At first glance Nosh is like the chubby baby whose cheeks you can't help but pinch: cute, cute, cute. The name is cute. The logo, with a green olive speared by a toothpick standing in for the letter O in Nosh, is cute. The interior of the restaurant, its warm brown color scheme brightened by abstract paintings and (right now at least) a patch's worth of pumpkins, is cute. Perusing the menu, with its cute categories ("Noshes") and cute dishes ("Lobster Lollie"), you'd have to be a Scrooge — or a restaurant critic — not to smile.
Confession: Though my heart is as hardened as anyone's — figuratively as well as literally — I too smiled. The vibe here is good, the staff unfailingly friendly. (Dining alone? Your server might deliver a copy of the local alternative fishwrap to skim.) Then again, I wasn't eager to order something called a "Lobster Lollie." Cute rarely translates well to the plate.
Owner and chef Paula Anderson opened Nosh this past July along Maplewood's main commercial stretch. Its address has been home to a succession of quaint cafés; relative to these, Nosh is more sophisticated than cute. Along one wall of the dining room is a bar stocked with citrus fruit for fresh-squeezed mixers. The menu makes frequent use of the buzziest of today's culinary buzzwords. The restaurant pointedly calls itself not a café but a "neighborhood bistro."
Nosh's burger is typical of the menu as a whole. The diner is assured it's made from beef that is locally raised, free-range, grass-fed, organic and seasoned with organic herbs. The menu correctly points out that because of the leaner nature of grass-fed beef, your burger shouldn't be cooked past medium. Grass-fed beef presents an additional burger dilemma, though. What makes a burger good isn't simply the quality of the meat. The ratio of fat to beef is vital — too little fat and flavor and juiciness are compromised. All other things being equal, ground chuck will make a tastier, juicier burger than ground sirloin, which is leaner. Too many restaurants that throw around terms like local, grass-fed and organic fail to understand (or, worse, don't care to understand) the practical implications of those terms.
Nosh gets it right, mostly. Ordered medium-rare, my burger had a lightly charred exterior and an interior the proper, wonderfully deep shade of red. The flavor bore the trademark mineral character of grass-fed beef, rounded out by its toppings of cheddar cheese, a mix of pickles (made in-house) and caramelized onions, and a brightly flavored roasted red pepper aioli. The beef was juicy, though a bit more fat in the mix would help.
The burger was the first dish I ate at the restaurant, and I dwell on it because it signaled to me that, cuteness and culinary buzzwords aside, Anderson's intentions, and her efforts, are sincere.
The menu is casual — which is to say more café than bistro: sandwiches, flatbreads, soups, salads. Besides the grass-fed burger, a lamb version is available. The flavor here is pure lamb, tending toward gamy. It is served simply, dressed only with a bright green condiment the menu identifies as "spanikopita." The condiment obviously isn't the Greek pastry with that name, nor did it strike me as anything like the pastry's spinach-cheese filling. It was more like a pesto. At any rate, it provided little accent to the strongly favored meat.
I wanted to try the ham and Brie sandwich, but the kitchen had run out of Brie. No matter. Melted Havarti cheese provided a mild, creamy counterpoint to the thickly sliced ham. Besides, what truly made this dish was a delicious chutney Anderson made from pears and black walnuts. Such a grace note was lacking from the grilled chicken sandwich, which topped marinated chicken breast with Gouda cheese and (for certain this time) pesto.
The soups at Nosh are very good. Butternut squash is a gorgeous autumnal orange, thick and roasty sweet. (Seriously, I don't want to know how much cream went into it.) The chili is vegetarian but not lacking for flavor. Cumin and mild chile heat spice up the mix of vegetables and beans.
On my final visit, I succumbed to curiosity and ordered the "Lobster Lollie." This is listed under the "Noshes" section of the menu, which leads to some confusion. Is it meant to be an appetizer? The other noshes are fried calamari, stuffed mushrooms and hummus, which suggest it is. On the other hand, the dish costs $15, making it Nosh's most expensive item.
As it turns out, the "Lobster Lollie" is a modest entrée: a skewered (hence the lollipop reference) rock lobster tail grilled with a generous basting of garlic butter. This is served over a rice pilaf, with sides of green beans and grilled zucchini. The lobster tail is small and not very plump, but it packs a wallop of buttery sweetness. As a starter, the skewered lobster alone would probably work. The pilaf, however, is a mistake. The rice was undercooked, and a jarring sweet note threatened to overwhelm the shellfish.
So no more "Lobster Lollie" for me. Still, I applaud Paula Anderson's ambition in trying something different. Too many St. Louis restaurants confuse a modest scope with a modest ambition. Nosh's offerings might not extend far beyond the basic sandwich-salad-soup template, but they approach those offerings with creativity, care and conscience.
So, yes, Nosh is cute. Even better, it has a personality.