The Block is a four-month-old restaurant on Lockwood Avenue in Webster Groves. It's also a double-entendre. Management has branded this venture as a "neighborhood establishment," said neighborhood being Old Webster. The other side of the pun, of course, is the butcher block, and as surely as function follows form, the Block cuts its meat in-house (which is not all that unusual) and will wrap those cuts in butcher paper and sell 'em to you to tote home and cook for yourself (which is).
To my surprise, I found the Block's "neighborhood" aspect to be the more intriguing of its dual manifestations.
The Block is yet another restaurant from the Del Pietro family — in this case Marc Del Pietro, the executive chef at Luciano's Trattoria in Clayton. (Other Del Pietro clan properties include brother Mike's growing portfolio: Sugo's Spaghetteria, Babbo's Spaghetteria and the forthcoming Tavolo V among them; mother Mary Rose Del Pietro retired her namesake restaurant — and herself — this past summer.) The meat counter sits just inside the front door, adjacent to the bar. It isn't ostentatious, but all that raw meat is hard to miss. Your server might mention the retail component, but there's no hard sell (not on my visits, anyway).
Past the bar area, the single room opens into an airy dining space. Wood dominates the décor: The floors are hardwood; pale paneling frames the bar and covers a couple of the walls. A wall of windows overlooks Lockwood, and the tables here are the best in the house. (Those at the back, near the kitchen door, are the worst.) The other long wall, at the west end of the building, along Gray Avenue, is inexplicably unadorned: a vast off-white expanse broken only by a row of small windows at its very top.
As you might expect given the nature of the Block's paired purposes, the menu primarily focuses on meat. Rather than stock the standard-issue steak-house inventory most diners have come to expect, the Block lists a single, grass-fed "Butcher's Cut." Over the week of my visits, the cut was a T-bone, though an oversize "cowboy" steak — a fashionable, ranchy-sounding synonym for a bone-in rib steak — was available as a special. Ordered medium-rare, the T-bone was juicy and flavorful, with plenty of the verdant tang grass-fed beef is famous for. This is not a steak-house steak; because it's grilled, it doesn't acquire the crust that comes with broiling at searingly high temperatures — but it's good stuff. The "Butcher's Cut" is presented atop a small pool of the restaurant's piquant housemade steak sauce (imagine A.1., only more pungent), with a side of thin, crisp fries seasoned with garlic and herbs.
Those same fries accompany the Block's burger. This too is grass-fed, and that fact necessitates a crucial caveat. Grass-fed beef is tasty as all get-out, but it's also leaner than its corn-fed counterpart and therefore far more susceptible to having the juiciness cooked right out of it. So don't ever order it past medium-rare. And that goes double for ground grass-fed beef. My burger, medium-rare, was very juicy, its flavor all mineral and salt. The meat is the focus of the burger: It is topped with nothing more than a slice of aged cheddar. The sole drawback is the (untoasted) bun, which is too thick and too soft.
There's a pork chop and a St. Louis pork steak, cut from the shoulder, that is braised in white wine rather than grilled. Opting for the latter, I soon found myself gazing hungrily down at a plump hunk o' pig nestled atop a pile of whipped red potatoes and topped with bits of roasted apple and turnip, the whole thing sitting in a pool of thick, meaty country gravy. The pork wasn't quite as tender as you'd expect from a braising, but the flavor was fine, the meat's hint of natural sweetness amplified by the apple and turnip.
A chicken entrée follows the pattern of the steak and pork: a generous portion of meat with homey sides. In this case half a roasted chicken, its skin a rich mahogany, rests in a thin, dark sauce of its own juices with roasted potatoes, turnips and carrots, as well as a little spinach. The chicken was moist and very flavorful, more so as the ratio of crisp, lightly fatty skin to dark meat on my fork approached one to one.
A special of sautéed red snapper on a butternut-squash risotto demonstrated that the kitchen is as adept with seafood as it is with meat. The thick fillet was beautifully browned, but the flesh remained tender. The risotto highlighted the sweetness of the squash more than the delicate nature of arborio rice slowly infused with cooking liquid, but viewed strictly as a butternut-squash side, it was tasty.
The Block's commitment to meat extends not only to the appetizer list but to the dessert menu as well — though in the latter case, it turns up only in the bacon-flavored ice cream. I went with chocolate-peanut-butter bread pudding: a gooey, sweet concoction somewhere between bread pudding and just-plain pudding. The housemade charcuterie includes "Potted Pig," a small jar of pork confit, its flavor pure piggy. One of several "spreads" on the appetizer menu, "Bacon Jam" comes in a small cast-iron skillet. Spread over grilled farmhouse bread, it is a smoky, sweet delight.
The beer list features several local craft brews on draft, though the pleasure of drinking Urban Chestnut's Zwickel out of a heavy tankard was slightly dampened by the fact that the bar keeps said tankards chilled. The wine list won't wow you, but it contains a number of decent everyday selections.
Again, the servers don't make a big deal about the Block's in-house butchering. In fact, if you didn't know about it already and somehow failed to notice the meat case when you walked in, you might toddle home none the wiser. Along similar lines, don't go expecting to see an all-in, nose-to-tail approach to meat cutting. The butcher shop is neat, but it isn't essential.
More than anything else, the Block distinguishes itself as a neighborhood restaurant that isn't yet another joint turning out fried apps, burgers and pizzas. Marc Del Pietro's not reinventing the wheel here, but he is making the most of a prime location — that rare hybrid of suburbia and walkable commerce. It's enough to make me wish there were something like it where I live.