Time to close the book on another year of reviews. While there were few splashy restaurant openings this year — in fact, three of the places in this year's list aren't new — I still struggled to restrict my selection to only ten dishes. If any one thing unites the very different establishments included here, it's that, from humble taqueria to the latest effort from the area's most celebrated young chef, each is unwilling to give St. Louis diners the same old, same old.
Restaurateurs hoping to make a mark in 2010 might take notice.
10. Enchiladas michoacanas
Taqueria el Jalapeño, 10009 St. Charles Rock Road, St. Ann; 314-426-9951
[Taco the Town, February 26, 2009]
These are corn tortillas sprinkled with chopped onions and a tangy, crumbled cheese. The tortillas are folded into wedges and fried on a flattop; the wedges are topped with a fiery sauce of red chiles and then smothered with more of the same cheese, along with sour cream, lettuce and chopped carrots, potatoes and jalapeño. The potato and carrot provide ballast for the one-two punch of the sauce and the jalapeños, the lettuce and sour cream a cooling antidote. Remarkably, for all of these toppings, you can still taste the tortillas' light masa flavor — they even retain a little of their fried-crisp texture.
9. Andhra chicken curry
Mayuri, 12513 Olive Boulevard, Creve Coeur; 314-576-6262
[Chile Reception, October 29, 2009]
The Andhra chicken builds its fire with each bite: It begins with a sharp heat tinged with fruity sweetness and a faint tang of yogurt. The chicken and the ground nuts in the curry mellow the heat ever so slightly and give the dish as a whole a well-rounded flavor, but just when you think you've adjusted to the heat, there comes another blast, the intensity almost numbing.
8. Neapolitan pizza
The Good Pie, 3137 Olive Street; 314-289-9391
[Crust Achin, February 19, 2009]
The key to any Neapolitan pizza is the quality of its crust, and at its best The Good Pie's is very good: crisp on the bottom and even dotted here and there with char, but with an ever-so-tender chew and a pleasant, mild sour note. Pork gluttons might consider the "Mast'nicola," which includes a generous amount of chopped pancetta along with grated Pecorino Romano and a few fresh basil leaves. For those craving something more traditional, a classic pizza margherita is available, while a pie with thinly sliced Genoa salami is a tastier sibling of a good ol' fashioned pepperoni pizza.
7. Banh mi dac biet
Phuc Loi, 3723 Gravois Avenue; 314-772-7742
[Whole Hog, November 19, 2009]
Banh mi are delicious and shockingly cheap. At Phuc Loi $3.50 scores you the banh mi dac biet, which layers ham, head cheese and pâté on a crusty baguette with cucumber, pickled daikon, carrot and a bracing quantity of raw jalapeño. Phuc Loi then adds a masterstroke: one whole fried egg, the white adding yet another savory note to all that pork, while the yolk — liquid, but not runny — contributes a fatty richness that even the finest mayonnaise couldn't provide.
6. Seared scallop in charmoula broth
Fond, 106 North Main Street, Edwardsville, Illinois; 618-656-9001
[Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fond, October 8, 2009]
A single plump scallop, its top seared chestnut brown, was nestled among thickly sliced carrots. At tableside a server poured a vegetable broth spiked with the North African condiment charmoula (a blend of olive oil, garlic, citrus juice, parsley and/or cilantro, cumin and other spices). I took a bite. The flavor was wonderful, the citric flavors of the charmoula broth an ideal foil for the buttery, briny mollusk.
5. Beef brisket sandwich
Winslow's Home, 7213 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-725-7559
[Winslows Home Run, May 21, 2009]
The brisket, from local butcher Baumann's Fine Meats, is roasted overnight and served with mayo and Havarti cheese on toasted flaxseed bread. It's damn tasty. The brisket is thickly sliced and piled high. The meat is tender — always a crucial variable with brisket — and dripping with a distinctive basting mixture. I tasted a little mustard and something like a teriyaki sauce. Mostly I tasted beef so fully flavored that I happily would have eaten a pile of brisket all by itself.
4. Papasan roll
Miso on Meramec, 16 North Meramec Avenue, Clayton; 314-863-7888
[Sea Change, June 18, 2009]
The "Papasan Roll" is the standout of new chef Eliott Harris' menu. Inside is a straightforward combination of cucumber, avocado and snow-crab meat. Draped atop the rice outside the roll is a piece of striped bass. (The most underrated sushi fish, in my estimation: It possesses a lovely ocean flavor without being at all fishy.) Atop the striped bass is a sliver of raw jalapeño and a red-chile aioli. The top of the dish is lightly seared, imparting a subtle but enticing aroma as your server presents it. The contrast in textures between the jalapeño, the soft fish and the unctuous avocado is wonderful. The avocado and cucumber offer a cooling antidote for the jalapeño's heat, while the crab and bass anchor the roll with the perfect balance of sweet and savory.
3. Saturday tasting menu
Local Harvest Café & Catering, 3137 Morganford Road; 314-772-8815
[Plant Power, April 2, 2009]
The morning of your meal, chef Clara Moore visits the market and from her purchases assembles your dinner. Mine took place on the first weekend of spring and fittingly paired glimmers of the light, verdant produce to come with hearty root vegetables. You won't know what you're eating until Moore brings you the first course. But that very uncertainty is what excites me about Local Harvest Café's Saturday dinner. It's one alternative to the same restaurant template that, while it satisfies our appetites, only furthers a food system that grows increasingly unstable with each passing year.
2. Garlic-crusted chicken breast
Monarch, 7401 Manchester Road, Maplewood; 314-644-3995
[Josh Almighty, January 22, 2009]
Chicken dishes are often a sop to the unadventurous diner, but chef Josh Galliano's garlic-crusted chicken breast is a winner — though here the chicken really plays a supporting role to the garlic. Not only is there the garlic crust, but also a purée of black garlic, which marries the subtle flavor of roasted garlic to the tannic edge of raisins and adds a striking grace note to this dish. This might not sound especially exciting, but it strikes me as Galliano's most impressive creation: Without calling attention to itself — no clever names, no showy presentation — it takes the humble pleasure of a roast-chicken dinner and presents it in a new and interesting form.
Taste by Niche, 1831 Sidney Street; 314-773-7755
[Accounting for Taste, October 15, 2009]
Each serving — each bite — was a revelation. I didn't know octopus could be this delicious, or this tender. The tentacles are roasted with onion and olive oil before service. They shrink considerably and take on a texture closer to buttery scallops than their own chewy nature. They are served chilled in a light red-pepper oil with slices of potato confit and a garnish of pea shoots with preserved-lemon sauce. (Since my review was published, the octopus preparation has changed. Still, it was merely one of several Taste dishes — including the roasted-radish bruschetta, the Moroccan lamb — that could have held the top spot. Go.)