Archives for posts with tag: restaurants

logo

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.

Advertisements

logo

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?

newlogo

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.

photo

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

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.

We, in St. Louis, take our food seriously.  Our independent restaurant culture is a force to be reckoned with. Living in mid-America, we have access to locally grown produce and locally raised livestock.  Our artisanal bakers keep raising the standards of excellence.

To heck with all the platitudes, food in St. Louis is just plain good and the food scene itself  is vibrant.

When you love something as much as we love food, why not throw a party (or two) to celebrate it?*

On Sunday, June 26, foodies can get up-close and personal with many of their favorite restaurants at Sauce Magazine’s reader’s choice party, Saucy Soiree.  This fabulous mix-and-mingle lets the average Joe (that’s us) chat-and-chew with the dashing trendsetters of our beloved restaurant scene.

For just $25 (in advance, $30 cash-only at the door) you’ll be treated to divine nosh from Farmhaus, Salume Beddu, Annie Gunn’s, Niche, Sidney Street, Bridge, Pappy’s BBQ, Salt, Modesto, Bailey’s Choc. Bar, Schlafly, Mike Shannon’s, Harvest, Chaumette Vineyards, Prime 1000, Kakao Chocolate, Eleven Eleven Mississippi, Molly’s in Soulard, and many more.

What’s more, you get to indulge in this lovely little feast at the super swanky Four Seasons Hotel (I love this venue and Trisha D., who makes every event perfection). Trust me when I tell you that the ticket is worth the price of admission!

As an aside, when you attend this event you’ll affirm your position as a foodie “insider.” The results of Sauce Magazine’s Reader’s Choice poll will be revealed here – and only here – ahead of publication.

Perhaps, though, you’re looking for something a bit more intimate? Check out A Feast in The Field at Claverach Vineyard and Organic Farm, hosted by Slow Food St. Louis, also on June 26.

This deluxe and elegant celebration of the bounty grown at Claverach will feature luminaries from many of the St. Louis area’s premiere eateries. The super-star slow-food-supporter chefs who’ve developed the evening’s meal – which includes dishes such as fried squash blossoms stuffed with duck confit and served with a savory sabayon and petite beet terrine, and barbequed glazed Heath Putnam Farm mangalista pork belly over Hodgson Mills yellow corn cake and bacon jam with a mélange of Overlook Farm pickled carrots, Ozark Forest shitake mushrooms, radish “shards, and Claverach Farm shoots – are:

On any given evening, I’d be over the moon to have a meal prepared by any one of these chefs. To have all of these talented, passionate artists working together for one night is almost too much for my little head and heart to process. This is the All-Star Game for any serious foodie.

Tickets for Feast in The Field are on sale now. If you’re a member of St. Louis Slow Food, tickets are $100 each. For non-members, tickets are $125.  This unique experience will begin at 3:00 pm and go until the last bit of deliciousness is had.

From the bottom of my happy foodie heart, thank you to all of the wonderful publications and organizations that support eating well and living well in St. Louis. More and more, our region is defined by the excellence found in our restaurants, our farmer’s markets, and on the tables of terrific home cooks. It is a true benefit of our St. Louis community that we can experience all of this passion and creativity in so many different ways … and at different price points. There truly is something for everyone.

A lovely summer Sunday night demands plans. Decide which event whets your appetite, buy a ticket, and Eat It, St. Louis!

*I love the independence of my blog, so I never accept “free” tickets in exchange for a blog post like this. I happen to really believe in what is going on here and I’m delighted to be able to support great efforts. Just thought you’d like to know …

But there is a San Francisco. Ashleigh Brilliant wrote this, and quite honestly no truer words were ever penned. Every time I arrive in the City by The Bay, my soul simply sings.

When my singing soul needs sustenance, there is no shortage of bistros, grills, and eateries of all sorts to fuel the symphony within. Just wandering through the streets – which are teeming with life from pre-dawn hours to well after Midwestern bedtime – presented me with global fare and delicious options that made my choices difficult. I had the feeling, however, that no matter what my choice I would have no regrets.

