Posted On: 12/01/2017
No. 1: Vicia
When something is as expected as naming Vicia the best new restaurant of 2017, you almost want to fight it. You want to know something big publications like Eater, Bon Appétit and Esquire don’t. (All have listed Vicia on national best new restaurant lists.) But you know what? Some things are expected for a reason.
It’s hard to compare a food truck (Balkan Treat Box, No. 4) to a weekends-only tasting menu experience (Privado, No. 2) to a bare-bones fast-casual spot serving one thing (St. Louis Soup Dumplings, No. 11). You have to assess each place on its own terms, and not just the qualifications of your personal preference. Vicia, objectively, attempts to do more than any other restaurant that opened in St. Louis this year. And from concept to menu, design, service and even a counter-service lunch option, it brings something fresh, stylish and clever to the local dining landscape.
Vicia is both familiarly hip and extreme in its farm-to-table, vegetable-forward sensibilities. Owners Michael and Tara Gallina captured our attention when they moved from the culinary Ivy League of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York to open their own place, intending to work closely with farmers to support methods so sustainable they improve soil health (vicia is the name of a cover crop planted for that purpose) and to waste almost nothing – not even vegetable tops – in the kitchen.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished with all of that,” said Michael, executive chef to Tara’s general manager. Vicia tries to support individual farmers by asking for the produce they need to sell, not just making regular orders. “We get a farm delivery every single day, and we try to make the menu a celebration of what comes in. It drives [Tara] nuts, because we print the menu three to four times a week sometimes.”
That kind of improvisation isn’t some hipster buzzword claptrap. Think about how hard it is to dial in one dish at home – a constantly shifting menu means a moving target. Vicia has three: lunch, a la carte snack plates and family-style dinner mains, and a tasting menu with wine pairings.
“We try not to waste anything,” Michael said. “The dynamic of lunch, a la carte and tasting menu really has to be very cohesive and synced with each other. If we’re running a pear salad on the a la carte menu, then the scrap has to be going into a puree for the tasting menu, or some of the other pieces that we’re cutting are going into Summer [Wright, Vicia’s executive pastry chef’s], apple butter.”
Logistics nerds are already sold. But to be the best, Vicia’s food had to be as good as the mission statement, and eye-rollers at the concept would still be enchanted by its dishes that are at once familiar and unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.
A quick pick-two soup/salad/sandwich lunch, for example, turns into something else when your cauliflower soup comes topped with popcorn powder. The fact that the lunch menu is not just fancy entrees priced down for midday makes it that much more impressive.
The tasting menu starts with a flurry of small bites arriving at once. Simple, familiar luxuries like raw oysters – flown in from Maine for a late-summer menu – are suddenly surprising when topped with a watermelon granita. The same course featured two pieces of compressed watermelon rind that somehow tasted just like a puckering bite of pith and yet refreshingly clean, crisp and mild at the same time. How do they do that?
Other composed bites – like a rectangle of yellow watermelon topped with translucent slices of pickled green tomato, herbs and blooms beside a creamy dollop of whipped goat cheese – displayed perfect pitch in both texture and flavor combinations. All the plates worked together in a larger symphony of individual movements. And that was just the first course.
Even with so many plates and pairings, service doesn’t falter. It’s no surprise the staff can answer any question you have about a dish – they go on field trips to farms and other producers about once a month. What is surprising is how relaxed such knowledgeable and orchestrated service feels.
“I’m trying to bring the touches of fine dining but in a setting that makes people feel like they can be themselves and not have to be nervous at the table that they’re putting their wine glass in the wrong place, you know?” Tara said. “None of that.”
It’s typically impossible to hold a conversation during a tasting-menu dinner – the constant ceremony of plate transmission and wine pouring dominates the night. But the friendly, rationed visits from Vicia servers don’t feel like an interruption.
