Posted On: 11/29/2016
You don’t close the restaurant that just won you a James Beard Award – unless you’re Gerard Craft. He closed Niche one year after winning Best Chef: Midwest. St. Louis expects new concepts from Craft, but it was another thing entirely to eliminate his first restaurant and the namesake of Niche Food Group to try something new. Sardella had a lot to live up to.
So what kind of place is Sardella? “That’s the toughest question,” Craft said. “I think it’s our restaurant … [We’re] getting to have fun, getting to cook the food we want to cook.” It’s a place of freedom – even improvisation – for a team nationally famous for precision and adherence to Niche’s restrictive Missouri-only sourcing.
Sardella’s concept is more suggestion than mandate: food shaped by Italy, rather than Italian food. That may seem like semantics, but the freedom is in the phrasing. “It’s a slight direction,” Craft said. “Sardella is influenced by Italy, but it’s not straight Italian. Honestly, it would confuse many Italians. My greatest example is the green bean dish. It’s green beans on garam and roasted garlic custard with crispy garlic and Calabrian chile vinaigrette. It’s a dish that’s so Italian ingredient-wise, and so un-Italian any other way. When you eat it, it feels Southeast Asian.”
Italian, Southeast Asian, Missourian – one bite of this shockingly rich and savory vegetable small plate and you won’t care how it got here. Green beans (or the charred squash version now on the menu) never tasted so good. Same goes for the thinly sliced bavette steak: We don’t care why it’s topped with miso butter, we’re just glad that it is. Or the marinated sunchoke with a tender, acidic base joined by rich prosciutto and a kick of jalapeno – don’t ask questions, just eat. In this dance of Italian plates moving to various Asian, African or Mexican beats, diners have as much fun as the kitchen.
“At Niche, we were the special occasion restaurant, the nicest restaurant in town,” said general manager Chris Kelling. “But here, we just want to be the most fun.”
Even on a Monday night, the energy is high. The music is louder, the drinks better, the clientele hipper. It’s too lively to feel formal. It feels cool.
Talk to any Niche veteran on Sardella’s team, and you can see that relief, like loosening one’s tie at the end of a long day (literally – servers now wear black jeans and chambray shirts). The whole space has undergone a parallel stylish, casual makeover. The long wood bar is flanked by bookshelves. Servers weave between closer, smaller tables. The once cavernous ceiling was lowered over a wall-length butter-soft leather banquette. There are hanging plants, sardine tins and a general sense of lightness: blond wood, white walls, smiling faces.
With Craft, executive chef Nick Blue and executive pastry chef Sarah Osborn in the kitchen we expected the food to impress, but it’s the atmosphere, the posture of Sardella that’s most striking. This is a restaurant full of people doing what they love in the way they want to do it.
“It sounds cliche, but I get to throw a party seven nights a week,” Kelling said. “I enjoy doing it. I feel that energy transfers to the team, to the guest, and it’s all reciprocal.”
We feel it, too. The intimidation of fine-dining service (that sense of attempting a dance to which many don’t know the steps) is gone from Sardella, with no great loss. But anyone who’s ever hosted knows how hard it is to make a party look this effortless.
“We don’t have rules for rules’ sake, because then it stops being a service,” Kelling said. “Everything is about the flow for the guest. It’s got to be smooth and have precision. … If we just create a platform for the guest to enjoy themselves, then we do a good job.”
This is what Sardella is about: a good time. Craft has been around long enough to know that when the kitchen isn’t having fun, no one is. “That’s Gerard’s strength: He cares. He listens to feedback,” Kelling said. “If you don’t care – if you’re not listening – then the emperor has no clothes.”
We’re happy to report Craft is resplendently dressed at Sardella. We went to Niche when we wanted to feel fancy. We go to Sardella when we want to have fun – as often as we can. – H.H.
7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.773.7755, sardellastl.com
A glimpse through the large windows at Vista Ramen reveals a slim restaurant filled with smartly dressed young people sipping sake and slurping ramen, bathed in the green glow of that iconic neon sign. This is where the cool kids eat.
The centerpiece is the open kitchen where co-owner and chef Chris Bork transmutes Vista’s chic style from the space to the plates. Bork interprets classic Asian dishes or finds inspiration entirely elsewhere, letting ingredients take the lead. While it’s easy to love something like sticky pork ribs glazed with crab caramel, it’s the attention paid to humble vegetables that sets Vista apart.
Bork is a standard bearer for seasonality, allowing vegetables to express themselves fully on the plate. Take, for example, his raw vegetable salad: Julienned Japanese turnips, carrots, radishes and kohlrabi are tossed with maple vinaigrette, lychee and house-made Chinese bacon and topped with popped sorghum.