My gut … as usual … was right.

My first stop was for a late lunch at the lovely bistro, Le Central. It was late enough in the afternoon to have the lunch crowd gone. There were a couple of regulars and a cheery bar tender who was happy to have me sit at the bar. I ordered my favorite French lunch of escargot and big glass of red wine, and relaxed into the atmosphere.

One of the most fabulous characteristics of San Francisco is the unabashed openness of the people. Whether they are native to the city or travellers, like me, there is little fear of striking up conversation and enjoying the community that sharing a meal provides. At Le Central, Toni the bartender; Gloria, the executive who heads up global HIV/AIDS initiatives for a bioscience company; and Sandra, her vibrant, funny, lifelong friend, scooped me up into their conversation. They told me about a trip they’d taken to Bali. We shared a “St. Louis Connection.” They told me about the majesty of Yosemite and the Ahwahnee Hotel. We talked about idealism and the real-world practicality of it all. We talked about cancer and we talked about living.

It was like I was supposed to be there, with them, on that glorious day.

When my escargot arrived, complete with half a baguette and full-fat French butter, my senses were electrified. The perfectly tender snails were basking in little pools of butter and garlic. The splash of Pernod gave them a signature sweetness and edge that makes the escargot a must-have dish. And good God; mopping up that divine sauce with the baguette was an act of pure decadence.

I was so very thankful to have my ad hoc lunching companions. Our spirited and convivial conversation kept me from eating so fast as to embarrass everyone and exposing myself as a glutton.

As my late lunch came to a close and my merry group said our goodbyes, I walked on clouds back to my hotel relishing in an afternoon that was better than anything I could have hoped for. I was grateful and my soul was humming a happy tune.

Le Central on Urbanspoon

Never one to skip a meal (seriously, have we met?), I set my sights on a late-ish dinner. My destination for this meal was no mystery. Armed with a recommendation from Paul*, a foodie Facebook friend from Phoenix, I got ready to make my way to the Tadich Grill in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District. Paul’s instructions were simple: Order the cioppino and a cold beer, you won’t be sorry.

The Tadich Grill is a little bit old-school. When you go the website, there is only a page that says it its “website is coming off the grill soon.” So, not knowing quite what to expect (Is it a fancy place? Will it be weird if I’m dining sans companion?), I decided to go for a casually cool look, packed a book, and hailed a taxi.

As I walked through the door, the hustle and bustle let me know that I’d arrived as just my kind of place. The waiter behind the bar hollered out, “ONE!?!?” I similarly hollered back, “YES!,” and he directed me to a seat at a long, art deco bar. It seemed as though nearly all of the restaurant were flying solo.

(Note to file: The book and taxi were both unnecessary!)

Although I glanced at the menu, which was extensive, I simply followed Paul’s directions and ordered the cioppino and a Stella Artois. The meal that came to me was out of this world.

To start, when you take your seat, there is a huge hunk – yeah, HUNK – of sourdough bread waiting. It might make you think that the grill skimps on its portions. Rest assured, that is not the case. When the main attraction arrived in a trough-sized dish, this stew was packed with sea food: Clams and mussels; scallops and shrimp; halibut and Dungeness crab. It was perfect.

Here’s something to know. Often the various components of a mixed-seafood anything can be uneven in the cooking which can make for tough scallops, rubbery shrimp, or all-around blandness. This was definitely not the case with the Tadich Grill cioppino. Whether or not every piece of seafood was cooked individually I do not know. What I do know is that every bite was tender and sweet and flavorful in just the right way. It was amazing.

As I took each bite, a hint of heat punctuated the brilliant flavor. At no time did I run out of the “good stuff.” As a matter of fact, I got full before the magnificent trough was empty and failed to finish my meal.

Um … that never happens. I was sad to leave such goodness behind.

With a heavy heart, and a full tummy, I settled up my tab and walked back to my hotel, mostly uphill, and as always, in high heels. My soul was beginning to sing a sweet lullaby.

