Ted Kilgore stood behind the vintage wooden bar, donning an electric-blue shirt, gray tweed vest and his signature thick-rimmed black glasses. An array of elixirs lined the shelves behind him, and a side table of fresh herbs stood to his right. With arms raised overhead, he shook two metal cocktail shakers with such vigor it's a wonder he doesn't need Tommy John surgery. For the spectators who packed Planter's House hoping to catch a glimpse of the master at work, Kilgore did not disappoint.
Kilgore is to the St. Louis cocktail scene what Escoffier is to modern French cuisine — the godfather. Before Kilgore revolutionized craft cocktails at Taste, we were content with gin and tonics. Now, our cups runneth over at restaurants all over town with exotic concoctions that rival in both creativity and flavor the dishes that come out of the city's top kitchens. Arguably, we have Kilgore to thank for that.
Named after the 19th-century iconic St. Louis hotel, Planter's House is the first bar Kilgore can call his own (along with wife Jamie and Ted Charak, formerly the bar manager at Brasserie by Niche). The three have set quite the scene: exposed brick, swanky red leather seating, gilded chandeliers — it's the epitome of speakeasy chic. Whereas the main bar area has a vintage masculine vibe, the Bullock Room, Planter's House's bar within a bar, is more like a dining salon, complete with ornate wallpaper and gold-rimmed drinkware.
The cocktails themselves range from the approachable "Planter's House Punch" to the esoteric, wormwood-laden "Unusual Suspect." The "Dutchtown Collins" is a refreshing Bols Genever-based concoction made with grapefruit, lime and blackberry-black pepper syrup that added a whisper of spice. The searing-hot housemade ginger cordial in the "Get Behind the Mule" lit up my mouth like the Fourth of July. And how Kilgore got the "Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner" cocktail, flavored with a brown-butter pineapple syrup, the exact same color as Jennifer Grey's dress in Dirty Dancing is beyond me.
Patrons may come for the cocktails, but Planter's House presents a respectable food menu divided into three sections: "Nosh," "Satiate" and "Indulge." "Nosh" takes bar munchies to the next level. The poutine is smashed, and fried fingerling potatoes are drenched in rich and chunky red-wine pork gravy, and topped with smoky Gouda. I could have drank the gravy straight from a pint glass. The rarebit is another small dish that pairs perfectly with a night of imbibing. The creamy cheddar and Parmesan dip is infused with Civil Life ESB, giving it a malty, bitter bite. It's served with housemade pretzels sprinkled with coarse salt and fennel seed.
I'll admit that when I ordered the "Lamb Armstrong" I missed the pun entirely and only realized what I was eating after the fact. Regardless, the bollocks were tender and full of musky flavor. The delicate meat was coated in a light, peppery breading and served with a tart, perfumey blackberry mustard.
The entrée-size lamb loin from "Satiate" was thick and juicy, simply grilled to a spot-on medium rare. The accompanying smoked potato salad and frisée were unremarkable, but the lamb-butter vinaigrette was spectacular — brown butter, herbs and lamb drippings were brightened with a touch of tangy vinegar that softened the meat's gaminess. I was happy to have some pretzel left over from the rarebit so I could sop up every last drop of this delectable sauce.
Alternately, I was not thrilled with the goat spaetzle. The spaetzle itself was light and airy — almost crispy — but the goat was tough and chewy. I would fault Planter's House for serving such a sparse portion of meat in the dish, except that I didn't enjoy it in the first place.
The menu's pièce de résistance is the duck burger, a humongous, juicy patty of ground duck, pork and bacon served open-faced. The pumpernickel bun was a little tough, but the decadent layer of Gouda and an over-easy duck egg helped with that. Our server also suggested a side of the poutine pork gravy so we could pour it over the burger — we called it a "highbrow slinger." It was magnificent, although the burger was good enough without it.
A gigantic hunk of chocolate-and-beet layer cake was flecked with red, giving it a pretty confetti effect, its layers separated with rich chocolate buttercream. Between the earthiness of the beets and the bittersweet dark cocoa, it was just enough to sate a sweet tooth without being too much.
Planter's House is exactly what one would expect — cool digs, intellectually curious cocktails and upscale bar menu with food that mirrors the creativity and finesse of the drinks. I thoroughly enjoyed myself in the house that Kilgore built.