Since February of last year, I've been counting down my 100 favorite dishes in St. Louis on Gut Check, the Riverfront Times food blog. I figured it would be easy to limit myself to 100 dishes — until I realized that my short list ran closer to 200 than 100. A good sign for the number of delicious dishes in the area, from the elite (beef tenderloin with foie gras at Tony's) to the humble (a $2 taco on Cherokee Street).
Though we called it a "countdown," I made it clear that the 100 dishes were presented in no particular order. That said, I saved some of my absolute favorites for last. Here I share with you the final five.
#5. Applewood-Smoked Duck Breast at Sidney Street Café
(2000 Sidney Street; 314-771-5777)
Sidney Street Café owner and executive chef Kevin Nashan was a semifinalist in the "Best Chef: Midwest" category of this year's James Beard Awards. About damn time. Nashan — the reigning Riverfront Times "Best Local Chef" — is as deserving of national notice as any St. Louis chef.
I could claim any one of several different dishes on Nashan's Sidney Street menu as a favorite, yet I always come back to the applewood-smoked duck. The flavor is intensely smoky. Most barbecue doesn't achieve this level of smokiness. Yet even through this cloud of smoke the distinctive flavor of blush-red, medium-rare duck meat and the luscious texture of rendered duck fat come through. Not enough duck for you? The duck breast sits atop a sweet-potato latke studded with duck confit. The latke, in turn, sits atop a small amount of charred rapini, whose bitterness provides a welcome contrast to what might otherwise be an overwhelmingly rich dish. From construction to preparation to the beautiful composition of the plate, it's flat-out fantastic.
#4. Ribs at Pappy's Smokehouse
(3106 Olive Street; 314-535-4340)
What more is there to say about Pappy's Smokehouse — except, to the two women behind me on my most recent visit who bailed from the line halfway to the register, "What the hell were you thinking?"
The ribs are my go-to order here, smoked over apple- and cherrywood and seasoned perfectly: a zing of black pepper, that beguiling rosemary note. And, above all else, the sweet-savory hit of pork cooked hour after hour after hour...
Just visiting Pappy's lifts my spirits. The regulars. The tourists. The fans having their pictures taken with the sunglasses-bedecked pig's head mounted on the wall or, if the pig's not available, with Mike Emerson. The whole bustle of the place. It's the most communal dining experience in St. Louis, and it never fails to put a smile on my face.
#3. Bread Pudding at Harvest
(1059 South Big Bend Boulevard, Richmond Heights; 314-645-3522)
Whatever I order at Harvest, I always, always conclude with the bread pudding. It's a legendary dish — and deservedly so.
All the usual dessert adjectives apply to Harvest's square of brioche bread pudding in a bourbon-currant sauce: luscious, indulgent, decadent. Yet, for all its richness, this isn't a cloying dessert. There are subtle flavors here, like a warming nutmeg note, and the currant and the bourbon both cut through and complement the bread pudding's sweetness.
And in a town lousy with créme brûlée and flourless chocolate cake, Harvest is one of the very, very few places where I tell people that you must save room for dessert.
#2. "Pork Duo" at Niche
(1831 Sidney Street; 314-773-7755)
At Niche I always look first to the current pork selections. Whether it's the pork-shank pappardelle that first put the restaurant on the radar of Food & Wine magazine — and which is back on the menu now — or a St. Louis-convention-flouting fried pig's head, Gerard Craft and his crew know how to prepare every last bit of a hog.
The pork entrée right now is called, simply, a "duo": pork belly and smoked pork loin with cornbread pudding and a hash of Brussels sprouts that is topped with a chicharrón. (Making it a pork trio, really.) Your server pours a sorghum-sherry sauce over the dish's first three elements tableside.
You get a little bit of everything with this dish: the smokiness of good barbecue; the natural sweetness of pork heightened by the cornbread and the sauce; the unctuous fat of the belly. My favorite part might be the belly's exterior: Beyond crisp, it cracks under your fork like the surface of a créme brûlée and works your teeth like hard candy.
When I return to Niche, this dish might no longer be on the menu — never to return, perhaps. That's part of the excitement of dining here. You savor your meal because, unlike your favorite burger or barbecue joint, you might never repeat its exact circumstances. And you don't mind this, because you're asking the same question that has been driving Craft and his team for five years now:
#1. Roast Chicken with Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts
My wife and I moved to St. Louis more or less on a whim, then unmarried and with no job awaiting either of us. Eight years later, we're wed, we both have jobs we love, and we own a house in south city. More to the point, we've found a home here. This feeling is difficult to convey. It's not like we woke up one morning bleeding Cardinal red and craving Provel. (Though we do like the Cards.)
Naturally, I fall back on food to explain myself. Here's my favorite meal to prepare at home — my favorite meal, period. Nothing in it is particular to St. Louis, but when I think of the times I've been happiest here, I think of the occasions I've prepared and enjoyed this dinner.
It's utterly simple and, assuming I don't screw it up, as flavorful as any of the other 99 dishes on this list: a roast chicken (I follow the basic recipe at the very beginning of Thomas Keller's Bouchon cookbook; all you need is a chicken — a fryer is the perfect size for two — butcher's twine, salt and pepper); potatoes, also roasted in the oven; and Brussels sprouts sautéed in bacon fat because hell, yeah, bacon.
Putting together this list of my 100 favorite St. Louis dishes has been a blast. While some of these dishes have been drawn from recent reviews, most are old favorites I was more than happy to revisit. Still, after working on the project for more than a year, I've had my fill of looking back — for now, anyway. There are dozens of new restaurants I have yet to try, dozens of towns and neighborhoods on both sides of the river that, shamefully, after eight years, I have yet to visit.
Those who think there are more than 100 St. Louis dishes worth celebrating or that I picked the wrong 100 will be pleased to know that my fellow Gut Check writers will soon begin a new countdown of their 100 favorites. If there's a dish you think they should try, don't hesitate to let them know.
As for me, if my next list of 100 favorite St. Louis dishes isn't at least half composed of dishes from restaurants I have yet to visit — restaurants that might not even exist yet — then I'll have failed in my mission as a food writer.
So here's to the next 100 — and the 100 after that.