Tuesday, December 21, 2010

monarch, maplewood mo

7401 manchester road, maplewood mo

the recently renovated monarch had been on our 'to try' list for some time now, but always seemed to get pushed to the side in lieu of somewhere else. dinner on this evening was originally to have been at araka, but after reading several poor reviews, we decided to skip it and finally give monarch its chance. located in maplewood, the kitchen at monarch is led by executive chef josh galliano. galliano has worked under daniel boulard at his flagship michelin three starred restaurant in nyc, and more recently, has been nominated as a semi finalist for the james beard awards as best midwestern chef.

monarch is kind of like two restaurants in one. there is a casual southern bistro and the more upscale main dining room. our reservations were for the main dining room, and we were seated upon arrival despite being about twenty minutes early. the dining room, which was about two thirds full, is a beautiful space, and easily ranks among st louis's top five in terms of style and ambiance. we were greeted promptly by our server, and presented with menus and a wine and cocktail list. i inquired about the chef putting together a tasting menu for us, and mentioned that we would like to be able to try as many dishes as possible. after a quick conversation with the chef, our server informed us that the chef could do a dual five course tasting, meaning that we would each get five courses, but we would each be served a different dish, allowing us to sample ten different offerings from chef gallianos menu. we were given the option of choosing some of the courses, or doing a blind tasting in which the chef would surprise us. we went for the blind tasting, but with the request that the sweetbreads be included at some point. we also chose to partake in the optional wine pairings to further enhance our experience.

to kick things off, we started our meal with a couple of cocktails. mine was a mojito made with limonella instead of rum. carrie's was a bit more complex, and the ingredients have escaped us both at this point. both cocktails were very good. if monarch were closer to home, it would definitely be a spot we would hit up just for drinks.

shortly after our cocktails were served, and amuse bouche was offered to give us a taste of the chefs cooking. this was what was a essentially a pastry crust filled with mushroom. the amuse was par for the course, but largely unmemorable.

next up, a cornbread with butter was brought to the table. although i am not a huge cornbread fan, i do eat it on ocasion, and found monarchs offering to be amongst the best i have had.

after the cornbread, there was a short break before our meal proper began. with this meal taking place just before christmas, i have not had time to write a review until what is now almost two weeks later, so some of the details of this meal have been lost. below is a picture and brief description of each of the ten courses.

course 1a: tuna crudo with beets
wine pairing: muscadet

course 1b: gulf crab cake with pea shoots and pickled cucumbers
wine pairing: muscadet

course 2a: roasted sweetbreads with black truffle grits, celery root, and red wine bacon jus
wine pairing: chardonnay

course 2b: pear and truffle risotto with roasted mushrooms, poached pears, and brown butter.
wine pairing: chardonnay

course 3a: sauteed jumbo white shrimp and roasted garlic grits in a new orleans style bbq sauce
wine pairing: pinot noir

course 3b: slow baked skate with mushroom and shrimp stuffing, roasted fennel, pistachio crusted sunchokes, and a caper brown butter sauce
wine pairing: pinot noir

course 4a: venison
wine pairing: cote du rhone

course 4b: foie gras stuffed chicken with endive, country ham gratin, sherry roasted mirlitons, hazelnut soil, and natural jus
wine pairing: cote du rhone

course 5a: semifreddo, carmel, white chocolate cremeux, spiced beignets, white chocolate powder
wine pairing: tawny port

course 5b: bananas foster
wine pairing: tawny port

throughout the meal, the service provided to us by our server and his assistants was spot on perfect. the timing in between courses was perfect, long enough to allow us to finish our wine, but not so long as to have us wondering if we had been forgotten. our server had an excellent grasp on the menu, and explained each course and wine to us eloquently and effortlessly. our water glasses never reached half empty, and any crumbs were removed quickly.

overall, our dinner at monarch was the most elaborate dinner in terms of length and price we have experienced in st louis. however, i cannot say that it was the absolute best. although everything we had was very good, with a few courses being exceptional, nothing has me absolutely raving. our meal took place roughly two weeks ago, and there isn't a course i can still vividly taste. i think that is part of the reason this review is much more vague than some of my others. when it comes down to it, monarch was a good experience, and i am definitely willing to give it another go down the road when the menu has some new offerings. however, if i was recommending an out of town visitor a place for dinner, there would be four or five places i would recommend ahead of monarch.

