The French onion financiers served at Bistro La Floraison (7637 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton; 314-725-8880) are less a bite-sized bar snack than a cosmic wonder. Like a supernova that concentrates the energy of a massive star into a black hole's unimaginably small singularity, Chef Patrick Fallwell's financiers distill a universe of flavor into a single bite. A cylindrical, savory almond flour cake, roughly the diameter of a quarter, has the spongy, pleasantly sticky texture of cornbread. A dollop of luscious comte cheese, drizzled with thyme oil, sits atop the cake; the richness coats the tongue with mouth-watering earth and tang. You want more but feel satisfied at the same time.
Such quintessential French magic is the sort of thing you'd expect from Bistro La Floraison, even if the hands guiding it might not be the first to come to mind when you think of Parisian luxury. Owners Michael and Tara Gallina admit this themselves. When the two came to St. Louis (Michael's hometown) from New York, they left the venerated farm-to-table restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Bars to open their debut restaurant, Vicia. They quickly established themselves as a leader in vegetable-forward fine dining where pesto is made from turnip greens and chicken-fried carrots offer plant-centric comfort. It's delightful, innovative and important, but in many ways, it's the sort of of-the-earth modern dining that feels like the antithesis to opulent French dining.
The Gallinas recognize this, which is why it is so exciting to see them break past those parameters at Bistro La Floraison. As Tara explains, she and Michael may have become more associated with vegetable-forward cuisine over the years, but they both came to that world by way of a passion for classical French cooking. A culinary school graduate and front-of-house pro, Tara recalls cooking through Julia Child's repertoire as the spark that lit her passion for dining in the first place and how the romance of mastering classic French techniques animated both her and Michael's development as cooks.
It was something they'd often dreamed of exploring with a restaurant of their own, so when the opportunity came to take over restaurateur Zoe Robinson's shuttered bistro, Bar Les Freres, they did not hesitate — even if they knew the responsibility that came with such a move. Like Robinson herself, Bar Les Freres was a beloved part of the area's dining scene; when Robinson closed it during the pandemic, patrons lamented its loss and eagerly awaited its return. Robinson was not enthusiastic about resuming her life as a restaurateur; after decades in the business, she was ready to pass the torch on to someone else and recognized in the Gallinas the perfect balance of stewards and innovators who would honor the space's legacy while making it their own. With her blessing, the Gallinas took it over in March, breathing new life into an iconic spot.
Part of that consisted of an aesthetic makeover, which to many might be the most controversial part of the ownership change. There's no question Bar Les Freres had a striking point of view — one that was the embodiment of luxury, adorned with red paint, antlers, chandeliers and a vibe that Robinson once described as the sort of place she'd hoped people would get so turned on by, they'd go home and have great sex. If you go in expecting that from Bistro La Floraison, you might be stunned by the transformation. If, however, you are open to the Gallinas' gorgeous interpretation of a classic French bar and restaurant, you will be delighted by its lovely — albeit different — aesthetic. Walls are a soft cream with just a hint of rosy undertones. Blush-colored velvet banquettes and burnt sienna drapes create a sumptuous scene, while vintage crystal chandeliers, gilded mirrors and round marble-topped bistro tables evoke 1920s Paris. It's not overtly sultry, but there is a lovely sensuality about the place, and if you look closely, you'll see antlers behind the bar.
If the Gallinas have created a classical French scene in terms of decor, they have equally nailed that motif with the menu. With the help of Michael Gallina and Aaron Martinez (the restaurant group's culinary director), Chef Fallwell has created a lovely offering of dishes that exemplify the beauty of traditional French cuisine. Gougères, or cloud-like pastry poufs, are served alongside a bowl of luxurious molten Gruyère for dipping. The cheese is deeply satisfying but so tangy, it makes the sides of your tongue tingle. Caviar, too, embodies quintessential Parisian luxury. Here, rich fish eggs are placed atop a fluffy potato waffle and accented with silken crème fraîche and chives. It's sexy without being pornographic.
Fallwell's Maine crab rillette toast features a spreadable crab salad that is artfully piped over rustic porridge bread. The shellfish's lovely sea flavor is cut by dill and cucumbers while a light sprinkle of Aleppo peppers lights up the tip of the tongue. A duck liver tart balances the richness of stunning duck mousse with a bright Madeira glaze. Fallwell smartly pairs the tart with a simple greens, endive and radish salad that refreshes the palate after such decadent bites.
An off-the-menu special paired a simple Gruyère cream sauce pasta with an outrageous portion of paper-thin shaved black truffles. The fungus blanketed the entire bowl in a profoundly earthy flavor, but a hint of sherry in the cheese sauce gave the dish lift. Just looking at the pasta made me feel naughty; eating it made me want a cigarette.
Main courses offered the sort of warm comfort you crave going into colder weather. Chicken cordon bleu is perfection of the form: a massive, airline chicken breast filled with bacon that, when cut, oozes Gruyère cheese that pools on the plate like a haute gravy. This richness is countered by the chicken's crunchy breadcrumb coating and pleasantly pungent grain mustard sauce. Another entree, braised short ribs, are so fork-tender you could spread them on a gougère. Here, Fallwell pairs the slow-cooked beef with rich bordelaise sauce and a stunning shallot marmalade that is both pungent and sweet. Pomme puree the texture of velvet is the chef's kiss of the plate.
Bistro La Floraison equally excels with its two desserts, a creamy Basque cheesecake with a caramelized top. Apple compote and sable crumble add to the decadence. Pain perdu is also lovely; the rustic cake has a lovely nutty flavor that is enhanced by an almost savory caramel sauce. Topped with Clementine's vanilla ice cream, it's a delightful choice for those who crave the sort of sweet that doesn't hit you over the head.
As outstanding as the food is at Bistro La Floraison, the experience would not be what it is without the supremely talented Kara Flaherty and Patricia Wamhoff, beverage director for the Gallinas' hospitality group and the restaurant's sommelier, respectively. These brilliant women guide their guests through a French-focused wine program like concierges, sharing their knowledge with easy confidence that gives guests an enhanced experience thanks to their expertise. Their presence on the floor creates an integrated wine and food experience, which is perhaps the most truly French thing about this wonderful restaurant.
it's only natural that a team that can distill intense flavor in a one-bite snack, would be able to capture the quintessential French experience in a Clayton storefront.
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