Monarch on a weekday evening. Miles Davis on the stereo. A low boil of crosstalk from the few occupied tables. My wife lovely as ever in a black top and black skirt. I'm wearing a suit coat dark enough to obscure a couple of years' worth of red-wine and veal demi-glacé stains. As we sit, the hostess deftly removes the folded white napkins from our table and lays black napkins across each of our laps. There is no stock of black napkins nearby — she must have grabbed them from her station when she saw how we were dressed.
"Make sure you mention that in the review," my wife says. "That never happens in St. Louis. Never."
I make a mental note to include the great napkin switch, even though this isn't meant to be the sort of review where I introduce and evaluate each aspect of the restaurant: food, décor, service. Monarch isn't new. And if the restaurant is showing wear after not quite six years in business, I can't see it. If anything, Monarch stands out even more now that the revitalization of Maplewood's business district seems to have stagnated.
I'm here for the food. Specifically, I'm here because Josh Galliano is now manning the stoves. Galliano came to Monarch in September after several years as Larry Forgione's chef de cuisine at An American Place.
(Full disclosure: During Galliano's time at An American Place, the restaurant's catering arm provided the food for my wedding reception. This was a paid transaction, and I didn't meet or discuss the wedding menu with Galliano.)
Galliano succeeds Brian Hale, who left to take over the dining operations at the Chase Park Plaza. Choosing Galliano was a masterstroke by Monarch co-owners Aaron Teitelbaum and Jeff Orbin. A masterstroke and, in the coldest calculation, unnecessary. Too many St. Louis restaurants are content with their inertia. Too many of us are content to let them coast. In this economy, especially, who would have blamed a restaurant as admired and successful as Monarch had it replaced Hale with a chef willing to serve the same dishes?
Instead, by my count, Galliano has jettisoned all but one selection. (A flatbread with short ribs and mushrooms, if you're keeping score.) It would be impossible — pointless, even — to characterize his new menu with a single term. A grilled rib eye with sauce forestière nods to continental cuisine. Honey-roasted pork belly with cornbread croutons is straight-up New American. Or New New American. Or whatever they're calling it these days.
Better to say that Galliano approaches every dish with restraint and respect. The technique is always impressive, and the presentations are often striking, but the ultimate focus is on the ingredients.
Consider the rib eye. The steak arrives at the table in three thick slices, its exterior seared to a perfect savory-sweet crisp, the interior, a shade of red only just faded from purple. A gorgeous piece of meat, it would be utterly satisfying on its own. Yet the sauce, dense with mushrooms, provides an earthy backbeat, while pearl onions contribute a mellow sweetness. Because this is a steak, there must be potatoes, here in the form of potato-pecan croquettes.
For all these accompaniments, it is the rich flavor of the steak that lingers. Likewise, braised short ribs, tender enough to be cut by the mere mention of a fork, are a hearty winter pleasure. The meat seems to dissolve into its sauce of red wine and roasted root vegetables; a garnish of parsnip chips adds a dash of brightness to all this savoriness.
Chicken dishes are often a sop to the unadventurous diner, but Galliano's garlic-crusted chicken breast is a winner — though here the chicken really plays a supporting role to the garlic. Not only is there the garlic crust, but also a purée of black garlic. This is garlic that has ripened in the sun: It marries the subtle flavor of roasted garlic to the tannic edge of raisins and adds a striking grace note to this dish.
Sharing the plate with the chicken breast is a hash of mushrooms and fingerling potatoes, as well as roasted Brussels sprouts. This might not sound especially exciting, but the dish as a whole strikes me as Galliano's most impressive creation: Without calling attention to itself — no clever names, no showy presentation — it takes the humble pleasure of a roast-chicken dinner and presents it in a new and interesting form.
Few area restaurants expend much creativity on their seafood offerings. There is shrimp, and there is salmon. Yet it is here that Galliano seems to cut loose. Seared albacore tuna (not as luscious as yellowfin or bluefin tuna, but more environmentally responsible) comes with caramelized fennel and braised Jerusalem artichokes. This is a study of sweetness: the clean flavor of the fish, the fennel's strong licorice note and the sunchokes' mild, somewhat nutty taste. Saffron-scented (and beautifully turned) potatoes provide backbone, and an orange-balsamic jus ties everything together with its touch of acidity.
The tuna is immediately appealing, whereas the Missouri rainbow trout at first seems too busy: There is a sweet potato-apple gratin, housemade bacon, buttered cabbage and a grain-mustard jus. Yet as the flavors combine, it makes sense, the combination of sweet and smoky evoking an autumn campfire.
There were a few disappointments. A trio of local pork, a special, lacked variation in texture or flavor. Pork loin with a traditional garlic and parsley persillade was only a shade different from spiced ham with a hash of garbanzo beans and roasted garlic. The latter came with an agrodolce sauce, yet both its sweet and sour notes seemed muted. Braised pork belly was the standout, its luscious texture given a striking contrast by its exterior, which was seared to a brittle texture like the surface of a crème brûlée.
The appetizer selection is small. Ravioli filled with puréed winter squash are lovely, with a warming combination of nutmeg and a sage beurre blanc. Honey-roased pork belly with cornbread croutons, baby beets, gnudi (ravioli filling without the ravioli) and basil cream is very good, if almost too rich to be an appetizer. For all those components, it needed a steak of acidity or spice to cut through the heaviness. Similarly, the lamb pâté on the housemade charcuterie plate lacked a distinctive flavor. On the other hand, the thinly sliced bresaola burst with flavor.
Galliano also created the desserts, and the selection, though brief, is striking. I opted for the dreamsicle semifreddo, which perfectly captured the flavor of that childhood treat. To complement its orange-vanilla flavor, Galliano serves it with a sort of oatmeal cookie, sage ice cream and a coriander-spiced tuile. A burst of summer freshness amid the depths of a very cold winter.
I didn't review Monarch when it first opened, so I can't make a fair comparison between then and now. Really, though, I don't need to make that comparison. Suffice to say that Monarch is in the enviable position of successfully evolving without losing all the little details, like black napkins for a dark suit, that have always set it apart.