If you didn't know the story behind the bright green neon sign that hangs above Vista Ramen's open kitchen, bearing the restaurant's name, you'd probably assume it goes something like this: Owners come up with restaurant idea; owners come up with restaurant name; owners commission sign.
How it actually happened, however, is the exact opposite. Jeremy and Casey Miller and chef Chris Bork needed a name for their soon-to-open Cherokee Street restaurant. After they asked a friend to look for a one-word neon sign, the pal found one from an old drive-in movie theater reading simply "Vista." The trio loved the word and christened the spot Vista Ramen.
In many ways, chef Bork's foray into the world of ramen follows a similarly backward motion. Just as the three co-owners didn't have a pre-ordained plan to name their restaurant "Vista," Bork never planned on opening a ramen shop. Though the idea briefly crossed his mind when he left his executive chef position at Blood and Sand two years ago, he quickly tabled it to pursue his dream of a restaurant that would encapsulate him as a chef. What that meant, he wasn't quite sure, though it certainly wasn't noodles.
His plans fell apart after about six months, though, and he found himself propositioned by the Millers to consult on an upcoming ramen shop they were opening. He hemmed and hawed about it, then came back with an offer to go full in, not just as a consultant but as the chef and co-owner. The Millers, who'd worked with Bork at their other restaurant on Cherokee, the Mud House, happily agreed.
Bork's story helps to explain the most striking, almost inexplicable, thing about Vista Ramen: It's not a ramen shop. Yes, three out of three of the main courses are soups that contain ramen noodles. And there's a noodle bar, and sake on offer and, well, that name. But dip below the brothy surface and you'll find a menu that has more in common with a chef's tasting menu at a high-end contemporary restaurant than a humble Japanese noodle bar. Bork says he fell into the ramen thing, but that's not quite right — a ramen shop fell into his dream.
And what a dream it is. The moment you step through the front doors, you feel transported to a culinary world that seems miles away from Cherokee's gritty bohemian streetscape. There's an air of reverence — the kind you get at an authentic sushi restaurant — perhaps because barely a sound comes from the bright, wide-open kitchen that takes up the entire back length of the space.
It's in dramatic contrast to the dimly lit dining room. The walls are exposed brick, and succulents potted in pendant vases hang from wooden ceiling beams. One wall has an old mural from Mercantile Bank; another is wallpapered in a pattern that looks like a circuit board. The area underneath the kitchen's pass is tiled in a Moroccan-meets-geometric pattern of black, white and green.
As beautiful as the room may be, it's secondary to the splendor that comes from Vista's kitchen. The menu is divided between three ramen main courses and several small plates, including three slider-sized Korean fried chicken sandwiches. The crisp, deep-fried meat is coated in piquant chili sauce and placed on a mildly sweet Hawaiian roll. Thinly sliced fish sauce pickles give both brightness and umami funk to these outstanding sandwiches.
Plum, housemade Thai style sausages, scented with perfume-heavy herbs and chiles, arrive with a simple trimming of lime, cilantro and Bibb lettuce. The aromatics in the sausage cut through the rich meat; when wrapped in fresh herbs and lettuce, the dish is shockingly multi-layered. How something savory can be so rich, and yet so fresh, is a paradox I've not yet wrapped my head around.
Pork ribs are yet another example of Bork's mastery of complex flavors. The ribs, cooked to the point they fall off the bone, are gilded in crab caramel. The thought of butter, sugar, fish sauce and crab paste may sound wrong on just about every level, but it's as gloriously sweet and funky as a George Clinton love song. The sugar underscores the crab's natural sweetness; the butter compliments its richness, while fish sauce gives an intense, salty depth. It's as decadent as foie gras, but Bork offsets its density with a crushed peanut garnish and fresh herbs. It's exceptional.
Juicy, peak-of-the-summer tomatoes are made exotic with peanuts, crispy garlic and chipotle lime vinaigrette, while a simple corn pudding is anything but: The corn is smoked, formed into a cake and steeped in corn dashi (a broth made with fish flakes). Both are examples of simple pleasures elevated by Bork's cerebral approach.
The smoked scallop plate is the sort of dish chefs win culinary awards for. Smoking the mollusk firms its texture and gives it a deep, semi-sweet flavor that's reminiscent of smoked trout. Bork pairs them with pickled golden beets to mimic the scallop's texture and compliment the earthiness of the smoke. It would be a woody bomb, but tart buttermilk vinaigrette, blackberries and pomegranate arils give a sweet and sharp pop. This dish belongs in a museum, not a ramen shop (or even a faux-ramen shop).
While Bork's small plates show the chef's prowess beyond the ramen concept, his noodle bowls should not be discounted. His approach is fiercely non-literal, so hardcore ramen nerds should not expect the traditional Japanese styles. Instead, Bork uses ramen as a jumping off point to play around with his own flavor profiles.
The "Vista" ramen, for example, is based with a pork, chicken and ham hock broth and uses slightly thicker ramen noodles from Midwest Pasta. Hunks of succulent pork, a sous vide egg, ginger and nori bob in the delicate liquid.
If his broth choice for the "Vista" is non-traditional, Bork's pozole goes much further down that path, shattering the idea of what ramen should be with excellent results. The mouth-watering, chili-spiked broth has a subtle heat that infuses the hominy and ramen noodles with warm flavor. Fork-tender pieces of dark meat chicken break apart with just the slightest prod. It's an absolutely perfect dish — and it made me wonder if the Mexican classic should always come with this slight Japanese inflection.
I had the same thoughts after eating Bork's ramen version of the northern Thai noodle soup khao soi. Rich, coconut curry provides the backdrop for noodles, dark meat chicken and fresh herbs that is at once richly satisfying yet delicate. Offered as a special, the waltz of spice, cream, perfume, sweet and salt was so addictive I hope it makes a regular appearance on the menu.
Desserts are no less thoughtful. Juicy peaches, poached in ambrosial nectar, would be beautiful enough plated over Bork's simple shortbread. His addition of Champagne sorbet and fresh basil, however, balances the fruit's sticky sweetness with fresh, herbal flavor. Whereas the peaches are a bright palate refresher, the tres leches coconut cake is an indulgent sendoff. The milk cake is dense, yet airy (yet another example of Bork's comfort with contradictions), and smothered in lemon curd and tart blueberries.
In Vista Ramen, Bork has created not only one of the best restaurants I've had the pleasure of reviewing, but also one of the more intellectually stimulating culinary experiences St. Louis has been granted in recent years. Biting into every last one of his dishes, you think you have an initial impression. But it changes ... and changes again until you are left scratching your head as to how he can reveal so many flavors in one dish. Things you'd never pair together, like fish sauce and caramel, push so far beyond conventional conceptions of taste, you wonder if you've been seeing food in black and white this whole time, and Bork has only now finally turned on the color.
This place may not have been his dream, but it's become his masterpiece.
- PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
- The striking interior of Vista Ramen.
Turn the page for more photos of Vista Ramen.