When Market Grill opened in Soulard in February 2010, its most intriguing dish was a plate of deep-fried pork wings. That these "wings" — in truth, a small piece cut from the pig's fibula — were the creation of a savvy meat processor in Michigan marketed nationwide as "Pork Without the Fork" told you all you needed to know about Market Grill's initial culinary ambitions. It wasn't a bad restaurant, and it was ahead of the curve on pork wings, whose growing popularity the New York Times documented only last month, but in a neighborhood crowded with similar joints, it wasn't distinctive.
Such a restaurant can follow any number of paths, though the most common one is to keep on truckin', dependent on regulars and foot traffic, for as long as the money holds out. At the end of this past summer, however, Market Grill opted for a riskier direction. The restaurant rebooted itself: same name, but a new logo, a new manager, a new chef and a new — and, boldly, or foolishly (or both), in this still-troubled economy, a more expensive — menu.
The new chef is Jonathan Olson, a veteran of several local kitchens, including Erato on Main in Edwardsville, Illinois, and (briefly) the Terrace View. Many area chefs espouse the "local is better" ethos, but few are as dedicated to it as Olson, who not only seems to know every little family farm in southern Illinois, but who also serves food that he has grown or foraged himself. He brings this passion for local, seasonal produce to Market Grill — though he is the first to admit that this alone isn't enough to make the restaurant succeed, especially given its Soulard address.
"It's one of the things we struggle with," he says. "We need to be approachable. I don't want somebody to come in and think: 'It's too expensive.' We've had to find a balance between more ambitious entrées and more approachable food."
In that middle ground you'll find some of the most interesting, not to mention tastiest, dishes at Market Grill. Porchetta is a famously indulgent pork dish, and Olson doesn't hold back on the fat, wrapping bone-out pork shoulder in pork belly and then slowly roasting it. But rather than making this the centerpiece of an entrée, he piles slices of the tender, luscious meat between halves of a housemade bun and serves it as a sandwich, a rapini pesto the only condiment, its sharpness helping to cut through the meat's richness.
Olson says he's offering porchetta not simply for its own sake but because he "really wanted to do a good sandwich." The sandwich is available on both the lunch and dinner menus, as is a grass-fed cheeseburger and a sandwich with the excellent and spicy fiama sausage (a fresh pork sausage with notes of fennel and smoked paprika) from the highly regarded local meat curers at Salume Beddu. Exclusive to the lunch menu on my visits was a sandwich of house-cured pastrami, cut thickly so that you could taste the meat as well as its brine and spices.
With a couple of exceptions, the lunch menu is a truncated version of the dinner board. This, in turn, is a manageable selection of soups, salads, appetizers and entrées. The featured soup at the moment is butternut squash, nearly as thick as pure cream, its deep, roasted sweetness smartly offset by a scattering of spiced, toasted pepitas.
The appetizers are another example of the balance Olson seeks for Market Grill. Starters aren't listed under a single heading; they appear on the menu as various subcategories. You can build your own cheese plate from a small roster of local cheeses, or you can order one of the modestly priced "Bar Snacks," like roasted olives or "Mac & Cheese Gougères," bite-size puff pastries stuffed with a blend of overcooked pasta and cheddar cheese, a filling far tastier in its execution than in its description.
Another subcategoy features bruschetta, three to an order, which you can mix or match from a trio of varieties. Of these two stood out: one with oyster mushrooms and fried sage atop goat cheese, another featuring romesco sauce (a Catalan purée of tomatoes, garlic, onions, almonds and olive oil) topped by leeks and chives. The third, roasted apples, tarragon and honey over housemade ricotta, was so subtle as to be silent.
Olson's local-food credentials are legit, but with family ties on the Gulf Coast and time spent working for fish aficionados including Kevin Willmann (now of Farmhaus), he has a deep appreciation for seafood. This reveals itself across Market Grill's entrées. Sweet blue-crab meat and bacon bejewel housemade tagliatelle in a rich cream sauce. Seared sea scallops, plump and buttery-sweet, need nothing more than a dash of paprika-infused oil to sing — though they're nearly overshadowed by their side dish, butternut-squash gnudi (made from a ricotta base, these are like lighter, more luscious gnocchi) tossed with shiitake mushrooms and mizuna, a bitter green. The standout is an impressive slab of Atlantic sea bass seared in — and, thus, infused with the incomparable flavor of — duck fat. This was presented simply, with potatoes (cooked in duck fat) and, again, mizuna.
The only misfire on my visits was the dry-aged, grass-fed strip steak, and this was the fault of the cut rather than the cook: Gristle marred an otherwise flavorful piece of meat. (Olson says that should be remedied soon. I should also mention that he knows me by sight; dining incognito wasn't on the menu for this review.) The steak was served on a puddle of celery-root purée and topped with a saffron-parsnip sauce, both smart autumnal touches.
Desserts range from the straightforward (a tart made with Jonathan apples and topped with salted-caramel ice cream) to the adventurous (a chocolate-habanero bread pudding, very thick and very spicy). Ice cream flavored with Tuaca, a vanilla-citrus liqueur, helps cut the heat.
The menu instructs you to ask about the strawberry-ghost pepper sorbet. Even a small spoonful is fearsome, the heat immediate, brutal and long-lasting — and, it should go without saying, a far cry from pork wings.