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From time to time, it takes a smarting slap to my fleshy cheek to wake me up.

Now, we all do it. Each of us falls into our patterns. It seems like when our heads know we are headed to the grocery store, the car seemingly automatically takes us there. It’s just a short drive. I don’t know about you, but often I don’t really even remember getting there. It just happens.

In the opposite direction — but within the same distance from my home — is a lovely, locally owned grocery: Local Harvest. I know the folks who own and operate it. I believe in what they do. I support the local farmers and purveyors they champion. Other than to cover Local Harvest for FEAST Magazine, however, I’d never shopped there independently. It just wasn’t part of my usual, automated route.

Recently, Local Harvest made a public plea. They asked for the community’s help to keep them going. They published a lengthy and detailed business plan; I kicked in my $50. So did a lot of other people, and they stayed open. Now, my friends, is when the rubber hits the road. What is it going to take to compel each of us to follow through to take the next step and SHOP at Local Harvest?

For me, Whole30 got me in motion. This diet protocol is Paleo-based, which means it focuses on clean protein, vegetables, fruits, and specific fats, while ditching all of the processed junk, sugar, soy, dairy, and booze. This is one of those protocols that has challenged what I think and what I think I know.

When my husband, Mark, and I committed to Whole 30, I began to think about where to source my meat. Based on what I read in It Starts with Food, I knew my shopping habits were going to have to change. I was going to have to think about what I was going to buy, and by extension where I was going to buy what we needed.

It Starts with Food authors, Dallas & Melissa Hartwig, offer up this idea: You are what you eat what they eat. Long story short: When cows and chicken and pigs eat grain-based, antibiotic-steriod-growth-hormone-influenced food, so will you when you have that steak, or breast, or chop, or loin. Get it? Yeah … that’s kind of powerful stuff. So, to engage fully with Whole30, I knew I would need to source proteins that are grass-fed and organic (beef, lamb, bison, etc.); pastured and organic (poultry, pork, rabbit, etc.); are grass-fed/pastured and organic (processed meats, like bacon); and are not factory-farmed and do not have added sugar, MSG, sulfites, or carrageenan.

More often than not, it is your local rancher who raises livestock that is fed a little bit differently. In St. Louis, that means you’ll find it available in grocery stores that approach things a little bit differently; like Local Harvest.

Maddie Earnest, the bright-eyed sprite who is one-half of the dynamic duo who owns and operates the grocery, has a real passion for responsible meat production. She has visited the farms. Maddie’s seen the cows, and the pigs, and chickens, and she’s selected the best our region has to offer. The following is a sampling of what you’ll find at Local Harvest*:

Missouri Grass Fed Beef: Cattle from Missouri Grass Fed Beef is grass fed and grass finished. The cows do not eat a diet that is bolstered with corn or grain. Additionally, the animals do not receive any antibiotics, steroids, or growth hormones.

Kingsdale Farm: A very small producer in Franklin County, the Kingsdale herd is kept to a maximum of 20 cows. Their herd grazes on pastures that have not been treated with chemicals or pesticides, and the animals never receive antibiotics, steroids, or growth hormones.

Buttonwood Farms: Located in California, Missouri, Buttonwood Farms raises chickens and turkeys that are raised on pasture and all-natural feed. The birds do not receive antibiotics.

Geisert Farms: The pigs on this farm are raised on pasture and are allowed to root around in the dirt and eat what’s left over from the other crops – like pumpkins – raised on Geisert Farms. The pigs are never given antibiotics, steroids, or growth hormones.

Naked Bacon: Dry cured in St. Genevieve, Missouri, Naked Bacon offers real flavor with no nitrates, nitrites, phosphates, or chemicals. For people like me who are engaging with the Whole30, be sure to look for the packaging that says, “No Added Sugar.” Yes, that flavorful stuff is for us!

In short, Local Harvest is the only grocery in my neighborhood that offers us the protein options Mark and I will need to succeed with the Whole30. In turn, I’m thrilled to shop the little grocery store in which I believe. It’s a relationship that has been a long time coming.

One final thought: While it was good to donate to the cause to keep Local Harvest going, that’s not the end. Everyone who donated – and I start with myself – should take the next step and shop the business that motivated such a strong sense of community stewardship.

The sting of the slap has brought me out of my fog. I’m really thinking about both my shopping and nutritional habits. Now that I’ve put my money where my mouth is, it’s time for me  to Eat It, St. Louis!

Local Harvest
3108 Morganford
St. Louis, MO 63116
314-865-5260

*Local Harvest works with many local producers and purveyors, including other meat suppliers. Go in, be open, and let yourself be surprised by what you find!

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About a year ago, I felt like I’d been smacked in the face with a 2×4. I was felled by a full-blown sinus infection, which I complained about pitifully on Facebook.

Within seconds, the always fabulous Dee Ryan* chimed in and told me to haul my miserable self to Mai Lee for pho ga. STAT! She promised me I’d feel so much better.

“Pho ga? What’s that?” I have to admit, my knowledge and familiarity with Vietnamese food was – and still is, truth be told – scant. I’d been to Mai Lee several times and always enjoyed my meals, but I wasn’t versed in the nuances of the 200+ item menu.

The pho ga at Mai Lee, according to Dee, was the granddaddy of all chicken noodle soup; it would cure my every ill. I was skeptical – I’ve tried all manner of commercially available varieties – but I had nothing to lose. The usual remedies (pharmaceutical and otherwise) were not working, and I needed help.

At the very least I would have a good meal.

What happened next was caused my world to shift on its axis.

A whopping bowl of steaming pho and side set-up of cilantro, basil, fresh jalapeño, bean sprouts, and hoisin sauce landed in front of me. Before I knew it, warm, fragrant steam from the broth curled its way up my nose and into my head. The magic started to happen.

Pho, beautiful pho!

Pho, beautiful pho!

