Grapeseed (5400 Nottingham Avenue; 314-925-8525) Dining room open 4:30-10 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 4:30-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 4:30-9 p.m. Sun. Closed Mon.
As I settled into my chair and glanced at Grapeseed's menu, I was transported back to my early days in the restaurant business, waiting tables -- before bartenders were called mixologists, and "seasonal" and "local" were a culinary philosophy, not buzzwords. In the late '90s and early aughts, when the hottest dining rooms in town were Harvest and Cardwell's, Grapeseed would have fit right into the scene.
Read chef and owner Ben Anderson's biography, and it becomes clear why Grapeseed is somewhat nostalgic. Before attending the Culinary Institute of America, he cut his teeth in the kitchen under the great Bill Cardwell -- arguably the godfather of seasonal American cuisine in St. Louis. Cardwell's influences can be felt on Grapeseed's menu (Cardwell's addictive red-pepper marmalade makes an appearance, for example), while trendier touches, such as snacks and small plates, craft beer and an on-trend cocktail list, make appearances as well. It's a throwback without feeling dated.
Anderson is Grapeseed's resident chef, literally; he lives upstairs. He spent the better part of two years rehabbing the early 1900s-era building at 5400 Nottingham Avenue, and the results are a bar and dining room area that feel at once historic and contemporary. Original details like the tin ceiling remain, and chandeliers of exposed Edison light bulbs bathe the space in warm light. St. Louis woodworking company Mwanzi repurposed materials from the building's renovation into blond-hued banquettes, tables and the bar. The open concept, cream-colored wall, and vibrant, modern paintings add a more contemporary touch.
My dinner began with a cup of rich butternut squash soup that tasted lightly of curry. A cinnamon-cream garnish complemented the soup's warm spices and toasted pepitas added crunch. A small plate of perfectly round gnocchi sautéed with Brussels sprouts, pecans and brown butter was such a hit with our table that we almost came to blows over the last bite. I preferred the gnocchi to the arancini du jour -- the fried rice balls, stuffed with smoked turkey and cranberries, were bland, and the accompanying buttermilk dipping sauce failed to add any zip.
The meat worked much better on the smoked turkey nachos. Instead of tortillas, Grapeseed uses light-as-air fried sweet-potato chips as the base, then tops them with pulled chunks of the smoky bird, spiced cranberries, red peppers, microgreens and drizzles of buttermilk dressing and house-brewed firecracker sauce. These nachos -- as beautiful as they are delicious -- are destined to become Grapeseed's signature dish.
Eventually, the restaurant hopes to feature its own house-made charcuterie. Until then, Anderson has assembled a comprehensive butcher board featuring Volpi coppa and chorizo, Salume Beddu's soprasetta and calabrese, and Buttonwood Farms' cinnamon apple turkey sausage. To the side of the meats are Marcoot Jersey Creamery's "Tipsy Cheddar" and heritage cave-aged cheeses, Ludwig Farmstead Creamery's herbed Gouda, as well as caponata, apple-bacon compote, cranberry relish and a chunky butcher sauce made with cornichons and eggs. This was a meal unto itself.
Grapeseed's Cuban sandwich got a seal of approval from my Cuban godmother. She was impressed with the quality of the warm roasted pork and ham, tangy Gruyère cheese and pickles. She also remarked that, though the bread was not as authentic as what she can get in south Florida, Grapeseed's was delicate and non-greasy, unlike so many other bastardized versions.
Chinese five-spice powder encrusts Grapeseed's salmon, giving the fish a gentle, floral heat. Crisp slaw (made from bok choy, carrots and red peppers) hit a nice cooling note, and the pineapple-tamarind sauce that glazes the salmon is a sweet and sticky Asian-style barbecue sauce. The server did not take a temperature on the salmon, but to the restaurant's credit, it was impeccably cooked to a moist medium-rare. The Texas Gulf shrimp was another well-executed seafood entrée. The autumn-themed dish featured five maple-glazed shrimp served on a bed of whipped sweet-potato purée and accompanied by bacon, corn and jalapeño relish.
I was less impressed by the smoked chicken breast. Though flavorfully smoked and brined, the boneless, skinless breast was somewhat dry -- it would have been more enjoyable bone-in and skin-on. The port wine sauce took over the delicate leek and mushroom faro, making the dish overly sweet. The Duroc pork chop, however, was more balanced. The cheese and ham cauliflower-potato mash was an excellent alternative to the standard mashed potato. Piquant red cabbage and a slightly sweet apple mustard compote paired well with the char-kissed meat.
I was surprised that Grapeseed does not make its own desserts. The restaurant gets its sweets from its neighbors at Russell's on Macklind. Both the pumpkin layer cake and slice of frozen Riesling custard were paired with chocolate and caramel sauce that took away from the flavors of the dishes. Here's hoping Anderson steps it up on this course.
While Grapeseed brought me back to the early days of new American cuisine in St. Louis, it is at its heart a solid, seasonal restaurant. In my mind, that will always be in fashion.