Tadich Grill on Urbanspoon

As the sun was coming up on the next day – a real work day for me, as I was there as a freelance marketing representative for Elsevier, the world’s largest STM publisher – I had a bit of a food hangover so breakfast was out of the question. It was an easy pass, however, because I knew what was ahead for the evening: Dinner at Ame, the Michelin-rated restaurant in the chichi St. Regis Hotel.

First, the St. Regis is so deluxe that the only sign is a small white plaque near the entrance. I loved it!

My dining companions for the evening were Cynthia, an executive publisher and a mentor with Elsevier; Dr. Doug Zipes, editor-in-chief of HeartRhythm Journal and author of the thriller, The Black Widows; and his lovely wife and managing editor, Joan. It was an evening filled with smart chat, big laughs, and great food.

My meal began with a beet salad, which was presented in the most artistic way. These lovely roasted baby beets, both sunshine yellow and vibrant red-purple, were positioned around the plate vertically and also sliced and placed horizontally. Goat cheese crème fraiche dotted the plate and made for a perfectly delicate dressing (if you can call it that). Plus, it looked really pretty when I dragged the red-purple beets through the white and little trails of pink were left behind.

The evening we were there, Ame’s special was sea bass – a personal favorite – with grilled octopus. Really … I eat snails … how could I say “no” to grilled octopus? This is, after all, one of the primary reasons it is fun to dine at fancy-schmancy restaurants: you get good stuff.

To be certain, the sea bass was perfection. The grilled octopus, however, was the star of the show. A visual treat and a tasty nosh, it had a delicate smoky quality from the grilling that refined the usually sweet sea treat and elevated it from mere calamari.

The experience at Ame was made a little extra-special-wonderful because of the deluxe service. Let’s face it, Michelin stars aren’t handed out willy-nilly. No, they are earned through a combination of innovative cuisine and well-trained, attentive-but-not-intrusive staff. The team who took care of our table – we asked lots of questions, switched up described preparations, and bantered shamelessly – was accommodating, light-hearted, and put the exclamation point on our evening.

At the end of our meal, our entire party felt indulged and pampered.

Replaying the night’s repartee and repast as I taxied back to the hotel, the pace and volume of my soul’s concert changed as frequently as a newly licensed 16-year-old changes the radio station. I was giddy and bubbly and happy to have been included in such a lovely evening.

Ame on Urbanspoon

On my last full day in San Francisco, my colleague, Matt (who’s a delightful foodie, too!), and I decided we would venture out of the usual downtown area and try a restaurant that @Kimberly9938 (one of my fabulous foodie Twitter followers)* had recommended with great enthusiasm: Nopa.

To quote Usher, “wow, oh, wow!”

At the onset, it was great to hit up a neighborhood. Nopa is located in the heart of the Northern Panhandle – hence the name – area of the city. Modest homes (although not likely modestly priced … it is San Francisco), markets, delis, and shops lined the busy streets. Young families were out and about carrying on life that was different from Downtown.

When we arrived at Nopa – and yes, if you’re downtown a taxi is totally necessary – we were welcomed into a warm environment where community was clearly intrinsic to the philosophy of the restaurant. A large community table is situated by the bar, and the places there quickly filled in with diners and drinkers who shared easy smiles and exchanged hearty, “hellos!”

Matt and I chose to sit at the Chef’s Table, which looks directly into the kitchen. As colleagues, we could “talk shop” all dinner long. Sitting in this place, however, at this time, we were able to engage with the sous chef and talk about … what else … food and our love of it.

Rather than stick to a traditional dinner, we jumped right into the community atmosphere of Nopa. We got twice the bang for the buck by agreeing on two appetizers and two entrees and sharing them between us. Matt chose the flatbread with bacon and shallots. I chose the giant white beans, tomato, feta, oregano and breadcrumbs. Both the flatbread and the beans were baked in a wood-fired brick oven.