All credit for my recovery goes to pho broth magician, Qui Tran. Broth is Qui’s passion, and it comes through slurp after slurp. He learned from his mom, Lee Tran (she’s the brilliant and talented matriarch who launched the restaurant 28 years ago), and has developed a signature style.

When Qui makes pho broth, it is a 12-hour process. Pho always begins as a beef stock, and at Mai Lee the clarity comes from blanched bones. Qui uses rock sugar to caramelize the broth. It is a beautiful and clear; you can see every noodle and shred of chicken all the way down to the bottom of the bowl.

Qui delivers layers of flavor and fragrance – ohh, the fragrance – to his broth when he adds cinnamon, fennel, cloves, star anise, ginger, onion, and allspice. Perfect, restorative, healing harmony is served up in every bowl.

Is there more than broth? Of course! It is after all, chicken noodle soup. The soup includes rice noodles** and generous shreds of steamed chicken. Because the chicken is simply steamed, it picks up the beautiful flavor of the broth while adding a richness and texture that brings the pho to life. It’s hearty. It’s warm. It’s perfect.

The whole pho kit and kaboodle.

The whole pho kit and kaboodle.

And then it gets a little bit better. Remember the set-up I mentioned earlier? This is where you can make the pho your own. You can add as much or as little to the pho as you’d like. I add everything to my soup, except the hoisin sauce. To the hoisin I add a healthy dose of Sriracha, and then I – in a somewhat unladylike way – drag my noodles and chicken through the spicy and sweet mix. It’s downright addictive.

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Sriracha + Hoisin = Spicy Sweet Goodness!

My experience with pho ga at Mai Lee was more than I could have expected. More than just good food, pho is food that makes me feel good, and fortified, and like someone in the kitchen loves me. And it’s not just me; talk to any of the pho devotees in St. Louis and you’ll learn it’s how we all feel. Quite honestly, love is the basis of this beautiful soup.

Pho ga is my go-to when I need to feel better, when I feel a little blue, when I’m cold, when I have traffic tickets to pay, when I want to celebrate, and when I’m just plain hungry. I also want it when I have a “case of the Mondays,” which is cruel because they are NOT open on Mondays. Seriously, pho ga from Mai Lee is like getting a big hug from the inside, out.

Now you know. When you’re feeling a cold coming on or the first tingles of a sinus troubles or just want to feel better than you did before you ate, get thee to Mai Lee, order your pho ga, and Eat It, St. Louis!***

Mai Lee
8396 Musick Memorial Drive
St. Louis, MO 63144
314-645-2835

Mai Lee on Urbanspoon

*Dee Ryan is one of those people you should know. She is a talented writer, a hard-core Cardinals fan, a top-level network builder, a passionate St. Louisan, and someone I’m so glad to call a friend. If she makes a suggestion to you, go with it. You’ll be glad you did.

**Unlike the chicken soup with which you may be familiar, pho ga features rice noodles. The dish is gluten free, which makes it easy on delicate systems.

***In this case, Slurp It, St. Louis! may be more appropriate.

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A fire crackles in the fire place.

Beamed ceilings soar upward.

The rich aroma of meat braising and grilling in the kitchen fills the air.

Every time I walk into The Restaurant at The Cheshire, it feels like I’ve found my magic portal from St. Louis to a deluxe hunting lodge in the English countryside.  For me, The Restaurant itself is a destination.  My blogger’s salary doesn’t allow me to travel as much as I’d like, so you can only imagine how excited I was to receive an invitation to step through the magic portal and taste my way through Executive Chef Rex Hale’s new fall menu!

For this wonderful escape, Carlos* was my tour guide. He walked me through 15 dishes that he organized in groups and then expertly paired with the perfect wines. And yes, that is correct; there were 15 dishes, and I had to be rolled out Violet Beauregarde**-style when it was all over.

To get the gastronomic party started, Carlos brought out the bubbles. The Veuve duVernay was a wonderful way to tickle my senses and get me ready for what was to come.

Bubbles are a brilliant beginning!

Bubbles are a brilliant beginning!

The first dishes to arrive were the Ahi Tuna, thin and raw; Shrimp and Butternut Squash Chowder; Arugula and Local Green Salad; and Red Wine Braised Beef Short Ribs. This menu selection alone is a beautiful dinner choice. From the sweet and spicy sushi-grade tuna to the tender, rich short ribs, each bite was better than the first. Chef Hale makes the arugula and local green salad (which is dressed with walnuts, local apples, and balsamic vinaigrette) outstanding with the addition of Baetje Farms*** goat cheese. Baetje Farms is one of my favorite local purveyors, and their cheeses alone take a dish from simple to elegant in a heartbeat.

A not-so-simple salad with goat cheese from Baetje Farms.

A not-so-simple salad with goat cheese from Baetje Farms.

Carlos poured a beautiful De Ponte Cellars Melon de Bourgogne that brought the food alive.

De Ponte Cellars Melon de Bourgogne

De Ponte Cellars Melon de Bourgogne

Now, who doesn’t like an oyster? How about one that is described as a Pan Fried Naked Cowboy Oyster? Oh, yes! The oysters include a bacon salad and is secured to the shell – for presentation value — with a dollop of butternut squash. I think I love naked cowboys. (awkward giggle)

Pan Fried Naked Cowboy Oysters

Pan Fried Naked Cowboy Oysters

The butternut squash made another appearance during this flight of delightful dishes in the Autumn Squash Soup with toasted pumpkin seeds and sorghum crème fraiche. Thick and hearty, every spoonful tastes like autumn should: a little bit sweet, a little bit savory, and whole lot comforting.

Autumn Squash Soup

Autumn Squash Soup

A little something that isn’t quite so heavy are the Steamed Prince Edward Island Mussels. They are coaxed open in a broth of cider, chorizo, half-dried tomatoes, and fennel are delicate and tender. The broth is divine, and I highly recommend dunking a little bread to for the full-flavor effect.

