Taquerias, dive bars, an indie record store and a fixed-gear bike shop. These are the neighbors of Athlete Eats, a bright, new health-food spot on Cherokee Street that caters to some of the highest-paid people in town. What's next for this hipster stretch of south St. Louis? A Pottery Barn?
Perish the thought, I know. But Athlete Eats seems so out of place that I feared a culinary catastrophe. If it can't get something as basic as location down, I wondered, what does that say about the food? I was even more skeptical when I visited the restaurant's website and encountered a clock that counts down the deadline for placing prepared-food orders. Then, I clicked on the "Our Clients" tab and was greeted by pictures of Cardinals pitching great Chris Carpenter and St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal was apparently so impressed with Athlete Eats that he wrote a testimonial. It turns out that, in addition to running Athlete Eats, owner Simon Lusky is the nutritionist for the Cardinals, hired straight out of Johnson & Wales University in 2010.
Perhaps he's not such a fool after all.
Lusky and his wife, Angelica, started making prepared meals for clients two years back out of their home kitchen in south St. Louis. Eight months ago they moved into their Cherokee Street storefront and realized that the space, with its commercial kitchen, begged for a café. So in February the Luskys enlisted the help of their colleague, chef Bob Brazell, to expand their business to include fast-casual breakfast and lunch offerings. Like their prepared-meal clients, the dine-in customers want locally sourced, health-conscious fare as well.
Athlete Eats is tiny but quaint. There are no tables — just a long bar made from reclaimed wood and a few seats by the window. Mason jars filled with blue and white hydrangeas decorate the room, while rows of wheatgrass line the shelves behind the bar where bottles of liquor would reside at a more hedonistic establishment.
I am naturally suspicious of places that tout themselves as health-food establishments, but Athlete Eats made a believer out of me. I began a recent lunch with a salad of roasted Brussels sprouts, butternut squash and parsnips. Ribbons of pickled carrots brightened the plate with a piquant punch, balanced with sweet-and-sour dried cranberries. The hearty salad came topped with toasted pumpkin seeds and drizzled with a creamy rosemary-garlic dressing, making for a colorful homage to the end of winter.
For a non-barbecue restaurant, the pulled pork shoulder was spot-on. The tender, locally sourced pork was tossed in a tangy, mustard-based sauce. The kitchen's light touch with the sauce allowed the natural sweetness of the meat to shine though. Rustic baked beans had a traditional barbecue smoky sweetness, and pickled red onions added zip to the otherwise traditional coleslaw.
The bibimbap bowl was one of the more creative items on the menu. Instead of sticky white rice, Athlete Eats' version of this Korean staple used "caulirice" — small pieces of cauliflower grated to resemble grains. It was an excellent substitute and worked well with the dish's vegetables and proteins — edamame, shiitake mushrooms, pickled carrots, grass-fed beef and sunny-side-up egg. At the risk of splitting hairs, I would have appreciated a bit more caramelization and spice on the beef, although the accompanying chile paste gave the dish some heat.
Athlete Eats only serves breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays — a shame because it's positively spectacular and affordable. The breakfast platter consisted of two pieces of a creamy mushroom, leek and egg casserole served on a bed of sweet-potato hash and drizzled with maple mustard. For those who cannot decide between bacon and sausage, Athlete Eats offers a glorious compromise: sausage stuffed with bacon! (Health food? The hot new paleo diet says so.)
I was impressed by how little I missed the flour in the gluten-free pancakes. Granted, they lacked the fluff and creaminess of their traditional counterparts, but these light and airy flapjacks, accented with a note of cinnamon, made for a worthy substitute. Instead of butter and maple syrup, Athlete Eats drizzles the pancakes with decadent coconut cream and orange maple glaze. Gluten-free folks looking to sate a sweet tooth will be impressed.
Athlete Eats has two excellent waffle dishes. The first, a waffle sandwich, is a breakfast version of a BLT. Lettuce, tomatoes and three strips of juicy, quarter-inch-thick bacon come sandwiched between two scallion-aioli slathered waffles. Again, the fact that they are gluten-free proves irrelevant. Rather than going down the trendy chicken-and-waffles path, Athlete Eats offers another savory waffle option: a take on the Ruma's Deli garlicky ham-and-cheese Gerber sandwich (a St. Louis classic). In place of the traditional French bread, Athlete Eats uses a crispy, roasted-garlic-studded waffle for the base, then tops it with thick slices of smoked ham, Provel cheese, rich béchamel sauce and a sunny-side-up egg. It's hard to believe something so satisfying and indulgent comes out of the kitchen of a health-food restaurant. This is too good to be true.
In addition to the food items, Athlete Eats offers a variety of freshly prepared juice blends and smoothies. I could forgo crème brûlée for the rest of my life if I could substitute it for the "Tropic Thunder" smoothie, a blend of fresh pineapple, orange and Greek yogurt. And the "Citrus Wake-Up," a mix of grapefruit, orange and lime juices, was so energizing and delicious, it prompted me to shop online for a juicer.
Perhaps it was simply that the food was healthy; it could have been the shot of wheatgrass. Then again, maybe it was the fact that I just had some darn tasty food. Whatever the reason, I left Athlete Eats feeling like a champ. Welcome to the neighborhood, sport.