by Ian Froeb
The Gut Check One Hundred is our accounting of the 100 dishes in St. Louis that you must eat right now. These are the best dishes at the newest restaurants and the newest dishes at the best restaurants. These are the 100 dishes that define St. Louis dining in 2013. Our list culminates this fall when the Riverfront Times Best of St. Louis 2013 names the "Best Dish" of the year.
A good sign that you've made a smart selection from the menu at Pastaria (7734 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-862-6603)? Owner Gerard Craft sits down at the bar next to you and orders the same thing you just did.
So it happened when I ate lunch at Pastaria the other day. I'd gone there specifically to try the "Italian Ramen," new to the menu since I'd reviewed the restaurant last December.
Craft, I assume, already knew how great the dish is.
Ramen -- real ramen, that is, not the instant stuff that fed your lean post-graduate years -- has been enjoying a lengthy moment with the gastronaut elite. David Chang's now global empire originated at Momofuku Noodle Bar. The first issue of the überhip food magazine Lucky Peach was the "Ramen Issue."
St. Louis, so far, has eluded ramen's reach. The best you can do is read Jonathan Gold's encomiums of the ramen shops of Los Angeles alone, with the door closed, weeping.
Pastaria's "ramen" isn't meant to fill this void.
Instead, Craft explained as we both hunched over our big bowls of noodles, he noticed while touring Italy in preparation for opening Pastaria how often the locals ate a simple, utterly satisfying dish: tortellini en brodo. It reminded him of ramen's ubiquity in Japan.
Pastaria's version ($14.95) takes the most basic elements of ramen -- the noodles, the umami-rich broth, the meat (chicken in this case), the toppings -- and gives them an Italian spin.
So instead of tare or miso, the broth receives its hit of salty, savory umami from Parmesan cheese. Basil adds a lightly verdant note, while chile oil spikes it with heat. Bobbing in the middle of the bowl is a poached egg. Break it open with your spoon, and the yolk enriches the soup's savor even further.
But you don't have to know a thing about ramen to appreciate this dish. Basically, it's a great chicken-noodle soup: the flavorful meat, the rich broth and, of course, the noodles themselves -- the restaurant's spaghettini, still recognizably pasta in taste and texture even soaked with soup.
I haven't toured Italy or the many ramen joints of Japan, but I understood, instinctively, what Craft meant. The greatest pleasures are universal.
Want Italian ramen but don't want to wait for a table at Pastaria? Food & Wine has the recipe online and on page 104 of its April 2013 issue.
Is there a dish that you think belongs among the Gut Check One Hundred 2013? Let us know!
See Also: The Gut Check One Hundred 2013 (So Far) - Pi Pizzeria's "Grove" Pizza - Famous Szechuan Pavilion's Spicy Wonton Soup (Novice) or Yu Shan Pork (Advanced) - La Tejana Taqueria's Goat Soup - Hendricks BBQ's Ribs - Sauce on the Side's "Costanza" Calzone - Siete Luminarias' Guanajuato-Style Carnitas - Fork & Stix's Khao Soi