There's a time and a season for everything, and a restaurant's turning to a new menu to match the calendar and climate is no exception.
With those new food lineups comes every conceivable permutation of timely produce interpreted by local ches trying to capture the sight, feel, taste and emotion of the weather outside and the season it represents.
Somewhere deep within a primal cavity of our craniums, we begin craving the spices, herbs, produce and meats of each season, even when many of those foods can be obtained year-round.
Our mouths water in anticipation of summer's first homegrown tomato after a long spell of insipid, mealy hothouse excuses for the fruit of Lycopersicon esculentum. The first bite of barbecue chicken hot off the grill can only mean the season of dog days. The sight and taste of fresh fennel tells of the oncoming autumnal equinox. And the aroma of fall's root vegetables roasting with, perhaps, a pork loin and apples or prunes triggers feelings of comfort and signals the oncoming hibernation of winter.
Like many restaurants that rely on the supply of seasonal ingredients (rather than food trucked in on pallets and assembled in accordance with the corporate-franchise picture book), Brandt's Market & Café recently introduced its fall/winter menu. As you enter on the market side and walk a few steps to the restaurant, you see orange icicle lights, hanging in the large front windows facing Delmar Boulevard, and rows of autumn leaves, strung around the ceiling against the walls of turquoise, cranberry red, muted foil and Granny Smith green.
During the warmer months, the sidewalk in front of Brandt's is packed with outdoor sippers and diners, the beautiful people and the anti-beautiful people. When the weather turns, owner Jay Brandt wants us to come in out of the cold, telling us as much on the third page of the menu: "We enter through the season of the harvest and we begin to cozy up by the fire and enjoy the fruits of our labors." There's no fireplace, but it's pretty dang cozy inside. Over the years, Brandt has expanded his original small market space -- experimenting with a deli that churned out homemade mozzarella -- to the current full-service restaurant. The market still exists, mostly for customers taking home a bottle of wine or one of the many imported brews and microbeers he stocks.
The new menu is as eclectic as the decorating. Catering to a diverse audience, the small kitchen cranks out everything from appetizers (twelve in all, ranging from spring rolls to quesadillas to baked Brie to chicken wings), salads, homemade soups and a black-bean chili, several focaccia pizzas, ten pastas and a creative array of sandwiches and wraps.
We started with the spinach-artichoke shrimp dip, served warm with pita bread. Although not particularly remarkable, it was chock-full of chunky artichoke hearts and generously proportioned shrimp, not those worthless shrimpy popcorn shrimp.
But we had come for the entrées, the heart of the menu. Head chef Binh La came from Vietnam eleven years ago. Starting as a dishwasher, the new immigrant was encouraged by Brandt to explore cooking, and when the kitchen was expanded, La became a chef. His Asian influences show up in such adventuresome dishes as Thai beef stew and bamboo-leaf-wrapped salmon. The huge, thick salmon fillet was snugly encased in a green bamboo leaf, covered with a creamy thick crabmeat sauce and topped with two large shrimp. Along with long sticks of vibrant-orange carrots and bright-green asparagus, it made for a beautiful presentation. The garlic whipped potatoes, however, were dry and disappointing, more like overly oven-baked than whipped.
That same crabmeat sauce worked well as the stuffing for the Missouri farm-raised-trout fillet. Seared in Missouri white wine, the skin was crisp, causing one dining companion to exclaim, "I'm happy." Winter pastas are always a delight -- comforting, simple and satisfying. Brandt's linguine con prosciutto was hearty and full of the flavorful meat. Fresh spinach, basil, garlic and oregano, supported by a light marinara sauce, brought the big dish together. Another dish combined fresh sage and acorn squash atop bowtie pasta. Desserts are made by Truffes, a local sweets supplier. This night, the eggnog cheesecake and chocolate hazelnut cake were of high quality.
During another visit, the pan-seared Cajun crab cakes were thick but had a light puffiness and satisfying texture. Fortunately, it was the night after Brandt's annual Beaujolais Nouveau dinner, so there was leftover pumpkin soup to sample. This gorgeous concoction of puréed pumpkin, milk, cumin and Beaujolais wine shouted, "Autumn is here," and should become a permanent part of the seasonal menu. Meat seemed to be the order of the night; our table selected lamb, pork and duck, all served beautifully but pulled off with varying degrees of success. The off-menu special of lamb chops in mint sauce was served atop mashed potatoes, which this night were perfectly prepared. Nary a taste of mint, however, was to be found. The sauce was dark, rich and too salty.
The other two dishes incorporated fruit, with the pork chop the clear favorite. Three thin chops wmelized green apples atop garlic mashed potatoes (a substitution for the maple-walnut sweet potatoes ordered by the diner) and served with zucchini and yellow squash. A fresh sprig of fragrant sage crowned the tower of food, causing our dining companion to pass her plate around the table so we could breathe in the aromatic mélange. The duck la cherie, served in a cognac-based sauce with dried cherries, leeks and pink peppercorns, suffered from the lack of concentrated flavor one would expect from such a rich-sounding dish.
Again reaping the benefits of the Beaujolais dinner the night before our visit, we tried the house-made baked pear for dessert. Served cold and drenched in a thickened Beaujolais sauce, it was a satisfyingly light accompaniment to the big entrées.
The wine and beer selections are well worth exploring. Brandt's prides itself in its large selection of European beers, especially Belgian, German and British ales and lagers. Brandt's carries a decent selection of the fresh, fruity Beaujolais Nouveaux in addition to its American-only wine list.
Brandt's casual air sometimes spills over into the service. Water glasses remained unfilled, the empty breadbasket looked lonely and the appetizer plates stayed on the small table well into the main meal during one visit. Balancing that flaw were knowledgeable servers who were genuinely excited about the food they served. The music at Brandt's is always a pleasant accompaniment, whether it's a guitar/bass duo or light vocals. It's a comfortable place to relax, a place where you feel they don't try to "turn, turn, turn" the tables.