In a city of proudly distinct neighborhoods, a neighborhood restaurant must work a little harder to get noticed. A catchy name helps, though of course it alone doesn't guarantee quality. A strikingly new concept is even better, but these are few and far between. Best of all is simply a commitment to rise above the expectations of what a neighborhood restaurant — be it a sandwich shop, bar and grill or dive — can be.
Two relatively new St. Louis spots, both bearing feminine names but wildly different from one another, illustrate the point.
When you name your restaurant after your mother, as the owner of the Dogtown sandwich shop Nora's has done, you don't leave yourself much margin for error. Screw it up, and not only do you have a failed business on your hands, you've also sullied your own mother's good name.
Nora's reputation should be solid. While her namesake restaurant might not break new ground in the sandwich arts, it is a welcoming neighborhood joint with touches here and there that make it more than just another deli.
The space is modest and a little dim. You order at the counter from a menu of hot and cold sandwiches as well as a few soups and salads. Though the atmosphere is certainly casual, I wouldn't call it fast-casual: Nora's employs a small crew, and they take care with the food, so you might wait a bit during the lunch rush.
Notably, Nora's smokes many of its meats in-house. It makes a difference. "For Pete's Sake" features slices of pork loin smoked over apple wood. This is topped with even more pork (bacon), melted Brie, caramelized onion and applesauce. The flavor profile does tip toward sweet, what with both onions and applesauce, but the pork loin and bacon combo provides enough of a balance, and the Brie gives it a mild funk. Smoked turkey elevates the "Hangover Club," an otherwise straightforward presentation with Genoa salami, bacon, provolone and mustard.
Most sandwiches are served on white or wheat hoagie buns. (Gluten-free bread is available.) I had the "For Pete's Sake" and the "Layton" on white buns. The "Layton" is thinly sliced roast beef with caramelized onion, herb cream cheese and horseradish sauce. I would have liked stronger horseradish and herb flavors, but the beef was tender and full-flavored.
The "Veggie Melt" is one of several vegetarian options. It is impressive, with artichoke hearts, smoked portobello mushrooms, roasted red peppers, black olives and caramelized onions topped with melted cheddar and provolone and then garnished with lettuce, tomato, avocado, sprouts (assuming, unlike me, you don't hate sprouts and ask for them to be omitted) and a chipotle mayo. That mayo is the key, tying together the disparate ingredients and giving the sandwich an extra kick.
Don't ignore the soups. Crawfish chowder, a seasonal special, was excellent, very thick and a tiny bit spicy, and the brightly flavored tomato-basil soup is as good as anything Mom might have made.
The first thing you see — or, just as likely, hear — upon entering The Wicked Lady Pub is water trickling in a decorative fountain. This is the first of several signs that this Bevo establishment isn't your typical pub. Inlaid into the floor is the word oaza (oasis), the name of the Bosnian café that used to occupy this address, and if you're looking for a place to enjoy a cigarette with your meal, then oasis this might be. The rest of us will file this detail with other weird, memorable design elements: the octagonal bar, brick archways, stained-glass birds.
If you can get past the oddness — including the fact that this pub doesn't serve any beer on draft — you'll find food several steps above typical bar fare. For one, the Wicked Lady makes its sausage in-house. The version I sampled was skinny, with a nicely blistered casing and tender, mildly spiced meat inside. Actual Scottish pub fare includes Scotch eggs, hard-boiled eggs encased in sausage; and birdies, a slightly underseasoned ground-beef mixture cooked inside a sort of miniature croissant.
There is pizza, too, thin-crust pies baked in a brick oven. There is both honey and red wine in this dough, and while I couldn't really pick out either flavor, the crust emerges from the oven with a crisp exterior, a pleasant flavor and a bit of a chew. The "Carnivore" is the most indulgent of the five varieties available, with sausage, pepperoni, ground beef, chicken and bacon, as well as sauce and cheese. I also sampled the margherita, an intensely tomato-flavored version of the classic style, equipped with both tomato sauce and slices.
The standout on the menu isn't a specific dish but the "Wicked" barbecue sauce, as dark and nearly as thick as molasses, that dresses several of them. The sauce's fleeting sweetness gives way to a peppery kick and a rich, almost chocolaty core somewhat reminiscent of a traditional Mexican mole.
The "Wicked" sauce coats an order of plump chicken wings and tops the "Wicked Burger," too. The latter brings ground beef loosely packed Jucy Lucy-style around a center of molten pepperjack cheese and chopped mushrooms and jalapeños. The cheese and jalapeño provide a decent amount of heat, but the real punch — both in spice and flavor — comes from the sauce. The burger comes with your choice of a side. Opt for the freshly cut fries.
I suspect the Wicked Lady would sell many bottles of its trademark sauce. As it stands, the only place you can enjoy it is right here — as good a reason as any to return to what you might easily dismiss as just one more neighborhood bar.