Despite the complex, dynamic flavors, Bork’s methods don’t require expensive equipment or extravagant technique. “The treatment is very simple: Don’t fucking cook them to mush,” he said. “Being able to cook a specific vegetable to its right al dente is something that takes time and a lot of finesse. Blanching vegetables properly is an art that I wish more cooks took seriously.”
Vista’s veggie ramen best exemplifies this perfected technique. Vegetables of the moment (turnips, shiitakes, kohlrabi and so on) are individually blanched, then roasted on the flattop to order. Each vegetable retains its identity while swimming with tender alkaline noodles in a rich broth that coats every piece in meat-free umami glory.
After the last summer tomato disappears, it’s easy to give into seasonal despair in an endless parade of roasted root vegetables. Not at Vista. House-made agnolotti are filled with rich miso-pumpkin puree. Butternut squash finds its way into dessert as a delicate panna cotta sprinkled with buttery granola and topped with spheres of poached pear. For this kind of invention, we’ll gladly weather bitter temps and crowds of hipsters to indulge at Vista Ramen. – C.K.
2609 Cherokee St., St. Louis, 314.797.8250, vistaramen.com
Olive and Oak
Since Olive & Oak opened to great acclaim in January, eager customers have had to book reservations well in advance. Determined walk-ins order cocktails and prowl the bar, waiting to pounce on a vacant seat. Webster Groves residents who used to drive 20 minutes for a night out now have a dining destination in their own backyard.
Despite the hustle, you’ll rarely see disgruntled or discontented staff at Olive & Oak. In fact, servers look downright cheerful as they weave through standing-room only crowds carrying trays piled with food. After more than a decade in the hospitality industry, owner Mark Hinkle found that poor service was often due to an overwhelmed wait staff, not bad attitudes. “If you never staff to be busy, you’ll never be busy, ” he said.
Hinkle wants his staff to be professional, but relaxed. If they aren’t enjoying their night, neither will the guest. “I look around and they all seem to be having fun … [There’s] a good vibe and a comfortable feel,” Hinkle said.
Dining at the bar best exemplifies this superior hospitality. These multitasking masters are servers, bartenders, bar backs and your best friend. Settle in to an open seat and order a drink from the surprising, well-balanced menu that can hold its own in a city obsessed with craft cocktails. Try the No. 78, made with pear, lime, sherry, Scotch, gin and umami bitters for an unusual concoction with savory notes that you can only find at Olive & Oak. Your bartender will happily chat and simultaneously take an order from the patron standing behind you as she mixes your drink.
While you ponder the menu that entices such a crowd, another bartender sets down The Dip sandwich piled high with shaved leg of lamb, served with a cup of rich jus and fries so crisp, you may be tempted to steal them from your neighbor’s plate (Don’t – that’s rude.). If you can’t decide whether to get the starter of bubbling blue crab gratin, thick and cheesy with a kiss of Calabrian chile oil, or jump straight to the perfectly charred, medium-rare flank steak you just saw flying past on its way to another table, the solution is simple: get both.
Order another round. Take your time. You’re a guest at this classy yet laid-back dinner party. – C.K.
102 W. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves, 314.736.1370, oliveandoakstl.com
A carryout-only restaurant this high on our list will only surprise those unfamiliar with Kitchen Kulture from co-owners Christine Meyer and chef Michael Miller. The fine dining veterans make the foreign local and the local foreign at their first brick-and-mortar with a tight, rotating menu of Asian-inspired dishes.
“Using ingredients that people are familiar with – sourcing locally – is a great way to introduce people to things,” Miller said. The same goes for familiar dishes, which can help expose diners to new flavors. Take, for example, the shrimp and grits currently on the menu, made with coconut milk grits, lemongrass-marinated shrimp and a peanut-pepper relish. “I get that by nature [shrimp and grits] is not an Asian dish, but it’s one of those things that brings people in on a comfort level,” he said. “It’s a great gateway dish.
“That’s why we play a lot with our amuse-bouche,” he said. “Because it’s something that people might not order, but they’ll try because it’s free. There’s no risk.” Yes, Kounter Kulture offers complimentary, intricately composed bites for those waiting to pick up to-go orders. Not something you’d expect at a counter service spot with zero elbowroom on Watson Road.
“We’re trying to jam two hours worth of service into five or six minutes,” Meyer said. Servers at a sit-down restaurant can see if diners enjoy their meals or not, but the team at Kounter Kulture has to get more creative. “Having that customer contact every day has been fabulous,” she said. “It allows you to build better relationships, and the feedback is so important.”
