Postcard from Tom: St. Louis restaurant recommendations

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Half & Half chef-owner Mike Randolph. It also incorrectly referred to the newspaper St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This version has been updated.


Marty Bradford, left, and Charles Jacks enjoy pulled pork sandwiches at Bogart's Smokehouse in St. Louis. (Johnny Andrews/For The Washington Post)
December 16, 2011

If you want to know why St. Louis tastes so good right now, reserve a table at Niche restaurant. The maple custard layered with smoky shiitake mushrooms that launches chef Gerard Craft’s $65 tasting menu is one of many dishes that would look at home in San Francisco or New York but happens to be served in historic Benton Park.

Every local food observer I talked to singled out Craft, a Washington native who came to St. Louis from Salt Lake City in 2005, for raising the bar for his colleagues and the expectations of their audiences. Craft “proved to the other young chefs that they could take significant chances and succeed,” says Joe Bonwich, restaurant critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “And the scope has expanded to, among other things, some nationally recognized barbecue places.”

This fall, I had the chance to visit St. Louis for three days. I drank more than I should have at Sanctuaria, the moody tapas bar best known for its handcrafted libations, and got to know why locals make such a fuss over their food traditions at Gus’s Pretzels and World’s Fair Doughnuts. But I spent most of my time checking out the city’s fresh crop of restaurants, these three the most enticing:

* * *

The most cherished piece of cooking equipment owned by the top dog at Bogart’s Smokehouse dominates a fenced-in yard outside the 43-seat dining room. That’s where Skip Steele, the first-place winner of the 2000 Memphis in May World Barbecue Championship, tends to a smoker that runs on apple wood and can handle up to 156 slabs of ribs at a time.

The most dramatic cooking tool here is a 50,000 BTU Red Dragon blowtorch. Roofers use the instrument to melt tar. Steele finds the flamethrower handy after he applies apricot glaze to his baby back ribs: The blast infuses the meat with color and gives it a welcome stickiness. (Kids, don’t try this at home. “We open the door, or the fire alarm goes on,” says Steele.)

Opened in February, Bogart’s follows two failed barbecue joints at the same location in the St. Louis neighborhood known as Soulard. Everything about the building’s latest occupant suggests that it’s in for a long run. Steele, the pit master, comes to Bogart’s from the beloved Pappy’s, which many locals view as the city’s finest barbecue. Mike Emerson, the owner of Pappy’s, encouraged his friend to go out on his own. “It’s a little more family” than rivalry, says Steele. For sure. Emerson lives on the floor above Bogart’s.

Bogart’s encourages customers to venture beyond the usual barbecue subjects. Sharing the menu with the ribs and brisket are turkey that smacks of having trotted through a bonfire; excellent prime rib with soft sweet onions; a zesty house-made breakfast sausage resembling scrapple; and pastrami made from top butt sirloin, generously piled as if by a New York deli. Leftovers, if there are any, are never reheated.

The only meat that needed a splash of sauce was pulled pork. To the rescue: some “voodoo” sauce. The house-made blend of habanero, steak sauce, Worcestershire and cola revives the dry meat and rouses the taste buds.

Be it a sandwich or a plate, every order comes with a choice of two sides. Cole slaw is creamy, sweet and so crisp you can hear yourself eating it. Potato chips are from the local Billy Goat Chip Co. Try to stop at one bag. Applesauce is out of a can, but Bogart’s doctors the chunky fruit with cinnamon and sugar. It would be a shame to miss any of the accompaniments, but if there’s a first among equals, it would be the baked beans, which are cooked in the pit beneath brisket for a night and take on enormous flavor from the meat drippings.

Steele thinks of barbecue as “lunch-driven cuisine.” He closes at 4 p.m., and he doesn’t serve booze, partly to keep diners from lingering.

Diners can anticipate a wait at prime time but also free samples, sometimes smoked chicken wings, “any time the line backs up,” the pit master promises.

All Steele will say about the dry rub he uses is that it contains 23 ingredients. “Whatever you pick,” he tells customers who try to guess, “I’ll say yes to.”

1627 S. Ninth St. 314-621-3107. www.bogartssmokehouse.com. Sandwiches $6.38 to $10.99, plates with two sides $9.99 to $14.99.

* * *

If it’s Thursday and you find yourself in St. Louis for lunch, the sensible thing to do is to switch on the GPS and make a beeline for Lindenwood Park (where even taxi drivers are known to lose their way) and the $10 blue plate at Farmhaus.

It’s a sunny autumn afternoon when I land in an old church pew in the restaurant’s small bar and begin taking stock of chef Kevin Willmann’s first self-owned enterprise. Butcher paper covers the tables; dish towels serve as napkins and hint at the name of the place, open only since 2010. Is it fair to judge a man by his reading material? The cookbooks lined up behind the bar are by Jacques Pepin, James Beard and David Chang, the creator of the wildly popular Momofuko and its offshoots in New York.

