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Monday, December 23, 2019

STL's Best New Restaurants of 2019, According to RFT's Restaurant Critic

Posted By on Mon, Dec 23, 2019 at 6:04 AM

click to enlarge A vibrant and fresh dish from our critic's best new restaurant of 2019. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • A vibrant and fresh dish from our critic's best new restaurant of 2019.

Editor’s Note:
This list is based on restaurant critic Cheryl Baehr’s 2019 review schedule. As such, restaurants that opened after November 10 are not eligible for consideration in this edition.

As I look at the names of the best new restaurants to open this year, I’m struck by just how much they represent the many voices that make our city’s food scene so vibrant. This year, it seemed as if there was a collective leap of faith as restaurateurs set out to tell their own stories, on their own terms, confident that St. Louis diners would be receptive to what they had to say. It was a year of taking chances — and whether those chances took the form of a regional Thai restaurant that finally reflected a family’s heritage, a tasting menu that took a chance on a forgotten cuisine or a barbecue exhibition hall that set out to redefine the genre — St. Louis chefs and restaurateurs confidently stepped out of the safe zone, and their gambles are paying off in the form of one of the most thrilling years of new restaurants in recent memory.

No new restaurant better encapsulates this phenomenon than Nick Bognar’s Botanical Heights masterpiece, Indo. Here, Bognar builds upon the legacy handed to him by his mother, Ann, by creating a space that reflects the Thai heritage that set the family on its course in the business in the first place. This soulful approach to food, coupled with the best sushi St. Louis has ever seen and a chef’s table dining experience that redefines the tasting menu, makes Indo simply extraordinary.



The year in food was so rich, it was difficult to contain to just the top ten so, for the first time, I’ve included an unranked Best of the Rest category filled with even more compelling stories. As you eat your way through these amazing menus, I hope you’ll find something that makes you think of a style of cooking, a particular dish or a restaurant experience in general in a different light.

Without further adieu, here are my favorite ten restaurants to open this year, plus nine spots that more than deserve honorable mentions.

click to enlarge Indo chef-owner Nick Bognar. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Indo chef-owner Nick Bognar.
1.
Indo

Born into a restaurant family, there was no way that Nick Bognar could escape the industry’s call. Whether rolling crab Rangoon and egg rolls at his family’s restaurant, Nippon Tei, or hanging out with his Thai grandmother in her kitchen when his mom was at work, Bognar was surrounded by food at an early age and learned the ins and outs of the business while still a kid. However, rather than simply accept his fate in the restaurant industry, Bognar used his heritage as a jumping off point for discovering his own culinary passion. Indo (1641D Tower Grove Avenue, 314-899-9333) represents those two facets of Bognar — a deeply felt gratitude to the restaurant family that gave him his heritage and a sense of wonder at the path he is forging on his own. Bognar offers the Indo experience in many ways: Quick and affordable lunch, an a la carte dinner menu that allows you to mix and match nigiri with Thai-inflected delicacies or the omakase event, a twenty-plus course, chef’s table-style guided journey through the most amazing fish it’s possible to procure in the Midwest. Luxurious but not fine dining, elegant but not stuffy, Indo is the most exciting restaurant in St. Louis right now because it feels like a revolution in the way we think about what it means to be a great restaurant in 2019 and beyond. St. Louis is lucky to have it.

click to enlarge One of the many artfully plated dishes served at Bulrush this year. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • One of the many artfully plated dishes served at Bulrush this year.
2.
Bulrush

