Archives for category: Dinner

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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.

Pho4

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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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

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.

In my formative food years, tacos were pretty standard fare. Regardless of where I got them – at a sit-down restaurant, a fast food drive through, or my mom’s house – there wasn’t a lot of variety: Hard, corn tortilla shells; mildly spiced ground beef; cheddar (I think) cheese; lettuce; tomatoes; and if I was feeling crazy a little dollop of sour cream.* Yup, that pretty much sums it up.

As a result, I really hadn’t had a taco in some time. While I liked them fine, they were never a must-have favorite. Outings to Mexican restaurants were filled with more interesting enchiladas and big-as-my-head burritos. And I was happy.

Little did I know that my world was about to be rocked.

On a random Friday night, Mark and I headed to Pueblo Solis, a little family-owned Mexican restaurant in our neighborhood. We love it there. The food is always good, the staff is great, and the house margarita (no need to get a super fancy one) is downright delicious.

This particular visit, however, there was something new. I learned about an off-the-menu special: the fish tacos. I said, to myself, “Self, that sounds delightful.” For some reason, the idea of grilled (not fried) fish struck me as refreshing. I needed a change of pace.

When my dinner was placed in front of me, I was instantly pleased. Four flour-tortilla-wrapped tacos – perhaps I should call them what they really are: four little packages of fish-filled love – were on the plate, along with usual (and yummy) refried beans and rice, and a couple of slices of lime.

Opening up the first taco to add a squeeze of lime, the taco fillings were beautiful to behold. The gorgeous, flakey grilled tilapia (which is super fresh and sourced from Bob’s Seafood) contrasted against the colorful and robust pico de gallo and complemented the crisp and cool and crunchy lettuce. An effective and effusive sprinkle of fresh cilantro brightened up the entire dish.

YYUUMMM! Order this, and you'll be happy! Fish Tacos, photo by Trish Sharp.

It all seems so simple. It didn’t seem so complicated. That’s why what happened next is beyond explanation.

I don’t remember much after my first bite. All I can recall is that when my head cleared (was that my second margarita?) there was nothing left. My plate was clear. I wanted more. No, that doesn’t quite capture it: I needed more!

I was hooked on fish tacos.

Perhaps is has something to do with the fairy dust. Well, maybe it isn’t exactly fairy dust, but it sets these fish tacos apart and ahead of all others. It’s the thinnest schmeer ever of special sauce. When I asked Moni Ramos, general manager and the all-around great guy who greets every guest, about the tacos’ fairy dust sauce, he generously told me it was made from mayonnaise, mustard, and roasted garlic.

“That’s it?,” I asked.

“Yes, that’s it,” he replied … with a grin.

The grin is what makes me think there is some other magic in there. He’s just not telling me, and that’s ok. It keeps me coming back!

What started off as a special for Lent is now a permanent off-the-menu treat. If you’re going to get the fish tacos, you have to know to ask for them. Now that you’re in the know, do it! Head down to Pueblo, order up your margarita (really, you just have to do it), get your fish tacos, and Eat It, St. Louis!

Pueblo Solis
5127 Hampton Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63109
314-351-9000
http://www.pueblosolisstl.com

Pueblo Solis on Urbanspoon

*The first time I ever had sour cream on Mexican food was in a little restaurant in Lamar, Colorado, with my grandmother. It was a new idea for me, and I read it on the menu. I asked her if I should ask them to leave off the sour cream (quelle horror, some many years later!). She looked at me and plainly said, “Well, Amy Ann, we are in a Mexican restaurant that is owned and operated by a Mexican family. If you want to eat it the way it is supposed to be, then have it the way they make it.” Great wisdom from a great lady.

Actually, smoking is heavenly, and the best way to pick up the habit is to order the Smoked Chicken Wings at The Shaved Duck. Dark and lovely, smoky and spicy, these wings are the casually sophisticated and elegantly complicated counterpart to the commonly available, hot-with-vinegar-heat, neon orange variety.

Low and slow is the key to infusing the wings with more flavor than you ever imagined could be concentrated in these meaty morsels. Chef Kat Kobylarek treats the wings with a special rub of between 15 and 17 spices (yeah, it’s a secret!), and then smokes them for three hours at approximately 220 degrees. Her wood mix is 75% hickory and 25% oak. The result is 100% perfection.

Now, for any of you who have tried to smoke skin-on meat, you know that it never really crisps up to its full potential. The meat is, of course, juicy, tender and full of flavor, but you just don’t get that divine texture that crispy skin can deliver. Chef Kobylarek has solved that problem.

That’s right … she pops them in the fryer to get them crispy. So now you get spicy, tender, juicy, flavorful, and crunchy all in one deeply satisfying, I-can’t-talk-I’m-eating bite.

