Ryan Lewis does not shy away from doing big things on his own terms. He chucked a communications degree to pursue a career in cooking, opened his own restaurant when he felt he'd progressed beyond the caliber of available employers and shuttered that successful spot when he became restless for more.
"If you tell him he has to do things one way, he'll find a way to do it another," laughs Carina Flesch, Lewis' partner and the general manager at his latest restaurant, Pig & Pickle. And indeed that ambition has gotten him far. A native of Bethalto, Illinois, Lewis began his culinary career as a teenager in need of a job, working his way up from dishwasher to line cook. Though he moved to Springfield armed with a degree after graduating college, he could not resist the pull of the kitchen. He dabbled in cooking classes but ultimately decided to get his culinary education through on-the-job experience and self-directed research.
Lewis felt restricted by the lack of opportunity in Springfield's culinary scene, but instead of wallowing in that negativity, he decided to forge his own path. He opened his debut restaurant, Driftwood, in 2014 as a way not only to push himself but to elevate the city's dining options. He and Flesch ran Driftwood for three years, until Springfield could no longer contain his ambition. He wanted more, and he knew just where to find it: the ascendant food city right across the river from his hometown. When Flesch and Lewis found the old Atlas Restaurant storefront in the DeBaliviere Place neighborhood, they closed Driftwood, packed their belongings and moved to St. Louis, opening Pig & Pickle this past September.
For Lewis, Pig & Pickle is a test — a way to plant his feet and see how good he really is in a much larger scene. The menu's breadth and depth is a direct reflection of his eagerness. Clocking in at nearly 30 small plates, each one more complex than the next, it reads like the work of someone with something to prove. And though Lewis at times makes a compelling case, in others his aspirations overtake his execution.
Lewis, who describes his style of cooking as elevated Southern with a hint of Japanese influence, is at his best when he's more restrained. A dish of rustic carrots with Middle-Eastern spices makes one of the most persuasive cases for veggie-forward cooking in recent memory. The expertly cooked vegetables are simply roasted and served alongside luxurious whipped goat cheese and a square of honeycomb. The pungent earth from the carrots, funk from the cheese and sweetness from the honey create a symphony that is positively ethereal.
Brussels sprouts are equally successful, their bitter char balanced by chile honey. Crumbles of soft goat cheese add depth and creaminess, while spiced pecans give a sweet crunch. It's a fun presentation for the trendy vegetable.
Though Lewis does not consider Pig & Pickle to be Driftwood Part Two, he carried over his signature cheese-curds dish to the new restaurant. It's clear why. The creamy spheres of white cheese are coated in a razor-sharp mustard barbecue sauce that cuts through the deep-fried richness. The sauce is flecked with whole mustard grains, giving each bite a pop of tanginess. The curds rest on silken buttermilk dressing, which provides a layer of creaminess under the sauce. It's the sort of appetizer you find yourself eating hypnotically, only realizing you're stuffed as you contemplate the next courses.
Lewis may be from a landlocked state, but he knows how to cook shrimp and grits. His version features plump, blackened shrimp nestled atop gouda-infused grits that are so creamy they are almost a fondue. That they are studded with hunks of pork only adds to the decadence.
His best dish, however, is a simple plate of braised lamb shoulder, which commands attention with only a whisper. The meat is almost stew-like in its tenderness and sits in its own simple jus, accompanied only by roasted radish, pickled onion and a cumin-and-orange yogurt sauce. Though the radish was an afterthought and the yogurt could have been thicker, the flavors and expertly cooked meat were positively radiant. If Lewis wants to prove his worth as a chef, it will be through a dish like this.
As much promise as Lewis shows on some offerings, however, others are not as successful. The "NOLA Charred Cauliflower," for instance, was overly charred and bitter, a factor exacerbated by an astringent Worcestershire butter. An overwhelming thyme flavor added to the assault on the palate.
The seared kale was also unfortunate. Leaves of the limp leafy greens – not quite warm, not quite room temperature — looked depressed as they lay pooling in a large quantity of preserved lemon Caesar dressing. Parmesan crisps were not; instead, the crouton stand-ins were tough and chewy. Rather than elevating a classic Caesar, this knocked it down a notch.
Barley risotto was loose and oddly tasted like egg-salad porridge, a funkiness derived from the over-easy egg that capped the dish. And a pork loin inspired by the "everything bagel" was dehydrated and sliced so thin I thought it might be charcuterie.
That wasn't the worst take on an everything bagel I found on the menu, however. That came courtesy of the house burger, which was a heaping mess of steak sauce, goat cheese crumbles, pickles, fried onions and a thin, overcooked patty of beef forced onto an undercooked bagel the way I force myself into a pair of Spanx — very uncomfortably. One bite and the entire contents of the sandwich slipped out the opposite side. Lewis says he did not want to put a burger on the menu. If he feels that strongly, he shouldn't. His contempt is palpable.
Fortunately, I was able to drown any lingering burger disappointment with excellent cocktails courtesy of Jeffrey Moll, the rising-star bartender who made a name for himself at the now shuttered Randolfi's. There, Moll had a penchant for the esoteric; he is toned down without being dumbed down at Pig & Pickle. That man can make a daiquiri.
And for dessert, Lewis can make a chocolate cake. Like his best dishes, the dessert is simple: a rich, chocolatey cake served à la mode with chocolate-malt ice cream and a dusting of candied pecan dust. As much as his knack for preparing such a straightforward, comforting dessert, too, Flesch shows her skills with the front of the house. The servers at Pig & Pickle have a beast of a job memorizing and then translating to diners a menu that is both massive and complex. On every occasion I visited, they did so warmly and without skipping a beat.
It's the simple things like this — warm hospitality, good drinks, a perfectly braised lamb — that make for a good restaurant. Pig & Pickle can be that; it's just not quite there yet. As my dining companion for one visit remarked, if Lewis would have cut out half the menu and spent the time and effort he saved on perfecting the lamb's yogurt sauce, it would have been the best dish he'd eaten in a year. With something that good up his sleeve, Lewis doesn't need to go overboard. He proves his goodness when he's not trying too hard to prove anything.