If you know anything about chef Rob Connoley, you understand that the term “down the rabbit hole” is the best way to encapsulate the way he approaches the world. It’s why his Ozark-inspired Bulrush (3307 Washington Boulevard, 314-449-1208) has interns; it’s why he is in regular contact with archivists and seed banks; it’s why he could probably tell you more about pawpaws than you ever thought you would care to know. In fact, that obsessive quest for knowledge is the reason Bulrush exists in the first place. When he returned to St. Louis in the summer of 2016, Connoley knew he wanted to open a restaurant with a certain ethos, but he didn’t know exactly what form that would take. As he dug into the region’s history, topography and culinary heritage, the outlines of an idea emerged; when he met his sous chef, Justin Bell, it crystalized. Together, they embarked on an exploration of the region’s uniqueness, honing in on the food of the oft-overlooked Ozarks. Their research is the foundation of Bulrush, and in particular, its Ozark tasting experience, which explores this unsung piece of food history and, in turn, celebrates a marginalized culinary culture. Modern yet grounded in a deeply rooted piece of our region’s history, Bulrush feels like a welcome new voice in the symphony of America’s food heritage.

click to enlarge Elmwood is a stunning debut from two restaurant industry pros. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Elmwood is a stunning debut from two restaurant industry pros.
3.
Elmwood

Some restaurants make this list because they feel as if they are unlike anything St. Louis has seen. Elmwood (2704 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood; 314-261-4708), however, earns praise because it feels like it’s been a part of our city’s food scene all along. Owned by powerhouse Niche alums Chris Kelling and Adam Altnether, this Maplewood eatery nails that hard-to-hit spot of being both a destination restaurant and neighborhood spot by serving food that is at once elegant and immensely comforting. Anchored by a best-in-class charcoal-powered grill and oven, Altnether’s menu has a cosmopolitan feel to it — Middle Eastern spices on lamb cruda, a Thai-inflection to the yellowfin ceviche — but it never strays into the esoteric. His cooking, paired with Kelling’s unparalleled understanding of hospitality, combine to make Elmwood an instant classic.

click to enlarge Chef-owner Jenar Mohammed’s cooking is nothing short of extraordinary. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Chef-owner Jenar Mohammed’s cooking is nothing short of extraordinary.
4.
Sultan Mediterranean Restaurant

Jenar Mohammed’s cooking is so soulful, one bite of it instantly transports you from Sultan Mediterranean Restaurant (4200 Manchester Avenue, 314-390-2020) in the Grove to a home kitchen in Iraqi Kurdistan. In fact, that’s exactly where she honed her cooking chops, perfecting traditional recipes until the early 1980s when she and her husband, Akram Saeed, were forced to flee their homeland for the United States in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. Once here, Mohammed continued to cook, this time adding to her repertoire the cuisines of Turkey, Syria and Palestine. However, she wanted more and eventually branched out from her home kitchen to Sameem Afghan Restaurant with dreams of one day opening a place of her own. That day came this past January, when, after a year-long renovation of the Grove storefront that used to be Erney’s 32 Degrees, Mohammed finally got her chance to show St. Louis all she is capable of doing. Her cooking is nothing short of extraordinary, including the restaurant’s signature Sultan pilau, a crispy phyllo shell filled with lamb, almonds, pistachios, walnuts and raisins. The dish’s aroma is so intoxicating, the steam is like a siren song that will haunt you long after you leave this wonderful restaurant.

click to enlarge Bait is the brainchild of first-time restaurateur Kalen Hodgets. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Bait is the brainchild of first-time restaurateur Kalen Hodgets.
5.
Bait

If you drive past Bait (4239 Lindell Boulevard, 314-405-2797), you might think that you are passing the eastern Central West End’s hottest new nightclub: On Friday and Saturday nights, it’s not uncommon to see a line of well-dressed patrons-in-waiting that starts at the front door and snakes all the way down the stairs onto the sidewalk. The restaurant is a scene, for sure, but the line has everything to do with Bait’s stunning food, courtesy of rising star chef Ceaira Jackson. A seafood restaurant unlike anything St. Louis has seen, Bait dazzles with over-the-top dishes like flaming, head-on prawns, a massive, whole Caribbean-style snapper dressed with fresh herbs and edible flowers, and a show-stopping seafood boil of crab, shrimp and sausage that bob in a buttery, Cajun-spiced nectar. The brainchild of first-time restaurateur Kalen Hodgets, Bait represents his gamble that St. Louis would support a swanky seafood spot that evokes the boutique hotels he loves to frequent on his travels around the country. Clearly, that gamble is paying off.

