There is no denying the pedigree behind St. Louis' most talked about new restaurant, the Libertine. Executive chef Josh Galliano is a veritable legend in the St. Louis culinary community, best known for his time at the acclaimed, yet now shuttered, Monarch. He has garnered several James Beard Award nominations and last year won Food and Wine's "People's Best New Chef-Midwest" award. In other words, he is kind of a big deal. Owners Audra and Nick Luedde are no slouches either. The spouses made names for themselves at some of the most prestigious establishments in Chicago before returning to Nick's hometown of St. Louis (Kirkwood High c/o 1995). And for a dash of farm-cred (so necessary in the current dining scene), the Libertine's general mangers are former organic goat farmers (we are not making that up) Victoria Mitchell and her husband, Nate Weber.
With such an eclectic dream team, it almost makes it easy to root against the Libertine. The restaurant's name alone suggests a certain smugness, a libertine being a person with a devil-may-care attitude toward society's morals. Certainly the Libertine must reek of a similar hubris? Speaking of, what's with this posh new restaurant calling itself a "neighborhood eatery"? Isn't this akin to a well-heeled politician donning a folksy flannel shirt on the campaign trail or Fergie singing about how she still goes to Taco Bell?
Photos: Inside the Libertine in Clayton
But then walk through the doors of the former Chez Leon in Clayton, and there's Audra Luedde, a beaming and welcoming hostess completely void of pretentiousness. During my visit, Luedde chatted me up about her son and how a date night for she and Nick now consists of running the restaurant. As she escorted us to the bar, all three bartenders were crafting cocktails, each more complicated than the next. What would these tattooed "mixologists" say to the hugely pregnant woman (me) hoisting herself into the barstool? The answer: How about a mocktail? (The virgin mojito hit the spot.)
The graciousness continued into the dining room, where our server had the rare talent of mixing culinary IQ with approachability. I even saw Galliano himself delivering food and checking on guests. What's even more impressive is that he actually took the time to engage diners in conversation and seemed genuinely interested in what they had to say.
OK, so a restaurant can be hip and trendy without being arrogant and cold. What about the substance factor?
The Libertine delivers on this front as well. Galliano and team have assembled a diverse menu with a few winks at his native Louisiana. The selections range from small plates to entrees, divided by genre rather than course. While this can be a little confusing at first (is it an appetizer or a main course?), diners should look to their servers to guide them in the right direction.
On the day of my first visit it was 103 degrees, and I could not think of anything that sounded better than the tomato sorbet appetizer. The sorbet itself was a refreshing and tart concoction of tomato, mint and cucumber that instantly cooled me down from the inside. Cornmeal-crusted fried green tomatoes provided a welcome crunchy contrast, and the scattering of a few simple sliced heirloom tomatoes on the plate created an artist's palette of color for those who enjoy eating with their eyes.
The heat from our second appetizer, the scorched peppers, caused my forehead to bead with sweat — a good thing. The smoky sweetness of the molasses bacon enhanced the peppers' fire-roasted bitter char. A few blistered tomatoes further brightened the dish. What made it positively sinful, though, was how the drippings of the rendered bacon mingled with the molasses, benne (sesame) seeds and mysteriously tangy East African spice to create a creamy sauce at the bottom of the bowl. To mitigate the richness, my dining companion washed this down with the "Ribbon & Missile" cocktail, a concoction of El Tesoro Blanco tequila, white vermouth and Szechwan bitters. It was a fantastic pairing.
Our next plate, the twice-cooked duck egg, arrived atop a bed of greens and was finished with chicken fat sherry vinaigrette. While I loved how the duck egg (gently poached, then breaded and fried) oozed over the salad to form a rich dressing, I could have used a little more acid to balance out the dish. The chicken fat sherry vinaigrette was a little too rich for my preference, having an almost mayonnaise consistency when commingled with the egg yolk. Fortunately, my partner had paired the salad with a glass of the grüner veltliner, so the wine's acidity was able to cut through the dish's richness.
I would not normally order a burger at a place such as the Libertine, but it features so prominently on the menu that I couldn't pass it up. The fact that it was topped with "cheese whiz" and a bacon bun added to the intrigue. I'm glad I took the leap. The two patties had the robust meatiness of local grass-fed beef, and the onions caramelized in molasses bacon fat dripped flavored the burger with a sweet smoke. The "cheese whiz" was actually white cheddar foam, created by forcing the cheese through a pressurized canister (fun times!), and the bun, also infused with the richness of bacon drippings, took on a pretzel-like nuttiness. This was a gooey stack of awesomeness. But like the duck egg, it could have benefited from some sort of tanginess. Perhaps a housemade steak sauce would have provided some balance to the burger's richness.
By far, the best dish that we tried was the "Three Little Birds," a whimsical stack of juicy game hen, chicken and quail. The meat was positively buttery, with each layer melting into the other. Galliano's Southern charm is on full display here, as scorched okra and the classic corn and vegetable dish, macque choux, gave off the right amount of sweet and savory crunch. His grits are impeccable, perhaps the creamiest I have had the pleasure of eating.
It's rare that I can be talked into passing on gooey butter cake, but our server's discussion of her impassioned love affair with the Libertine's blondie gave me pause. The rich buttery bar (that tastes an awful lot like the aforementioned St. Louis specialty) came topped with a scoop of coconut sorbet. The macadamia nut tuile that also accompanied the dessert provided a savory contrast, though it was a bit of a challenge to cut with a spoon. I ended up breaking it apart by hand and dipping it in the ice cream. (Yes, I'm a savage.)
The Libertine is as proud of its cocktail program as it is of its food, so do not miss the opportunity to try some of its concoctions. Although presently I cannot fully partake in adult beverages, I begged my dining companion to order the "Fear & Loathing" so that I could have a tiny sip. This is the Libertine's version of a rum and Coke. Do not expect the pedestrian open-bar staple. Not only does the Libertine's feature the more complex Gosling's Black Seal dark rum, but it also uses homemade cola. This soda is nothing like the industrial standard but has an almost citrus and ginger-like tangy refreshment. To add to the party, the drink is topped with pecan foam (yes, it almost tastes like pecan whipped cream) and a little lemongrass dust to brighten things.
So, in the end, what to call the Libertine: neighborhood eatery or best new St. Louis restaurant? Either way, the hype is well deserved.