Monarch on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

acero, maplewood mo

7266 manchester road, maplewood mo
monday november 30th 2010 7:15-

pronounced uh-CHER-oh, and meaning maple in italian, acero is a terrific restaurant in maplewood missouri featuring sicilian cuisine. acero is owned by chef/restauranteur jim fiala, who owns three other restaurants in the st. louis area (the crossing, liluma, and the terrace view), and has previously worked at michelin starred restaurants such as spiaggia in chicago and daniel in new york. this trip to acero would be our second, and our last visit left us with very high expectations for our return.

our reservation was for 7:30, but we arrived around 7:10, and were seated promptly and without issue. acero is a fairly small space, with seating for maybe 50 diners. within moments, our water was poured, and a large clear bottle was left at our table. this ensured that we would never be left without water. some may argue that at a fine restaurant, water service should be provided by a server, and your glass should never reach half empty. however, i personally do not mind acero's approach to water in the least, as i drink a lot of water, and having a server constantly hovering can somtimes put a damper on conversation.

shortly there after, we were greeted by our server, a friendly and helpful young woman, who did an excellent job that evening. she mentioned a few specials, and left us to look over the menu. acero offers items al a carte, or a four course tasting menu. as i always want to try as much as possible, we went with the tasting menu, and added a few extra items al a carte. acero's wine program lends itself very well to a tasting style menu. wine can be ordered by the quartino (which is about a third of a bottle), which can be split between two people. this allows you to try multiple wines throughout the meal instead of trying to find a single bottle that will pair well with everything.

while i do very much enjoy wine, i still have a lot to learn about pairing it with food. acero's wine list is exclusively italian, which made things even more difficult for me. to be safe, i asked our server to use her judgement, and bring us three quartinos throughout the course of the night.

after placing our orders, a warm loaf of bread was delivered. the standard olive oil was offered on the table to accompany the bread. i was slightly let down by the bread, as it was not quite as good as i had remembered from our previous visit.

for our first courses, my wife and i each went with the acero salad. the salad consisted of romaine lettuce, egg, onion, salumi, and a herb vinaigrette. paired with the salads was our first wine quartino of the evening, a white wine made from the falanghina grape. this was a nicely balanced wine, being not too dry or too sweet, and was great with the salads.

along with the salads, we also supplemented a dish entitled gnocco fritto. these were basically pastry puffs topped with prosciutto. we really enjoyed these, and could have probably eaten another plate full of them!

following the salads was the pasta course. we added one extra item, and shared all three selections. pictured above is the egg raviolo. this dish is a single pasta pillow stuffed with cheese and an egg yolk, and topped with a cream sauce. the raviolo was incredibly rich and delicious, and eating more than one of them would have been difficult.

our second pasta choice was the tagliatelle with wild mushrooms, shallots, and parmesean. this was probably my favorite dish of the night. the thin tagliatelle noodles were wonderful in both taste and mouthfeel, and the mushrooms, although small, had a nice full flavor.

finally, our last pasta selection was the ricotta gnudi. this was my wife's favorite dish of the evening, and i let her eat most of it. the bite of it i had was enjoyable, but i do not remember much about it.

for our main entrees, we both opted for the mangalista pork ribeye with roasted potatoes and salsa verde. the ribeye was nicely marbled, perfectly juicy, and had a wonderful rich flavor. the potatoes had a slight crispiness to them, and were also quite good.

for dessert, we chose the bread pudding and the panna cotta, and shared them both. shown above, the bread pudding for the evening was made with apples, and served with vanilla ice cream. while it was nothing revolutionary, acero's bread pudding was quite formidable, and was my wife's favorite of the two desserts.

the panna cotta, which is an eggless custard, was topped with a salty carmel sauce. while my wife found it to be a bit to rich for her taste, i absoultely loved it. i think it was the subtle salt flavor that really did it for me.

to go with the desserts, my wife enjoyed a cappuccino, and i had a nice single malt scotch. the oban 14 year was my selection for the evening.

below are the tasting notes from whisky.com

Strength: 43% ABV

Appearance: Olive gold.

