Posted On: 06/01/2017
There aren’t enough excuses in life to eat lard. At Vicia (vee-SEE-yuh), the long-awaited restaurant from husband-and-wife team Michael and Tara Gallina, high-quality leaf lard whipped into fluffy, creamy white clouds and spread on hearty bread and crunchy, raw vegetables is one of the best justifications. Mixing it with a bit of three other accompanying dips on the Naked Vegetables snack plate – pesto made from the leafy vegetable tops, goat cheese and sweet potato hummus – helps mask the guilt of eating pig fat, but not the pleasure. It proved a worthy prelude to what was yet to come.
Followers of Rooster and the Hen – the Gallinas’ series of peripatetic dinner collaborations with local chefs and producers – exhaled a collective sigh of relief in March when, after months of delay, the couple debuted their eagerly anticipated brick-and-mortar. But before moving to Michael’s hometown of St. Louis nearly two years ago, they honed their approach at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns. He was chef de cuisine, she the dining room captain at the highly acclaimed restaurant in New York’s Hudson Valley.
And it shows.
Everything about Vicia is mannered and urbane. The food is refined without excessive trickery. Selections change almost every day based on seasonal availability, with produce front and center, flip-flopping the typical protein-to-vegetable ratio. The decor is modern, yet homey. Glass, wood, stone and steel blend with plants and other organics for a clean-lined minimalism with a stylishly unrefined edge. The bright, airy space is divided into three distinct dining areas. It’s all visually striking, but the first sense stimulated upon entering Vicia is olfactory: A campfire aroma wafts from the wall-sized wood-fired grill housed in the indoor-outdoor dining room.
Without reservations, you’ll camp out at the sleek bar a while, nursing an interesting glass of natural wine or an excellent, botanical-focused cocktail like the Rose. Made with rum and infused vodka, it tasted bright and herbal and drank surprisingly light, served up in a coupe. The Cherry balanced the sweetness of cherry-rose syrup and the richness of Cherry Heering liqueur with rye, Dolin Blanc vermouth and a splash of Byrrh (an aromatized red wine with quinine) for a brisk slap of fruit and bitterness.
These and other aperitifs will have you considering nibbles like the turnip tacos, where four thin slices of the raw root vegetable serve as “tortillas” for either mushrooms or pork, topped with charred vegetables, mole, sour cream and whatever else the kitchen has procured for the night – like strawberry sofrito. Prosciutto roll-ups looked like meaty spring rolls stuffed with arugula. A few swipes through a tarragon puree and, one, two, three, four – they were gone.
While most dishes can be made vegetarian, I wouldn’t suggest it for the Beef Fat Carrot, one of three mains on the menu during my visit. Served on a cutting board with a steak knife (as if to say, “Look at me! I’m center stage now!”), I can’t recall being moved by any carrot as much as by this: its deep, surprising fatty richness, the caramelized char, the way the knife slid cleanly through the meat of the vegetable. Yes, a mere carrot, but one at its peak. The sizable meal-in-a-bowl that accompanied the carrot only solidified Gallina’s approach – the dish could have been titled Creamy Polenta, Beef Neck Bolognese and Creamy Stinging Nettles with Carrot.
At some point, carnivores are sure to ask, “But where’s the meat?” Berkshire Pig and Pastured Chicken answer. Both included three to four ounces of meat made butter-soft from sous vide cooking and finished on the grill for a bit of smoke and crispy skin. Now, vegetable and grain sides are sold separately, steakhouse-style, but on previous visits beet puree mixed with strawberries and edible flowers accompanied the chicken one night; another night brought root vegetable puree, potatoes, flowers and a mild horseradish sauce. Pork on both visits came with a rich assortment of shelling beans, turnip greens and more wild blooms. Entrees would be considered skimpy by those used to a half-chicken or thick chop, but with a nosh from the snacks section and something from the starters area of the menu – Rutabaga Carbonara made with julienned strands of the vegetable topped with a sauce of salty bacon, pullet yolk and grated cheese – no one left hungry.
Not everything on the menu captured my fancy. A goose egg starter, nestled in a distressed iron basket with fake hay, came off as too precious. As in, “Your majesty, I present an egg from a goose, soft scrambled and served in its shell with ramps, bits of asparagus and foraged morel mushrooms, all in a frothy cheese rind broth topped with focaccia breadcrumbs. Please, use this dainty spoon to scoop out every darling drop.”
Desserts are similarly complicated but less pretentious. The hazelnut financiers, a special one evening, won me over with its seemingly incongruent but surprisingly compatible onion caramel sauce and root vegetable ice cream.
Service is sharp and well informed. Small touches – like wines-by-the-glass poured tableside, putting you more in touch with what you’re drinking – conveyed an adroit attention to detail.
Vicia won’t be for everyone. The prices are astonishingly high. The portions may seem shockingly small. But equitably showcasing all that our area offers – all that is grown and raised, not just the elite foodstuffs – represents a true farm-to-table approach and allows for more balanced eating, all executed in superb fashion. From concept to design to menu, Vicia is worthy of the hype.
AT A GLANCE
4260 Forest Park Ave. (corner of Duncan and Boyle avenues), St. Louis, 314.553.9239, viciarestaurant.com
Pork, Rutabaga Carbonara
Sophistication with natural accents
$22 to $26
Counter-service lunch: Mon. to Fri. – 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tue. to Thu. – 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. – 5:30 to 10 p.m.
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