As I waddled back to my car after the latest Dorm Room dinner at Lafayette Square's 33 Wine Shop & Tasting Bar, the evening air thick with wood smoke from the grill where Marc Baltes was braising pork shoulder for the next seating, I wondered which St. Louis restaurateur will be smart enough to give Baltes a kitchen of his own.
A brief review: The Dorm Room is a monthly series in which local chefs visit 33, which lacks a proper kitchen, and prepare a multi-course meal using only the sort of equipment that you would find in the typical college dorm room: toaster oven, microwave, hot plate. Josh Galliano of Monarch was the first Dorm Room chef, Kevin Willmann of Erato on Main the second. The price varies from dinner to dinner; this one cost $37.50 per person (tax, tip and wine not included).
Unlike Galliano and Willmann, the 34-year-old Baltes isn't the head chef at a local restaurant. (Yet.) His résumé is impressive nonetheless. The Culinary Institute of America grad currently works with his brother, Pat, at Cardwell's at the Plaza. Prior to that, he worked under Gerard Craft at Niche.
He returned to St. Louis after six years in San Francisco, where he ran the kitchen at Oakland's Pizzaiolo and worked at Quince and Zuni Café.
Before I delve into his Dorm Room meal, the requisite disclaimer: I didn't attend this meal to review it. (It is, after all, a one-time experience.) My wife and I are regulars at 33 and know the staff, including owner Jeff Stettner, by name. Also, I had been introduced to Baltes on a previous occasion, so he knew me by sight. Take what follows for what it's worth.
Baltes — who was assisted in 33's "kitchen" by his wife, Melissa, and his brother, Pat — began with a striking salad: yellow Centennial Farms watermelon, Double Star Farms eggplant, black olives, feta cheese and chopped mint.
Looking at these ingredients, you might scratch your head. From a flavor profile, though, it does make sense: sweet, acid, salty, creamy and verdant. Yet the combination transcended such analysis. It was alchemical — or, to use the technical term, just right — the power of fresh ingredients ingeniously combined and yet, vitally, minimally fussed with.
Next was gnocchi alla romana with creamed corn and sage. This was gnocchi in the generic sense of a dumpling. In fact, it was a single gnoccho, roughly the size and shape of a breakfast biscuit. Baltes made this by preparing what he described to me as a "semolina porridge." Into this he folded egg yolks and cheese. The individual gnocchi were formed from this mixture, then popped into the toaster oven.
The exterior was a golden-brown. The interior had a texture that was a little grainy, a little custardy. It was the most subtle dish of the night and thus suffered in comparison to the salad and the third course, but I thought it was a clever way of producing a pasta dish given the Dorm Room's limitations. Comparisons notwithstanding, with the sweetness of the corn and a touch of sage, it was a very nice dish.
For the third course, Baltes went outside the Dorm Room parameters by using outdoor grills. Consider it a cookout on the quad. At any rate, he didn't actually "grill" the meat. Instead, he seasoned Farrar Out Farm pork shoulder overnight with salt and pepper and then braised it in a pan on the grill. He served the pork over pinto beans cooked to a perfect al dente texture; atop the pork and beans were diced green zebra tomatoes in a basil vinaigrette.
This was as tender a cut of meat as I've had in St. Louis and just packed with flavor, the pork's own sweet richness kissed with smoke. The tomato-basil salsa (for lack of a better term) provided an acidic counterpoint, while the beans were there to soak up all the delicious juices.
The dinner ended with a slice of cornmeal-almond cake, light in body but full of a distinct marzipan flavor. This came with whipped cream and slices of home-canned peaches. I'll be honest: At this point, my palate was shutting down, so the most analytical thing I can see about this is: "Yum." I will endeavor to be more specific the next time I sample a menu from Baltes. I hope that is sooner — much, much sooner — than later.