Head west on Shenandoah Avenue from Jefferson, and you'll encounter Police Athletic League Memorial Park, a well-maintained Cardinals Care-funded baseball field with a nice brick entrance, manicured grass and a shiny chainlink fence. Directly behind it is a pile of rubble — the remnants of an abandoned warehouse that recently collapsed in on itself. This contradiction is everywhere in Fox Park, an up-and- coming part of south St. Louis that is hot on the gentrified heels of Benton Park and Cherokee Street to be the next "it" neighborhood. It's a place on the brink of a renaissance, characterized by old brick houses and storefronts — some in a state of disrepair and others looking like an "after" segment of This Old House. This part of town isn't "block to block"; it's "door to door."
It's fitting, then, that the Purple Martin, a North African- and Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant, is a reflection of its neighborhood: charming and warm, aesthetically appealing and full of potential. But just like the area, the success of its food is dish to dish. Some items are presented with perfect polish, and others made me look forward to the rehab.
Long-time residents Brooke Roseberry and Tony Lagouranis saw the need for a neighborhood gathering place and seized on the opportunity to buy the charming storefront on the corner of California and Shenandoah avenues. Judging from the packed house on both of my visits, they have hit the right note. A large, sparsely appointed yet functional patio greets diners on approach, and tiki torches set a backyard barbecue scene. Inside, the Purple Martin has high ceilings, exposed brick and a bar made from a 1920s boxcar. Colorful pillows line the rustic wooden booths, and pendant lights made from Mason jars cast a warm glow.
The Purple Martin comes out of the gate with one delectable appetizer after another. I began with a classic preparation of baked Brie — molten in the center and served with tart apricot preserves. The roasted-garlic garnish was a nice touch and a foreshadowing of what was to come in the form of the skordalia appetizer. How I've spent my entire life up to this point without this dip is beyond me, as it is tailor-made for those who love the stinking rose. Skordalia is a purée of garlic that has been roasted to the point of perfect softness. The chef adds a spot of red-wine vinegar and a healthy dose of olive oil, then whole cloves of roasted garlic are interspersed throughout. The Purple Martin serves the skordalia with warm pita, sliced beets and carrots. It was so delicious I lost track of time and space. My partner caught my blissed-out expression and whispered to our daughter, "We've lost Mommy."
The zeal, a hearty Berber concoction of smashed lima beans, peppers, onions, tomatoes and garlic, had a slight coriander heat. The dish's only problem was that it was incredibly underseasoned and needed a healthy dousing of salt to bring out the flavor. The beet and orange salad was bright and refreshing. Generous chunks of the earthy root vegetable and juicy orange slices were served over arugula that had been lightly dressed in a zesty coriander-cumin vinaigrette. Although it only contained a few ingredients, it had a complex combination of flavors.
Entrées, on the other hand, were inconsistent. The chicken avgolemono, a play on the traditional Greek chicken soup, was good, although it lacked pop. A charbroiled chicken breast and almond-flecked rice sat in a bowl of a creamy lemon egg sauce that begged for salt. And while I commend the Purple Martin for introducing me to lablabi, a traditional Tunisian specialty, I was unimpressed with the execution. The dish consists of a delicate garlic broth served over crusty bread and garnished with chickpeas, pickled onions, capers and preserved lemon. I have seen photographs of lablabi that depict it as a substantial soup brimming with chickpeas. This version was watery, bland and mushy. An over-easy egg did little to add richness, nor did the addition of tuna. We were not asked for a temperature, and the fish came out well done and dry.
The lamb kebab was similarly meh. I expected chunks of freshly roasted lamb but was instead presented with what seemed like compressed gyro meat that had been precooked. On the other hand, it was moist and well seasoned, and the accompanying yogurt-dressed tomato, onion and cucumber salad made an excellent garnish. The lamb-shank entrée was tender, and the meat fell off the bone into a bowl of oven-roasted tomatoes and potatoes soaked with lamb drippings. Though it was once again underseasoned, this was the best of the main courses I tried.
The dessert selection is small, but each item is perfectly executed. The baklava was sticky and infused with Greek honey that tasted like candied orange blossoms. The real star, however, was the Napoleon: layers of buttery housemade puff pastry, sweet cream and macerated blackberries. It was a decadent nightcap.
The Purple Martin may not be a perfect turnkey, but a few minor repairs will turn it into a sparkling gem. In this up-and-coming neighborhood, it'll be well worth the investment for the owners and diners alike.