by Cheryl Baehr
Spoiler alert: I did not have the best experience dining at Tripel (1801 Park Avenue; 314-678-7787). While readers will find all of the details in my review, I can summarize by saying that it doesn't seem as if the dining room has found its stride yet, and the dishes are a little hit or miss. It wasn't a catastrophe by any stretch of the imagination, but there is some room for improvement. That said -- and this may seem odd -- I really like the place.
It's hard not to when owner Jim Darst's eyes light up as he shares warm exchanges with local Belgians, or when bar manager Terry Oliver describes, with a religious fervor, why each beer gets its own glass. And I would be remiss if I did not mention Tripel's soon-to-be cicerone Tony Brescia, whose beer knowledge is completely off the charts (if you ever run into Tony, make sure you ask him about his thoughts on Stella Artois).
In this sense, I think that Tripel is going to be a huge success. After all, Belgian beer -- and by extension the cuisine -- is having a moment of glory. When Darst, Oliver and executive chef Max Crask set out to open Tripel, they could not help but notice the popularity of Belgian eateries around the country. As Darst noted, restaurants like Monk's Café in Philadelphia have six-week waits for reservations. "It just seemed like the right time and place to open this type of restaurant," he says, acknowledging St. Louis' deeply rooted beer culture. Additionally, the Belgian-style brasserie captures the upscale yet informal atmosphere that the Tripel team wanted to create. "Belgian food is all about French quality with German quantity," Darst explains. "We want to be a place where people can go for a nice date night or something very casual."
While my thoughts on the dining room veer off in a different direction, I can say with absolute conviction that the bar at Tripel is a huge win. The atmosphere has such a 1920s European brasserie vibe that I was convinced I saw Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley drowning their sorrows in the corner. It's cozy and dimly lit -- the type of place where one suspects that the bartender has a secret stash of the good stuff for those in the know. Even the televisions, for better or for worse, a bar must-have, are subtle projections on two-way mirrors so as not to detract from the atmosphere.
Indeed, Tripel has certainly gotten the bar element right, which is the perfect setting for the other area in which they excel: the beer. As beer aficionados have known for some time now, the Belgians know beer at least as well as the Czechs and Germans, and some would say better. As Oliver says, "If people don't like Belgian beer, they don't like beer." He chalks up a common misunderstanding about the suds to people's experience of a few styles that tend toward the super sweet and malty. However, there are so many different types of the delicious beverage ranging from sours to saisons, it's impossible to categorically dismiss.
Oliver and Darst suggest that the uninitiated approach Belgian beer like they would approach wine. "It pairs so well with food," notes Darsst. "Take a sour beer, like the St. Louis Fond Tradition Gouze -- it just begs to be paired with the choucroute garnie [sausage and pork platter]." Another food friendly selection is the Karmeliet Tripel, which pretty much goes with everything, although it's especially perfect with the mussels and most cheeses.
Do yourself a huge favor and head to Tripel's bar on a Wednesday night. Let its braintrust help you navigate the best Belgian beer list in town (they do flights) and soak it all up with some mayonnaise-dipped fries. This way, you will experience Tripel at its best.
In the meantime, I am rooting for you, Tripel. I know you are capable of greatness, as evidenced by the passion and care that you radiate. I will certainly be back in a few months to give things another shake. Best of luck.