click to enlarge Helmed by acclaimed pitmaster Ben Welch, the Midwestern builds upon the legacy of his former restaurant, Big Baby Q - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Helmed by acclaimed pitmaster Ben Welch, the Midwestern builds upon the legacy of his former restaurant, Big Baby Q
6.
The Midwestern Meat & Drink

If you’ve had the sheer pleasure of eating the beef ribs at the Midwestern Meat & Drink (900 Spruce Street, 314-696-2573), you understand why this wonderful restaurant has quickly become one of the most essential barbecue joints in town. Peppery bark yields to succulent meat so marbled it melts on the tongue like marrow. You could butter your bread with this masterpiece — and yet, it competes with the dry-aged brisket burger for the title of the restaurant’s best dish. Covered in housemade pub cheese that soaks into every crevice of the patty so that each bite is an explosion of fat and goo, the Midwestern’s double cheeseburger is the best burger in a city filled with magnificent ones. Helmed by acclaimed pitmaster Ben Welch, the Midwestern builds upon the legacy of his former restaurant, Big Baby Q, by incorporating Southern-style dishes into his barbecue repertoire. Add to this one of the city’s most impressive cocktail lists and bourbon selections courtesy of the immensely talented bar manager Tony Saputo, and it’s no wonder the Midwestern is such a gem.


click to enlarge The Bellwether is a dazzling addition to the St. Louis food and nightlife scene. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • The Bellwether is a dazzling addition to the St. Louis food and nightlife scene.
7.
The Bellwether

The talented team behind Polite Society have made lightning strike yet again, this time with their magnificent sophomore effort, the Bellwether (1419 Carroll Street, 314-380-3086). The first thing that hits you about the sexy restaurant and bar is just how smart partners Brian Schmitz, Jonathan Schoen, Travis Hebrank and Thomas Futrell are about how they used the space. Occupying the former Element in the old City Hospital Building just east of Lafayette Square proper, the Bellwether is spread out over two stories and a patio. Unlike the former tenant, Schmitz, Schoen and company decided to put both the bar and restaurant on the same floor, creating an intimate vibe for guests. It’s a beast of a restaurant to work — the kitchen and private event space, the Reference Room, are one floor down from the dining room — but they navigate it with ease, at least from the guest’s perspective. You’d expect nothing less from a kitchen run by the talented Thomas Futrell, whose cooking continuously wows, whether he’s executing delicate scallop carpaccio or a glorious short rib ragout that is a cross between a Southern grandma’s pot roast and nonna’s Sunday sauce. The menu, combined with Hebrank’s thoughtful bar program, makes this a dazzling addition to the city’s food and nightlife scene.

click to enlarge The restaurant's Laotian sausages, stunning curries and crispy baby back ribs are all exceptional. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • The restaurant's Laotian sausages, stunning curries and crispy baby back ribs are all exceptional.
8.
Han Lao

Some of Thom Chantharasy’s fondest memories of growing up in the middle of Tennessee are of the feasts the local Laotian community would put on for special occasions — which ended up being about every other week. The spirit of those events animates the delightful Han Lao (1250 Strassner Drive, Brentwood; 314-932-1354), the restaurant he opened as a way to celebrate his culture and pass on his heritage to his children. Chantharasy is a veteran in the restaurant business; for the past twenty years, he’s been in kitchens like Sekisui and his ramen and Japanese Maplewood restaurant, Robata. However, this is the first time Chantharasy has cooked Laotian food professionally — and when you taste his fiery, vibrant food, you wonder what took so long. Laotian sausages, stunning curries and crispy baby back ribs are all exceptional, but if you want to travel with Chantharasy back to those Tennessee family gatherings, the khao poon is the way to go. This pork broth soup, spiked with red curry and coconut milk, is as close as you get to the traditional Laotian parties of his youth — the dish itself is a celebration.

