oil and a touch of cracked black pepper.

King salmon from Alaska's Copper River served with seared potatoes and a split-pea broth made for an attractive presentation, the salmon, resting atop the potatoes, set against the deep green broth. Clever, too: The salmon appeared to be swimming through seawater. Cooked just right, the fresh salmon had a rich, almost creamy flavor, which aptly matched the buttery sweet broth (more like a sauce, really), while the seared potatoes added a caramel depth to the plate. The next night Cuffie offered the same dish with New Zealand cod in place of salmon. To my shock, it worked just as well. A brief pan-searing had given the mild cod some serious oomph — in truth, it tasted "fishier" to me than the previous night's salmon — yielding a heady contrast between the flesh and the broth.

I'm not sure what constitutes a special at a restaurant that features an ever-changing menu, but I tried the "surf and turf" special: three beef medallions and two gigantic shrimp. Cuffie seared the medallions medium-rare, then drizzled them with fifteen-year-old balsamic vinegar, a smoky, tannic note that made the beefiness stand out. The shrimp had been smoked before being grilled; their flavor was tremendously complex, a blast of pure smoke and flame, backed by the natural sweetness of the shrimp, with just a hint of saltwater.

Available both nights I visited was chicken confit, a leg and thigh cooked in its own fat. Imagine the crisp, golden skin of perfectly roasted chicken. That flavor had permeated every last morsel of the bird. Even more remarkable was the price: $10. With the exception of the seafood and red-meat entrées, which range from $25 to $27, everything on La Dolce Via's menu costs $11 or less — and every wine on the small but thoughtful list is available by the glass.

As you might expect, La Dolce Via offers an abundance of indulgent desserts. Chocolate espresso torte was a flourless cake so dense that I expected matter to collapse into it, black-hole style. As if that weren't decadent enough, it was served with a generous serving of fresh berries. The "Sexy 'Mo'" was that rarest of cheesecakes that taste more like cheese than sugar. If you feel like splurging, I recommend (as our waiter suggested) pairing your dessert with a split of the 2002 Robert Pecota Moscato d'Andrea, a dessert wine with dizzyingly intense honey and apricot flavors, plus a zing of balancing acidity.

When I asked Marcia Sindel whether she has considered expanding the menu or serving hours, she was unequivocal. If La Dolce Via does that, she says, "I believe we're going to lose our quality."

So be it. I'll have to set aside every Friday — maybe every Saturday, too — for dinner at La Dolce Via. Now, of course, I'll probably have to wait for a table. Or maybe I'll just wander from table to table with Patio the cat, pleading for more.

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