Steamed Prince Edward Island Mussels

Steamed Prince Edward Island Mussels

The Skuna Bay Salmon also delivers hearty fall flavors while keeping it light. Big, pink cuts of salmon are grilled simply with lemon and complemented with beets, ginger, and a warm black kale salad.  This dish, in my opinion, is a true original as the technique and flavors transform this dish from the usual salmon that I’ve found at virtually every restaurant to a dish that stands up against the robust, meaty dishes often associated with autumn.

Skuna Bay Salmon

Skuna Bay Salmon

And what loveliness did Carlos pour this time? It was a Talbott Logan Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Pinot Noir.

A lovely Pinot Noir

A lovely Pinot Noir from Talbott Logan Sleepy Hollow Vineyard

At this point, the main courses simply came pouring out of Executive Chef Hale’s kitchen. I have to say here, I am a main-course girl and I have the appetite of a man. These three dishes sent me spiraling into decadent, gluttonous glory.

The braised pork shank is the size of something from a brontosaurus. Think Flintstones-style haute cuisine, served with caramelized vegetables on top of cheesy grits. Carlos brought a knife, a BIG knife, but I didn’t need it. The meat falls off the bone and right into the grits. Good Lord, go ahead and beat your chest and eat. This is what the fall is all about.

Braised Pork Shank

Braised Pork Shank

Then there are the Maine Sea Scallops. They are huge (nearly silver-dollar sized is a fair estimation) with a crispy outside and the most buttery center. It’s everything you’ve ever heard a scallop should be. But wait … they are balanced on creamy pumpkin risotto (hello, autumn harvest!) that is pushed over the top with smoked bacon and shrimp. I went weak in the knees and perhaps even tried to negotiate with my hubs for the last bite. For the record, I lost.

Maine Sea Scallops

Maine Sea Scallops

But that’s OK … because I did skewer the last bite of the New York Strip. Meat, glorious meat, it’s what’s for dinner folks****. Grilled to medium rare perfection and served with wild mushroom and Brussels sprout with cabernet vinegar, this dish has flavor, texture, and my very favorite veggie in the whole world. If you’ve ever been nervous about Brussels sprouts, try them here. They will be your gateway to other Brussels sprout exploration.

New York Strip

New York Strip with Wild Mushroom & Brussels Sprout Hash

Cue the fabulous Carlos and a gorgeous bottle of The Element Pinot Noir. This pinot noir was bigger and bolder than the previous, and goes to show how a wonderfully informed pro like Carlos can expand your appreciation for vertical variations.

The Element Pinot Noir

The Element Pinot Noir

To contrast – or perhaps to compare more evenly – Carlos brought out a bottle of Faust Cabernet Sauvignon. I wish I knew more about wine so that I could translate the details in a way that does justice to wine. I can’t, and I’d hate to get it wrong. I just ask that you trust me, though, when I tell you that it was delicious and it worked with the same three dishes as did the Pinot Noir, but in a different way. Carlos truly provided a learning experience!

Faust Cabernet Sauvignon

Faust Cabernet Sauvignon

The Faust Cabernet Sauvignon paved the way to a symphony of desserts.

Just when I believed … truly believed … that I couldn’t take one more bite, Carlos began bringing the desserts. Clearly, I was wrong. I tried them all. The Local Apple Crisp with vanilla ice cream; the Chocolate Gooey Butter Cake with strawberries and hot fudge sauce; the Chilled Passion Fruit Parfait with bittersweet chocolate and marshmallows; and (my personal favorite) the Chocolate Caramel Ice Cream Sandwich.

Chocolate Caramel Ice Cream Sandwich

Chocolate Caramel Ice Cream Sandwich

The final wine selection of the evening was De Bartoli Noble One. It provided a perfect finish to a perfect evening. Clink and cheers!

Cheers!

Cheers!

I’ve had the pleasure of dining at The Restaurant on several occasions, and it’s among my favorite restaurants to recommend. The ambiance is divine, the service is personal and professional, and the food and wine never fail to make me happy that I chose The Restaurant. Beyond the a la cart dinner menu, The Restaurant offers two tasting menus complete with wine flights.

This is not The Cheshire that you likely remember. It’s a destination that has been designed to bring family and friends and dates together. It’s warm, it’s wonderful, and it’s just west of the world’s largest Amoco sign. I encourage you to get hungry, make your reservation, and step through the magic portal of The Restaurant to Eat It, St. Louis!

The Restaurant at The Cheshire
7036 Clayton Avenue
St. Louis, MO
314-932-7818

The Restaurant at The Cheshire on Urbanspoon

* Carlos. When you make your reservation, ask to sit with him. His humor, his knowledge, and his grace will make your evening memorable.

** Violet Beauregarde was the gum-chewing girl from Roald Dahl’s Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. Her crime was gluttony, and she swelled to be a giant blueberry.  The Oompa Loompas had to roll her away after they sang their song about her as a cautionary tale. I kind of identify with Violet.

*** Baetje Farms, as I mentioned, is a local purveyor crafting gorgeous artisan cheeses. One of Chef Hale’s hallmarks is his use of ingredients sourced from local farmers and artisans. Other contributors to his magnificent menu are Rain Crow Ranch, Marcoot Farms, Ben Roberts Heritage Poultry, Ozark Forest Mushrooms, and American Pasture Pork.

**** I know that’s not original on my part, but those ad agencies get it right from time to time! Why reinvent the wheel?

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Sophisticated.

Glamorous.

Daring.

These three words, in my opinion, sum up the craft cocktail movement that is taking hold here in St. Louis. No longer are we happy to simply order up a vodka tonic; we are asking for Manhattans, and French 75s, and Sloe Gin Fizzes.