click to enlarge If you haven’t been to a Skullery brunch, do yourself a favor and go at once. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • If you haven’t been to a Skullery brunch, do yourself a favor and go at once.
9.
BEAST Butcher & Block

David Sandusky is not content to simply put out the best barbecue in the bi-state area. If he were, he and his wife, Meggan, would’ve kept plugging away at their acclaimed Belleville, Illinois, smokehouse, BEAST Craft BBQ Co. Instead, he has set out on a mission to change the very way we think about the genre at his huge barbecue complex in the Grove, BEAST Butcher & Block (4156 Manchester Avenue, 314-944-6003). It’s an ambitious undertaking: Part barbecue restaurant, part butcher shop and part exhibition kitchen, BEAST Butcher & Block pushes us to look past the traditional smokehouse template and see the many ways fire-cooked food can be enjoyed. His exhibition kitchen, the Skullery, is at the heart of what Sandusky is trying to do. A space for collaborations with local chefs and tasting menus courtesy of executive chef Ryan McDonald, the Skullery dares to cast barbecue in an upscale light. And if you haven’t been to a Skullery brunch, do yourself a favor and go at once. With porchetta so tender you can butter one of McDonald’s fluffy biscuits with it, it’s the best brunch in town.

click to enlarge The Last Kitchen marries chef Evy Swoboda's Italian cooking prowess with food traditions along the Mississippi River. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • The Last Kitchen marries chef Evy Swoboda's Italian cooking prowess with food traditions along the Mississippi River.
10.
The Last Kitchen

Of the handful of boutique hotel restaurants that have popped up around town in the past year or so, the Last Kitchen (1501 Washington Avenue, 314-390-2500) stands out from the crowd with a menu and aesthetic that transcends what is typically expected of the genre. Helmed by chef Evy Swoboda, whose résumé includes serving as Gerard Craft’s chef de cuisine at Pastaria, the Last Kitchen marries her Italian cooking prowess with the culinary heritage of different cultures along the Mississippi River. The boudin ravioli — a massive pillow filled with wild boar and rice sausage — is a particular standout that incorporates both of those aspects. However, the Last Kitchen’s most unforgettable dish may be its simplest. Called Grown Up Garlic Noodles, these oil-slicked ribbons of fresh pasta, flecked with fermented black garlic, chiles and Parmesan cheese, may be the best pasta currently offered in town. Swoboda says that her goal is to have guests think of the Last Hotel as a restaurant and bar with rooms, and not the other way around. With dishes this good, she’s on her way to realizing that vision.

The Best of the Rest
These nine restaurants aren't ranked as part of our top ten Best New Restaurants of 2019, but they are more than worthy of honorable mentions.


click to enlarge Chef-owner Mandy Estrella has earned a following for her Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban fare. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Chef-owner Mandy Estrella has earned a following for her Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban fare.
Mayo Ketchup
“Plantain Girl” Mandy Estrella finally found a home of her own with her standalone, Lafayette Square storefront, Mayo Ketchup (2001 Park Avenue, 314-696-2699). Her fierce commitment to doing Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban fare right has earned her a following over the years, and at her first bona fide restaurant, she continues to show us why.

click to enlarge The best bar food in town is being served out of a pinball dive in Bevo. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • The best bar food in town is being served out of a pinball dive in Bevo.
Party Bear Pizza and Tiny Chef
A humble South City dive bar may be an unlikely setting for some of the year’s most thrilling food, but Chris Ward and Melanie Meyer don’t let that stop them. Frankly, the pairing of their specialities — whimsical, thin-crust pizzas and Korean street food, respectively — is just as unconventional, but they do both so well at Party Bear Pizza and Tiny Chef (4701 Morganford Road) that they make it seem like a natural combination.

