Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Chowhounding St. Louis

Here are the highlights from fifteen hours of chowhounding in St. Louis:

The Buttery Restaurant (3659 S Grand Blvd; 314-771-4443)
I'm not often thrown into rapture by restaurant names, but I got all Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs about The Buttery Restaurant. Veering off of Grand Blvd and tearing through back streets to circle back to the Buttery parking lot, I worried I was losing my mind when everything for several blocks around appeared to be butter-colored - buildings, streets, the ground, everything. Maybe it was real, or maybe it was hysterical faux-glaucoma. I'm just reporting what I saw. In my saturated stigmata, there was butter in the streets.

Inside The Buttery Restaurant, things are crusty (one might even say congealed). The vibe augured low deliciousness, but just when I'd surmised that a great little greasy spoon had been shot to hell by management changes and long neglect, I spied the cook laying on hands for an elderly gentleman at the cash register, the vignette illuminated by a beam of cold white January sunlight filtered through the filthy front window. I'd been considering bolting, but, after that, no. I'd strap in for the ride.

Big prize for anyone who can parse out number 40 for me

And what a ride it was. The cook, a tough-as-nails/heart-of-gold woman of a certain age with more odd procedural ticks than Art Carney, was a joy and an enigma to watch. One hopes that the small pitcher serving as both source and disposal tank for cooking grease gets changed every few months, but the proof's in the eating: her grilled cheese sandwiches are perfect. Perfect! They're made with white bread that makes Wonder seem like a hearty peasant loaf. This is bread so irredeemably shitty that the sides of your crisp sandwich flop out dejectedly around your fingers. But her culinary techniques have evolved amid these woesome provisions, and she makes it work. My sandwich, consisting of Satan's own white bread, government surplus orange cheese, and The Grease of Perpetual Resurrection, was, again, perfect. Forgive my lack of specificity, but perfection's inherently indescribable. It's simply the grilled cheese you dream of in your deepest, most archetypal grilled cheese dreams.

The hash browns accompanying skillfully-cooked, oh-so-buttery eggs were frozen processed grey tuberous shreds which clearly hadn't experienced Mother Earth in a very, very long time. They were put through a grilling procedure both deft and daft, involving plump-ups within cooking rings, subsequent smashing-downs, and endless tides of inbound and outbound resurrection grease. They, too, displayed a sort of perfection, despite their blandness (the Buttery Restaurant does not cook for a sodium-tolerant crowd).

The individually-wrapped cupcakes positioned by the cash register were baked from an off-brand, veterinary-grade mix. But they were so startlingly fresh, and so heartbreakingly tender (from, no doubt, a goodly injection of resurrection grease). Chocolate chips had been conscientiously added to the batter to compensate for the mix's utter flavorlessness. I'd approached the cupcake with purposefulness, as one of many data points to be dutifully captured in my greater chowhounding mission, but by mid-bite I found myself transported to a treehouse full of five-year-olds all wondering, with confused frowny concern, why I was acting so busy and grown-uppish. I slowed down, slackened my jaw, and felt a sudden urge to pet kittens or do some finger painting or practice my whistling or something.

It's hard to describe the glow I felt leaving The Buttery Restaurant. But I'll say this: this place truly does have the power to transform an entire neighborhood into butter.

[see my short film, The Enigma of Von's Magical Cookies, which explores the mystery of how lousy ingredients and humdrum recipes can yield culinary magic]

Celeb spotting: the guy who produced the original Beggin' Strips commerical leaves The Buttery Restaurant

Nasiib (3445 S Grand; 314-664-4143) serves Somalian food, one of the more interesting African cuisines. With culinary influence from India, Italy, and Ethiopia, you'll see things like goat curry served over spaghetti, eaten with one's hands. We were too early for goat, but the sambosas (the local samosa variation) were meticulously fresh and crisp, and fiendishly flavor-nuanced. They come in various configurations - served with homemade excruciatingly hot sauce - and we opted for fish-flavored, which were remarkably unfishy. Also: sukhar with beef - a deceptively simple stir fry of beef chunks, onion, and green pepper. It was so simple, yet deeply satisfying, thanks to a caring touch. I hate green pepper, but here, and only here, I appreciated its inclusion. I temporarily forgave the grievous damage it's long done to home fries. Which is to say, I loved the sukhar, eaten with pinched morsels of spongey injera and flakey chapati. This place was surely the best find of the trip.

The people working there (as well as folks just hanging out) could not have been friendlier. And the "The Safari Sandwich", an original invention that's essentially a Somali chicken sandwich, looked great. I suspect everything here is great; I would have liked to have worked through the whole menu. It'd be a kick to do so, seeing as how this is the sort of place where if you stopped by three times, you'd find yourself warmly accepted into the local Somalian community. But, alas, it was time to move on. No full meals - and no lingering - in the midst of serious chowconnaissance!

