by Cheryl Baehr
Death in the Afternoon (808 Chestnut Street; 314-621-3236) Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri. (Closed Sat. and Sun.)
Sitting on the patio at Death in the Afternoon, located in the northeast corner of downtown's Citygarden, the dominant sound is children happily playing in a nearby fountain. But don't be misled - this restaurant is not geared toward kids. There are no chicken fingers or high chairs, and it looks like the changing table was removed from the restroom during the remodel from the building's previous tenant, Joe's Chili Bowl. The restaurant, which is only open weekdays for lunch, makes no attempt to be a mere amenity for the families and tourists that flock to the garden. It aspires to be a destination unto itself.
The name is a bit perplexing at first. Death in the Afternoon is an Ernest Hemingway novel about bullfighting, but the cuisine is not Spanish. It's also the name of an absinthe and Champagne cocktail, even though there is no cocktail program (yet). But perhaps "death" refers to killing time, and there is no better place to do just that. Everything about the restaurant is ethereal -- the way the sun bathes the all-glass structure in a soft glow, the refreshing grapefruit- and hibiscus-infused agua fresca handed out by smiling hostesses upon arrival, the whimsical cotton candy poufs arriving at nearby tables for dessert. Owners Adam Frager and TJ Vytlacil -- best known for their members-only restaurant and cocktail bar Blood & Sand -- have created a dreamlike, otherworldly place.
The kimchi and crunchy pickled vegetable "snack" lit up my palate with spice, while the chicharrones were light as air, crispy and tasted of lime zest. I preferred them plain as opposed to dipped in the accompanying soy, garlic and ginger sauce -- it overwhelmed their delicate flavor. Likewise, the ginger and soy were a little too powerful in the Asian eggplant dip. Aside from the texture, there was no trace of the mild vegetable.
A salad of thick-sliced heirloom tomatoes, peppery basil and spinach was summer on a plate. Though good in its own right, the accompanying housemade stracciatella cheese made the dish memorable. This fresh, cow's milk cheese is the gooey center of burrata without that pesky mozzarella casing. It was sublime. Squash blossoms are the base for another delightful seasonal salad. The lovely yellow blooms are pickled, grilled and served with housemade ricotta, avocado cream and quinoa for a pop of texture.
The grilled mahi mahi sandwich, served on a glistening housemade roll, was so perfect-looking it could be the cover shot for Cooks Illustrated. The fresh fish was expertly cooked --moist and light, almost as if it were poached -- and topped with Meyer lemon and dill aioli, pickles and refreshing fennel.
How chef Nick Martinkovic got the housemade pastrami to be so juicy is beyond me. The outside edges of the meat were coated in char-spiked peppery rub though it had a milder flavor than what is typical of this cured meat. The sandwich was simply dressed with sauerkraut and mustard mayo, and served on a malty pretzel roll. I added a side of the crushed and fried fingerling potatoes. These golden beauties were like a mix of every good way to eat a potato -- fried, roasted and mashed, all in one. Death in the Afternoon gets its Japanese steamed buns from a famed maker in New York. The soft, sticky wrappers are served four different ways, though I most enjoyed the sweet glazed pork belly and the tender duck confit. The charred tuna and the mushroom versions didn't have much flavor.
If the restaurant has one signature dish, it has to be the tonkotsu ramen. The rich broth is overflowing with homemade noodles, succulent pork loin and belly, mushrooms and a soy-steeped, soft-boiled egg. It's finished with a generous drizzle of black garlic oil for a deeply satisfying lunch.
Desserts at Death in the Afternoon are playful. On the day of my visit, the kitchen made a tribute to Nutter Butter bars: a sweet and salty peanut butter cookie filled with peanut butter cream. The fudgy brownie, speckled with walnuts, could sate even the most die-hard chocolate lover's sweet tooth. And lest the kids romping in the Citygarden fountains have all the fun, the restaurant serves a rotating selection of cotton candy. I tried the strawberry and watermelon, and it brought me right back to childhood.
By the end of my meal, the restaurant name began to make a lot more sense. Death in the afternoon? Actually, yes. I think died and went to culinary heaven.