Our post-Prohibition palettes have finally aligned with our pre-Prohibition sensibilities. We crave flavor and nuance; we appreciate style and panache.

And that, my friends, is exactly what Cocktails Are Go delivers.

Cocktails Are Go* is Mat and Beth Sorrell’s brilliant entrepreneurial gem. This husband-and-wife team – he a freelance writer and she a clinical laboratory scientist – collaborate with hosts and hostesses all over St. Louis to offer guests an exquisite, accessible cocktail experience.

The Dynamic duo behind Cocktails Are Go: Matt & Beth Sorrell

The dynamic duo behind Cocktails Are Go: Matt & Beth Sorrell**

This isn’t rail booze and sticky sweet mixers. These aren’t from-your-parents’-bar style drinks. Every simple syrup, from the basic to the lavender-rosemary, is home brewed.  Every juice is freshly squeezed. Matt hand-crafts every drink for perfect balance, and Beth sparkles as she gets to know guests and teaches them about what they’re drinking.

The Cocktails Are Go experience begins with the fundamentals: Matt and Beth Sorrell. They are the heart and soul of this deluxe service, and they are fervent about bringing depth and flavor to every cocktail they create.  You’ll never find some kid behind the bar whose only experience has been tapping kegs in a fraternity house.  Matt and Beth are the whole show.

Matt has completed the rigorous BarSmarts certification program (sponsored by Pernod Ricard) and was an influential force behind the bar at the recently shuttered Salt.  In his spare time you’ll find him, and his famous beard, working shoulder-to-shoulder with Ted Kilgore at Planter’s House (opening soon). That, my friends, is one heck of a cocktail pedigree right there!

Matt Sorrell is shaking up  the cocktail world.

Matt Sorrell is shaking up the cocktail world.**

Beth works to broaden her cocktail knowledge through hospitality industry learning events. In the past year, she has attended  Arizona Cocktail Week;, International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event in Chicago; Tails of The Cocktail; and Paris of The Plains where she earned a certificate in vermouth from The Vermouth Institute.

Ever the hostess, Beth Sorrell serves up plenty of personality with every cocktail.

Ever the hostess, Beth Sorrell serves up plenty of personality with every cocktail.**

Beth also regularly competes in cocktail competitions to stretch her cocktail creativity. Recently she won the United States Bartenders Guild 2013 Tequila Bartender Challenge (St. Louis Chapter), sponsored by Don Julio where she made her version of a margarita, The Big O’Lay. The only rules: Use local ingredients and one of the Don Julio tequilas. Her Big O’Lay packed flavor and originality into a single glass and featured St. Louis’ own Big O Ginger Liqueur; simple syrup with lime, agave, and sea salt; Don Julio Anjeo; a dash of Olay bitters, and a garnish of potato chip dipped in Kakao chocolate, a hometown favorite.

This is the kind of creative thinking and – ok, I’ll say it – FLAIR that Cocktails Are Go delivers. Matt and Beth create cocktails that underpin themes and promote ideas. They work directly with hosts and hostesses to produce experiences that are unique to the events.  They educate and share. Often Cocktails Are Go converts long-time spirits haters to reawakened spirits enthusiasts.

As you’re planning your special event call Cocktails Are Go and discover the magic they pour into every glass, whether it’s an etched compote, champagne flute, or a sturdy highball. Bring sophistication. Inject a bit of glamour. Encourage your guests to be a little daring. Your event will shine and your guests will rave.  And please, remember where you got this nugget of a genius idea and invite Eat It, St. Louis!

Cocktails Are Go
314-406-2777

* The perfect sized event for Cocktails Are Go is between 20 and 100 guests.

** Clearly these photos were NOT taken by me with my iPhone. Every photo here was taken by Jacqui Segura of The Cocktail Ambassador. She is a truly gifted artist who captures the best of her subjects every time she points and shoots. She’s even managed to me look good in a photo or two.

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On a chilly winter’s night a few years back, my hubs and I hit up Aya Sofia – a perennial favorite – for dinner. As we slid into the romantic crimson booth with the drawn-back curtains that hint of magical things to come, I knew, without a doubt, what I was going to order.

That is, until our waiter informed us of the specials; and the special that night was the Adana Kebap … or as he described it … meat on a sword.

Have I ever mentioned my weakness for food on sticks? Seriously, I get downright giddy over corndogs, and cotton candy, and fruit kabobs, and Vienna sausages on plumed toothpicks. There’s just something about skewering my food and gobbling it up.

So now I was going to get meat that was grilled on a sword? (Insert maniacal laugh and happy dance here.) Score!

For the purposes of my restaurant coverage, I don’t write about all the great “specials.” That’s not fair. I want you to love me for what you can get, not hate me for teasing you. So I’ve been patiently waiting, and the wait is over: The Adana Kebap has finally moved from “special” status to be a permanent fixture on Aya Sofia’s menu. Now I can reveal to you all the glory of this dish.

To get to the heart of what the Adana Kebap is all about, I spoke with chef-owner Mehmet Yildiz. Chef Mehmet explained that this dish is native to the city of Adana, which is in the south of Turkey.  The tradition is spicy and hearty, the Adana Kebap delivers a mix of flavors bite after bite.

The meat itself is lamb, beautiful lamb. Chef Mehmet, in the custom of Turkish cuisine, sources his lambs whole and creates the perfect grind and cut for each dish on the menu. For the Adana Kebap, he uses leg meat and fat from the lamb. He works to maintain a balance of 80% meat and 20% fat for a perfect ratio that wraps around the long, metal sword and grills to juicy perfection.

Meat grilling on a sword. Only at Aya Sofia!

Meat grilling on a sword. Only at Aya Sofia!

