After they take your order but before any dish arrives, your server at Tempus (4370 Manchester Avenue, 314-349-2878) sets your table with a silverware rest. Brass, heavy like a paperweight and placed precisely where your dominant hand (yes, they ask) would sit if you extended your arm, the rectangular object initially seems like an ornamental gimmick. Then, your first course is set before you and you immediately understand its beauty in eliminating the micro-annoyance that is mid-course silverware use. Do I set something that's had my mouth all over it and is still covered in a bit of sauce on the table? Do I place it on the side of the sloped plate, only to have it fall into the food? Do I continue to hold onto it and two-fist a cocktail glass and some flatware?
These sound like minor, in-the-weeds details that concern only those who overthink the dining experience. And that's absolutely correct. Chef Ben Grupe and his team at Tempus are indeed those people, but they aren't nerding out to be obnoxious. That silverware rest — or the coasters that soak up condensation from glass water bottles, or the little hook hung from the side of your table that holds the drink list in order to give you extra tabletop real estate — are less unnecessary table adornments and more a signal that Grupe and company have committed themselves fully to perfecting every last aspect of hospitality. Based on his philosophy that you cannot create anything great without getting the smallest pieces right, Grupe's Tempus is a symphony of dining in which every musician is a master. Individually, they shine, but taken together, they form something more than just a collection of great elements. They form a masterpiece.
Despite the elegance something like a brass flatware rest suggests, Grupe hesitates to call Tempus fine dining. This is understandable, considering the chef has spent the majority of his career working at the highest ends of food and beverage; for his debut restaurant, he is making a conscious effort to eschew the stuffiness and pretentiousness of high-end dining for a more approachable — but no less magical — experience. A veteran chef who cut his teeth in the country-club circuit, including a prestigious apprenticeship at renowned West Virginia resort the Greenbriar, Grupe's competition-heavy resume has prepared him for culinary greatness the way Harvard Law Review and an appellate appointment prepares someone for the Supreme Court. Yet even though those credentials and experience have made Grupe the chef he is, Tempus shows him ready to move past them and redefine himself.
In doing so, he is redefining fine dining. Bucking traditional notions of elegance — white tablecloths, maitre d's, expensive art, dress codes — Tempus achieves refinement in its outrageously precise attention to detail. This begins even before you walk in the dining room; a few hours before your scheduled reservation, you'll get a call from a representative of the restaurant that feels more like a mini dining consultation than a quick confirmation exchange. This personal engagement continues when you enter Tempus and are warmly greeted as if they have been waiting for nothing else but your arrival and continues as you are walked through sliding glass doors to your table.
That table — rustic wood, unclothed and adorned with a single white votive candle — sits in a dining room intentionally atypical of a preconceived fine-dining establishment. A loud, street-art style mural covers one wall; a starkly modern (and, as my dining companion so accurately described it, "trippy") black-and-white clock that moves in such an interesting manner it seems alive hangs on another. Mid-century light fixtures and furniture outfit the space, and an eclectic mix of hip-hop, soul and rock & roll music fills the room with intentional irreverence.
Tempus' setting may shirk the traditional trappings of upscale dining, but Grupe's food is fit for the highest temples of gastronomy. This is evident the moment the bread service hits your table and you are treated to a stunning loaf of focaccia; its crust, sprinkled with sea-salt flakes, is as crisp as cracklins and encases a cloud-like interior. The fermented dough has an intense tang that is softened by the earthy-sweet combination of the accompanying miso butter and soy. It's a stunning display for a complimentary dish that sets the tone for the rest of the meal.
A first course of golden and red beets is equally dazzling. Resting atop a bed of luxuriously creamy whipped quark (a fresh white cheese), the root vegetables are flawlessly cooked to the midpoint between tender and firm. Crisp pellets of granola, enlivened with earthy vadouvan spice, add pops of texture to the dish, breaking up the creaminess of the beets and cheese.
Potato croquettas, another first course, are so velvety on the inside you'd be forgiven for thinking they were made from pure heavy cream instead of potatoes. That Grupe and company get such a silken texture from a root vegetable is some sort of vegetable alchemy. Piquant olives and sherry vinaigrette beautifully counter the decadence.
A plate of cucumbers has a distinctly Eastern European vibe. Sliced paper thin and also cut into large wedges, the vegetable serves as a base for custard-like yogurt; trout roe is hidden underneath the mound of this thick dollop, so when you bite into the creamy dish, you get a pleasant pop of texture and soft ocean flavor that is a magical reinterpretation of caviar and crème fraîche.
Entrees at Tempus are both elegant and nostalgic. A short rib, served with hunks of au gratin potato, evokes the warm comfort of pot roast with its cippolini onions, carrots and celery. In one bite, I was brought back to my mom's electric skillet filled with simmering packets of McCormick's gravy. Salmon, accented with verdant dill and placed atop funky sauerkraut, is so flawlessly cooked you could butter a slice of focaccia with it. Even a chicken breast — typically a throwaway dish on a restaurant menu — is a thing of beauty. The succulent white meat is encrusted with chicken thigh, breadcrumbs and just a little bit of mustard for the most haute Shake 'n Bake known to man.
Grupe and team carry that familiarity through to desserts. Yuzu yogurt sorbet, placed atop a bed of oats that's like a cross between a crispy shortbread cookie and an oatmeal pie, is topped with juicy grapefruit segments — it's simultaneously decadent and refreshing. However, the s'more is Tempus' ultimate evocation. Rectangular shaped and completely deconstructed into bits of chocolate brownie chunks, meringue, burnt marshmallows and graham-cracker-crust crumbles, the dish is infused with spruce to give it the feel of eating around a campfire surrounded by evergreens.
Such a thoughtful detail should come as no surprise from a hospitality perfectionist like Grupe, and it extends far beyond the kitchen. As impressive as the food is at Tempus, what stands out the most from the experience is the warm, approachable and attentive service that shepherds you through your dining experience like you're spending the evening with a friend. The staff somehow manages to attend to your every need even before you know you need it without making you feel fussed over. That they can make a polished silverware rest seem unintimidating tells you all you need to know.
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