The highlights of St. Louis' 2015 dining scene have no obvious common thread. We feasted on Korean-style barbecue, Texas-style tacos and impromptu tasting menus served out of an abandoned Taco Bell by a Chinese chef. Last year, comfort food clearly dominated menus — but not so 2015.
Which may be what ends up defining the year after all. Granted, 2015 saw a coop full of new fried-chicken restaurants, but for the most part, chefs seemed to shake off their fascination with homey, Southern-style cooking. Though every restaurant on this list of the year's ten best new openings serves "comfort food" of a sort, they do so in ways that are personal rather than trendy or prescriptive. Chef Ma's steaming pot of fish stew only is like mac & cheese in that it reminds him of home.See also: SLIDESHOW: St. Louis' 10 Best New Restaurants of 2015
The tilt away from comfort-food clichés also seems to signal the return of the classic American bistro, with no restaurant showing why it deserves a resurgence better than J. McArthur's. Perhaps the pendulum between the modernist cuisine of the early aughts and the "grandma fare" of the last two years is finally settling into that sweet spot somewhere in the middle, where menus are less about trends and more about classic flavors.
Then again, the forecast of hotly anticipated 2016 openings suggests we'll soon be drowning ourselves in ramen. Happy new year!
6679 Delmar Blvd., University City; 314-833-5780
Mike Randolph's reputation certainly precedes him. The self-described restless chef opens and closes restaurants with the frequency and duration of a Taylor Swift relationship. The antics are certainly a point of discussion, but they tend to obscure an important fact: Mike Randolph is, unequivocally, a genius. His list of hits (was there ever a miss?) includes restaurants that define genres — Half & Half for breakfast, the Good Pie for Neapolitan pizza. And nowhere does he shine brighter than at his Latin American-inspired Público. St. Louis hasn't seen a restaurant that elevates this style of cooking to the level that's on display at Público. Really, the only comparison is something along the lines of Rick Bayless' revered Topolobampo in Chicago. Everything about Público is a revelation: the pinto beans slow cooked with lamb drippings and accented with mint, arepas that lie somewhere between cast-iron-skillet cornbread and homemade tortillas, a bone-in pork chop drenched in peach and habanero brown butter that melts in your mouth like sashimi. From start to finish, Público is perfection and proof that Randolph is the chef to watch in the St. Louis dining scene.
2. Reeds American Table
7322 Manchester Ave., Maplewood; 314-899-9821
Reeds American Table is one of the best restaurants to open in 2015. In other news, the sun rose today in the east and two plus two equals four. There was no question this place was destined to be an overwhelming success. Matthew Daughaday, who earned accolades as the executive chef at Taste, heads a dream team that includes wine genius Andrey Ivanov, pastry chef Summer Wright and general manager Nicki Ball — all of whom boast résumés that could single-handedly carry a restaurant. It's a "shock and awe" level of firepower that could quickly devolve into an intimidating experience. Instead, Daughaday and Co. have gone out of their way to create a welcoming atmosphere that makes you feel like a guest in someone's home — a home where the best beef cheeks you'll ever eat in your life are served over pillow-soft focaccia and paired with a $7 glass of house wine that rivals the town's more expensive pours.
3. Beast Craft BBQ
Belt Avenue West, Belleville, Illinois; 618-257-9000
If you're even half as sick of reading about barbecue as I am of writing about it, you'll understand why I almost passed on reviewing Beast Craft BBQ. Was there anything left to be said? Yes. Yes there was. Beast Craft BBQ's pork steak is the single best piece of barbecued meat you will eat in the region (I'm looking at you, Kansas City). Remove any thoughts of the thin, Maull's-covered pork steaks you scarf down with Busch beer and a game of washers. This (ahem) beast of a steak is more like a Delmonico rib eye, and it could just as easily be at home on the menu of an expensive chop house. A mild spice rub mingles with fat and char, forming a mouth-watering glaze on what is basically a composite of pulled pork that is so tender, you'll be mocked if you look for a knife. Pitmaster David Sandusky and crew prove that no matter how saturated a market is, there is always room for excellence.