Kevin Willmann's Farmhaus is the best restaurant to open this year — and then some

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Blackened Mahi with spoonbread, Best Stop Andouille, pickled shrimp and hot sauce butter emulsion. See a full slideshow from Farmhaus.
Blackened Mahi with spoonbread, Best Stop Andouille, pickled shrimp and hot sauce butter emulsion. See a full slideshow from Farmhaus. Jennifer Silverberg


3257 Ivanhoe Avenue; 314-647-3800.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 5:30-11 p.m. Fri., 6-11 p.m. Sat.

Duck breast...$22

Any accounting of Farmhaus must acknowledge the less-than-stellar history of its Lindenwood Park address. More than a few restaurants have failed to stick along this peaceful block: Café Ivanhoe, KoKo, Bistro Toi. After Bistro Toi shuttered in November of 2008 — a mere two months after opening — the space sat empty for over a year, one more "cursed" spot.

There. History acknowledged. I'd rather begin at a different address, in another state: the restaurant Erato on Main on Main Street in Edwardsville, Illinois. It was there that I and many others fell in love with the cooking of Kevin Willmann.

An Illinois native, Willmann spent his adolescence and his formative years as a cook on Florida's Gulf Coast. After a spell in Knoxville, Tennessee, he landed in St. Louis, where he ran the kitchens at Lucas Park Grille and Mosaic before moving on to Erato. And there he found his voice: small dishes, intensely flavored and beautifully presented, with an emphasis (with the significant exception of his beloved seafood) on local, sustainable produce. That he turned these out from a kitchen barely bigger than a walk-in closet made his success even more remarkable.

When Willmann announced last year that he would leave Erato to open Farmhaus — the German twist on the name is a tribute to his grandmother — his new venture became the most anticipated restaurant opening of 2010.

Disclosure: I couldn't dine anonymously at Farmhaus, and not simply because my Lady Gaga disguise was at the dry cleaners. Willmann busted me as a critic several years ago, and we've run into each other at bars and farmers' markets more than a few times since then. Our relationship is friendly, and, yes, I likely received a tad more attention than a "regular" diner. What can you do?

Damn good food is damn good food, whether you're a restaurant critic or some guy off the street who doesn't know or care who Kevin Willmann is, whether it's served on fine china, paper plates or Kate Winslet's naked torso. And at Farmhaus Willmann is cooking damn good food. This is the best restaurant to open in St. Louis so far this year. The competition isn't even close.

As at Erato, Willmann prefers to serve smaller portions. These aren't "small plates" so much as smaller entrées, meant to maximize a diner's ability to sample different dishes. Specific menu items change frequently — I saw differences on two visits only two days apart — owing to Willmann's reliance on seasonal produce. In general, though, you should order as many seafood dishes as you can stand. Since adolescence Willmann has been an avid fisherman, and his abiding love for the sea is manifested on the plate.

My favorite dish was a Hawaiian escolar fillet poached in butter, dill and traminette (a semi-dry white wine) from Missouri's Chaumette Winery, served with grilled asparagus and two grilled blue prawns. The poaching liquid turned the fish, already very fatty by nature, decadently luscious, and the asparagus was plump and strongly flavored, but it was the blue prawns that made this dish. These were far more flavorful than your run-of-the-mill shrimp, with a beguiling briny sweetness. As a bonus, they were served head-on, so you could suck out the tastiest juices as you would with a crawfish.

(An example of the menu's frequent changes: When I returned a couple of nights later, the grilled asparagus had been swapped out for grilled broccoli. Also, the requisite footnote about escolar: Because of its high oil content, the fish has a reputation for causing, let's say, intestinal distress. It's generally agreed that trouble only begins brewing after about six ounces. Enjoy in moderation.)

Mahi mahi was given a Cajun treatment, the modest-size fillet perfectly blackened, the exterior crisp with spice, the interior tender. The fillet was drizzled with an emulsion of butter and Crystal hot sauce, a lovely one-two punch of fat and bite, and served with andouille sausage from the legendary Louisiana shop Best Stop and Willmann's legendary — in my mind, at least — spoon bread (something like a cross between cornbread and bread pudding).

Seared scallops were dressed with an ancho chile oil and arranged around a truffle espuma. The scallops were fine by themselves, with the chile oil adding a modest kick, but the espuma was overwhelming: a baseball-size scoop of truffle-flavored whipped cream when each scallop needed only a dollop.

The scallops were a rare misstep. For the most part, when Willmann's dishes achieve indulgence, they do so organically, rather than through gimmicks like truffled whipped cream. Take the cast iron-roasted duck breast: The meat is served sliced, fanned over baby turnips, beet greens and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and sauced with a port gastrique. The meat was beautifully browned, the skin crackling crisp, the flesh rich with rendered fat. Each element — the earthy turnips and mushrooms, the sweet beets and their peppery greens, the lightly acid note of the gastrique — contributed to a spectacular whole.

Actually, indulgence might not be the right word for Farmhaus' fare. Comfort food is more appropriate — higher-end comfort food, to be sure, but comfort food nonetheless. The meat loaf, neutron star-dense with beef and pork and wrapped in bacon for good measure, is better than your mother's. And what I suspect will become the restaurant's signature dish is called, simply, "Breakfast": a poached egg, maple sausage links, roasted pork belly, corn-flour blinis and whipped maple butter. It is the platonic ideal of the full-flavored breakfast, the yolk of the egg, from Prairie Grass Farms a brilliant orange (not the pale yellow of our debased commercial eggs), the pork belly started over high heat for that bacon-crisp surface and then finished low and slow for that unmistakable fatty perfection.

At this point, a fog of war started to settle in, and my memories of dessert are hazy. I do recall a delicious lemon tart paired with a verdant basil ice cream.

The restaurant is utterly without pretension — almost to a fault. The wine and beer lists are merely OK, not quite at the level that the cuisine demands. The interior (a modest dining room and a smaller bar area) is bland, the décor limited to a few photographs and a couple of generic oil paintings, the latter seemingly borrowed from an older restaurant. Thanks to the hardwood floors and pressed-tin ceilings, it can get very loud.

Given the history of this particular address, though, you can hardly blame Willmann for focusing so intently on the food. The promise of a great meal, not the latest concept, will draw diners to any address. The menu even includes a way, unique to me, to offer a small reward to the kitchen: "Brews for the Kitchen Crew" — essentially a tip, dispatched in two-dollar increments, that the kitchen staff pools at the end of the night.

This isn't mandatory. Our server didn't even mention it until I asked what the deal was. And if you don't feel compelled to buy Willmann and his crew a beer on your first visit, odds are you'll eventually want to. You ought to have plenty of opportunities. Unlike its less fortunate predecessors, Farmhaus is bound to be here for a while.

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