“I don’t want people to think of it as, ‘Oh, that’s the tasting-menu spot – that’s the special-occasion spot,’” Michael said. “It’s the place where you can have any kind of experience you want.”
Vicia’s space is designed with that in mind. Light-drenched during the day and fashionably dim and energetic at night, the restaurant’s natural wood elements and massive white-paned windows make it feel both casually cool and sophisticated at the same time. It’s not easy to look so relaxed.
So while Vicia has its share of surprises, its No. 1 spot on this list isn’t one of them. – H.H.
No. 2: Privado
Reservations only. Open just two seatings on Friday and Saturday. Sixteen diners, max. A 12- to 15-course tasting menu that changes nightly.
But don’t get the wrong idea. Privado is high-concept dining performed to a Bruce Springsteen soundtrack by a Midwestern chef who is genuinely having fun – and guests are having a blast, too. This is fine dining according to Mike Randolph.
“I really wanted to prove to myself as much as anyone else that we could – in this particular market, two nights a week – change the way the people thing about a ‘fine dining’ experience,” Randolph said.
Yes, there are a handful of seats at the bar, where those who still pine for Randolfi’s can walk in and select from a tight menu of pasta and snacks. Randolph even hosts occasional weeknight pop-ups to stretch his creative muscles (curry, anyone?). But to truly experience Privado, book a reservation online and prepare for a three-hour multisensory meal.
When you arrive, you feel like you’re in on a secret – sneaking into a restaurant for a private meal on the chef’s day off. Swing by the open kitchen before service and chat with Randolph and his team (no starched chef whites here, just a couple of guys in baseball caps and aprons) while you sip an aperitif and snack on an amuse bouche served at the pass. That’s the whole point: to create a relaxed, organic interaction between diner and kitchen. “We want people to feel disarmed, like they can come in and be themselves,” Randolph said.
As First Aid Kit’s cover of “America” cues up, settle in to the first course – perhaps Missouri paddlefish caviar atop a crema cloud – and feel free to audibly marvel. Everyone else is, and it gets louder as the wine pairings flow to a steady playlist of rock, bluegrass, soul and jazz.
The meal features two- to three-bite dishes you’ll stretch into seven or eight nibbles just to study their complexity and savor the moment. Observe the crisp skin atop a meaty cube of pork belly and how it provides textural contrast to the unctuous liver (yes, liver) ice cream. Swoon over a raviolo stuffed with braised turnips and buried under a snowbank of white truffle shavings, presented on its own hand-carved spoon.
Swipe the perfect cylinder of mind-blowing Taleggio cheese wrapped in dried pear through vibrant sorrel ice cream. Wonder why on earth you never thought to pair earthy porcini mushrooms with rich dark chocolate ganache before now. Savor the last bite as Roy Orbison croons “It’s Over” and collect your thoughts between sips of Madeira and French-pressed coffee. You’ll never experience that meal again – and neither will anyone else. – C.K.
No. 3: Grace Meat + Three
At Grace Meat & Three, Rick and Elisa Lewis answer to no one but themselves.
“Grace is about our freedom and our liberation, honestly,” Rick Lewis said.
He is a familiar bearded face in the St. Louis restaurant scene. Diners have experienced Lewis’ take on comfort food since he left fine dining to take the helm of Quincy Street Bistro, his in-laws’ pub and grill in South City, in 2012. His birds at Southern led the flock during the fried chicken fury of 2015.
“We went back and forth with what we wanted to do and probably the best option would be to keep it in the wheelhouse of what I enjoy cooking,” he said.
Yes, Grace Meat & Three serves the classic southern fare St. Louis has come to expect from Lewis: fried green tomatoes, griddled bologna sandwiches and, of course, fried chicken. But he never settles – even lowbrow ingredients are crucial to Lewis’ success. “You have to have Velveeta in your mac and cheese in order to make it creamy,” he said. “We’ve got $9-a-pound Gouda in there, and then we’ve got hunks of Velveeta – name brand, none of that fake stuff. It must be Velveeta, it must be Duke’s mayonnaise, and it must be Busch beer.”