This dish is not for a person who prefers bland preparations, to be certain. Chef Mehmet seasons the lamb with salt, sweet paprika, and cayenne pepper. Yes, these are seasonings that you likely have in your pantry. The verve with which Chef Mehmet uses the seasonings, however, will make you think there is something super secret in the mix. The first bite bursts with flavor, and each subsequent bite builds on that first taste. The heat comes, but it is a heat that is born of deep, perfect balance; the Adana Kebap is not hot for the sake of being hot.

It’s complex. It’s spicy. Heck, IT’S MEAT ON A SWORD. That’s really all you need to know.

But there’s more.

Chef Mehmet serves the Adana Kebap with traditional accompaniments, which include a grilled banana pepper, cumin tomato sauce, yogurt sauce, sumac onion salad, grilled tomatoes, and pita. It’s a delight for the senses. I enjoy a dip-as-I-eat style so that every bite is just a little bit different from the last. To enjoy the Adana Kebap in a traditional manner, Chef Mehmet suggests drizzling each of the sauces over the grilled lamb before taking your first bite.

In addition to the grilled lamb, there is banana pepper, sumac onions, yogurt sauce, and cumin tomato sauce.

In addition to the grilled lamb, there is banana pepper, sumac onions, yogurt sauce, and cumin tomato sauce.

I mentioned the sumac onion salad. This is a delight that shouldn’t be overlooked. To be honest, at first I thought the onions were pickled because of their purple hue. Nothing could be further from the truth. The sumac offers light floral notes with an edge of tart reminiscent of cranberry. When it’s combined with the onion and parsley, the result is a classy, cool counterpoint to the spicy lamb.

The sumac onion salad is a perfect floral-tart counterpoint to the spicy lamb.

The sumac onion salad is a perfect floral-tart counterpoint to the spicy lamb.

The Adana Kebap serves up history and tradition on one big, beautiful plate at Aya Sofia. Whether you order this or any of the other Turkish delights on the menu, you’ll find that Chef Mehmet brings his passion for Turkish cuisine and culture alive with each and every one.

I can’t close out a post about Aya Sofia without mentioning Alicia Aboussie, Chef Mehmet’s wife,restaurant co-owner, and my dear friend. She has poured her heart and soul into the restaurant’s undeniably romantic interior, and her innate grace and charm is evident in Aya Sofia’s every detail.

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My beautiful and talented friend, Alicia Aboussie.

The next time you’re looking for a dining experience that takes you away from the usual, head to South St. Louis, settle into the lovely Aya Sofia, order your meat on a sword, and Eat It, St. Louis!

Aya Sofia
6671 Chippewa
St. Louis, MO 63109
314-645-9919
www.AyaSofiaCuisine.com

Aya Sofia on Urbanspoon

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Recently, I received an intriguing invitation to have dinner on the Eighth Floor of the Anheuser-Busch brewery. Four past winners of Budweiser Taste of St. Louis Chef Battle Royal would be making dinner for me. A brewmaster would be pairing my courses with interesting beer.

Really? Moi? Hanging out with the “fooderati”* and beer barons of St. Louis? But of course! I was tickled pink and happily accepted.

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The Farm-to-Brewery Chef Battle Royale Champions’ Event was a wonderful way for Budweiser to celebrate its commitment to Taste of St. Louis** as the event’s lead sponsor; to bring together past Chef Battle Royale winners; and to illuminate what’s great about our region’s culinary scene.  Our hosts for the evening were Anheuser-Busch Executive Chef Sam Niemann and Brewmaster George Reisch. Together they created four beautiful courses paired with four styles of beer. What’s more, each of the courses featured deluxe ingredients from some of our region’s genius craft producers.

Vito Racanelli, chef-owner of Mad Tomato and executive chef of the Budweiser Taste of St. Louis for the past five years, and Chef Neimann conceived and presented the evening’s first course: Ravioli tossed with shiitake mushrooms and walnuts. The shiitakes were sourced from Ozark Forest Mushrooms, where Nicola MacPherson lovingly grows her meaty, heirloom mushrooms on white oak logs***. This lovely little pillow of pure love featured a delicate egg yolk (from Shiloh Hill Hens) nestled inside, and the cream sauce was blended with brown butter and Budweiser Black Crown.

Ravioli tossed with Ozark Forest Shiitake Mushrooms & Walnuts

Ravioli tossed with Ozark Forest Shiitake Mushrooms & Walnuts

Brewmaster Reisch – who suggested small sips before and after every bite to allow the flavors to burst with the beer’s carbonation – paired the ravioli with Black Crown. A new entry to the Budweiser portfolio of beers, it is brewed with toasted caramel malt and various American hops and then finished over beechwood to produce a nuanced golden amber lager.

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Chef Lee, Chef Racanelli, and Brewmaster Reisch

The course was terrific, and everyone at my table was primed for what came next!

The second pairing featured balls, fabulous balls, made of locally sourced pork. Chef Wes Johnson of Metropolitan Farmer in Springfield, Missouri, created pork and fennel meatballs. The juicy, flavorful meat came directly from Circle B Ranch. Marina and John Backes, proprietors of Circle B Ranch, like to say, “A happy hog is a tasty hog.” Take note: Their hogs must be simply giddy, because those pork meatballs were delicious! UUUMMMM, pooorrrrk!

Chef Johnson dressed the porky good meatballs with blackberry sofie jam, for which Goose Island Sofie provided the base. Really, who doesn’t love a beer-y jam?

Pork and fennel meatballs with blackberry Sofie jam

Pork and fennel meatballs with blackberry Sofie jam

As you may have guessed, Brewmaster Reisch paired the dish with the Goose Island Sofie. A little peppery, a little citrusy, in my opinion**** this is the kind of beer I’d like to have on a hot summer’s day hanging out on a patio somewhere. And yes, I remembered to sip-taste-sip to get the full zip-a-dee-do-dah of flavors.  (It works, folks!)

