"A rabbi, a vegetarian and an Irishman walk into a bar" might sound like the start of a joke. But to restaurateur Gershon Schwadron, it sounds like the start of a lucrative investment.
Schwadron is the owner of nine-month-old Shmeers Café, a kosher eatery located in a strip mall off I-170 that's perhaps best known as home to Vietnamese restaurant Mai Lee. Folks seem inclined to call Shmeers a deli, but that's just the Jewish thing talking: The display case near the register contains not whitefish salad and pastrami, but croissants and chocolate-chunk cookies.
Shmeers' three-a-day menu does speak basic Yid. At breakfast, six classic kinds of bagels (onion, poppy and sesame -- no berry-studded or cinnamon-crusted farcockt monstrosities) can be spread with sixteen mostly unorthodox (yet still Orthodox) shmeers, like pineapple -macadamia cream cheese or teriyaki salmon, and at lunch there are blintzes. But the bill of fare also knows some 101-level Mexican (quesadillas, nachos), Israeli (falafel, hummus, tabouleh), Japanese (California rolls), Italian (veggie frittata; brick-oven, East Coast-thin pizza) and Californian (Mediterranean tuna wrap, a hearts of palm/artichoke heart/ grape tomato/cuke/avocado salad).
Schwadron's eclectic offerings reflect an adulthood spent hopscotching around the globe before settling in the St. Louis area in 1999. An Atlantic City native and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Schwadron has apprenticed under a Swiss chef in Israel, spent time in corporate and restaurant kitchens in Manhattan, and once served as personal chef to the Crown Prince of Thailand.
Shmeers sits within the confines of western University City's eruv, a mapped-out religious boundary adhered to by Orthodox Jews on Sabbath. Certain activities that are forbidden or strictly limited outside an eruv, such as pushing a stroller or carrying a purse (both considered tantamount to working, which is prohibited on Sabbath), are allowed within the eruv, which is one reason why Orthodox populations like that in U. City tend to be geographically concentrated. Since the eruv was designated about ten years ago, six shuls have been established in the area, and Orthodox Jews are Schwadron's built-in, unleavened-bread-and-butter clientele.
By the owner's estimation, 75 percent of Shmeers' customers are Jewish, and 80 percent of those keep kosher. Shmeers is not Schwadron's first endeavor into U. City's cottage kosher industry: A practicing Orthodox Jew himself, he was involved in the now-gone Empire Steak Building, a kosher meat restaurant off Olive Boulevard that opened on September 12, 2001.
After Schwadron walked away from there and from doing some catering, friends and neighbors encouraged him to open another kosher restaurant. In fact, 30 local families were so stoked by the idea that each agreed to put up $2,500 for Schwadron's seed money, which they recouped in the form of running tabs at the restaurant. Less than a year later, Schwadron reports, half of those accounts have already been tapped out.
Shmeers' melting-pot approach may take inspiration from continents and cultures hither and yon, but what virtually every dish shares is just how downright agreeable it is. This is very friendly food. Eggplant parmigiana and three-cheese manicotti (Parmesan, mozzarella and, most noticeably, ricotta), buttressed in paste-thick, house-made marinara with little evident seasoning, are stupendous in their hominess. They may not rank as wowee-zowee, future-forward entrées, but they're great comfort dishes. A spinach salad, tweaked for summer, plays delightfully fresh strawberries and mandarin orange sections off sharp red onion, chunks of smoky blue cheese and an orange vinaigrette. A taco salad, caged in by one of those Venus-on-the-half-shell, wavy-shape tortilla bowls, treats shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes and sliced black olives to a sweet-tinged, refried-bean accompaniment. (One salad that really fell flat: the Caesar, a dank, mushy blob of lettuce and runny dressing with no croutons, anchovies or grated cheese in sight.)
Kosher restaurants can either serve meat or dairy (with fish allowed), not both. With Shmeers, Schwadron opted for the latter, and so meatless-meat products from Soy7 are pressed into service on plates such as Buffalo poppers ("chick'n" nuggets slathered in Buffalo-chicken-wing sauce) or a chick'n parm sandwich. A "meatball" sub tastes like it came from a street vendor on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. There's no telling this ain't real cow, and the meatballs (which really hold the heat) come slathered in more of that terrific marinara with just the right amount of melted mozz on top. The menu notes that this hero comes with lettuce and tomato on a baguette. Thankfully, this is not the case; there's no lettuce or tomato, and the bread is more a sesame seed-sprinkled hoagie roll, chewy and right-on.
Come dinnertime, pasta and fish comprise the main courses. Salmon, mahi-mahi and tilapia are served daily, along with a catch of the day; all varieties come from Bob's Seafood in the Loop, and can be prepared baked, poached, sautéed, teriyaki-seared, walnut-crusted, blackened or crusted with a lemongrass-curry sauce. "Blackened" is a bit of a misnomer. Though the customary Cajun rub is applied, there's no ultra-charred exterior -- and it's not the best option, as the seasoning's over-the-top spiciness feels like fire ants crawling up the sides of your tongue. A piece of salmon, gently but properly cooked through, didn't really make itself known, even with the lemongrass-curry topping, until drizzled with a side cup of soy glaze.
The catch of the day usually means trout, flounder or escolar -- a Gulf-caught fish sometimes referred to as "white tuna" and dubbed by Schwadron as "poor man's Chilean sea bass," though it's not related to either. Its texture is akin to marshmallows or tofu; its fine yet full-bodied flavor is almost caramel-like. In short, escolar's a fantastic fish, and reason alone to pay a visit.
Upon entering Shmeers, nothing much sticks out from the unimportant décor -- twelve tables, institutional gray carpet, self-serve coffee urns and soda dispensers lined up against one wall, buttercup-yellow paint job oddly bordered at the ceiling by a stripe of purple neon -- save the surprising amount of brand-food signage. The cookies are David's Cookies, the coffee is Seattle's Best (which is actually a subsidiary of Starbucks), and the soda fountains come from Coca-Cola, as do the cans of Tab -- Tab! -- found in the beverage cooler.
Flying in the face of the notion that small businesses must stay steadfast to local suppliers, Schwadron likes the signage, and he likes the marketing behind it. (He does, however, bake all of his desserts on-site, and he proudly sources out his pizza dough to nearby Pratzel's Bakery.) Schwadron's ultimate goal for Shmeers is to see it become "the kosher version of Applebee's. In order to be successful, the trend today is to go with a lot of branding, so I went with a lot of recognizable, signature items."
Schwadron is currently having a trellis-roofed patio (with those misting atomizers popular in Vegas) installed out front. He's thinking about bringing in some live music for the patio toward the end of the summer, as well as adding espressos, lattes and Creamices (the Seattle's Best version of Frappuccinos) to the menu. A liquor license should be coming through soon, allowing Schwadron to start serving beer and wine in August. The restaurant is hooked up for wi-fi. He considers Shmeers to be "the great alternative" for breakfast, a competitor to downtown Clayton's First Watch outpost. He wants Shmeers to be an after-movie nosh spot on Saturday nights. He designed Shmeers to be franchised, which is his long-term goal.
For now, it is a casual, reliable neighborhood restaurant that is slowly but surely drawing in the vegetarians and the goyim alongside the Jews. Recently, Schwadron happily served a group of customers wearing "Jews for Jesus" T-shirts, and when some regulars made a fuss, Schwadron replied, "Their money is as green is yours."