Review: Terrene in St. Louis

As disappointed as I was to see it go, it only makes sense that foie gras is no longer on Terrene’s menu. That sentence implies the dish was a long-standing staple and eighty-sixed for whatever reason. In fact, it was on the menu for about a day and a half before it was nixed. Too bad, because I was jonesing for some fattened goose liver during one of my visits to sample the fare of Terrene’s new executive chef, Brian Hardesty (formerly of Monarch, Harvest, Winslow’s Home), when the server broke the news.

When a restaurant bills itself as eco-friendly and socially conscious, painting a happy face on its sustainable – and ethical – green cuisine, it’s hard to see how a delicacy made by force-feeding a duck until its liver nearly explodes furthers the cause. Still, I heard it was delicious.

Reading Terrene’s menu can make even the most radical Earth First-er feel downright touchy-feely. Running down the side of the menu is a mini lesson in sustainability: a salvaged gym floor, table tops made from 100 percent waste paper, fryer oil recycled by a neighbor to power her bio-diesel vehicle (“ride on sister, ride on,” the menu encourages) and, of course, lots of composting, all of it sent to City Seeds Urban Farm (a good use for that fry oil-fueled car, I’d say).

But Terrene is no bell bottoms, beans-and-rice, Birkenstock-worshiping eatery. Everything about the clean, sparse space speaks more urban sophistication than folksy coffeehouse, from the molded-plastic chairs and glossy tabletops to the long, high booth running the length of the wall with an abstract mural above it to the sage green walls and warm lighting.

As for the cuisine, four years ago this restaurant on the eastern end of the Central West End turned heads with its vegetarian-friendly attitude and locally sourced food. That was the work of chefs Dave Owens and Margaret Kelly. Later, Patrick Baltes and Tello Carreon kept the trend going. Like the chefs before him, Hardesty is maintaining the eco-hip focus on the seasonal and sustainable. The new menu pops with fresh flavors and interesting renderings: A roasted quail stuffed with couscous, black currants, pine nuts and herbs looks as if it took a nose dive into a bed of watercress and a pool of black currant sauce; a whole pear hollowed and stuffed with goat cheese, walnuts and herbs with a mix of chicory, shaved fennel and red onion lightly dressed in a honey-vanilla bean vinaigrette makes for a showy salad. The poached egg salad – a nice take on salad Lyonnaise – sits on a long plate, frisèe mixed with lardons on one side, poached egg topped with crispy onions on the other. The secret, it seems, is very fresh eggs.

With hopes of foie gras dashed, the only right thing was to try the grilled tofu, the single vegetarian dish on the large-plates portion of the menu. Two thick slices of spice-rubbed organic firm tofu situated on a mound of chewy tabbouleh and hummus with a tomato-cucumber relish and spiced yogurt sauce all balanced on a perfectly round pita is a light, satisfying meal, even if you’re not used to bean curd as a main course. Even lighter, and just as delicious, are the tofu tacos and the veggie sausage flatbread, both from the small-plates menu. Count on something vegan each night, like a red lentil soup that was so creamy and thick, a shout of “you lie!” would have been in order when told it contained no cream.

Even with the new fall menu in place, selections and preparations change frequently, depending on what can be sourced. The daily crudo followed the fate of foie gras and is permanently off the menu in favor of a charcuterie plate. Seafood is always a good choice. The mussels with kalamata olives took on a much different flavor from the traditional sautéed dish, not only from the olives but from the pan-roasting, imparting a more luxurious caramelized flavor. Fish stew was less about stew and more about fish bathed in a rich stock: clams, plump shrimp, potatoes, green beans and a nice portion of Idaho trout with a dollop of caper rémoulade on top. Odd it wasn’t Missouri farm-raised trout, though. The yellowfin tuna one night was captivating: two good-sized chunks of very rare tuna, crispy-seared around the edges (as it should be), supported by a pillow of tapenade smashed potatoes and pipérade, a Basque mixture of green pepper, onion and tomatoes sautéed in olive oil. Like most of the entrées, this isn’t overly seasoned food; Hardesty lets the balanced ingredients speak for themselves. The cool, rich texture of the fish, the chunky-smooth-salty potatoes and the pipérade mélange all worked together, even stacked on top of each other.

Stacked food is the style here, sometimes resulting in arresting visual appeal, as in the special Texas bone-in boar chop atop a bed of spinach and sliced apples and cider au jus – I haven’t had a more juicy and delicious cut of pork in a while. Same for another of Hardesty’s unusual new dishes: Kansas Elk ribeye, which is really two thick medallions of lean, nongamey-tasting meat, resting on sautéed Swiss chard and cauliflower purée, all in a deeply concentrated cinnamon gastrique. Other times, the stacking looks silly: From bottom to top, the rib plate layered slaw, mac ’n’ cheese, and meaty St. Louis-style sticky-sweet-with-a-bit-of-heat barbecued ribs. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something unappealing about a vertical tower of those three particular foods.

The wine list, laid out in simple rubrics like “light + fruity” and “big + intense,” may seem dumbed down but is actually helpful when asking what pairs with a particular dish, as in “I think something mineral-ly and crisp goes with that salad, may I suggest …”

The deconstructed desserts bring a sense of levity to the table: Funnel cake was a scoop of Serendipity ice cream with squiggles of deep-fried batter tossed on top. Black Forest cake was a DYI affair: a serving plate holding a bowl of whipped cream, a cream-filled chocolate cake sandwich, cooked cherries, and a bowl of chocolate cream “frosting,” which was runny one night and firm another. Aside from the lone olive that took a wrong turn and ended up with the cherries, the dessert was a hit, regardless of the frosting’s consistency.

Now that Hardesty has taken over the pots and pans, he’s doing what all fine chefs do: putting his own stamp on every dish coming out of the kitchen. Just not the foie gras.

Don’t-Miss Dish: Roasted mussels, pear salad and elk ribeye.
Vibe: Almost austere, postmodern polishedlook that’s both cosmopolitan and informal. But the stone floor and high tin ceiling do little to suppress the din of a busy night. The side patio is lovely on a beautiful evening. 
Entrée Prices: $16 to $30
Where: Terrene, 33 N. Sarah St., St. Louis, 314.535.5100
When: Tue. to Thu. – 5 to 9 p.m., Fri. and Sat. – 5 to 10 p.m., Sun – 5 to 8 p.m.

To read Glenn Bardgett's review of Terrene's wine list, visit The Sommelier's Take in the reviews section.