Devotees will notice subtle changes to well-known dishes and unexpected additions. Burgers are a combo of house-ground brisket and bottom round; the carnival-sized turkey leg is shockingly tender from overnight brining; a hummus starter is spiced up with harissa; the seasonal salad is tossed with a charred onion vinaigrette, a name that doesn’t do justice to its complex depth.
“I feel like 90 percent of the time, no one notices but ourselves,” Lewis said. “What you do notice is people coming in … and going, ‘Man, the food just keeps getting better.’” – C.K.
No. 4: Balkan Treat Box
Food trucks are restaurants. But there’s no sleek space, no cutting-edge decor – the food is the only attraction to draw diners in. Since Balkan Treat Box hit the road late last year, owners Loryn Feliciano-Nalic and her husband, Edo Nalic, have cultivated a dedicated following. The truck focuses on the cuisine of the Balkan States, and fans flock for a taste.
Feliciano-Nalic, who has an extensive background in pastry, explored the food of the Balkans while visiting her in-laws in Bosnia.
“I realized there was a lot of pastry in that food in general, even on the savory side, so it kind of spoke to me,” she said.
Many of the truck’s rotating offerings are built on a base of somun, a Balkan bread similar to a pita, and pide, a Turkish flatbread. Feliciano-Nalic makes her bread fresh daily in a wood-fired oven at the back of the truck. It’s the attention to detail that elevates Balkan Treat Box well above the norm. No thaw-and-go bread here.
The condiments offered are subtle, meant to compliment but not overwhelm, like ajvar, a roasted red pepper spread; kajmak, a tangy cream cheese; and shredded purple cabbage for textural contrast.
While the names of the dishes might seem foreign to some, the flavors and ingredients are ultimately familiar and comforting – peppery house-made sausage, chicken, onion, cheese and those fragrant, fresh breads. It’s just like being in Grandma’s kitchen, if Granny drove a truck. – M.S.
No. 5: Nudo House
Nudo House, the noodle shop from Mai Lee’s Qui Tran and Marie-Anne Velasco, was years in the making. When instant gratification is the norm – we want what we want, and we want it yesterday – it’s nice to be reminded
that some things are worth
Unlike the voluminous menus found at many Asian restaurants, Nudo keeps things simple with a handful of cold apps like spring rolls and kimchi, vegetables sides and two bahn mi variations. Four versions of pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup Tran’s Mai Lee is famous for, are also on the menu.
But the star of the show at Nudo is the ramen, the traditional Japanese noodle dish that inspires untold obsessive devotion in so many diners. In those seeming eons of R&D, Tran and Velasco delved headfirst into the world of ramen, sampling versions from across the country and hosting pop-ups around town to keep up interest. At Nudo, there are four different versions that build on the basics, melding tradition with a distinctive creative bent. Standouts include the vegetarian Shroomed Out ramen, which deploys meaty, earthy king oyster mushrooms to delicious effect, and perhaps the ultimate in cross-cultural comfort cuisine, the Hebrew Hammer, a rich and creamy combo of tender ramen noodles and chicken schmaltz. Tuck in with a bowl and take your time. – M.S.
No. 6: Cate Zone Cafe
It takes a lot for a Chinese restaurant to make a splash on Olive Boulevard, but Cate Zone Chinese Cafe’s regional cuisine has attracted lengthy wait times since it opened on the highly competitive corridor last November.
Cate Zone’s interior is casual and understated, adorned with black-and-white photos of NYC and wallpaper crisscrossed with the names of subway stops. The distinct lack of flash, pageantry or stereotypical decor (not a dragon, shrine or fish tank in sight), puts all of the attention squarely where it belongs: on the food.