Course three, how I loved thee. Let’s just start by saying Chef Jack W. MacMurray III of Jack Mac’s Distinctive Taste served up lamb; beautiful, tender, juicy lamb from Jones Heritage Farms. I’m still crushing on this lamb chop, which was served on a sweet potato, vegetable, and gruyere hash and included a dash of Beck’s Sapphire for depth. Good God, I’m still giggling like a love-sick school girl when  I think about it. How did chef know to include all of my favorite flavors on one plate? However he did it, thank you!

Lamb rack with sweet potato, vegetable, & gruyere hash

Lamb rack with sweet potato, vegetable, & gruyere hash

The dish’s Beck’s Sapphire beer pairing really stood up to the lamb. As Brewmaster Reisch explained, the beer is brewed with German Sephir hops and includes just four ingredients. This is a beer-lover’s beer with its edge of bitter and really smooth finish. Sip-taste-sip … it was magic.

Then there was dessert. It featured Stella Artois Cidre ice cream – yeah, that’s a real thing – atop an apple and cornmeal cake with a divine dollop of apple butter on the side. Chef Christopher Lee from the River City Event Center brought this perfectly sweet (which for me means it wasn’t cloying) finish to the party. He tapped Justin Leszcz from Yellow Tree Farm for the apples. Bite after bite was fresh and sparkling and satisfying.

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Stella Artois Cidre ice cream with apple cornmeal cake and applebutter

Clearly, to complement the dish, Brewmaster Reisch introduced a tasting of the Stella Artois Cidre, which my cider-loving husband has been dying to try. It truly delivered a crispness that reminded me of crunching into apple. It was tart and fizzy and a wonderful way to close out a wonderful experience.

It was a terrific night full of friends, food, and beer. I had a great night out with my sweet hubs, Mark; we mingled with St. Louis’ super-successful blogger, Stefani Pollack (check out The Cupcake Project); we laughed with George Mahe, Dining Editor for St. Louis Magazine and his effervescent wife, Suzi; and rubbed shoulders with Sauce Magazine publisher, Allyson Mace (not pictured, because I’m lame).

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Stefani Pollack and me.

Suzi & George Mahe.

And the chefs seemed to have as much fun as the guests!

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Chefs wrapping up the evening. Sorry, Chef Rancanelli, for cutting you out.

We St. Louisans take our food and drink seriously. When a powerhouse like Anheuser-Busch brings the local chefs together, who in turn bring the local producers together, it’s quite the collaboration. I was honored to be invited to share the evening; rest assured, it was my pleasure to Eat It, St. Louis!

* Fooderati: My own made-up word. We eat better than the glitterati and look just as good!

** Budweiser Taste of St.Louis, Sept 27 – 29, Soldiers Memorial. Be there.

*** Fun Fact: Commercially grown shiitake mushrooms are grown in sawdust.

**** That and $2.40 will buy you a venti coffee — nothin’ fancy, mind you — at Starbucks.

Change.

When change happens what do you do? Do you shut your eyes tight and hope to get back to the world as you knew it before change happened? Do you keep your eyes wide open and work to manage the change, to learn, and to grow?

As many of you know, my life changed when my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer and then changed again when he died last July. My eyes have been shut tight for some time as I’ve hoped against hope and tried to wish my way back.

It’s time to lift my lids and look around. It’s time to manage, learn, and grow.

I’m lucky to have people around me who can help me through this process, and I’m so glad to know Caryn Dugan and count her among my friends. You’ve probably heard of her and likely recognize her as STLVegGirl.

Final cartoon logo

Caryn is St. Louis’ most passionate vegan, in my opnion. She adopted a whole-food, plant-based diet after her dad succumbed to cancer and she won her own battle with the disease.

I admire her for managing her change right from the beginning. She dug in, and she found the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). What she learned changed her life. Caryn told me that she chose a vegan diet because, “…  science tells us that this is the best prevention for warding off chronic diseases and a whole host of other ailments.”

While she is the first to note that a vegan diet is NOT a fool-proof way to NEVER get sick, she is fortified by the idea that should she get sick, she’ll, “have done everything in [her] power to dodge that bullet.” Additionally, she has a better chance of a speedy recovery.

That’s powerful stuff.

Over the course of a few dinners and events, Caryn came to know my story and asked me to join her Food for Life class at the Cancer Support Community* (CSC). So I did. I didn’t know anything about vegan diets. I thought I was going to learn a few techniques and walk away.

CSC_20yrs_logo_color

What I got from Caryn was information. She shared research gathered by PCRM that shows how meat, dairy, and fat contribute to cancer’s ability to grow. She shared information that shows how diets that are high in fiber, vegetables, and fruits work with our biology to strengthen our immune systems and rid our bodies of toxins. And Caryn showed me in a fun, approachable way how to create easy, flavorful, thoughtful meals that support healthy living (and appeal to a hard-core food lover).

What I found at the CSC was a group of people who were either beginning or in treatment; cancer survivors; family members; and people like me who are grappling with grief. In any event, each of us was trying to manage change in a positive way. The CSC offers a lovely, safe place for people who have been affected by cancer to come together. It’s lively and there’s laughter. When there are tears, there is real understanding and deep compassion.

I had no idea how much I’d value the community I found in those classes. I’m indebted.

My eyes are wide open and I have a lot to chew on as I work through my changed world. Cancer will be part of my life forever, and I know that the odds are not in my favor. There is a target on my back. So, at the very least, I need to make wiser choices.

While making a total conversion to a vegan diet is not what I’m likely to do (I have to be honest with you), I find that I am becoming more conscious of my food-based decisions. There are times – particularly when I’m cooking for myself – when I will be making vegan dishes. I am particularly fascinated by a soy-based ingredient called Tempeh, which I’d never before encountered.

Change doesn’t always have to be cataclysmic. Change can happen in baby steps. As I manage, and learn, and grow with my exploration of vegan opportunities, I will enjoy every bite while I Eat It, St. Louis!