Nose: Rich sweetness and fruits - oranges, lemons and pears, with sea-salt and peaty smokiness.

Body: Full, rich.

Palate: Mouth-filling late autumn fruits - dried figs and honey-sweet spices; followed by a smoky malty dryness.

Finish: Long, smooth-sweet finish with oak-wood, dryness and a grain of salt.

after savoring the last drop of my whisky, we paid the bill, and made our way to the car. on this evening, acero delivered in just about every aspect. between the two of us, we were able to try seven different dishes (had we not both ordered the same salad and entree, it could have been nine), and not once did acero misstep or faulter in any way. acero is a great restaurant for someone who enjoys italian cooking, but has tired of menus filled with basic choices like chicken parmeasean, fettucine alfredo, and lasagna. acero's menu changes with the seasons, and i fully intend to return to acero a few times a year to try new dishes.

Acero on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

pappy's smokehouse, st louis mo

3106 olive street, st louis mo
wednesday november 24th 2010

we knew pappy's was a popular barbecue joint before arriving around noon on the day before thanksgiving. however, we highly underestimated just how popular pappy's actually is. pictured above is not the actual entrance to the restaurant, instead, a line formed on the side of the building leading into a side door. the line then snaked down a hallway, and the doubled back leading into the actual dining room.

this picture was take approximately forty five minutes after first joining the line. at this point, we were about twenty minutes away from placing our orders. i chatted with one of the employees for a minute, and asked him if he thought it was especially busy being that it was the day before thanksgiving. he equated the line to a typical weekend in the fall or winter, and a typical week day during the summer. he also told me they sell a rack of ribs per minute on busy days like this. at twenty bucks a rack, pappy must be doing quite well for himself! the walls of the dining room are lined with menus signed by several famous athletes, musicians, and actors. 

at pappy's, you order at the counter, and then the food is brought out to your table. if there are no tables available, they stop taking orders until a table is vacated. this ensures that no one is left with food in their hands and no place to sit.

after finally placing our orders, roughly one hour and ten minutes after our arrival, we found a table. three sauces are offered at pappy's, pappy's original, sweet baby jane's, and holly's hot sauce. after sampling them all, i deemed pappy's original my personal favorite.

the moment of truth was finally here. carrie and i both ordered the lunch special, which was a pulled pork sandwich with a choice of one side. the sandwich was indeed tasty, but was certainly not head and shoulders above other pulled pork sandwiches i have had in the past. on the side, we both went with the sweet potato fries. i will admit that i am not a big fan of sweet potatos, and the fries (which were topped with brown sugar) did nothing to make me want to give them another chance. my wife on the other hand, is a sweet potato lover, and thought the fries were terrific.

wanting to get the full pappy's expierence, i also ordered a half rack of ribs. these were decent, but were certainly not worth the hour we stood in line waiting for them. they had an ok flavor, but were just not nearly as tender as i was hoping for. the ribs came with two sides, with my choices being green beans and deep fried corn on the cob. the corn on the cob was ok, but i did not take my first bite of it until it was fairly cold, so i didn't get to give it a fair shot. since i had already eaten a full pulled pork sandwich, half a rack of ribs, and sampled two side, i skipped the green beans all together.

i hate to say it, but i found my experience at pappy's disappointing. both the ribs and the sandwich were good, but given the hype surrounding pappy's, i was expecting to be blown away. had i been able to walk in, order, and eat within a twenty minute period, my opinion of pappy's would probably be different. i do plan to give the place another shot at some point, but will try to go mid afternoon in hopes the wait will be significantly shorter.