Your server may not speak perfect English, but don’t be afraid to ask questions and solicit recommendations. The menu has plenty of familiar dishes – the sweet and sour pork, killer stir-fried noodles and crispy eggplant would please any palate – but Cate Zone sets itself apart by offering up a bevy of traditional favorites from northeastern China. Off-cuts make myriad adept appearances in dishes like pork jelly and tripe in chile sauce. Don’t miss the super fresh and healthy-feeling Korean cold noodle dish in a slightly sweet broth with cucumber and kimchi. Want to expand your culinary horizons? Get in the Zone. – M.S.
No. 7: Polite Society
A meal at Polite Society makes you feel like you’re hanging out in some sitcom Brooklynites’ open-concept living room, not snagging a seat at a slick new restaurant. Owners Jonathan Schoen and Brian Schmitz spent more than a year renovating the former home of Ricardo’s in Lafayette Square into their dream business – a concept they’d been working on for much longer than that.
Polite Society’s three rooms are reminiscent of a shotgun-style brownstone with exposed brick, refinished hardwood and enough open, salvaged shelving to inspire a run on Restoration Hardware. Dishes are familiar, yet presented with unexpected touches – an herbaceous olive oil dip with aggressively caramelized Brussels sprouts or a lacquered halibut so delicate it melted into the accompanying miso-spiked jasmine congee.
Wine from the extensive cellar flows; the congenial staff offers friendly, professional assistance and is quick with a recommendation. The space can be loud as friends linger over drinks, chatting with neighboring tables. As with any good dinner party, there’s no sense of urgency to depart. Order another bottle and pass it around as you enjoy good company and Polite Society. – C.K.
No. 8: The U.R.B.
Somewhere between New York and Neapolitan, the pizza at The U.R.B. (Urban Research Brewery) stuck with us like Instagram’s stupid heart arrow filter.
Walking in, you might think pizza isn’t the point here. The place exists for Urban Chestnut Brewing Co. to test new brews on customers who agree to give feedback. Food happens three rooms into the space, past an expansive U-shaped research bar that promises almost-free beer (a handful of constantly rotating 2-ounce pours for $1 cash when you take a survey). Who’s walking past that?
After you try those beers and take the survey (totally worth showing up for regardless), keep on walking to the pizza counter and pick out a slice or five along with an Urban Chestnut canned beer. True to UCBC’s Reverence & Revolution sensibilities, toppings range from classic cheese and pepperoni to international specials that don’t just sound good, but seriously follow through – like the complex and balanced Thai pie made with peanut sauce, serrano chile, chicken, pickled carrot and daikon, and cilantro. The quality of the food and ingredients live up to all expectations set by executive chef Andy Fair, who helms all UCBC’s food programs as director of restaurants. Do not miss the perfectly spiced house-made Italian sausage. But really, anything on that naturally leavened crust – light, crisp and chewy without being tooth-wrenching, and flavorful enough to eat alone – is worth your time. Now, is it prost or cincin? – H.H.
No. 9: Pizza Head
Pizza Head’s menu is a study in quintessence, just like the selection of classic punk records on its jukebox. Opening yet another pizza joint in St. Louis – let alone a punk-themed place where vegan and vegetarian options are front and center (Midwesterners love the animal protein, don’tcha know) – could seem like tilting at culinary windmills. But Pizza Head? It works.
Giant 20-inch New York-style pies or enormous triangular slices are the only size options. Toppings? Regular or vegan cheese, vegan meats and a small selection of fresh accouterments. Pizza Head pizzas, though, are much more than the sum of their humble parts. Pies are baked until the crust has just the right balance of chew and char. Eminently foldable, this is on par with the best “traditional” slice in town. Pair it with a can of Stag, put some Agent Orange on the box and dig in. – M.S.
No. 10: Hi-Pointe Drive-In
First off, try not to get distracted. There’s the Taco Burger, and sometimes silly, indulgent specials (grilled cheese buns, doughnuts, who knows), but this is your day. Burger day.