As an aside, a popular question during our classes revolved around which restaurants offer vegan menus. Here is a short list of eateries around St. Louis where you can find vegan options (please feel free to let me know of others):

Black Bear Bakery
Café Natasha
Frida’s Deli
Gokul 
Green Bean
HotPot Smoothie Shop

Local Harvest Café
Pho Grand
Pi
PuraVegan
Rooster
Sweet Art Bake Shop & Art Studio

* Cancer Support Community of Greater St. Louis is a non-profit organization whose mission is to ensure that all people impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action, and sustained by community.  All programs are completely free of charge and offered in a comfortable, home-like environment. Cancer Support Community offers professionally-led support groups, educational workshops, nutrition and exercise programs, and stress-reduction classes to empower and educate individuals affected by cancer.  For more information,  call 314-238-2000 or visit www.cancersupportstl.org.

The best table in the house: We’ve all heard that movies stars, rock stars, and business moguls demand special seating when they approach the maître d in a fine restaurant. It’s a table where they can see and be seen, but discreet enough to do whatever business is at hand.

The best table in the house doesn’t apply to me. I’m neither angling to have the paparazzi snap a photo of me having dinner with Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon nor brokering deals that will change the course of American commerce. I’m just a gal with a blog and column, I make reservations at good-to-great restaurants, and I’m happy wherever I’m seated.

Really, I’m there for the food.

But boy, oh boy, did I ever get a taste of the sweet life. I may be ruined for good!

My friend and colleague, Sherma Mather, was visiting St. Louis from Richmond, Virginia, and I wanted to introduce her to one of the best fine-dining experiences in St. Louis, Cielo at Four Seasons Hotel*.  Rather than call for a reservation, I facebooked** Stephen Wancha – the fab food and beverage director – to ask whether I needed a late reservation for a Wednesday night.

He facebooked me back and said that my reservation was set.

I thought to myself, “Wow, how cool is that?”  Even after all of the years I’ve known this wonderful staff, I’m honored by the way they take care of me. And let’s face facts: I was being lazy by not calling. (Yup, I own it.)

You simply can’t imagine my reaction when I received a reservation confirmation phone call that told me that Sherma and I would be sitting at the Chef’s Table***. Yes, I got weak in the knees. Yes, I felt a little woozie. Yes, I got flushed. It’s a big deal, and I couldn’t stop giggling.

I kept asking myself, “Have I arrived?”

It certainly felt that way when Sherma and I checked in for our reservation and were ushered to our lovely table for two, which was set up in Cielo’s state-of-the-art kitchen.  Upon taking our seats, Michael Pechlof, the food and beverage manager, glided up to our table and poured us each a beautiful glass of champagne to welcome us to dinner.

And then began a gastronomic extravaganza prepared by Sous Chef Marc Kusche.

The first course was a beautiful presentation of grilled octopus with micro basil, red onion marmalade and saba, which is a balsamic reduction.  Michael paired the octopus with a lovely Costamolino Vermentino di Sardegna.

Costamolino

Costamolino Vermentino di Sardegna

Sous Chef Marc then presented us with pan seared branzino (holy cow … such crispy, crunchy skin), with a cannellini bean ragout, radicchio, and oven roasted tomatoes. Let’s not forget  a touch of pork belly for that little extra kick of flavor. It was divine. And rich. Blair Schrautemeier – the assistant food and beverage manager – paired the branzino with an earthy, light 2009 Panther Creek Pinot Noir. The result was heavenly.

Panther Creek Pinot Noir

Panther Creek Pinot Noir

Did I mention what we had the full attention of the staff? I don’t know how they do it. Sherma and I were far from their only guests – the dining room and bar were buzzing – yet no detail was left to chance. Every need was anticipated. And we were far from over!

Of course there was a third course, and it was meat: beautiful, grilled beef tenderloin.  The center was a perfect medium rare, all pink and warm, and every bite was enhanced by porcini reduction and the truffled mashed potatoes, which were like silk. I also loved the pretty, bright orange baby carrots. Michael paired this modern take on traditional meat-and-potatoes with what he described as a traditional – not jammy – cabernet sauvignon from Heitz Cellars. Our experience simply kept getting better and better.

Heitz Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon.

Heitz Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon.

But of course, we ended our evening in the pastry kitchen! This space smells of fresh-baked cookies and the ovens are always warm. It’s comforting enough just to be there and breathe deeply. But our hosts, Michael and Blair, had just a little more in mind for us: lemon truffle cake with amaretto hot chocolate and homemade marshmallows;

Lemon Truffle Cake with Amaretto Hot Chocolate & a Homemade Marsh Mallow.

Lemon Truffle Cake with Amaretto Hot Chocolate & a Homemade Marshmallow.

and an ice cream truffle with rum-infused ganache.

Ice cream truffle with rum-infused ganache.

Ice cream truffle with rum-infused ganache.

Oh, yeah … and a selection of Executive Chef Fabrizio Schenardi’s homemade liqueurs: Basil, Mint, Limoncello, Limoncello Crema, and Honey.

Chef Fabrizio's home made liqueurs for after-dinner sampling.

Chef Fabrizio’s homemade liqueurs for after-dinner sampling.

I’m still full.

I’m still overwhelmed.

I’m still just a gal with a blog and column.

And they still made me feel like a big deal.

When I have any big accomplishment or simply want to feel as though I am the center of the universe, you know where you’ll be able to find me. I’ll be making my Cielo reservations**** to Eat It, St.  Louis!

Cielo
Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis
999 North Second Street
St. Louis, MO 63102
314-881-5800

Cielo Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

*My insane love affair with the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis began – pretty much – from the day I learned that the esteemed hotelier would be bringing its distinctive luxury brand to St. Louis. I have worked with the brilliant Trisha Dieckmann to produce signature events, and I have covered Cielo and Executive Chef Fabrizio Schenardi several times for FEAST Magazine and DELUX Magazine. My husband and I celebrated our fifth anniversary with a mini staycation at the Four Seasons, and when we need a little shot of luxury in our lives, we’ll have cocktails in the bar.

