We seem to be in an era of extremes regarding food. On the one hand are the temples of gastronomy: darlings of the food press that dedicate themselves to pushing diners into uncharted culinary territories. On the other are the lowbrow diners, drive-ins and dives that gratuitously distinguish themselves by how much crap they can shove between two pieces of bread. Both have their place. But what of those simple, quietly confident restaurants that serve good, honest food without reality-TV show ambitions?
Take J Greene's Pub in Warson Woods, for example. On any given day at this neighborhood bar and grill, one can find grandmothers playing bridge over lunch, toddlers scuttling around the dining room floor or young professionals enjoying craft beers at happy hour. Husband-and-wife team Jason and Juliet Greene had lengthy tenures at McGurk's (Jason was general manager for twelve years; Juliet, executive chef for ten), though they've formed their own identity at J Greene's. This is not McGurk's West. The place is comfortable, with a marble fireplace, classic wood bar and fresh flowers on the host stand. Sure, the patio vista may be a blacktop parking lot, but the wafting smell of the smoker out back is the first clue that there is more to this unassuming restaurant than meets the eye.
See also: Inside J Greene's Pub
Though expecting average pub fare, I was pleasantly surprised with just how good the food was, the result of Juliet's extensive culinary training and expertise. The restaurant smokes and slow-braises its meats in-house, uses old family recipes and even makes some of its own cheese (the smoked salmon breakfast plate is served with housemade mascarpone, for example).
If there is one dish that best sums up the place, it is the toasted ravioli. This ubiquitous St. Louis staple can be painfully banal when simply pulled out of a freezer and thrown into a deep fryer. However, when a restaurant takes the time to actually make its own from scratch, it reveals how the meaty little pillows achieved their fame. J Greene's makes its own dough, fills the pasta with a blend of ground beef and Italian sausage, and serves them with a chunky homemade marinara. Unlike its chewy frozen cousin, this version is light and flaky. J Greene's also offers a vegetarian version, stuffed with a creamy spinach and artichoke filling. Although the ravioli themselves were tasty, I was not a fan of the accompanying "Golden Ranch" condiment. There was nothing wrong with the sauce itself, but the sweet-and-smokey honey mustard tasted more appropriate for a chicken finger — not an ideal pairing for the ravioli. And the fact that it was cold made it all the more off-putting.
For those who like some serious heat, the spicy bacon poppers may be the perfect bar food. Unlike traditional poppers, they are wrapped in bacon rather than breaded, which gives them a smoky saltiness that pairs well with the formidable jalapeño punch. The hot little nuggets are overstuffed with an oozing combination of cream cheese and cheddar, and the side of housemade ranch provides a welcome cooling effect. Pair these with a pint of local porter.
J Greene's Pub touts its house-cured meats, and the Reuben proves why. The corned beef has a lovely essence of juniper that permeates the salty meat. Unlike some corned beef, J Greene's is not overly fatty; it's sliced in hearty chunks that tenderly break apart with each bite. The bread is a caramel-colored dark rye that is liberally buttered and griddled. Tangy Swiss cheese, even tangier homemade Thousand Island and a generous portion of sauerkraut put the finishing touches on a sandwich that could rival some of the best delis in town.
I was a bit apprehensive about trying the pork osso bucco, because J Greene's is A) not a fine-dining Italian restaurant; and B) actually, not an Italian restaurant at all. One has to be either completely off base or extremely confident to put such an item on a bar and grill menu, and I was prepared for this to go poorly. It was delicious. The pork shank had been slow-braised for so long that it literally slid off the bone; I picked up one of the bones, and a chunk of glistening meat fell into the bowl. The pork was served atop rustic-style mashed potatoes so that the tomato and pork-infused cooking liquid formed a rich, savory gravy. It was served with a simple side of asparagus — nothing complicated, just soul-warming comfort food, perfectly executed.
The one dish that was a bit of a miss was the turkey club, an unfortunate victim of poor bread choice. This was especially disappointing, as J Greene's takes the time and effort to smoke its own turkey breasts. The turkey itself had a delicate sweet smoke, and it was carved in thick slices that clearly demonstrate the difference between real turkey and processed lunch meat. The cheddar, bacon and avocado were worthy accompaniments, although it needed a bit more of the herbed mayo to make up for the dryness of white-meat turkey. The bread wasn't bad, but it's not far off to say that the proportion of bread to filling was about a ten-to-one ratio. Why anyone would smother such fine product under five inches of bread is beyond me.
The sticky sweetness of decadent bread pudding quickly abated any disappointment in the behemoth turkey club. The outside edges maintained malty crispiness while the inside was a buttery caramel pouf. The bread pudding had a subtle hint of cinnamon, and the topping of vanilla ice cream melted slightly to form an impromptu crème anglaise. I appreciate that this was one of only three desserts on J Greene's menu. Obviously, the culinary team chose quality over quantity.
J Greene's Pub is not going to change the culinary landscape of St. Louis. You won't find edible foam anywhere in the restaurant — unless it's capping a cold pint of beer. But in such a landscape obsessed with Elysian heights and sinful lows, it is important to occasionally remember to come down to Earth. Fine can be divine.
See also: Inside J Greene's Pub