Hi-Pointe staff will probably treat you like a regular, which means they won’t sufficiently explain what’s happening, but don’t let the lack of direction put you off. Check the massive menu and make some choices. How many flavorful, tender, crispy-edged patties will it be? There’s no full list of toppings, so scope out the case and make a plan of action before your turn to order – cheese (duh), maybe an egg and bacon, and the regulars: mayo, lettuce, tomato, red onion. They’ll write the list on your tray, then you can watch your burger get all dressed up to meet you at the cash register.
The burgers are good enough to land Hi-Pointe a spot on the list, but the rest of the menu is what makes this place a standout. A burger joint that offers a legit salmon banh mi and whose salads are interesting and satisfying – Greens & Grains, with its quinoa, wild rice and wheatberry base would be happy at any healthy cafe – is something special. – H.H.
No. 11: St. Louis Soup Dumplings
The name tells you everything you need to know. No salads, no entrees, no bar – St. Louis Soup Dumplings doesn’t try to do much, but what it does, it does exceptionally well. Its xiao long bao, which are also served at sister restaurant Private Kitchen, are some of the best you’ll find in St. Louis.
Warm pockets of fragrant broth surround a variety of pork-, beef-, chicken- and crab-based meatballs, all embraced by thin, delicately folded wrappings. Go for the pork and crab, which features a funky, salty richness perfectly paired with the slurpable, aromatic broth.
The minimalist decor echoes the short but flawless menu, with bamboo light fixtures reminiscent of steam baskets hanging above bare-bones furnishings, and a charming soup dumplings mural warming up one wall. Quick counter service is supplemented by a surprise bowl of chicken broth before your order arrives and (at least when co-owner Emily Yang is working) friendly tableside visits to make sure you know how to properly eat your dumplings. – H.H.
No. 12: Shawarma King
You don’t go to places like this for high-end service and ambiance, you go because the food is good. Like, really good. And affordable. Shawarma King’s plentiful lunch veggie platter, for instance, offers hummus, baba ghanoush, falafel, tabbouleh and pita for $8.99.
Owner Mohammed Alsalem, who grew up in Jordan, makes almost all the food himself. The falafel is crispy and fluffy, the baba ghanoush had a subtle smokiness, and the hummus is ultrasmooth and fresh. The tabbouleh is a must-have – its bright acidity is a nice complement to the menu’s richer items, particularly the tender, deeply flavorful beef shawarma, which Alsalem stacks and seasons by hand. Who cares if it’s on a paper plate? We’re ordering seconds. – M.N.
BEST NEW RESTAURANTS OF 2017
4260 Forest Park Ave., St. Louis, 314.553.9239, viciarestaurant.com
6665 Delmar Blvd., University City, 314.899.9221, privadostl.com
3. Grace Meat & Three
4270 Manchester Ave., St. Louis, 314.533.2700, stlgrace.com
4. Balkan Treat Box
314.667.9926, Facebook: Balkan Treat Box
5. Nudo House
11423 Olive Blvd., Creve Coeur, 314.274.8046, Facebook: Nudo House STL
6. Cate Zone Chinese Cafe
8148 Olive Blvd., University City, 314.738.9923
7. Polite Society
1923 Park Ave., St. Louis, 314.325.2553, politesocietystl.com
8. The U.R.B.
4501 Manchester Ave., St. Louis, 314.474.0935, urbpizzaandbeer.com
9. Pizza Head
3196 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, 314.266.5400, www.pizzaheadstl.com
10. Hi-Pointe Drive-In
1033 McCausland Ave., St. Louis, 314.349.2720, hipointedrivein.com
11. St. Louis Soup Dumplings
8110 Olive Blvd., University City, 314.445.4605, Facebook: Soup Dumplings STL
12. Shawarma King
571 Melville Ave., University City, 314.261.4833, Facebook: Shawarma King
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