Selecting Riverfront Times' Best of St. Louis 2011 was no picnic. Choosing the winner meant several worthy candidates would go unmentioned -- until now. In this Gut Check series, we are chewing our way through notable runners up in a number of categories. To see hundreds more winners and finalists and download the Riverfront Times Best of St. Louis mobile app, visit our Best of St. Louis homepage.
The quest for "real" tapas in St. Louis is a daunting -- but not impossible -- one. While Spain's twisting, mysterious streets are home to many a gastronomic wonder, St. Louis is seeing a steady increase in restaurants that pay homage to this lovely, languid way of eating a meal. Here are nine places worth exploring, one delicious morsel at a time.
BARcelona (34 North Central Avenue, Clayton; 314-863-9909)
Love tapas but can't afford the trip to Spain for the real deal? Solution: Pack your bags and head to BARcelona in Clayton. BARcelona takes tapas seriously, with an extensive menu of traditional, tasty treats. All the favorites make an appearance including a cheese plate, tortilla española, jamón Serrano, calamari and more. BARcelona offers something for every palate with seafood, chicken and albóndigas among the choices, as well as yummy pinxtos (tapas on a stick). The warm environment gets even warmer after a few glasses of sangria to wash it all down.
Guido's Pizzeria & Tapas (5046 Shaw Avenue; 314-771-4900)
The Carretero family's tapas cred begins with their roots in Madrid. Thankfully for St. Louis, they have brought that cred stateside and, more specifically, to the Hill neighborhood. At Guido's Pizzeria and Tapas diners get authentic, delicious tapas without the en vogue pretensions of typical "tapas bars." Cold tapas selections include jamón Serrano and Spanish olives, while hot tapas offer calamares a la plancha (charbroiled squid), patatas bravas (potatoes in a spicy sauce), albóndigas and empadillas (puff pastry filled with either chicken or tuna) to name a few.
Modesto (5257 Shaw Avenue; 314-772-8272)
While the Hill neighborhood may be famous for its Italian cuisine and culture, Modesto's Spanish cuisine provides a pretty convincing case for the western part of the Mediterranean. Along with meats, cheeses and paella, Modesto serves a variety of tapas. And we're not talking the generic "small plates" -- we mean tapas in the true Spanish style. Here guests will find tortilla española, patatas dos salsas and grilled eggplant rolls with Iberico cheese and herb picada among the dishes. For those on a budget, come during happy hour for drink specials as well as pinxtos (very small bites), which cost from 25 cents to $1.50 and include a veal and pork meatball, grilled shrimp and a chorizo-stuffed date.
Mojo Tapas Restaurant & Bar (3117 South Grand Boulevard; 314-865-0500)
Mojo, which opened in April 2010 on South Grand Boulevard, offers its own take on tapas. Sure, you'll find calamari, but at Mojo it's flash-fried and served with a chile-lime aioli. You bet, there's sausage too, but here it's grilled chorizo, andouille and Italian sausages served with a pineapple chutney. Other stylish takes on tapas include curried edamame hummus with lavash crackers and a baked sea scallop gratin. The influences for Mojo's kitchen come from all over the globe, where a gorgeous plate of seared ahi can be served alongside a warm baked goat cheese with a spicy Creole sauce or tasty little Korean-style barbecue rib sliders. Mojos also brings it all back home with a plate of St. Louis' own Billy Goat Chips presented with your choice of aioli for dipping.
One 19 North Tapas & Wine Bar (119 North Kirkwood Road, Kirkwood; 314-821-4119)
In its former life, 119 North Kirkwood Avenue was home to D'Vine Wine. As frequent visitors to the wine spot, husband and wife Pat and Ellen Carr took a shine to the location, and, when the opportunity arose, they took it over and re-created it as One 19 North Tapas & Wine Bar. While wine remains in the name, the Carrs took it up a notch by adding a tasty selection of traditional and not-so-traditional tapas. Here you'll find a meat-and-cheese plate as well as New Orleans barbecue shrimp and crawfish étouffée. The rustic setting provides a cozy backdrop with which to sit back, relax, sip wine and completely pig out on delicious tapas.
Salt (4356 Lindell Boulevard; 314-932-5787)
Chef Wes Johnson found success at such spots as Eclipse and Shaved Duck, and now he shares his talents at a his own restaurant, Salt, in the Central West End spot formerly home to Savor. Here Johnson serves up ducky delights, porky pleasures and other rustic farm-to-table fare. Among the small plates, standouts include braised pork belly and duck-fat frites. Another must-have at Salt is a seared scallop in a cracked-mustard sauce, which is served inside a sealed Mason jar. In 2011 this dish earned praise when it ranked No. 2 on RFT food critic Ian Froeb's Top Ten Dishes of 2011, and the restaurant itself received Best of St. Louis honors as Best New Restaurant.
Sanctuaria (4198 Manchester Avenue; 314-535-9700)
Brought to us from the team behind Café Ventana and the reborn Chuy Arzola's, Sanctuaria in the Grove cooks up a brief, but effective selection of tasty "wild" tapas. These aren't your typical ham, olive and cheese bites. Here choices include cabrales "cigars" - Spanish blue-cheese-and-leek fondue rolled into phyllo and pan-seared - as well as Monterey-jack-and-guava empanadas, bacon-wrapped dates and "wicked good shrimp," which features a garlicky, peppery tomato sauce. Sanctuaria cranks up the wild times with a hefty menu of specialty cocktails to accompany these unconventional, but delicious, plates.
Taste (4584 Laclede Avenue; 314-361-1200)
By now any local foodie knows that Gerard Craft cooks legendary meals at his multiple successful ventures in the city, but at Taste, fans can enjoy the ever-changing menu of small plates conjured by Craft's partner Adam Altnether, who heads up Taste on his own. Offerings have included plenty of piggy pleasures such as pork meatballs and pork belly. Not a Porky fan? No problem. Taste's delicious dishes also include seared scallops and roasted squash bruschetta. Ted Kilgore, Taste's mixologist, ensures that diners get the perfect beverage to accompany these perfect dishes.
And the Best Tapas/Small Plates Restaurant in St. Louis for 2011 is...
Robust (227 West Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-963-0033)
As St. Louisans we understand that going out for tapas here will never be the same as exploring the storied streets of Spain, the promised land of paella and jamón ibérico and naps. We get it. But the tapas experience is just as much about atmosphere as it is about food, and Webster Groves' Robust Wine Bar has atmosphere in spades. The vibe is stylish but warm and welcoming, and the food's outstanding, whether you opt for traditionally "Spanish" fare -- Cava and chorizo, for example -- or not-so, such as rib-eye medallions or Genoa salami. Explore Robust's pages-long wine list by opting for a flight ($12 to $26); that's three three-ounce pours grouped by theme -- "Bubble Bath" (sparkling wines), for instance, or "Take Me to Bed Reds." Robust also offers the option of purchasing wines by the half-glass, when you want just one more little taste of your favorite newly discovered wine (and you almost certainly will). And if you like it so much you want to take some home, Robust retails all its wines by the bottle, at very competitive prices.