It turns out there’s only one choice for lunch. Sometimes the blue plate stars roast beef and smashed potatoes; other times it’s mounded with fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Today starts off with a spinach salad so big and pretty, you could almost make a meal of it. Sliced cooked egg, pickled red onion, a sail of lavosh and a mustard-and-onion vinaigrette make the introduction pop. Tea is included in the tab, but I prefer a glass of wine as an escort to today’s catch, fried grouper. My glad-to-have-you-here server comes through with a malvar from Spain with the bright notes of a sauvignon blanc.

“Instead of advertising,” says Willman, 33, who was raised 40 miles from St. Louis in Illinois and whose family owned farms, “we put money into the blue plate.”

The effort shows. The cornmeal crust on the fish breaks open to a puff of steam and snowy pleasure. A big scoop of red beans and rice, meaty with ham hocks, flanks the centerpiece, as do hush puppies the size of golf balls and all too easy to finish. An eater by profession (and somewhat mindful of my diet), I rarely finish everything on my plate, but right now, I’m picking up crumbs and scraping up tartar sauce. My neighbors are all requesting to see dinner menus, and I follow suit.

Actually, on the strength of that $10 wonder and the promise of “breakfast” at night, I return for dinner.

Nachos don’t sound like a dish that belongs on the menu of someone honored this year as one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs, but hold off judging until after you try the snack. You, too, might be seduced by sheer lengths of crisp sweet potatoes, a mound of pleasure fueled by sharp blue cheese, bacon bites smoked in-house over cherry wood and ketchup made red with roasted peppers rather than tomatoes. Meatloaf banded in bacon cured right here is kept moist by a winey tomato sauce. Willman refers to his collection of pork belly, house sausage flavored with maple, corn flour blini and poached egg from nearby — the aforementioned breakfast — as “crack,” and chances are, its recipient will nod in agreement.

Willmann says he was heavily influenced by the time he spent with chef Frank Taylor at Global Grill in Pensacola, Fla., a résumédetail that should send you fishing at Farmhaus. I scored an entree of hog snapper, a creature that feeds on barnacles and that divers prize for its seafood sweetness. A disk of thinly sliced potatoes and turnips and lemony hen of the wood mushrooms enhanced the centerpiece.

The chef figures that 80 percent of his ingredients are from the area and says that if he could find a better source for butter and milk, “I’d do those, too.” Buying local is fine, but ultimately, the food has to have flavor. His does. In spades.

The last item on the dinner menu is “Brews for the Kitchen Crew,” which is exactly what it sounds like and costs a mere two bucks. Show the gang some love back.

3257 Ivanhoe Ave. 314-647-3800. www.farmhausrestaurant.com . Dinner entrees, $14 to $34.

* * *

Half of his menu celebrates breakfast; half showcases lunch. Chef and owner Mike Randolph didn’t have too think too hard to come up with a name for Half & Half, a convivial, cream-colored dining room that set sail in May in upscale Clayton.

It’s not quite 10 a.m. on a Saturday, and every table is set with a wine bottle, which makes me think that St. Louis is onto something really progressive — until I discover that the flasks are filled with water rather than grape juice. Randolph later tells me that the wood for the tables and the bar is also repurposed, as are the fan blades that decorate the wall and the glass jars turned into light fixtures. “Everything in the restaurant has had 10 lives,” he cracks.

Half & Half rounds up the usual suspects for the morning, egg sandwiches and french toast included: “Staples you grew up with, with a bit of a twist,” says Randolph, who also owns a Neapolitan pizzeria called Good Pie in midtown.

Ask for a Bloody Mary, and it arrives with a garnish of hot tempura pickle. Doughnuts with the texture of funnel cake and hints of orange zest remind takers that they’re not at Dunkin’ Donuts. Sunny-side-up eggs escorted with corn bread, chorizo and wrinkly potatoes are going to send me to slumberland afterward, but right now, I’m fully engaged with the heaping helping. “Clara cakes” are an homage to the chef’s oldest daughter; mascarpone, raspberry sauce and house-made granola enhance the pancake eating. Fruit salad impresses with its abundance of bananas, oranges, grapes and pineapple, an orchard capped with real whipped cream.

Coffee is taken seriously here. Watching over the beverage program is barista Mike Marquard, whose brews to order include coffees run through filters of paper or cloth or even a trendy AeroPress, which micro-filters the grounds. (The servers should be advised to take a sip; maybe that would help them get the chow out faster?) One of the strongest sellers is Geisha, a rare heirloom variety of coffee from Colombia. A single cup starts at $12.50.

Starting next month, the restaurant will expand full time into dinner. Randolph plans to swap in some thematic decor after regular lunch service and serve Mexican food, under the name Medianoche (“midnight” in Spanish). The chef thinks there’s a market for upscale Mexican cooking; red snapper with radishes and cilantro drizzled tableside with green mole sounds like a prompt for St. Louis to stay up at Half & Half.

8135 Maryland Ave.; 314-725-0719. www.halfandhalfstl.com. Sandwiches and egg dishes, $7 to $14.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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