We hemmed and hawed and flicked paper footballs and doodled boobs. (This, I should point out, was an all-boys school.) Finally, our teacher dismissed our one or two feeble attempts at answering his question and told us art is — I can remember it exactly — "the right making of a thing to be made."
We were silent. I'd like to think my classmates and I were sharing a Zen moment. You know, pondering the sound of one hand clapping. Really, we were all just confused. Or doodling.
The definition has stayed with me, though. I don't know whether it explains what art is, and dwelling on it too long gives me a headache, but I find it handy when I think about food — especially the seemingly straightforward food you find at a place like Newstead Tower Public House.
Newstead Tower Public House, which opened in November in Forest Park Southeast's Grove neighborhood, is a gastropub. That is, it serves what you might call "pub grub," but with much greater attention to the quality of said grub. The term is unlovely ("It sounds like some kind of snail," a co-worker remarked) and relatively new; according to Newstead's menu, "gastropub" was coined in England in the early 1990s.
The most famous gastropub in the United States might be the Spotted Pig in New York City. The chef, April Bloomfield, has attained cult status among foodies. On an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, the host looked downright orgasmic as he was taken to the Spotted Pig's "secret" top floor for a chefs-only meal of goat's or maybe sheep's head. (Definitely one of those two. Bourdain ate an eyeball, of course.)
In other words: The best gastropubs are all food, no pretension.
Newstead fits the bill. Were it not for the stark contrast between its beautifully rehabbed exterior (including the titular tower, which someone should adopt as the logo of the Grove's resurgence before I copyright the idea) and the generally shabby state of its surroundings, you might imagine Newstead as a place where two or three generations of neighbors have met for a pint and a bite to eat.
The interior is understated, an airy, warmly lighted room whose walls are split between wood paneling and dark red paint. There is a long bar and table seating for about 60. The most striking design feature is a freestanding iron streetlamp. If there are Guinness posters or Liverpool FC scarves or any other piece of faux pub décor, I didn't see them.
Neswtead's neighborly feel is authentic, in a way. Owner and executive chef Anthony Devoti also operates the well-regarded restaurant Five, located only a few blocks to the east. Devoti and Five's chef de cuisine, Cory Shupe, reprise their roles at Newstead. Their menu is brief: four appetizers, four entrées and a few soups, salads and sandwiches. As at Five, local farmers and seasonal produce are featured as often as possible. That alone sets this pub fare above "grub" status.
Both the steak frites entrée and the hamburger are made with grass-fed beef from Cape Girardeau's Fruitland Farm. The hamburger is delicious, though whether you can taste any difference grass-fed beef makes depends on how your burger is built. I ordered mine with cheddar cheese and caramelized onions ($1.50 and $1 extra, respectively), and what I enjoyed most was the ideal balance between the flavors of the meat, tangy cheese and sweet onion. The beef, though clearly the dominant flavor, didn't overwhelm. The burger comes with excellent house-made potato chips, light and crisp.
You might notice the difference grass-feeding makes in the steak frites. The strip steak tastes like beef, no doubt, but its flavor is cleaner and brighter than the more common corn-fed steak. The frites are a tangle of excellent fried shoestring potatoes.
Half of a roasted chicken was delicious, white and dark meat alike, though I would have liked a crispier skin. The presentation was rustic: The chicken sat in its own delicious pan jus, with boiled potatoes and — an inspired touch to contrast so much savoriness — goat cheese. (The chicken requires 30 minutes to cook. On the evening I tried it, our server and the kitchen did an excellent job of timing the courses so that we hardly noticed any delay.)
No self-respecting pub, gastro- or otherwise, would neglect to serve fish and chips, and Newstead's version is very good, three pieces of snow-white cod wrapped in crisp, though not greasy, beer batter. The chips are the same shoestring fries that accompany the steak.
Without doubt, my favorite pub food is rarebit sauce, that tangy mixture of cheese, mustard and beer. Give me a bowl of fresh-cut potato chips, a pot of rarebit sauce and a pint of good beer and leave me the hell alone. Newstead's rarebit appetizer is served over slices of toasted baguette. It's properly thick, and Tillamook cheddar gives it a wonderful depth of flavor.
I wouldn't have minded pairing the rarebit sauce with another appetizer, beer-battered onion rings. As it was, the onion rings came with three house-made sauces: a traditional aioli, a curried mayonnaise and a pickled mayonnaise. All three were good, but I found the curried mayonnaise the best match for the onion rings.
The menu suggests both a beer and wine pairing for each menu item — a nice touch, even if the wine list is very brief. This is a pub, after all. Order a damn beer. The draft selection features familiar craft brewers: Schlafly, O'Fallon, Boulevard and New Belgium (makers of Fat Tire). Oh, and Bud Select. There are a few nice touches on the bottle list — Orval Trappist Ale and two Samuel Smith offerings — but there is also Heineken, Budweiser and Stag in a can. I would have welcomed a more creative beer list, but this is a problem throughout St. Louis.
Still, Newstead is off to a fine start. The ingredients are sourced well, the dishes are prepared with care, and attention is paid to small details, from taking the time to make three different mayonnaises to serve with a single appetizer to serving the Brie on a cheese plate above room temperature so that it's actually runny.
Really, it's kind of sad that we need the term "gastropub" in the first place. Done well, pub fare is simple, hearty and utterly delicious. Why should we accept substandard fare as the norm? If you're going to make a hamburger, make it right. It might not be "art," but it's a win for the good guys.
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