Every other place in this report was discovered on the fly, without consulting guidebooks or web sites. but I did want to be sure to have great ribs, so I did fall back on just one found tip: on the north side of town, Roper's Ribs (6929 W Florissant Ave 314-381-6200) has won impressive awards, is greatly admired by locals, and is owned by the nicest people on planet earth. So I'd have loved with all my heart to report that their barbecue is great...but it isn't even close. But they do make terrific snoots - pig snouts flattened and fried, they're like pork rinds that went to grad school (likely Harvard, for maximal snootiness).

There's better barbecue in the north, I can feel it (I didn't give the jive big box downtown rib spots a second glance). But that's a discovery for another trip or another hound. I did spot Taylor's Place (4064 S Grand Blvd, 314-457-0130), a barbecue joint which hardly googles (and is super easy to miss driving by), but it was closed. I'll bet you it's at least very good.

Who can resist a town with not one but two pinball lounges? I hit The Silver Ballroom (4701 Morganford; 314-832-9223) - 'silver ball' room, get it? - which boasts vintage machines (including the legendary "Adams Family") in the back room, and punked-out (yet impeccably polite and cheery) bartenders in the front room, and some of the best Australian meat pies I've ever had. Their fillings (choose your favorite: meat/cheese or meat/bacon/cheese) are just ok, but the pastry, my god, the pastry. Even better than NYC's Tuck Shop. The other pinball spot, which I didn't try, is Orbit Pinball Lounge (7401 Hazel Ave; 314-769-9954).

There's really good, really strong, really funky Vietnamese ice coffee at a barebones cafe a block or two south of Banh Mi So 1 Saigon Gourmet (4071 South Grand Boulevard) and on the same side of Grand Blvd.. Non-Vietnamese make splashy entrances, but one great thing about Southeast Asians is how relaxed they are toward outsiders once they get used to you. This would be a great place to spend an afternoon, playing pool and sipping thick, sweet, dark, creamy coffee.

I noticed a Bosnian population, sparking a sub-quest for boureks (savory pastry pies). Alas, the only lead I got (from a family at a Bosnian supermarket) was Asw Bakery (5617 Gravois Ave 314-832-2212), which was closed. I later felt good vibes from Grbic Restaurant (4071 Keokuk St; 314-772-3100), a full-service Bosnian restaurant which I'm guessing doesn't do boureks, but has a great-looking menu.

Another looked-good/didn't-try: Thai Pizza Company (608 Eastgate Ave; 314-862-4429), which offers creations like chicken satay pizza. Not in a clever, exotic way, but in an unprepossessing way in a semi-cavernous gin mill. Nice!

Saint Louis Brewery / Schlafly Tap Room (2100 Locust St; 314-241-BEER) is a huge, famous, commercialized, institutionalized, fervidly merchandising monster in a suspiciously good location. They even have a branch at the airport. If ever a place should suck, Schlafly Tap Room is it.

But no. Food's great, beer's great, service's great. How do you keep quality so high for twenty two years in such a bean-counting, branded-up-the-wazoo operation? Easy. Put it in the Midwest, where people can't help being human.

Mahi Mahi tacos radiated a gaping Midwestern/Hispanic disconnect, as I'd feared, having been drizzled with hideous-looking day-glo orange sauce, but they ate like a dream. As a spud-o-phile, I can't not order mashed potatoes when offered as a side dish choice, however repulsive a combination they might make with, say, mahi mahi tacos. Good move in this case. These were the Enigma Spuds; chunky, waxy, and pleasingly near-al dente, they came with a side car of brown gravy, which I naturally expected to lend meaty/roasty flavors. But, no. The gravy was, magically, unbrown-tasting. In fact, it had the effect of liquid potato. It was like pouring potato on potato, yielding a hyperpotatoey result. This was brown gravy that had sacrificed its brownness to buoy the tuber, like a ballet dancer selflessly hoisting his graceful female partner. I can't recall ever having eaten better mashed potatoes. God, how I love the Midwest.

I'm compiling my beer notes (including Schlafly's offerings) into a separate article, which will hopefully go up tomorrow. (Update: here they are]

Would someone please find the great, unsung, rib place?!?

Similar Reads:
Follow vicariously my epic continental Chow Tour, with lots of food-porn photos.
Highlights:Attempted Culinary Seclusion in Florence, Alabama
Madly in Love with Maxine's (a dive in Kentucky)
36 Sublime Hours in Newfoundland
Vacation Tamales in Puerto Vallarta
and, of course, The Greatest (Chowhounding) Story Ever Told

Previous trip reports here on the Slog:
New Orleans
Spain (with a Brussels layover)
Budapest (in reverse chronological order)
Oaxaca (in reverse chronological order)

1 comment:

Seth Godin said...

This is a tone and a format and a style that you invented, Jim. It's been copied by thousands, but you're the boss. Watching you get back in the ring brings a huge smile to my face.

Every line is a platonic ideal, inches from self-parody and totally perfect. I don't even EAT this stuff and I'm hungry now.

Thanks for dusting off the chowhound chops for us now and then.

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