I don't eat scallops. Even though I've convinced myself that my allergy is psychosomatic, the collateral damage of a childhood afternoon spent at the swimming pool with a box of Keebler E.L. Fudge cookies — don't ask — even though I've eaten a few mussels without any adverse effect, I'm not willing to risk it with the food that put me off mollusks for a quarter of a century. I would eat a raw oyster first. Hell, I'd eat a raw clam. But I don't eat scallops. (Or E.L. Fudge cookies.)
Or so I told myself until I visited Fond in Edwardsville, where on a recent Saturday evening the third dish on chef Amy Zupanci's five-course tasting menu was a single plump scallop, its top seared chestnut brown, nestled among thickly sliced carrot. At tableside a server poured a vegetable broth spiked with the North African condiment charmoula. Charmoula is something like chimichurri: a blend of olive oil, garlic, citrus juice, parsley and/or cilantro, cumin and other spices. I'd told the server about my "allergy" and was served a butternut-squash risotto instead, but the broth's aroma drew me closer to the forbidden fruit de mare.
My wife, by now accustomed to me hovering over her plate, was already cutting me a slice.
Fond opened in downtown Edwardsville late last year. It's a lovely space, its soft lighting casting a golden glow onto downtown's attractive Main Street. Inside, a small bar leads into two large dining rooms with high ceilings and walls the color of avocado flesh. On a busy weekend evening, the volume is high, but not overwhelmingly so. Tea lights decorate the tables, and, in a routine that is charming at first and then distracting, the hostess swaps out old candles for new.
Locally, Zupanci is often identified by her time working under Gerard Craft at Niche. In fact, she spent only six months at the Benton Park restaurant. She cut her teeth in New York City at the restaurants Savoy, Tocqueville and Mais. At Fond she focuses on seasonal, market-driven cuisine. The menu is brief. On my visits, there were five starters and five entrées as well as the five-course tasting menu.
That tasting menu began with "Pretzel Salad," a fun combination of baby greens and pickled red onions tossed in a malt vinaigrette and served with pretzel croutons and a streak of Fond's house-made mustard. The salad was good — clever, but still just, you know, a salad — but that mustard is fantastic, with a potent, horseradishy kick.
The second course was sockeye salmon in a preserved-lemon sauce with golden beets and sunchokes (a.k.a. Jerusalem artichokes). By itself, the salmon, seared skin-down in a pan and finished in the oven, was OK: It arrived too close to well-done for my taste. But the preserved-lemon sauce gave it a lightly tart, sweet accent, and the beets and sunchokes were perfect, the latter's nutty flavor and luscious texture (like an oven-roasted potato) stealing the show.
Then came The Scallop. Having mentioned my mollusk allergy, I was served risotto with butternut, zephyr and patty-pan squashes and a red-wine reduction. I'd sampled this dish à la carte on a previous visit, and both times it was too rich, its creamy texture burying the delicate sweetness of the squashes.
The final savory course was braised pork belly in jus served over spaghetti squash with a squiggle of sweet-potato purée. The belly was terrific, redolent of five-spice seasoning and its own porcine richness, my particular serving very meaty for such a fatty cut. As good as this was, I preferred the pork belly served on a previous visit, when it was paired with a tomato jam whose bright acidity was an ideal match for the tender meat. Another standout entrée on that first visit was the braised "Italian" beef, a homey dish of meat and gnocchi given a welcome edge courtesy of peppery arugula and slivers of nutty Parmigiano-Reggiano.
As you might have gathered, Zupanci changes Fond's menu often. Two visits, a week apart, revealed few overlapping dishes. The à la carte menu is brief: five appetizers and five entrées. On my first visit, I found the appetizers solid but not spectacular. Much like the "Pretzel Salad," a straightforward pork terrine was elevated by the restaurant's mustard, while fried salt-cod cakes were paired with a safe, unmemorable remoulade. My favorite starter was a simple napoleon of beets and goat cheese, a lovely pairing of tangy and earthy flavors.
Our first visit concluded with a decadent chocolate pot de crème and a lovely bread pudding studded with chunks of peach. The tasting menu ended with a celebration of apples: a dense apple cake served with green-apple sorbet and apple butter, the latter helping soften a cake that was a touch too dry.
A few hiccups in service stood out, especially in a restaurant with a year under its belt. Mostly these were issues of timing: Drinks took forever to arrive on our first visit, when the restaurant wasn't at all busy; our tasting-menu wine pairings uniformly arrived well after we'd tucked into the dish they were to accompany. The wine that was to have been served with the dessert didn't appear at all. For the most part, however, the front of house moves smoothly, with the little touches — napkins constantly refolded, an amuse-bouche, petits fours — that turn a visit into a special occasion. In many ways, this review is long overdue. I'd planned to review Fond this past May, six months after its debut. That's longer than I usually wait to visit a new restaurant, but I wanted to take my first bite of Fond's seasonal menu amid spring's bounty rather than in the dead of winter.
Then a controversy involving Fond erupted on the local food message board STL Bites. The brouhaha defies simple summary, but I'll try my best: Fond sources its beef and pork from Illinois farmer Chad Rensing. Bill Burge, who operates STL Bites and is a co-director of the St. Louis chapter of a worldwide culinary advocacy group called Slow Food, posted on his message board that Rensing's farm is a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO — a practice that goes against the precepts of sustainable, local, humane agriculture that Slow Food supports. Rensing was a vendor at the Maplewood Farmers' Market, which promotes similar practices to those of Slow Food. As word spread through the local food community, Rensing voluntarily left the market.
Fond was drawn into the debate because it served Rensing's pork and beef, and also because Zupanci openly espoused a Slow Food philosophy. She was, in fact, a member of the organization. Was being the key word. When I spoke to Zupanci last week, she told me she was so angered by the way Rensing was treated that she wrote to the organization to resign her membership. She is upset that critics of Rensing — and, by extension, of Fond — never bothered to visit his farm to see how he cares for his stock.
"I did my homework," she says.
What's more, she told me, she meets with Rensing on a weekly basis to discuss what he feeds his animals and how he cares for them to ensure a good, sustainable product. "That's how you bring about change," she asserts.
Full disclosure: I know Bill Burge professionally (he has written for Riverfront Times) and personally. I have made positive mention of him and STL Bites in this very column. So when the controversy boiled over, I decided to, as it were, put a review of Fond on the back burner.
I'm glad I did. Amy Zupanci is a serious chef cooking serious food, and Fond is a worthy addition to the St. Louis restaurant scene. I haven't visited Chad Rensing's farm, so I can't judge his farming practices — nor am I qualified to do so. But I think it's telling that Zupanci didn't take the easy way out and drop Rensing as her supplier. She has taken a stand.
If these issues matter to you — and they should — you'll have to decide for yourself whether you agree with Zupanci. But I challenge anyone who would criticize her or her restaurant to speak to her directly before dismissing her passion for promoting local, sustainable food.
Oh, and don't dismiss her scallops, either. I gave in and took a bite. The flavor was wonderful, the citric flavors of the charmoula broth an ideal foil for the buttery, briny mollusk. And, as you can see, I lived to tell about it.