In May, Gut Check, the RFT food blog (www.rftfood.com), asked readers to vote for the most underrated burger in St. Louis. Our respondents chose wisely. Central West End mainstay Dressel's makes a terrific burger: a juicy, perfectly seasoned patty topped with aged cheddar and tomato-onion jam. Several recent visits there have inspired me to make an even bolder declaration. At the moment Dressel's is St. Louis' most underrated restaurant.
Of course you know Dressel's: open since 1980; the city's Platonic ideal of a Welsh pub. A thumbnail sketch would dwell on its main room: the gorgeous, weathered bar; the tables crammed around it; the portraits of great writers and composers that share space on the walls with posters for Welsh operas and poems by founder John Dressel. And yes, this room still looks much as it always has, save for the back wall, much of which has been opened into the kitchen. But since Benjamin Dressel bought the pub from his parents in 2004, he has transformed it into something larger in scope — literally so (a larger dining space is now adjacent to the main room), but also conceptually.
When I reviewed Dressel's in 2009, Dressel and then-chef Joe Hemp had hitched the restaurant to the gastropub bandwagon, turning out contemporary, ingredient-driven takes on classic pub fare — shepherd's pie, bangers and mash and the like. Current chef Michael Miller, who took the helm last year, has retained Dressel's most essential pub dishes — the fish and chips, the housemade potato chips and rarebit, the stockpot of the day — and the place certainly hasn't lost its winning, laidback-pub ambiance, but I wouldn't be re-reviewing the restaurant if Miller had simply recalibrated the template.
That said, the menu seems familiar at first. The selection of "Snacks" includes those chips and rarebit (as delicious as ever). The pretzel, however, looks like no other pretzel on this earth: It's roughly the size of a loaf of bread. The salted, golden crackle of its exterior yields to a dough that is soft and lightly chewy. You can (and should) order it with a side of rarebit. "Ham Hock Deviled Eggs" are a revelation, especially for those (like me) who suffer from deviled-egg ambivalence. The thick mixture that replaces the yolk inside each hard-boiled-egg half bears the smoky, salty notes of good ham, with dots of wasabi "caviar" sprinkled on top providing a sharp counterpoint.
You can treat the menu's "Public Plates" as appetizers or entrées. Some, like the steamed mussels, served here in a white wine broth spiked with tomatoes and Spanish chorizo, fall into the category of surefire bistro hits. The broth has a lightness of body and flavor, with the right hits of acid and spice, that make it ideal for summer. (It would have been perfect had so many of the mussels not failed to open.) An order of "Reuben Sliders" brings a trio of small sandwiches that hew to the Reuben template: meat, Swiss cheese, coleslaw and thousand-island-esque dressing on pumpernickel. But the meat is beef tongue; it's thinly sliced, tender and so deeply flavorful that you might mistake it for prime rib.
But Miller truly distinguishes himself with his entrées ("Plates," in the Dressel's argot). If we all agree that the best way to prepare fresh trout is to grill it over an open fire, then Miller's, which starts with fish from Troutdale Farms (in Gravois Mills, on the Lake of the Ozarks), comes in a close second. The trout, its skin crisp and snow-white flesh tender, rests on a pool of celery-root purée and is topped with an apple-fennel slaw. The dish has a snap both literal (the slaw) and figurative.
The pork preparation changes often but usually features meat from Reckamp Farms in Wright City. On my visits Miller served a boneless eight-ounce chop grilled in a honey-bourbon glaze. It was a beautiful piece of pork, and the glaze deepened, rather than swamped, the natural pork flavor. My only quibble: I wasn't asked about temperature preference and the chop was overcooked (medium-well). The side dishes made up for the oversight: The pork was served atop braised kale; on the side was a crock of beans baked properly al dente in a tangy, lightly sweet barbecue sauce. Chicken rarely shines, but Miller's is a winner: a skin-on breast pan-roasted to a walnut brown, then served underneath a panzanella salad whose base of bread and fresh tomatoes was dressed up by the addition of greens and radishes.
Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Miller is that he has devised an irresistible dish made with Provel. The "Porchetta Louie" is a play on a Philly cheesesteak that manages to be high- and lowbrow simultaneously. Here slices of porchetta (a deboned pig layered with its own fat and skin and then rolled up and roasted) are tossed with peperoncini and rapini, which gives the rich meat a one-two punch of bite and bitterness. The Provel, melted and sparingly applied, contributes a tangy note along with its inimitable cream-like texture.
For all of Miller's changes, Dressel's fans have always valued the establishment as a pub first and a restaurant second. This is still a place where you can enjoy a pint of beer (the list of draft beers is small but strong, including several of the local craft breweries) and good company. In a way, what's most remarkable is that Miller and Dressel have elevated the food to the level we expect from the very best chef-driven restaurants while retaining all of the qualities that have made the place so beloved.