click to enlarge With just five seats, Akar is more dinner party than restaurant. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • With just five seats, Akar is more dinner party than restaurant.
Akar
At miniature-sized Akar (7641 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton; 314-553-9914), chef-owner Bernie Lee explores his roots, incorporating the culinary heritage of his native Malaysia with the flavors he has fallen in love with during his vast travels across the globe. At just five seats, Akar is more dinner party than restaurant, an atmosphere that gives Lee the freedom to cook on his own terms with wonderful results.

click to enlarge Chao Baan specializes in traditional northern and southern Thai dishes.
  • Chao Baan specializes in traditional northern and southern Thai dishes.
Chao Baan
With Chao Baan (4087 Chouteau Avenue, 314-925-8250), the Prapaisilp family could have played it safe and opened a second location of their wildly popular restaurant, the King and I. Instead, at the insistence of their son Shayn, they took a chance and bet that St. Louis diners were ready for the traditional northern and southern Thai dishes that define their family heritage. Their gamble has paid off in the form of an addition to the city’s dining landscape that is nothing short of thrilling.

click to enlarge Kebabs are a house specialty at Esther’s Persian Café. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Kebabs are a house specialty at Esther’s Persian Café.
Esther’s Persian Café
For years, Reza Toghiyani has been enchanting his family and friends with his wonderful home cooking. With Esther’s Persian Café (12466 St. Charles Rock Road, Bridgeton; 314-755-1882), he is letting the general public in on the fun with his signature kebabs, kookoo sabzi and a version of tahdig, the traditional Persian crispy rice dish, that is so good, you understand why people have been begging to be a part of his dinner parties for years.

click to enlarge At Cocina Latina, authentic Peruvian food is the focus. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • At Cocina Latina, authentic Peruvian food is the focus.
Cocina Latina
Two decades ago, Maritza Rios arrived in St. Louis with a plan to open Cocina Latina (508 North Euclid Avenue, 314-696-2294). However, she tabled the idea, afraid that St. Louis diners would not be receptive to authentic Peruvian food, in favor of the American-style Mexican restaurant, El Paisano. Now that she has taken the leap and shown us her vibrant cooking, there’s no question that we are more than ready for it — it’s what we’ve been waiting for.

click to enlarge Morning Glory embraces everything we love about classic diners without the extra grease and grit. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Morning Glory embraces everything we love about classic diners without the extra grease and grit.
Morning Glory Diner
A greasy spoon that’s not at all greasy, Morning Glory Diner (2609 Cherokee Street, 314-261-4842) is a wonderful daytime addition to Cherokee Street. The brainchild of chef Ari Ellis, this delightful restaurant embraces everything she loves about the classic diner concept but removes the grit in both the style of the place and the substance. Just try her version of a St. Louis classic, the slinger, and, when you wake up the next day without a rock in your stomach, you’ll understand what she’s going for.

click to enlarge Loaded up with thoughtful and fun toppings, slices at Pie Guy are pure magic. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Loaded up with thoughtful and fun toppings, slices at Pie Guy are pure magic.
Pie Guy Pizza
Pie Guy Pizza (4189 Manchester Avenue, 314-899-0444) may have a fun, irreverent and casual atmosphere, but this outstanding restaurant in the Grove is serious about its pizza. Chef-owner Mitch Frost’s outstanding pies are built on a beautiful, chewy crust that is undergirded by a layer of crispness akin to Texas toast. Loaded up with thoughtful and fun toppings, it’s pure magic.

click to enlarge The Korean fried chicken at Kimchi Guys is glorious. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • The Korean fried chicken at Kimchi Guys is glorious.
Kimchi Guys
Korean fast-casual restaurant Kimchi Guys (612 North Second Street, 314-766-4456) is one of Munsok So’s many efforts to breathe new life into the Landing. With glorious Korean fried chicken, glazed in sauces like garlic-soy or honey-butter, he will have people flocking back to the once vibrant St. Louis neighborhood in no time.

We are always hungry for tips and feedback. Email the author at cheryl.baehr@riverfronttimes.com.
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