But let’s be clear: We don’t go to Kounter Kulture for an education. We go for the food. We go for the khao soi. Miller’s version of the northern Thai soup starts with his house-made curry paste, which he cooks in schmaltz and simmers in stock. The bowl full of shredded Buttonwood Farms chicken, Midwest Pasta Co. egg noodles, pickled greens, lime juice, cilantro and burnt chile oil takes more than four hours to make. “It’s worth the time,” Miller said.
Like Kounter Kulture itself, the khao soi fits more in a small package than should be possible. It’s spicy, smooth, sweet, savory, bright, rich and piquant. “Asian food is a balancing act, because there are so many flavor notes,” Miller said. “It’s like a symphony – you can have something that’s really balanced but still has so much going on.” Consider this our standing ovation. – H.H.
3825 Watson Road, St. Louis, 314.781.4344, kounterkulturestl.com
Surrounded by hip Latin music and tropical plants during Nixta’s recent opening, we kept spontaneously exhaling and saying, “This feels like vacation.” Along with the bright, beachy colors and dim, candlelit atmosphere of Ben Poremba’s newest restaurant, the menu is strewn with flowers and fruit: ceviche served with a fragrant, viscid sphere of rose water espuma; pork belly al pastor topped with caramelized pineapple pico de gallo; a sea scallop in a pool of green, bergamot-infused aguachile sprinkled with tiny whole blooms.
This pretty chiaroscuro of rich meats and delicate seafoods, deep dark mole and bright vegetal spice, is thanks to executive chef Tello Carreón. He’s the reason Poremba wanted to open a Mexican restaurant.
They got to know each other in the kitchen of Poremba’s fine-dining restaurant Elaia, just down the street. “I like his cooking a lot and thought a modern take on Mexican food – his kind of food – would make a great restaurant,” Poremba said. Why look outside – why go to New York to research new ideas – when you have such talent inside your own St. Louis kitchens?
Carreón’s passion for creativity is reflected in unexpected dishes, like the tuna tostada with lime-white shoyu glaze, and in more traditional offerings he grew up eating. “What I’m trying to say is you don’t have to be stuck with the same ingredients,” Carreón said. Which is why he paired his grandma’s classic mole recipe with braised beef cheeks instead of the expected chicken.
“I like to have dishes fresh and more alive than you typically find them. I want to elevate them a little more – bring them to life,” Carreón said. “I think I have the taste, the cuisine that people want to try.”
We think so too, jefe. – H.H.
1621 Tower Grove Ave., St. Louis, 314.899.9000, nixtastl.com
Porano Pasta is the fast-casual restaurant we have been waiting for. It took Gerard Craft, the chef mind behind Niche Food Group, to combine affordability and speed with such quality ingredients and consistently well-executed food.
Walk in and notice the restaurant’s towering ceilings and wall-sized illustrations of Italian and St. Louis landmarks. Sunshine pours in through floor-to-ceiling windows and upbeat pop music fills the air (Ace of Base, anyone?).
Queue up to build your bowl from a variety of starches, sauces, proteins and toppings. The possibilities are endless, but we’re loyal to a combination we call the Suzie Bowl (That’s Suzie Craft, marketing director of Niche Food Group.): a half-kale, half-farro base, anchovy dressing, spicy tofu, green olives, crispy garlic, herbs and a drizzle of Mike’s Hot Honey. Spicy and sweet with briny bites, fresh crunch and pops of intense garlic and herbs – it’s been hard to order anything else since she suggested it on opening day.
While such healthy options are available, comfort combinations should also be indulged in, like a strozzapreti pasta bowl with Alfredo sauce, grilled chicken, herbs and toasted almonds. It’s a version of fettuccine Alfredo also known as our Achilles’ heel. Or go for executive chef Michael Petres’ new Detroit-style pizza: square focaccia-like dough with edge-to-edge cheese that bubbles at the brink into a salty, crackling border. Pair that with a Negroni slushie, and you’re in for a good night.
Niche Food Group took a national, fast-casual business model and made it work. Will it ever be a franchise? The possibilities, like their bowls, seem endless. – M.N.
634 Washington Ave., St. Louis, 314.833.6414, poranopasta.com
Hotel bars aim for luxury and sophistication, but most miss the mark, landing in chintz and disappointment. The Preston at The Chase Park Plaza hits a rare bull’s-eye with stylish leather chairs, cool gray wainscoting and stiff drinks served in cut crystal glasses on a marble bar. The atmosphere is swanky, but still comfortable with a refined, masculine elegance.
Service at the bar and in the dining room strikes the sweet spot of being attentive without getting in the way of conversation, with a staff dressed as smartly as the room. Some original cocktails have a classic vibe, like Goodnight Mr. Preston, which stares you down with bourbon, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, Benedictine and bitters. But others, like Smokey and The Bandito, have more drama with hickory smoke and poblano-infused tequila.
