On Sunday, a new restaurant group makes its formal debut here in St. Louis. By "restaurant group" I do not mean a conglomerate like Riese Restaurants, owner of such unremarkable eateries as TGI Friday's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dunkin' Donuts and Houlihan's; and by "new" I really mean old. Though the local chapter of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America was founded just this spring, its 25-member roster includes a hefty number of perennials, some nearly legendary -- Café Balaban, Kemoll's, Duff's, Harvest, Tony's. Their first public affair, a $100-a-plate fundraiser at Forest Park's World's Fair Pavilion, introduces them by the sporty name "St. Louis Originals," which sounds appropriately like a team of superhero friends banded together for a righteous cause, because the St. Louis Originals may soon find themselves facing battles against some clever, tough nemeses.
These new foes don't wear the obvious evil-mastermind garb of a McDonald's or an Applebee's or a Cheesecake Factory. In fact, the new interlopers condemn such hogs-at-the-trough operations as vehemently as any Original would; to prove the point, they've adopted new keywords that separate them from "fast food." They are "fast casual," "quick casual," "better casual." They constitute the next eating-out evolution, swooping down fast and quick upon a storefront near you.
About a year ago, the nation's sixth Stir Crazy Café started up in Creve Coeur, joining such likeminded chains as P.F. Chang's and Casa Gallardo, the Midwestern faction of the El Torito empire. As of August, a Qdoba Mexican Grill exists along a Fenton stretch of Highway 141, part of a Qdoba fraternity more than 100 strong in 20-plus states. Ohio-based Brio Tuscan Grille is slated to open its doors at Plaza Frontenac next month, while rumor has it McDonald's-owned Chipotle Grill isn't far behind. And in Webster Groves, the fifth offspring in the SanSai Japanese Grill chain was birthed this past summer.
Like the Originals, these operations buy their meat, fish and produce locally, which is also to say unfrozen. They make virtually all their foodstuffs (sauces, salads, soups, etc.) from scratch, in house, daily, and no dish is prepared until it is ordered. At least one or two of their kitchen employees have received culinary arts training. In so blurring the line between big business and small business to a frustrating degree, they have left "sophisticated diners" -- as they call we who are suffering from "fast food fatigue"-- in a sociopolitical lurch. To patronize one of these places, which in turn patronizes resident food markets and distributors -- is that still considered eating with the enemy? Or does eating there locally translate to them greedily expanding globally?
One giveaway trait of the hyphen-casual's corporate identity (besides its tendency toward hyphens) is its heavy reliance on statistics. Gary Leff, the 37-year-old CEO of Stir Crazy, cites Asian cuisine as the third most popular ethnic food group in the nation (behind Italian and Mexican). And since the mid-1990s, when the first Stir Crazy opened, Asian is the fastest-growing group. Meanwhile, SanSai own-er Dan Burns says Asian ranks first among the 35-and-under demographic. In choosing St. Louis as a site for expansion, both chains were testing new ground more than geographically. Our Stir Crazy is the first to not to be housed in a shopping strip or mall (it's in a stand-alone structure -- albeit one that shares a parking lot with a St. Louis Bread Company, a Macaroni Grill and an AMC 12 movie theater). SanSai's four other outposts are all in southern California; the chain came to St. Louis because Burns is a West County resident. What Stir Crazy and SanSai have in common pretty much ends there. As a table-service restaurant with a full bar, Stir Crazy calls itself "better casual." Service is notably cheerful and swift; in two visits of three courses apiece, I was in and out the door in an hour at most. And I liked everything I ate. What the menu lacks in originality -- you've got your potstickers, your coconut shrimp, your pad Thai, your sesame chicken -- it more than makes up for with its create-your-own-stir-fry bar, where customers pick vegetables, spices and sauces by hand, then hand over their bowls to a stir-fry cook who adds broth, meat and noodles (as dictated on a card customers fill out). I'm a huge fan of this, as I was at downtown's now-closed Hungry Buddha, which was owned and operated by St. Louis' king of indie eats, Blake Brokaw. Score one for corporate America.
At the least, Stir Crazy's food is enjoyable, and sometimes what comes to the table is a delightful surprise. Making my way through an appetizer of popcorn shrimp, accommodated in a Chinese takeout container, I was amazed by the size of the darn things (practically like golf balls!) and by the size of the portion. But improbable as it may seem, the greatest course at Stir Crazy is dessert, highlighted by a light, dreamy tiramisu (dubbed "Asian," but whatever) and a quartet of hand-sized banana wontons accompanied lustily by vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce and a generous sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar.
SanSai, where there is no dessert, handsomely embodies the "quick casual" concept. Orders are placed at the counter, and trays of food are then picked up by name, à la Bread Co. As this setup leans more toward fast food, the teenagers working the register have needed some time to figure out how to keep things rolling, but as of my last visit the process was going off smoothly. The menu is Japanese: sushi, tempura, teriyaki, miso and dumpling soups. You can even buy a little bottle of sake or a big can of Asahi. SanSai's look borrows heavily from fast food -- Formica tabletops, trash receptacles with designated space on top for used trays, soda machines on the floor for refills -- but Burns knew what he was doing when he chose this location. With a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows running along the exterior wall and a fountain outside, it's quite lovely for what it is. The food at SanSai is clean, simple, fresh and worth a visit. The delicious sashimi tuna salad -- served on a bed of baby greens and frisée with rice and miso soup and a true bargain at $7.99 -- is my favorite thing I've eaten in the past month. I also found a new food to love in their sumi salad, which I'd never heard of before, couldn't find in any of my food reference books and would liken to an Asian-inspired coleslaw: a shredded cabbage salad tossed with almonds, green onions and crunchy ramen noodles in a sweet but not saccharine dressing.
Though this may get me put before the food-critic firing squad, I like Stir Crazy and SanSai. I like SanSai more: Its location in downtown Webster Groves beats out office-park environs easily, it's filling a more significant niche with its menu and it's got that great tuna sashimi salad. And if its founder is a local who just wanted to share the love back home, tell me, is that really so wrong?