Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Review: United Provisions Café Is a Great Fast-Casual Restaurant Inside a Grocery Store

Posted By on Wed, Jun 3, 2015 at 8:05 AM

Ramen, sushi and fried chicken. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Ramen, sushi and fried chicken.

United Provisions Café 6241 Delmar Boulevard; 314-833-5699. Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (lunch) and 4:30 p.m.-9 p.m. (dinner); Sat.-Sun.11 a.m.-9 p.m.

I had first planned to check out the Dining District at United Provisions on October 29 last year, roughly two months after the ambitious international grocery store and café hung out its shingle in the Delmar Loop.

See also: Review: The Gramophone

It had been one of the most anticipated openings of the year, filled with all sorts of St. Louis culinary celebrities: Suchin Prapaisilp, responsible for Jay's International and Global Foods, as well as St. Louis' first Thai restaurant the King and I, opened the spot. James Beard-nominated chef Ben Poremba (Elaia, Olio, Old Standard Fried Chicken) would oversee culinary operations. Naomi Hamamura, master sushi chef, was given free rein to showcase his prowess with fresh fish, and Elaia's Tudor Seserman (now with Tree House) assumed the role of executive chef. The amount of talent under one roof was staggering, and I couldn't wait to check it out.

I would have to be patient. The day before my first visit, news broke that Prapaisilp and Poremba had decided to part ways. Citing differences in management styles, expectations and an honest "it just wasn't working out for both of us" to Sauce Magazine, the restaurateurs decided to terminate Poremba's contract, and in effect, the original vision of the Dining District. It seemed the restaurant was over before it ever really got started. It's now been seven months since the shakeup, United Provisions is still standing, and the restaurant is still serving food -- albeit scaled back and without the full-service pomp and circumstance that were originally envisioned.

I didn't know this, though. In fact, I didn't know much at all about a place I'd walked by roughly a hundred times. Sure, I'd seen the signs for its sushi happy hour and the sandwich board advertising specials like bibimbap and Polish sausage, yet I'd never ventured in. I'd assumed with Poremba gone, so too was my reason for visiting.

It took a tip from a friend to make me reconsider, and I'm glad I did. Yes, the concept has been dressed-down from its once-lofty ambitions. But what I discovered is a worthy fast-casual gem, decadent pastries and a contender for the town's best sushi.

click to enlarge Desserts are a highlight at United Provisions. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Desserts are a highlight at United Provisions.

United Provisions no longer refers to its restaurant as the Dining District -- it's now United Provisions Café. Part of the problem with the original concept, some noted, is that it was a glorified food court in a grocery store purporting to be a restaurant. Time and lower expectations have solved this problem: The café is now simply a fast-casual spot.

Diners order at a counter, are given a number, and seat themselves at one of the eight tables next to the espresso bar. The owners have taken pains to warm the space: Soft lighting, wood-paneled walls and contemporary metal tables don't necessarily fool you into thinking you're in a stylish bistro, but the space is about as cozy as you can get sitting among shoppers on the hunt for milk, bread and eggs.

The café still hasn't fully shaken its full-service concept: The person who takes your order not only delivers your food, but also brings out water and utensils and provides refills and to-go boxes. It's more formal than, say, grabbing something off the hot bar and eating at Whole Foods, but it's not quite a full-fledged restaurant.

Hamamura is now executive chef over the entire dining concept, with a menu that mixes Asian dishes and all-American classics. This makes for odd bedfellows, but it works: Juicy, fried-to-order chicken lightly coated with crisp breading sits on the same bill of fare as chashu ramen, a traditional Japanese noodle soup features bamboo shoots, seaweed, scallions, a soft-boiled egg and tender braised pork-belly cutlets all simmering in delicate pork broth. It's a bowl of comfort.

Pot stickers, filled with diced pork, chicken and green onions, are encased in paper-thin wonton wrappers that crisp up to a golden brown. The soy-based dipping sauce is livened with vinegar and a healthy amount of crushed red pepper. Chicken wings and drummies are fried and coated with sticky-sweet chile glaze that left my lips tingling well after the last bite. The wings are on the small side, so consider the serving an individual portion -- they are too good to share.

I was impressed with the bibimbap, an off-the-menu special that was available the entire week I visited. Perfectly cooked sticky rice served as the base for shredded beef, tofu, scallions, bok choy, cucumbers and carrots. An over-medium egg oozed over the top of the dish, and the side of Korean hot sauce tied the components together with fiery spice. Sandwiches at United Provisions are fair, though not as strong as other offerings. The burger, a simple ground-beef patty on a griddled bun with the traditional lettuce, tomato and onion trimmings, is adequate. Unusually, the café's Philly cheesesteak stuffs large hunks of grilled hanger steak, not the typical thinly sliced beef, into a soft hoagie roll. The steak could have been more liberally seasoned; julienne peppers and onions, and melted Provel cheese top this substantial sandwich.

Hamamura's sushi is United Provisions' biggest draw for a reason: The brightly colored, made-to-order offerings are fresh, impeccably prepared and no more expensive than other places else in town despite their superior quality. In addition to selections such as octopus, tuna, and eel nigiri, the café serves several specialty rolls. I tried the fried ban-sai roll, a deep-fried, gargantuan portion of salmon, crab, cream cheese and asparagus wrapped in rice and crowned with eel sauce, smelt eggs and green onions. If you see a line out of the door on weekdays between 4:30 and 6 p.m., you'll know word of the half-price sushi happy hour has gotten out. Until then, it's a gem hiding in plain sight.

Don't expect a global focus when it comes to United Provisions Café's breakfast selection: the menu is decidedly all-American. A bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, served on a flaky croissant roll, is a well-executed on-the-go option, and the shortbread-style biscuits are a delicious buttery canvas for creamy sausage gravy -- I just wish it had some more spice. Next to the sushi, I was most impressed with the housemade pastry selection, displayed at the espresso bar. A black sesame cake, the consistency of moist banana bread, has just the right amount of nutty sweetness. The thick layer of vanilla-bean cream cheese icing is positively decadent.

For those who love wedding cake but can't bear the thought of watching the happy couple smash it into one another's faces, United Provisions saves you the grief. Its white "wedding cake" layered with almond buttercream is much better than what you'd find at a banquet hall anyway. And a dense chocolate torte, filled with gooey salted caramel, is a perfect balance of sweet and savory. That this is almost directly across the street from my office could become a problem.

United Provisions Café barely resembles the Dining District I would have visited last autumn -- and I can't imagine it any other way. Perhaps the rough start was a blessing. In being forced to reinvent itself as a fast-casual café, it realized what it was meant to be all along.

United Provisions Café Chicken wings...$5 Chashu ramen ...$9 Croissant sandwich...$2.95

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