You might never get to try the salad that I had a few weeks ago at Home Wine Kitchen. Which is a shame. This was a damn good salad, simple but elegant: arugula tossed with shaved Parmesan and gossamer slices of prosciutto from St. Louis' own Salume Beddu, served over thick slices of toast. Nestled in the salad was a poached egg. "A duck egg," owner and chef Cassy Vires said as she placed the plate in front of me. "Just break it open. The yolk provides all the dressing you need."
If anything, she undersold the duck egg. Its rich orange yolk imbued a modestly portioned salad with the weight and savor of a satisfying entrée. Salume Beddu's prosciutto was lovely, the perfect balance of pig, salt and time. (Vires originally planned for the salad to include jamón Ibérico, but she sent back the expensive Spanish ham when she learned that Salume Beddu's prosciutto was available.) With the peppery arugula and the nutty flavor and mouth-coating umami of the Parmesan, this was as delicious and as smartly constructed a salad as I've had in this town.
And now it is gone.
Home Wine Kitchen opened in Maplewood only three months ago, but Vires, whose local rèsumè has included heading the kitchen at Ernesto's Wine Bar as well as writing a James Beard Award-nominated column for Feast magazine, has already changed its menu from top to bottom more times than most chefs do over the entire life of their restaurants. At a time when such terms as "local" and "seasonal" have become so commonplace as to be deserving of skepticism, if not meaningless, Vires has the courage to take the concepts to their logical conclusion: Home Wine Kitchen offers a new menu, appetizers through desserts, every single week.
Though Vires' dishes differ from week to week, you can get a sense of her aesthetic from the look of Home Wine Kitchen: casual and rustic (but still higher-end) American. There is wood everywhere: hardwood floors, stained wood paneling, a long wood banquette along one wall. Above the banquette are framed photographs of hazy rural scenes, a barn, two frolicking pigs. "Is there a pork entrée?" you wonder, licking your lips. On my visits, there was not.
The space walks the fine line between cozy and cramped. It is long, but narrow, with the banquette along one wall, the bar along the opposite wall and a few hightop tables in the storefront windows. When it is busy, you can't help but notice the tables on either side of you and the servers trying their best to slip unnoticed from one to the next. (The restaurant did seem understaffed on a busy Saturday night, with longer-than-comfortable waits between courses and glasses of wine.) Also, when it's busy, it is very loud.
On my visits, the starters included that arugula salad. There was also something the menu identified as "carpaccio" but was actually long, thin slices of medium-rare sirloin with arugula, Parmesan and sliced black mission figs. Viewed as a steak salad, this was a fine dish. The figs were an especially nice touch. Not too sweet, their juicy, even lightly tannic, texture was a good pairing with the meat. But if you order this expecting the classic preparation of raw, thinly sliced steak, you will be confused, if not disappointed.
The soup of the week, chickpea, was intriguing. At first, it seemed little more than al dente chickpeas in a light vegetable broth brightly flavored with tomato, garlic and lemon juice — too brightly flavored, I thought initially, and perhaps too salty. But it had a sneaky, late-blossoming spice that softened the saltiness and accented the tomato and garlic flavors. I spooned every last drop.
The entrées during my visits showed a definite Mediterranean influence. Vires served chicken thighs over orzo in a sauce of pinot grigio, garlic, Meyer lemon and Kalamata olives. The chicken thighs were beautifully prepared, the skin crisp and brown, the meat moist and flavorful. As with the soup, the sauce was bracing, especially thanks to the whole (pitted) olives, but here there was no bass note to round out the dish.
Grilled lamb chops came with a sensible chiffonade of mint along with a little garlic and yogurt. Really, though, this dish was about the bold flavor of medium-rare lamb, its juices doubling as a sauce for the side of oven-roasted potatoes. The two lamb chops were decently sized but paled next to the grilled sirloin steak, a hunk of meat that would have prompted double takes in a steak house. Without my having to specify a temperature, this was served medium-rare, the center a glorious red-purple, its flavor the essence of beef concentrated. For contrast, the steak was served in a sort of sauce of cherry and sun gold tomatoes in citrus juice. Propped against the steak (and giving a little bit of a lie to the whole seasonal, local approach) were three plump asparagus stalks.
There is a separate menu category of vegetable sides. The week I visited, the roasted cauliflower with paprika, pine nuts and a hint of lemon was excellent. Though if you must choose between a vegetable side and a dessert, go with the dessert. A whole black mission fig dipped in chocolate and served with housemade ricotta was one of the highlights of my dinners here, sweet but not overwhelmingly so, complex enough to stand on its own.
Lunch and brunch feature the same ingredient-driven focus as dinner. These menus change quarterly, rather than weekly, though two of the lunch dishes seem to have established permanent residency: the grilled-cheese sandwich and the burger. The latter is easily one of the best burgers in town, grass-fed ground beef beautifully seasoned and cooked medium rare, topped with cheddar cheese, bacon and — why the hell not? — a fried (chicken) egg. Remarkably, as strongly flavored as those three toppings are, the taste of the beef sings clearly and powerfully.
Vires' husband, Josh Renbarger, runs the front of the house, including the wine program. Each wine is $8 by the glass, $30 by the bottle. (A few reserve bottles are available.) The list isn't lengthy, but the staff seems to know it well. In one case, the bartender suggested pairing my massive sirloin steak with an Oregon pinot noir — a combination I wouldn't have made on my own, but one that worked brilliantly.
By now, not only have the dishes that I mentioned in this review been replaced, but their replacements likely have been, too. Really, though, all I needed to know to recommend Home Wine Kitchen was contained in that arugula salad. Vires has talent and ambition. It will be exciting to see where she goes next week, and in the long term.