High-Flying Three Flags Tavern: Is this the best restaurant opening of 2014?

Three Flags’ stellar brisket burger.
    See photos: 
    Three Flags Tavern: Best New Restaurant of 2014?
Three Flags’ stellar brisket burger.

See photos: Three Flags Tavern: Best New Restaurant of 2014?

Corey Woodruff

High-Flying Three Flags Tavern: Is this the best restaurant opening of 2014?

4940 Southwest Avenue; 314-669-9222.
11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 2-5 p.m. (limited menu) and 5-10 p.m. Tues.-Sat.
Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Three Flags Tavern
"Mini Monte Cristo"...$8.75
Brisket burger...$12.50
Heirloom pork mixed grill...$18

When chef John O'Brien and his wife, Cathy, opened Three Flags Tavern, they intended to create a simple neighborhood spot. What they ended up with could possibly be the best new restaurant of 2014. You may not have heard O'Brien's name before (though he came up in some of the city's finest kitchens — Balaban's, King Louie's, the Ritz-Carlton, the Saint Louis Club and, most recently, Table Three in Wildwood), but that's about to change and fast.

Three Flags draws its name from the 1804 transfer of the Louisiana Territory from the Spanish to the French and ultimately to the United States. An 1830s Karl Bodmer map of North America takes up an entire wall and combines with soft light to cast a sepia glow on the dining room. Exposed brick, antique chandeliers and portraits of St. Louis' founding fathers add to the historic atmosphere. Gray velveteen nail-head trim chairs may make it difficult to turn tables quickly. They were so plush, I could have sat in them all night.

O'Brien expertly weaves together American, Spanish and French cuisines into a cohesive "Board of Fare" that might seem disjointed were he a lesser chef. I began with the "Mini Monte Cristo," though there was nothing miniature about the portion. The plate consists of three triangle-cut French toast sandwiches stuffed with prosciutto and Gruyere cheese, and topped with powered sugar. The accompanying red currant jalapeño jam balances notes of sweet, salt and delicate spice. The lobster beignets were cloudlike — little poufs served with what is called "Creole barbecue sauce," although it was much lighter in body and flavor than the name suggests. Also noteworthy is a Spanish spin on the fried cheese stick, made from breaded Manchego and served with sweet red pepper romesco sauce.

A fall-off-the-bone Berkshire pork shank arrives in a hominy-laden broth brimming with flavor. Two pieces of Indian fry bread allow diners to sop up every last bit of the savory, pork-infused liquid. One of the appetizer specials (which I dearly hope finds a recurring spot in the rotation) is an olive-oil-poached octopus tentacle that was amazingly tender. A drizzle of jalapeño-cilantro sauce gave the dish just a touch of heat.

See photos: Three Flags Tavern: Best New Restaurant of 2014?

The heirloom pork mixed grill entrée features one magnificent porcine preparation after another — creamy, perfectly caramelized pork belly; smoky, bacon-wrapped tenderloin; and a juicy rib chop — all served with apple butter, creamy Hasty pudding (corn porridge) and a rich pan sauce. Three Flags elevates its shrimp and grits by adding buttery scallops and sweet tasso ham to the already excellent dish.

The fried chicken takes 30 minutes to prepare, but I'd wait 30 days. A magical, sweet and salty brine permeates the meat, which is coated in seasoned breading and fried to a glistening crisp. The chicken, presented in a cast-iron skillet, is served with a buttery, shortbreadlike biscuit and veloute sauce that tastes like Thanksgiving. St. Louis was already blessed with an abundance of excellent fried chicken, but you'll need to add this to the list.

And then the meal reached its crescendo: the Three Flags' brisket burger. I cannot get it out of my mind. Neither can the friend who shared it with me. We're so smitten, we've been wistfully texting one another about it. The house ground brisket is so juicy, it's as if the chef stuffed it with hunks of butter. The burger is topped with bacon, lettuce, tomato and red onion and served on a soft sesame-seed-coated potato roll. As if this weren't enough, we topped it with a slice of the luscious Délice de Bourgogne cheese. That a simple hamburger stole the show speaks volumes about this restaurant and this chef.

To cap this impeccable meal, I tried two different tarts. The apple version consisted of a flaky crust, delicate crumb topping and cardamom Calvados whipped cream. The evening's dessert special, a kumquat tart, was bright with a citruslike zest and softened by sweet kumquat whipped cream.

The O'Briens set out to open a comfortable tavern with good food and attentive service, and they've created a St. Louis masterpiece. O'Brien should enjoy the last moments of his anonymity while they last. He's about to be the most talked about chef in town. 

See photos: Three Flags Tavern: Best New Restaurant of 2014?

Cheryl Baehr

Cheryl Baehr is the restaurant critic for the Riverfront Times and an international woman of mystery. Follow her on the socials at @cherylabaehr
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