The entrance to Blood & Sand is nearly as magical as the invisible Platform 9-3/4 through which Harry Potter boards the train to Hogwarts. Only a discreet plaque beside a revolving door on an otherwise desolate stretch of St. Charles Street — more alley than street, all service doors and garage fumes — suggests you have arrived at anything out of the ordinary. Push through that door, however, and you enter one of St. Louis' most exciting restaurants.
Push through, that is, as long as you are a card-carrying member or in the company of one.
TJ Vytlacil and Adam Frager opened Blood & Sand a year ago with an audacious plan: Theirs would not simply be a high-end restaurant and bar, but a private club. Members would pay $15 a month for access, signing a contract with rules both commonsensical (be nice) and endearingly old-fashioned (ask the bartender for permission before hitting on the hottie at the other end of the bar).
I struggled with how to approach such an establishment. The spirit of this column has always been one of open-minded exploration, the belief that you are as likely to find a great meal in some random strip-mall joint as at the Big Deal restaurant for which you made reservations and started saving weeks or even months in advance. Not to mention, of course, when it comes to private clubs, RFT's philosophy is strictly Marxist: We'd refuse to join any that would have us as a member.
Circumstances rendered my quibbling moot. In April Vytlacil and Frager revealed that Blood & Sand's had reached capacity, with more than 600 full-time members. Only part-time memberships, $10 a month for access on Monday through Thursday, are now available. (This also serves as a waiting list for full membership.)
Clearly, with Vytlacil running the cocktail program and chef Chris Bork, whose work I'd greatly admired at his previous (and very different) gigs at Revival and Mud House, leading the kitchen, Blood & Sand was doing something right — also something worth considering in this column, members-only policy be damned. The question now: how to gain access while retaining some semblance of anonymity (and that Marxist stuff).
I didn't try very hard. My wife bought a part-time membership. She doesn't use my last name. Was my anonymity compromised? I don't know. I doubt it matters. The secret of Blood & Sand's success is obvious after one visit yet still remarkable after several more. The staff repays members' willingness to commit to a monthly fee by offering a level of quality, service and — crucially — comfort that places Blood & Sand solidly in the upper echelon of St. Louis restaurants. Yes, it's a privilege to join, but dining there or having a drink at the bar, you don't feel privileged. You feel welcomed into a community of those passionate about good food and good drink.
And the food and drink are very good. Bork's cooking reveals a chef both confident enough to indulge his creative instincts and smart enough to let quality ingredients speak for themselves. So an appetizer of heirloom tomatoes — fat hunks of vivid red, green and yellow fruit in swirls of cilantro-mint vinaigrette — looks like an abstract-expressionist painting in three dimensions. Kernels of smoked corn dot the plate here and there. Next to one particularly plump piece of tomato sits a white orb of goat cheese.
It's a gorgeous presentation — yet what you take away from it is the vibrant, late-summer sweetness of the tomatoes and the gentle tang and surprising texture (like fresh mozzarella) of the cheese. And just when you think you've got a handle on the dish, you bite into the one tomato that has been quickly pickled, and its vinegar kick shocks you and lingers after the plate has been cleared.
Another appetizer stands crisp sweetbreads atop a Brussels sprout slaw and kimchi made from apples. If not as showy as the heirloom tomatoes, the plate betrays a similar concern for the balance of flavors and textures. The pleasantly astringent slaw and the sweet, funky kimchi accent the sweetbreads' earthier flavor while adding crunch to the organ meat's luscious texture.
A grilled-quail entrée features a bird so fully flavored that you just want to eat it straight off the bone. Bork deepens this flavor with a smoky-sweet mole sauce and, for contrast, pickled pear. Yet as terrific as the quail is, you might remember even more fondly the miniature tamale that accompanies it. The masa is perfectly moist, thanks in no small part to the fact that it has soaked up bacon fat. Another side that steals the show is the grit cake seasoned with brown butter and horseradish that is served with a flank-steak entrée. The steak itself is very good, its natural flavors enhanced with a sauce that has a welcome piquant note — like A.1. sauce without the corn-syrupy sweetness.
Bork changes the menu with regularity, but certain dishes already seem to have won a permanent place: "Truffled Tater Tots," listed on the menu as a snack, look like a smaller version of the real thing — but the potato has the ethereal softness of whipped butter. And the burger ranks among the best in town: grass-fed beef, simply seasoned, topped with gooey and tangy housemade "American" cheese, pea shoots and a tart onion jam. On the side — once again as remarkable as the main — are unimpeachable hand-cut fries.
Vytlacil's cocktail list includes the drink from which the restaurant takes its name, made with scotch, cherry liqueur, orange juice and sweet vermouth. The cocktail took its name from the classic bullfighting film starring Rudolph Valentino, Blood and Sand, and while the restaurant has nothing to do with matadors (though one could imagine the characters from The Sun Also Rises passing through for a post-fiesta drink), the name complements the speakeasy vibe in its evocation of nostalgic allure. (The Germans probably have a word for that.) Which isn't to imply management takes the conceit too seriously — Vytlacil offers several variations on the "Blood & Sand," many of which don't include a drop of scotch. At any rate, I bypassed the signature tipple and found myself falling in love with the "Double-Fisted Negroni," which blends North Shore Mighty gin with aged vermouth, Campari and bitters.
Vytlacil and his bar staff will happily guide you to a cocktail based on your own preferences. I suggest trying at least two different drinks during your visit. If you are fortunate enough to dine at Blood & Sand once or regularly, you'll need to brace yourself before you step back through the revolving door into the Muggle world.