For whatever reason, even before this election season, arugula has been the designated whipping boy for the right. I guess because it has a "funny" (read: foreign) name. Real Americans eat lettuce. Liberal elists eat arugula while sipping lattes and reading Noam Chomsky. Not that it's the right's fault alone. A recent, apolitical history of America's food culture called itself The United States of Arugula.
Look: Arugula is a green. Sometimes goes by the altogether cooler, though not quite as exotic, name "rocket." Looks like baby spinach. Peppery. Dress it with authentic balsamic vinegar and some good olive oil, and you have a simple, delicious salad. Just off the top of my head, I can think of several dozen "funny-sounding" foods that might be branded elitist with much more plausibility. (Then again, as far as funny-sounding foreign foods go, arugula is easier for pundits and spinmeisters to pronounce than foie gras.)
It must be the name, because why anyone would bother making fun of something that a) is healthy, b) tastes good and c) is inherently apolitical because it's a freaking plant is utterly beyond me — even more so now that I've had the "Greens, Eggs & Ham" and the "Brie, L, T" at Café Osage, the new breakfast and lunch spot in the Central West End.
Both are essentially open-face sandwiches. Both feature arugula. Neither is a threat to American values.
"Greens, Eggs & Ham" tops toasted whole-wheat bread with prosciutto (ham that costs upward of $20 a pound? — now that's elitist), arugula and two poached eggs. No one has to defend the perfect pairing of ham and eggs, but using thin slices of prosciutto instead of good ol' American ham provides a buttery texture and a more nuanced flavor. The arugula adds mild spice and some textural contrast. The only downside was that the egg yolks were cooked through; the "sauce" created by runny eggs would have elevated the dish. Still, paired with a side of cheese grits, it made for a straightforward, satisfying breakfast.
The "Brie, L, T" was even better. Here whole-wheat toast came topped with tart tomato jam, Nueske's bacon (imported from Wisconsin!), melted Brie (French!) and arugula. This might sound frou-frou, but it adds up to a hearty lunch. The combination of the thickly sliced, intensely flavored bacon and the generous slabs of runny (though not overly so) Brie was especially indulgent.
Café Osage is the latest addition to Bowood Farms, which opened in a former auto-repair shop in the spring of 2006. The spacious, attractive nursery sells plants grown on its farm in Clarksville. Bowood Farms also raises bison, which is available frozen at the garden center and on the menu, in burger form, at Café Osage.
The restaurant is a lovely space, its décor favoring muted earth tones, its high ceilings offsetting the relatively small confines. Large windows overlook the nursery's interior showroom to one side, a courtyard to the other. On one visit I watched a cat, in defiance of everything I've come to know about cats, splashing happily in the courtyard's fountain.
In charge of Café Osage's kitchen are David Guempel, formerly of Café Balaban and Zinnia, and David Kirkland, formerly of Frazer's Brown Bag. They have put together thoughtful breakfast and lunch menus that include produce from a garden located right across the street.
The restaurant already seems to be cultivating fans: All but one of my visits were for lunch, and on each occasion the dining room was packed, often with large groups. (For the first time, after two and a half years of reviewing restaurants, I shared a dining room with the fabled ladies of the Red Hat Society.) On one weekday afternoon, the wait for a table reached half an hour.
The kitchen sometimes struggled to keep up. A companion and I waited 40 minutes for our lunch, a bison burger with cheese and a reuben with housemade corned beef. The burger didn't benefit from the delay. The menu specifies that it is grilled medium-rare — a necessity for meat as lean as bison. However, whether from inattention or from being held too long, my burger arrived well past medium, rendering it dry and bland. The reuben didn't suffer from the wait, but the corned beef didn't have an assertive flavor; the most dominant flavor was the Russian dressing.
My favorite lunch dish was the "Brie, L, T." (This was listed as one of the entrées, along with a risotto, flatbread pizza and pasta of the day.) A close second was the pulled-pork sandwich, a messy concoction of smoked pork shoulder in a tangy Carolina-style sauce with crisp slaw on a ciabatta roll, which — thanks to the sauce — fell apart immediately. The pork was very tender, and the sauce, though piquant, didn't overwhelm the meat.
I also liked the sweet-and-sour cabbage soup, a daily special. This was definitely more tart than sweet, with added heft from chunks of beef brisket. (Vegetarians take note: The beef isn't included in the menu description.) Indeed, the soup offered the very one-two punch of sour and savory that was sorely missing from the reuben.
What impresses me more than any single dish at Café Osage is the restaurant's overall vibe: a very friendly staff in a unique and inviting location striving to elevate what is, at heart, a neighborhood café, to something slightly more. Like several other restaurants that I've visited over the past few years, it's an example of the bottom-up approach to the St. Louis food scene, trying to improve the everyday dining experience as opposed to opening a four-star, grand-slam restaurant.
Serving a BLT with Brie and arugula isn't pretentious or elitist. It's just different. And good. It's a change (wait for it) that we can believe in.