Before our tasting menu at Elaia (1634 Tower Grove Avenue; 314-932-1088) officially begins, before the first of twelve courses (or was it fourteen? my post-meal notes, chicken-scratch under ideal circumstances, suggest that at some point I entered a state of delirium, or left the space-time continuum altogether, and lost count) arrives at our table, our server presents a wooden slab with thinly sliced ham in two artfully disheveled piles. In one pile is the famed jamón ibérico of Spain. In the other is culatello from Salume Beddu, the acclaimed south-city salumeria in which Elaia owner and chef Ben Poremba is a partner. My friend and I look from the jamón to the culatello and then back again. Is Poremba really putting his salume up against maybe the most revered cured meat in the world?
"That," says my friend, "is a ballsy move."
The culatello (a cut from the upper rear of the pig's hind leg -- think of it as an especially refined prosciutto) more than holds its own against the celebrated jamón. Aged for two years, it has a remarkable depth of flavor -- to pork what bourbon is to corn, rich and sweet, with hints of fruit and spice and earth. The pairing was the exclamation point on what the length of the tasting menu, the quality of our stemware, even the aesthetic appeal of the chair in which I was sitting (it is a beautiful chair) had made clear: Elaia and its adjoining wine bar, Olio, are nothing if not bold.
Read my review of Elaia and Olio and view Jennifer Silverberg's slideshow of the twinned restaurants tomorrow on Gut Check.