In 2006 the Chicago City Council attracted much attention — and not a little scorn — when it banned foie gras from restaurants. Foie gras is fattened duck or goose liver. The controversy stems from the fattening: Specifically, the process known as gavage, force-feeding the animals through a tube inserted into the esophagus. Opponents of foie gras claim gavage is cruel; foie gras producers argue it is not.
I don't intend to address the larger debate over foie gras in this week's column. I eat it without guilt. Should you disagree, feel free to skip ahead to the paragraph that begins, "Araka opened just over three months ago..."
OK. Now that the party-poopers have left us:
So the foie gras ban has proven more or less unenforceable. The officials in charge of enforcing it have shown little enthusiasm, and restaurants have flouted it, refusing to remove foie gras from the menu, selling it under the table or, in one instance, giving it away for free — with the purchase of one inexplicably expensive salad.
There is a simple solution, though: Hire me as the official inspector of Chicago's foie gras ban. I will dutifully visit as many restaurants as necessary until I've located every last spot still serving the delicacy. My terms are surprisingly reasonable. There is only one stipulation: I must sample every foie gras dish I find, just to be certain. I wouldn't want to expose the city to any lawsuits.
I thought of this plan while eating foie gras at Araka, the excellent new restaurant in Clayton. Head chef Mark Curran, formerly of the Vail, Colorado, restaurant Larkspur, sears a generously sized piece of foie gras with a pistachio crust and then serves this atop a tangle of microgreens on the left side of an oblong plate. Across the plate's center are three small pink grapefruit wedges and a streak of black-pepper honey. On the right side of the plate are two lightly toasted pieces of bread.
The presentation is lovely, the flavor remarkable. The foie gras' buttery richness and silky texture, here given a mild crunch by the pistachio crust, are paramount. The black-pepper honey provides both the sweet note you often want with foie gras as well as mild heat. The juicy grapefruit brightens the dish and provides a textural counterpoint, bursting in your mouth while the foie gras seems to melt.
Now, I like foie gras — a lot — but only as an occasional indulgence. I never crave it. Yet in the days following my meal at Araka, that's exactly what happened: I craved foie gras. I wanted to try the dish at Araka again and again, until my heart was as plump and fatted as, well, a lobe of foie gras. I think this is one of the highest compliments I could pay a chef, and it's why Araka, though by no means perfect, is one of the most promising new St. Louis restaurants of the past few years.
Araka opened just over three months ago in the new Carondelet Plaza office and retail complex next to the Ritz-Carlton. (Welcome back, foie gras haters!) The restaurant's exterior keeps pace with its blandly elegant upscale surroundings, though its black frame windows and prominent signage hint at its style.
The interior by David Schefer Design of New York must be counted among the city's most beautiful dining spaces, at least two stories high, all warm light and gentle curves. The most striking feature is the glassed-in wine tower, though the private dining area on the second floor, which overlooks the main dining room like the bridge of a ship, also makes quite an impression. The main dining room is two distinct areas built around the open kitchen. The area closest to the kitchen is smaller and darker, with a low ceiling. The larger area provides a soaring ceiling and an excellent vantage for people-watching. Both areas are very loud, and the music — which ranged on my visits from ambient dance music to 1980's pop — doesn't help.
Curran's menu cites influence from Southern Europe cuisines — Italian, French, Spanish and a mish-mash of those and others — but its essence isn't so different from the city's other contemporary higher-end restaurants. Big-eye tuna conjures daydreams of the Mediterranean: The entrée brings thick slices of purple-rare (in my case) fish. Orange slivers and a sort of olive relish amplify the tuna's bright flavor, while braised fennel offers a warm, autumnal note. Curran makes boring old salmon a revelation, giving it exceptional depth with black lentils and the exact right note of black truffle.
On the other hand, both beef tenderloin and a Berkshire pork chop conjure memories of very good meals elsewhere in town. The tenderloin's mild beefy flavor is given a nudge by a cognac-peppercorn sauce, but the pleasures here are simple: meat, Yukon Gold potatoes and Gorgonzola. The pork chop is massive and very tender; the dish, which includes walnuts and chopped butternut squash, succeeds because the kitchen doesn't fuss with the chop's naturally rich flavor.
The most indulgent entrée must be the pairing of seared duck breast and leg confit with black-truffle risotto. Indeed, I found the pairing a touch too indulgent. The flavors were competing to overwhelm one another, rather than harmonizing, and a side of Napa cabbage was much too bitter. Still, on their own, the breast's crisp skin, the tender confit and the dense risotto were knockouts.
The entrée was messy when it arrived at the table, though. Juice from the duck was spilled across the plate. This occurred with the veal chop, too: The meat's juices had already soaked the creamy polenta on which the chop sat. The dish as a whole was good, but blunt, lots of brown and off-white: veal, pancetta, cipollini onions and a sweetbread. I wanted a contrasting flavor — the polenta, perhaps, if it hadn't been soaked.
The messy plates stood out especially because the kitchen shows so much attention to detail: the precise presentation of the foie gras or another terrific appetizer, prawns à la plancha. This has a definite Spanish flair: succulent prawn, elegant saffron risotto, spicy chorizo and tangy romesco sauce; Marcona almonds provide delightful textural contrast.
Little details abound: Sunflower seeds are a surprising, lovely touch at the bottom of a bowl of butternut squash and apple soup. A simple salad of bibb lettuce has a richly flavored but very light avocado dressing. The service, too, is full of those fine touches that set a restaurant apart. Utensils are swapped out with each course; a bucket of ice is brought out with a bottle of white wine. My only complaint is that drinks, especially wines by the glass, take a while to arrive.
The wine list is as impressive as the tower that holds it, not just broad but — unusual for a new St. Louis restaurant — deep, with vintages from the 1990s as well as the 2000s. The selection isn't especially budget-friendly, but the by-the-glass list is good and not terribly overpriced. Also, a few exclusive wines (a Caymus cabernet, for example) are available by the quartino, letting you try a fantastic wine at a reasonable (though not cheap) cost.
The only consistent disappointment on my visits was dessert. Vanilla crème brûlee was pleasant but not memorable. Cheesecake was on the dry side, and an apple tart lacked much apple flavor, though the buttermilk ice cream accompanying it was excellent.
The dessert list and, really, the menu as a whole seeks to satisfy our expectations rather than challenge them. Still, there is considerable talent in Araka's kitchen and tremendous potential for the future. I'll certainly be back. Unless, of course, I'm hired to walk the foie gras beat in Chicago.
Have a suggestion for a restaurant the Riverfront Times should review? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more about food and St. Louis restaurants, visit Gut Check: blogs.riverfronttimes.com/gutcheck.