Pecan-encrusted pork tenderloin may sound like boring hotel food, but one bite of the ultra tender meat glazed in barbecue jus and pulled through the bright orange and green swirls of carrot and pea purees, and you’ll want to check into The Chase and spend the whole night. Before you pick up your room key, order the salty-sweet pretzel croissants – at any time of day, at any point in the meal; just get them.
And take a moment, as you’re cozied into the rounded plaid banquettes in dim, flattering lighting, to appreciate how rare it is to realize the fantasy of accommodations that aren’t just expensive, but downright glamorous. – H.H.
212 N. Kingshighway Blvd., St. Louis, 314.633.7800, theprestonstl.com
Sheesh Restaurant is more than just another spot to grab great kebabs. Each time we settle around a low copper table etched with intricate scrollwork, we’re transported a long way from South Grand Avenue. The menu of traditional Turkish dishes is all delivered under heavy burnished domes: from large plates to tiny cups of strong Turkish coffee. Every time a server whisks away the copper cloches, each kebab appears with quiet drama through a cloud of steam. Don’t get overwhelmed among the dozens of sharable mezze, richly spiced entrees and sweet buttery desserts; order one of our five go-to dishes at Sheesh:
The kitchen doesn’t cut any corners with this classic Turkish dip. The smoky eggplant and rich tahini are balanced by garlic and lemon, but it’s the sprinkle of savory, pungent sumac that makes this starter so addictive.
Shove off, Campbell’s. This tomato soup is bulked up with bulgur, rice and lentils for a comforting bowl that actually feels like a meal.
Tender ground lamb intensely seasoned with Turkish spices (we meet again, sumac) is formed around a blade and grilled before it arrives atop a bed of delicate rice pilaf. This is what kebabs aspire to be.
Not to be outdone by its lamb counterpart, chunks of chicken breast are served juicy and packed with flavor thanks to a lemony marinade with tomato and pepper paste.
The best of baklava and cheesecake come together in knafeh, a disc of hot Turkish cheese covered in layer of crunchy, buttery phyllo and soused in sweet syrup. – C.K.
3226 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, 314.833.4321, sheeshrestaurant.com
Egg, the former weekend brunch pop-up at Spare No Rib, hatched into its own restaurant this October, and we couldn’t be happier.
Certain combinations may sound odd, but don’t let that stop you from ordering chakchouka alongside a cheesy carne asada wrap or a chorizo breakfast taco with the cornbread and gravy.
The eclectic, Tex-Mex-leaning menu is a reflection of chef-owner Lassaad Jeliti’s background, from growing up in Tunisia to running a barbecue/taco joint for the past three years. The chakchouka, a hearty tomato and pepper stew topped with creamy soft-baked eggs and served with toast for dipping, was a childhood breakfast favorite. The Benedicts begin with the sweet, crumbly cornbread Jeliti perfected at Spare No Rib, topped with sauteed veggies or house-smoked pork belly and poached eggs, all drenched in hollandaise.
“They all have similar flavor profiles,” Jeliti said of his influences. “The Mexicans got their flavors from the Spaniards, who got their flavors from [North Africans],” he joked. “That’s my theory, anyway.”
Whatever its heritage, Egg’s flawlessly prepared, wide-ranging fare keeps us coming back for brunch. – T.L.
2200 Gravois Ave., St. Louis, 314.202.8244, breakfastcamefirst.com
Five seats, five menu items and a fire crackling merrily in the oven: This is Melo’s. The small but mighty Italian-American pizza shop is run by the Valenza family – brothers Joey, Johnny and Vinny, and their dad Vince Sr., the owner of Blues City Deli, whom you could call their consigliere.
When Vince finally bought the Blues City building in 2013, it came with a teeny garage, big enough to fit a couple cars, or to give life to Joey’s bread-making hobby turned pizza-making obsession.
Happily, Dad went with the latter, and now we’re obsessed, too. The Dom is our favorite, a simple pizza topped with Grana Padano, sliced garlic, fresh basil, oregano and a glug of extra-virgin olive oil. It’s Neapolitan-style, with a thin, wood-fired crust and a perfectly pure crushed tomato sauce, but has an American twist, mixing fresh mozzarella with drier, shredded mozzarella. This transgression makes for a lower moisture content that keeps the dough from getting too wet.
“It’s more of a familiar flavor for people,” Joey said. “I don’t know if it’s our American taste buds, but we think it tastes better.”
Melo’s formula for an Italian-American pie combines the best of both worlds. We appreciate an edited menu, pared down to the bare, most delicious bones. – M.N.
2438 McNair Rear, St. Louis, 314.833.4489, melospizzeria.com
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