** Yes … I just used Facebook as a verb. I know it’s wrong.

***Anyone can book a Chef’s Table event. There are two tables, one that seats up to four and another that seats up to 12. It’s a special experience. Do it!

**** I’ll call next time, I promise.

A Note: This dinner at Cielo was complimentary for my guest and me. At no time did they ask me to cover the dinner or my experience in Eat It, St. Louis! Nor did I ask for my dinner to be comp’d in exchange for coverage. It’s simply a synergy that works. I was prepared to pay and was startled by my hosts’ generosity.  My affection for the Four Seasons St. Louis & Cielo is long documented, and I’m thrilled to be covering both in my own space.

My dad died on July 2, 2012.

While I wish I could say I was prepared for it – he’d been diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer* three years earlier – or that I could rationalize a purpose for it, I can’t. Rather, I find that I simply want to eat my weight in ice cream.

We, my dad and I, always had ice cream. My earliest memories are of bowls as big as my head loaded up with vanilla or chocolate. If we were feeling edgy, we might even opt for chocolate chip. Hey, it was the early 1970s.

On special holidays, my dad and I would find ourselves sitting in my grandma’s robin’s-egg-blue kitchen with my grandpa and uncle. The four of us delighted in drowning our ice cream in chocolate syrup or floating it in Coke-a-Cola, Sprite, and Orange Fanta.

It’s so simple, but so good! Vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s chocolate syrup in a dish gave us room to dish about most anything.

We laughed, and joked, and prodded, and plotted, and talked, and talked, and talked. My dad and I believed that we solved most of the world’s problems over bowls and pints and gallons.  Sometimes – when desperate times called for desperate measures and we couldn’t be bothered with conventions – we simply stood at the kitchen sink and passed the big container between us. When we’d get caught, we just exchanged a look and a snicker that said, “Oops! Oh, well.”

When I came home from college, I excitedly told Dad that I had something special for him. No, it wasn’t the post-college job he was praying for (and had paid for).  My gift to him was Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. Momentarily he feigned disappointment. He rolled his eyes. He shook his head. Then he ate a spoonful of frozen joy. From that point on, there was no other.

Ben & Jerry were capable and trusted moderators of our discussions, debates, and the occasional heated argument.

Forays into different Ben & Jerry flavors left him vaguely disappointed.

Frozen yogurt was a sin.

Iced milk … well that was simply pure, unadulterated blasphemy.

I don’t remember a time that Dad and I didn’t enjoy ice cream together, which really just meant we were enjoying our time together. All I really want is more time. I’d trade all the ice cream for just five more minutes.

In the absence of time, however, I’ll keep my ice cream. It reminds me of my dad and the wonderful man he was. It reminds me that we were a pretty terrific father-daughter combination; we were two scoops of the same flavor. It reminds me of our sweet life together.

I’m going to need a lot of ice cream. I doubt my impending double-fisted ice-cream-eating bonanza will be pretty. But it will be comforting for me to Eat It, St. Louis!

*It didn’t have to happen to our family. It doesn’t have to happen to your family. Please, talk to your physician about your risk and a colonoscopy. It would have saved my dad’s life.

The Bloody Mary was built for Sundays. Maybe it’s because of the tomato juice or the salad-like garnish, but a Bloody Mary always makes me feel like I’ve done something relatively good for myself. And isn’t that what Sunday is all about: restoring our selves and restoring our souls?

When I’m looking to do a little restoration, I head over to The Famous Bar* and order up the La Cajun. This version of the Bloody Mary is my favorite, although they offer several variations. It’s spicy without being over the top, and the beer back (which is an ice-cold shot of Bud Light) is a brilliant addition.

You can drink the beer along with your Bloody Mary, or pour it in for a Bloody Beer effect. Depending on the day, I’m apt to do either!

The La Cajun is at the top of my hit parade because of its depth of flavor. William Kunderman, one of the awesome bartenders at The Famous Bar, was kind enough to share with me – although not in proportion detail – the secrets of this spicy, shake-the-cobwebs-out Bloody Mary. Of course there is the usual tomato juice (Campbell’s is The Famous Bar’s preferred brand) and vodka. The drink takes a spicy, and perhaps even a little bit of a meaty turn when he shakes in some A-1 Sauce, adds a dash of Worcestershire sauce, freshly cracks black pepper, tap-tap-taps in the Tobasco sauce, and adds a zesty zing with sprinkles of celery salt and Cajun seasoning.

The Cajun seasoning and Tobasco are then deftly mixed to rim the pint glass that holds the boozy La Cajun salvation.

When it comes to the garnish, The Famous Bar knows what it’s doing. Although pictured here with a Freestone Pickle (holy moly was that a good pickle) the La Cajun is traditionally dressed with Dano’s Pickled Green Beans. When I visited, William was waiting for a batch of the beans to arrive from Louisiana. Truly, I could eat those green beans by the handful!

But I digress …

If you’re feeling the need to restore, refresh, or even reboot for the week ahead, make plans to head to the Southtown neighborhood for the La Cajun. Enjoy a Sunday Happy Hour (they open at 3:00), then head to one of the great neighborhood restaurants (like Pueblo Solis) and Eat It, St. Louis!

The Famous Bar
5213 Chippewa
St. Louis, MO 63109
314.832.2211
http://www.thefamousbar.com

The Famous Bar on Urbanspoon

* The Famous Bar is a special place for me. It’s where Mark and I had our wedding reception (things are different when you get married the second time). It’s where I did a red-wine spit take on a good friend, and I’m still apologizing for that. It’s been the site of so many good times with so many friends. Everyone should have a place like this in their neighborhood.

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