When you think of tasting menus, what comes to mind? A multi-coursed pre-fixe affair wherein the chef takes diners on a ride of unexpected culinary twists and turns? In some ways, that is what you'll find dining at Private Kitchen (8106 Olive Boulevard, University City; 314-989-0283), though there is one important difference: At this Chinese restaurant, the guest gets to be the one in the driver's seat.
Private Kitchen's concept is a first for St. Louis in that prospective diners make reservations and select their dishes in advance of their visit, thereby setting up their own, personalized menu. The selection is huge, peppered with options from whole Peking duck to sea cucumber rice to slow-cooked pork knuckles, and even though its format is a traditional board of fare, there's a mystique that comes from an advance order for a tailor-made dinner, sight unseen. Chef Lawrence Chen and his wife Emily do the shopping for each night's service based solely on what's ordered, resulting in an experience akin to having a customized dinner party cooked by a private chef.
That tailor-made party isn't exactly a private affair — from the outside, a passerby peering inside wouldn't see any difference from a traditional restaurant. Yet somehow the Chens manage to treat a roomful of patrons, each at their own individual tables, as if the restaurant solely exists for their individual dining pleasure.
The setup used to be even more mysterious: When Private Kitchen first opened in early 2015, those wishing to dine could contact the restaurant only via a difficult-to-find Wei Chat number and have the menu sent to them via private message. It's now public knowledge (the menu is on the Facebook page), and the Chens have begun accepting limited walk-in business. That level of intrigue is starting to fade, but the experience of a Chen-led personalized affair is still worth the effort it takes to dine there. He's still taking you on a ride, even if you are the one who chooses the destination.