Dining » Cafe

Exact Change

Sidney Street Café's new owners keep the place a living legend


It's no coincidence that the career paths of prostitution and restaurant kitchen work are both referred to as "The Life." Physically wounding, mentally exhausting and emotionally taxing, the life of a chef can be measured out cup by cup, ingredient by ingredient, dish by dish, table by table, check by check, night after night. Inventory must be replenished, daily specials created, investors, bosses and customers pleased, fires put out, literally and figuratively. Sometimes the Life, masochistic and love-hate, leads those who swelter and toil in it to drink, dissolve relationships and marriages or agree to showcase their risky venture on reality-TV shows.

Other times, it results in a ravishing, sharp, Japanese horseradish-encrusted steak wasabi, improbably complemented with tempura vegetables and a bosky shiitake cream sauce, or a marvelous filet béarnaise, a triumph in carnivorous consumption: prime, tender steak stuffed with (or rather, resting gluttonously upon) lobster and langostino, lusciously drenched in a buttery béarnaise sauce. Those are just two of the signature dishes that have graced the menu at twenty-year-old Sidney Street Café for so long that, on the St. Louis restaurant scene, they rank as minor celebrities in their own right.

Sidney Street's food -- an unlikely contemporary mélange of French, Asian and steakhouse influences -- could be nitpicked and deconstructed into oblivion, classically speaking. The steak au poivre forgoes the purist's brandy flambé preparation for a mustard-Cognac sauce. Artichoke tartlets, an appetizer, are treated to a roasted rosemary topping, though it could be argued that tarragon or basil might make for a more suitable, less pungent grace note. And a Tuscan sea bass, served with sun-dried tomatoes and a Mediterranean-style relish of fennel and tomato, turns its back on black olives, which Tuscans mix into everything. Yet the tongue never lies, and neither does two decades of steadfastly loyal and rarely underwhelmed clientele. Sidney Street's food is unassailable. And the number-one rule of the Life -- and, for that matter, of life -- is: If it ain't broke, you don't fix it.

Brothers Kevin and Chris Nashan know that, which is why, after buying Sidney Street from Tom McKinley in December, they've made sure the restaurant remains as same-old-same-old and as anything-but-ordinary as it's always been.

For the brothers Nashan -- who carry themselves like wide-eyed newbies fresh out of culinary school, near-bursting at the seams with enthusiasm for what they do -- the Life is the only life they really know. The day after his grandson Kevin was born and ten years into his retirement from the CIA (the government agency, not the culinary institute), their maternal grandfather opened a Spanish-Mexican restaurant, La Tertulia ("the gathering place"), in Santa Fe. While still in grammar school, Kevin and Chris were seating customers and bussing tables there. College brought them both to St. Louis, where, Kevin says, "it took me two years to realize I didn't want to become a lawyer." He and Chris resolved to run a restaurant together, figuring it would take about five or six years after one of them earned a culinary degree. Because Chris, by his own admission, doesn't like "how hot it gets in a kitchen," he set his sights on restaurant management, while Kevin enrolled in the CIA (the culinary institute, not the government agency).

A whirlwind of résumé-building and experience-gathering followed: Both put in time at Commander's Palace, the world-famous New Orleans restaurant. Kevin then spent a year cooking at two different restaurants in Spain, and eventually he and Chris rendezvoused in New York City to work under Daniel Boulud. But since their Saint Louis University days, they'd always agreed that they'd return to the city they loved to unleash their joint venture. Kevin's wife Mina had gone to high school with Harvest chef Steve Gontram, so they signed on there last year, projecting they'd need another year or two to suss out locations before hanging their own shingle.

Two months into the plan, they altered course and began looking at existing restaurants as well as vacant spaces; "whatever makes the most business sense" was their new mantra. Buying a place is a move that's just as chancy (as in: bordering-on-semi-suicidal) as opening a place from scratch, though maybe a bit less ego-fueled. Then their broker floated the idea of Sidney Street. Nine months later, the place was under new management.

Says Kevin, speaking all too fittingly: "In life, doors open really quickly, and if you don't catch them when they are open, you may wind up wondering what might have been. I can't explain it any better than that."

There was some symmetry: McKinley had himself taken over the restaurant along with his wife and brother-in-law seventeen years earlier, eighteen months after its inception. That was back when they were the same age as Kevin, Chris and Mina are now.

Now that symmetry has given way to continuity -- Sidney Street Café remains the same distinctive, wildly popular restaurant it always has been. Nary a tablecloth has been changed in the front of the house; surely the place will continue to rack up "Most Romantic Restaurant" accolades from polls and publications around town. Housed in an historic brick building within the residential Benton Park neighborhood, Sidney Street is enchanting, though its deservedly praised aura isn't over-the-top lovey-dovey (no overstuffed flower arrangements, scallop-edged linens or sweeping violin music). It's more like an authentic dose of Old World splendor: exposed brick; an ornately detailed, handsome mahogany bar; and streetlamp-style lighting fixtures that are easy on the eyes. The waitstaff accents its button-downs and khakis with jaunty suspenders and bow ties and still famously rattles off menu descriptions from memory (a handheld chalkboard, one per table, lists plates by title only). So upbeat and chipper are they, it's almost surprising they don't spontaneously perform barbershop-quartet ditties together while making their rounds.

The few new items that have debuted on the menu thus far suggest that, while there will be an evolution of dishes, devout patrons will find little to fear. The wine list has been revamped with about twenty new varietals and an off-menu captain's list, the pasta-making has been brought in-house, and the long-running grouper Creole phased into halibut Sidney: a pan-seared fillet on a bed of lobster and langostino risotto (see, the more things change, the more they stay the same), treated to a light shellfish broth and accompanied by fennel salad. A delightful beggar's purse appetizer, a wonton-like shell filled with paella and chorizo, is a kick in the head, if for no other reason than that beggar's purses are a true rarity.

Only Tony's rivals Sidney Street Café in St. Louis as the place, the best, the all-time big-ticket restaurant in town -- the sort of spot that'll make you coo, "This is the life." In more ways than one.

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