Pappy's Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

benton park cafe, st louis mo

1900 arsenal street, st louis mo
wednesday november 24th 2010

on our way to st. louis to drop my car off for service, my wife carrie and i decided to check out benton park cafe for breakfast. i will admit that a proper breakfast if something i rarely have, and i cannot remember the last time i had anything significant to eat before 9:00am. benton park cafe is located in the soulard area of st. louis, which is home to several excellent restaurants.

the place was not at all crowded, and we were told to pick any table we wanted. the decor is very modest, and the place has a bit of an alternative/hipster vibe to it. the music was mostly ambient intrumental (think mogwai and explosions in the sky), but i did hear a few radiohead cuts as well.

we were brought menus and water garnished with a cucumber. this is a trend i have seen increasing lately, and i can't say i am against it.

benton park cafe has a nice selection of coffee drinks, and my wife and i each tried one. i went with the raspberry mocha, and she chose the carmel mocha. served in taller than average mugs, both drinks were excellent.

my choice for breakfast was the hoofer. available in either a burrito or an omelet, the hoofer is made with egg, three cheeses, ham, chorizo sausage, bacon, and scallions. paired with an ample amount of hot sauce, this breakfast burrito was excellent. as i mentioned above, i rarely eat anything this time of day, let alone something this substantial, and i was only able to finish a bit more that half of the burrito.

my wife chose the south of the border, but opted for an omelet as opposed to a burrito. this consisted of egg, cheese, chorizo sausage, and jalpenos. she also topped her with plenty of hot sauce, and found it to be very enjoyable.

Benton Park Cafe & Coffee Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

brasserie by niche, st louis mo

4580 laclede avenue, st louis mo
tuesday november 23 2010, 11:30am-12:30pm

on a rare day when my work day did not begin until 3pm, my wife and i ventured over to the central west end for a three course lunch at brasserie by niche. brasserie serves traditional french bistro style food, and is the creation of niche chef/owner gerard craft.

we had an 11:30am reservation, which proved unessacary, with the restaurant being completely empty upon our arrival. brasserie's interior has a warm, classic design to it with wood floors and elegant details. if there was any music being played, it was very subtle, as i cannot recall there being any.

seated at a two top against the wall in the middle of the vacant dining room, we were immediately brought water and menus, and asked if we would like anything else to drink. with a nice list of house cocktails, craft beer on draft, and decent wine list, declining alcohol was difficult. had i not still had a workout and a shift at the store ahead of me, i would have most definitely partaken. we were given a few minutes to look things over, and within about ten minutes of being seated, we made our selections.

first up for me was the frisee salad. topped with a poached egg, the salad also included thick cut bacon and a nice bacon vinaigrette dressing. being that it was not yet noon, the salad served as the breakfast i had skipped, and was an excellent way to start the meal.

my wife's starter was the french onion soup, which was equally delicous. topped with a cheese that i beleive was gryuere, the soup was served piping hot with an abudance of onions under the layer of cheese.

after a short break after our first courses, our main entrees arrived. my selection was the brasserie burger. cooked medium by my specification, the burger was topped with blue cheese, pickled red onions, arugula, and served on a warm fresh bun. declining the kethcup i was offered, i dug into the burger which was good, but could have been better. i felt the beef was cooked closer to medium well than medium. perhaps i should have ordered it medium rare. the bun was also just ok. even though it was made fresh, its texture was a bit too firm, a sign that it too was probably a bit overcooked. all in all though, the burger was very tasty, and the fries that accompanied it were terrific.

my wife chose the quiche du jour, which was made with beets, mushrooms, and gruyere cheese. neither of us can recall the details on the accompaning salad, but both the quiche and the salad were very good.

for dessert, there were two options that we both had a hard time picking between, so we ordered both and shared them. above we have the floating island, which came highly recomended by both our server and the diners at the table next to us. this is a hard one to describe, and since i am not being paid to write this blog, i am not even going to try. i will say that it was quite good, and i would recomend it to anyone.

our other dessert choice, which trumped the floating island in my opinion, was a wonderful almond flavored pastry. served warm with vanilla ice cream on the side, the pastry was flaky and had a nice firm bite to it.

with the exception of the few small issues with my burger, the entire lunch was excellent. this was our second visit to brasserie (the first was for dinner) and i would love to return in a few months for either lunch or dinner to try some more of their excellent offerings.

Brasserie by Niche on Urbanspoon