The national conversation on food has reached a fascinating — and maybe crucial — point. As a recent New York Times article noted, thanks to a sympathetic White House and an economy deep in recession, proponents of sustainable and locally focused agriculture have entered the spotlight. A few weeks ago, Alice Waters, the Bay Area chef who trumpeted eating locally decades before the term "locavore" existed, was profiled on 60 Minutes. According to the Times, many in Congress are reading (or carrying copies of) Michael Pollan's influential 2006 book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. Most symbolically, the White House is planting a vegetable garden, with Michelle Obama leading the effort.
For those who care about reforming America's foodways, the circumstances for change are ideal. (The recent salmonella outbreak traced back to peanut butter produced for use by institutions and snack-food manufacturers didn't hurt.) Still, there is a risk of, if not a backlash against the movement, then a disregard for it. Waters' 60 Minutes appearance, for example, carried a strong whiff of elitism as she baked an egg in a fireplace...that's installed in her kitchen.
Such obvious luxuries aside, money and time loom as the two big obstacles to any true, widespread change in our eating habits. You might claim that fast food shouldn't be considered real food, but you can't deny that it's convenient and very cheap. Farmers' markets offer an unparalleled opportunity to buy fresh local produce at a very reasonable cost, yet even as the number of markets increases, not everyone can design a shopping schedule around a specific place, date and time.
Of course, restaurants, not individuals' shopping habits, are the concern of this column, and as someone who both values sustainable local agriculture and reviews restaurants in a market of St. Louis' size, I find myself in a tricky position. There are St. Louis chefs who make a point of forging relationships with nearby farmers, of highlighting seasonal foods; I have celebrated several of them in this space. Yet the majority of restaurants — the vast, vast majority, from ethnic spots to neighborhood bar-and-grills to fine-dining spots — rely on the standard networks of food distribution, and if they serve local produce, it's usually a coincidence of geography, not by design.
I don't blame them. There is neither the public demand to force a change, nor is there much monetary benefit to justify it. Would you expect a restaurant to raise prices in this economy to serve, say, grass-fed beef in a burger? (Besides, right now there aren't enough sustainable farms to support more than a handful of these restaurants.)
All of which makes Local Harvest Café & Catering even more remarkable. With very little fanfare, in small, halting steps, it's challenging the notion — the St. Louis notion — of what a restaurant could be. Local Harvest Café began life as a sandwich counter inside Local Harvest Grocery, a small Tower Grove South store with a focus on local and organic foods run by co-owners Patrick Horine and Maddie Earnest, who also founded the Tower Grove Farmers' Market. Last summer the café moved into a storefront across the street from the grocery store. In its usual daily operations, Local Harvest Café doesn't seem much different from any other local coffee shop. Tables are arranged in front of the coffee bar and the display case of pastries. You order at the cash register from a menu of soups, salads and sandwiches, and your food is brought to your table.
I visited once for breakfast, once for lunch, and enjoyed both meals. The sandwiches are smartly constructed: The "Italian Stallion" matches the strong flavors of capicola and salami with two excellent spreads, one of herbed goat cheese, the other a blend of feta and Kalamata olives. The "Morganford Mediterranean" adds a flavorful lentil dip to a mix of roasted red pepper, onion, Kalamata olive and cucumber. I paired half of this sandwich with Local Harvest's vegan chili. I rarely recommend anything described as "vegan," but this is a standout, so richly seasoned that you won't miss the ground beef. A breakfast sandwich of scrambled egg, bacon, pepper-jack cheese and salsa-flavored cream cheese on a bagel was straightforward and good.
Again, none of this is out of the ordinary for a local café.
A small dinner menu is available after 5 p.m.: vegetarian lasagna, a beef-brisket sandwich and stew, pasta with meatballs. This, too, isn't so remarkable.
On Saturdays, though, chef Clara Moore, who has worked at Trattoria Marcella and Mangia Italiano as well as at Centennial Farms in Augusta, offers a tasting menu unlike anything you will find at a local café or, in truth, at almost any restaurant.
The tasting menu is by reservation only. The morning of your meal, Moore visits the market and from her purchases assembles your dinner. Mine took place on the first weekend of spring. Fittingly, the courses paired glimmers of the light, verdant produce to come with hearty root vegetables.
After a starter of crostini with goat cheese served with a bulb of roasted garlic came a rich smoked-salmon mousse bursting with the flavor of fresh dill. (The salmon was cured in-house, if not, of course, locally raised.) This was served with locally made potato chips — an unusual combination that didn't clash, but was more whimsical than inspired. Next was the course most evocative of spring: a simple salad of fresh pea shoots and blue cheese, very lightly dressed. Bridging the gap between this and the meat course was a soup of celery, beans and oyster mushrooms in a broth that bore the slightly sweet note of roasted vegetables.
The final savory course was a bison filet topped with grated horseradish and served with a mash of sweet potato and parsnip. This was an understated dish, with the sweetness of the mash balancing the bite of the horseradish. Dessert was equally understated: a small piece of white cake topped with a ginger-Champagne chocolate ganache, gone in two or three bites.
Wine pairings are available for each course, though we opted for a bottle from the small list. Bottled beer is also available.
By virtue of Moore's approach, your meal will be different from mine. You won't know what you're eating until Moore brings you the first course. There are those of you who might find this approach to dining unappealing, in principle. Fair enough. Consider this your advance warning. (Also: At $48 per person, the tasting menu might not be for every budget.)
But that very uncertainty is what excites me about Local Harvest Café's Saturday dinner. It's one alternative to the same restaurant template that, while it satisfies our appetites, only furthers a food system that grows increasingly unstable with each passing year.