But what’s this beautiful, sienna* -colored sauce on the side of your plate? Why, it’s the boom boom pow that will knock your socks off. Chef Kobylarek has devised a fabulously flavor-layered mango-ginger-habanero sauce that brings the heat in the most vibrant way possible. At once sweet and savory, the heat builds as you add it – carefully at first, then with wild abandon by the end – and you’re addicted.

No order of wings is totally complete without a great beer. While I would love to talk up the crazy-good Left Hand Stranger** I recently fell in love with at The Shaved Duck, I can’t. Bar Manager Matt Fournier keeps his four taps and eclectic bottle selection constantly changing. No matter when you go, you’ll find fun, funky, palette-pleasing, experience-broadening brew choices that will enhance your experience.

Chat up Matt a little bit. Ask him what’s new. Let him know what you generally like. He’ll guide to you to the exact right selection. This definitely is the place to push your beer boundaries!

Now you know what NOT to miss at The Shaved Duck. You’re biggest decision will be whether to insist on your own plate of Smoked Chicken Wings, or play nice and share with your dining companions.

Note to file: If you and I ever hit up “The Duck” together, you’re on your own!

Thank you, Chef Kobylarek, for smoking. You’ve elevated the humble – and often pedestrian – chicken wing to a new level.  The cravings between visits can be excruciating, but the soulful satisfaction that sets in when the wings hit my lips is bliss.

Take it from me: Head to The Shaved Duck, breathe in the smoke, order the Smoked Chicken Wings, and Eat It, St. Louis!

* If you don’t have the big box of 64, the color is like a shade of burnt orange.

** Pale Ale brewed in Longmont, Colorado. Not the Heathcliff-ish fellow in the corner.

The Shaved Duck
2900 Virginia Avenue
Saint Louis, MO 63118-1227
(314) 776-1407

Shaved Duck on Urbanspoon

Foodbuzz

The object of my affection at Trattoria Marcella is but a humble thistle elevated. May I introduce you to the Stuffed Artichoke? Masterful and unique, its full-globe presentation makes me swoon. It’s simple and gorgeous. How Chef Steve Komorak turns out a perfectly executed full artichoke every time is part of its mystique.

But he does, and for that I am inspired.

In their raw form, artichokes are tough and fibrous. There is a furry little heart in the center that needs to be removed before you dive in. Sometimes there are thorns. It makes me wonder if the same person who peeled the first banana and cracked the first coconut is the same person who decided he’d try to eat an artichoke. Seriously … this would seem like the stuff of dares.

Thankfully, someone accepted the dare and the artichoke was cultivated, finessed, and served.

When you order the Stuffed Artichoke, be prepared. What arrives at your table is breathtaking. The gorgeous green globe is stuffed with cous cous and toasted pine nuts. You can smell the herbs and parmigiano marry up with the peppery olive oil, which Chef Komorak procures specifically from Italy’s Umbria region.

As you peel back the leaves, layer by layer, your experience will change. The first layer or two are hearty and they stand up to help you get the flavorful stuffing to your mouth. It would seem that the leaves were made to be spoons, but not so fast. There is meat in those leaves! And oh my, it is delicious.

(Hint #1: Use your fingers and don’t be shy about pulling the leaves through your teeth to get every bit of artichoke meat you can. Leaving behind any morsel of goodness is a crime!)

Eventually, you’ll realize that you’ve come to very tender, very meaty leaves that seem to melt when they hit the edge of your lips. You’ll also notice that your hands are a mess and you might blush slightly to realize you’re licking your fingers. Let’s face it: It is a sexy, intimate thing, eating an artichoke in public.

And then, just when you think your experience could not improve … you see a lovely bed of cous cous and cheese on top of the artichoke bottom. This, my friends, is the little bit of heaven you’ve been craving. If you have to, Rochambeau* with your companion – best two out of three – to take full possession of bottom and don’t look back. It’s that good.

(Hint #2: Squirrel away a piece of the crusty bread ingot that comes when you’re seated. It is perfect for mopping up all of the yummy goodness left in the bottom of your dish.)

Take it from me, stuffing an artichoke and making it edible can break even the most dedicated home cook. I’ve tried and it takes hours, and hours, and hours of steaming and boiling. I’ve also scraped my hands on the tough raw exterior and pouted in frustration when none of it worked.

Now there is no reason to fret or pout. There is a restaurant where it works. So, I say, “Cheers to the magic Chef Komorek works in his kitchen!” Make your reservations, ask for the Stuffed Artichoke, and Eat It, St. Louis! You’ll be happy you did.

*Rock, paper, scissors

Trattoria Marcella
3600 Watson Rd
St. Louis, MO 63109
(314) 352-7706

Trattoria Marcella on Urbanspoon

Foodbuzz
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