Posted On: 10/01/2017
From fried chicken to pie, everything old is new again at Lemmons – and more than new, it’s scrubbed, polished and upgraded. The 91-year-old building at Gravois and Dresden avenues in Bevo Mill has been popular for decades. As ownership changed over the years, the name – and eponymous neon signs out front – stayed reliably the same. Now it’s joined by the equally recognizable name of Grbic.
Sulejman and Ermina Grbic emigrated from Bosnia in the ’70s and ’80s and opened Grbic Restaurant in 2002. Their three children grew up in the family business, and each handle different aspects of the new Lemmons by Grbic. Senada Grbic took after her mother, graduating culinary school and working in the kitchen, while Erna Grbic does marketing and event planning. The son, Ermin Grbic, runs the front of house and does some kitchen duty as well.
After a lengthy, stripped-to-the-bones gut rehab, the new Lemmons looks and feels nothing like its immediate predecessor, the dive-y music club/pizzeria The Blackthorn at Lemmons. The interior is bright and open with exposed brick walls accented by wood shutters on the windows, and the back wall is covered with a bright yellow and black Lemmons mural painted in the blocky style found on many old south city buildings. While technically not a sports bar, there are 10 televisions – blissfully muted – that will either distract or please (more likely the latter come playoff time).
As the American-born children of immigrants, it only made sense for the Grbics to honor their culinary heritage when designing the menu. They also wanted to honor the history of the place.
Thus, fried chicken is on the menu. Back in the day, Lemmons was known for lightly battered, golden fried chicken. The Grbics’ version is buttermilk-brined, coated in a peppery batter and deep-fried. That alone would make for fine chicken, but then it’s re-battered and fried again for a drier, crunchier crust and juicier meat that lives up to the lighthearted name: Not Lemmon’s Chicken. The accompanying carrot and potato mash topped with brown butter proved a delightfully surprising and deceptively simple side. Mashed potatoes and gravy seem boringly old-fashioned in comparison.
Also surprising were the panko crabcakes, three plump discs full of pure crabmeat flavor with a crisp crust and gentle heat from a fire-roasted red pepper aioli. Other starters were all-American with a Balkan twist. Apple wood-smoked chicken wings served on newsprint got distinctive chile-based heat from a house seasoning blend and sweet stickiness from barbecue sauce made with rakija (a Bosnian plum brandy). The good-looking pickle board included some turmeric-infused veggies, but why oh why use commercial bagged “baby” carrots when so much better are available locally? The Balkan dipping bread elicited the most table chatter: a pile of light and airy ustipci (fried Bosnian bread) shaped into pillowy fritters perfectly sized for popping in your mouth. Thankfully, the three accompanying dipping sauces – tangy feta butter, roasted red pepper-eggplant dip and funky mushroom duxelle – slowed the compulsion to greedily inhale them.
The summer pasta was a standout entree. Bursting with cherry tomatoes and zucchini and topped with feta crumbles, the house-made cresta de gallo noodle’s ruffled edge and curved tubular body were ideal for capturing the delicate sauce rendered from nothing more than the vegetables’ natural juices. During one visit, I was underwhelmed by the Kings Kabob: a skewer of grilled chicken tenderloin, red onion, yellow and red peppers and zucchini glazed with a sweet chile sauce. Its bed of peppered garden rice (which should have had more flavor given the ingredients and included more than a few undercooked grains) was the only thing that set the dish apart from something you’d make at home mid-week. But fresh grilled trout, seasoned lightly with warm Balkan spices and charred lemon, stood out for its simple presentation and superb flavor and, on that visit, perfectly cooked rice.
The 50/50 Burger combines equal parts beef bacon and ground beef, which is provided by the Grbics’ uncle, who owns a local abattoir. The meat seemed ground coarser than typical, producing a satisfyingly dense chew between two soft Bosnian buns. Topped with provolone, jalapeno fry sauce and an over-easy egg sprinkled with the mild Bosnian spice blend Vegeta, it’s an easy contender for best burger in the crowded, indulgent category. House-made flatbreads are oblong, puffy and light with the right amount crispy chew. The sausage-topped version proved most compelling with nothing more than a slather of tangy feta butter, mozzarella and traditional Bosnian cevapi sausage.
If you want more of those fried dough balls for dessert, they come tossed with light powdered sugar and served with three sweet dipping sauces, Eurocrem (think an Eastern European Nutella), vanilla cream and strawberry sauce. Mama Grbic’s vanilla chiffon cake, layered with peach jam and dipped in chocolate and coconut, was simple and flavorful.
Lemmons by Grbic is an apt name that manages in just three words to recognize the history of the neighborhood, honor the Grbic family’s cultural heritage and reflect the culinary integration of both homelands.
AT A GLANCE
5800 Gravois Ave., St. Louis, 314.899.9898, lemmonsrestaurant.com
Don’t Miss Dishes
50/50 Burger, Seasonal Pasta
Casual, open space comfortable as a sports bar or contemporary restaurant
$10 to $18
Tue. to Thu. – 4 to 9:30 p.m., Fri. – 4 to 10 p.m., Sat. – noon to 10 p.m., Sun. – noon to 9 p.m.
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