Now, those of you who know me know one thing: I don’t like bacon. Yes, I eat pork. Yes, I LOVE sausage. I really just don’t care for bacon. As we were watching the flatbreads come from the oven, I found that I couldn’t resist and I was glad that Matt had ordered one up. It was divine. The bacon was perfectly done – not too crisp, not too limp — and full of amazing flavor. The sweet tang of shallot complemented the meaty pork. And the finish of olive oil made it just perfect. My, oh, my! (Another Usher reference.)

My giant white bean bake (for lack of the better descriptor) hit me in my giant comfort food spot. Simple and beautiful; warm and thick; aromatic and bubbly, the dish came straight from the brick oven. While I know we’d agreed to share our dishes, I was a little sore that I’d promised to share this one. It was the kind of dish that you eat a little too quickly because you’re afraid someone might take it away.

For the entrée, Matt ordered the grilled pork chop and I ordered the 9-hour Bolognese with house-made pappardelle. Let me be clear: The pork chop was the way to go.

Way too often, whether I’m at home or in a restaurant, pork is always overdone. A little too white all the way through; a little too dry.

At Nopa, the grilled pork chop, which had to be at least an inch and a half thick, is just a little pink in the middle and juicy. So juicy, in fact, you’d think they injected the chop with jus. But no, the pork chop is simply a superstar example of perfectly grilled meat. It brings out the Fred Flinstone in the daintiest woman; it speaks to the unapologetic carnivore within; it makes you want another portion even though you know it’s preposterous.

My Bolognese was good. Very good, in fact. But I really wanted my very own pork chop. And one to go!

The evening of incredible food, communal dining, and awesome people (my colleague, our cool and edgy waitress, the sous chef, and the patrons on either side of us) created an experience that was at once chic and unselfconscious. My soul was in the San Francisco swing of things, singing out in happy, hippy, poetic tones that felt like the shining sun.

Nopa on Urbanspoon

San Francisco is my heaven, and I’m so lucky to have been there time and time again. I feel like a better, brighter version of me came home. For me, that feeling comes from the meals I shared, the people I met, the adventure I charted for myself and the beautiful music that the whole experience created within my soul.

I wish I could share the happy song I hear with all of you; but, I’m tone deaf. So please, go find – or revisit – your heaven, venture into a new place, chat up the folks next to you, engage your waiter or waitress, listen closely to what happens in your soul, and Eat It, St. Louis!

* Thank you to Paul and Kimberly, a Facebook friend and Twitter follower respectively, who guided me to great places in San Francisco. I love social media and how it enables people with similar interests to connect and share. Thank you for pulling your chairs up to my table and being part of the conversation. Without you, this post would have been only half as long … and half as interesting!

Foodbuzz

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

I’ve spent my life loving food. As a military brat, it defined how I connected to every community and culture into which I was plopped. As a young adult, it played a leading role in helping me craft friendships and shape my identity. Now, as a bona fide grown up, food brings my family around the table; coaxes my friends out to play; and encourages strangers to find common ground.

No foodie could ask for a better place to live than St. Louis, a true restaurant town. St. Louis has a sparkling independent restaurant community with stars who capture the national spotlight. I’ve found good stuff, too, at some of the chain restaurants. Any gastronomic need can be met. Any ambiance can be achieved. Any budget can be accommodated. A legitimate hobby in our fair city is going out to eat, and I do so often.

Perhaps this is a conceit, but in my opinion St. Louis has an inordinate number of crazy good home cooks. I’ve enjoyed meals that introduced me to new delights and new people. There are some meals that have become tradition. And there never has been a meal that left me wishing I’d dined somewhere else.

This blog is dedicated to the pure love of food, the artistry and passion of those who create it, and the sheer experience it provides. I won’t be commenting on bad service, sub-par dishes, or kitchen malfunctions that lead to last-minute pizza delivery. I’m not a reviewer. Each post will focus on one dish that I’d like you to try.

Also, don’t be surprised to see “fair food,” cocktails, or road trip explorations take center stage from time to time.

Pick up your fork, hoist your drink, and Eat It, St. Louis!

%d bloggers like this: