Best Chef

David Owens, Cardwell's at the Plaza

It often seems that the chief litmus tests in St. Louis for appraising a dish are how much melted cheese is slathered on top, how ponderous the portion size is and how well the leftovers hold up to microwaving. But it takes ingenuity to prepare dishes with mouth feel that comes from flavor, not from fat and sheer heft. That's just what David Owens does best. Whereas some chefs introduce new menus three or four times a year, Owens prints a fresh menu twice a day, creating about 15 specials that change between lunch and dinner service. This guy's got talent and stamina to burn. What other chef can have his way with tofu, tempeh and edamame (green soybeans)? What other chef has the guts to offer a dozen vegetarian items? And what other chef so deftly teases out the utopian possibilities of buying locally and cooking seasonally? Owens' unique New American culinary style borrows techniques and ingredients from Asia, the Mediterranean, France and the American Northwest, Southwest, Ozarks, Great Plains and South. He sweats every detail, right down to making his own croutons, fresh pastas, vinaigrettes, ice creams and spoon foods -- marmalades, conserves, chutneys, salsas and the like. This attentiveness has paid off: Owens is walking in high cotton, having been an owner of Cardwell's at the Plaza since 1994. He and his partner, Bill Cardwell, have prospered by serving elegant food without putting on airs. The menu is an irresistible read that encourages diners to indulge in every course. Owens prints a daily "chef's selection" of red and white wines -- a pair of intriguing, affordable bottles that are also available by the glass. Sweets, too, are part of the menu. After all, why should the dessert choices be recited by your server, unappetizingly paraded on a tray or presented on a separate menu after you've declared that you can't eat another morsel? Every day Owens comes up with a dreamy little confection or two for the specials list. On a recent summer afternoon, he baked a warm lattice-crust blackberry-and-blueberry pie and crowned it with house-made peach ice cream and berry sauce. Inspiration, he says, is "a desire, a passion, a little bit of something you're born with." And when Dave Owens cooks, you can taste inspiration in every glorious bite.
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