The Underground Restaurant

February 27, 2010

Do enough light internet stalking of the food world in Missouri and you’ll eventually run in to an interesting concept in St. Louis: The Underground Restaurant, or Entre Underground as it calls itself.  It’s not subterranean as the name may suggest.  Instead it’s more of a dinner club of sorts, and exclusive in the sense that the website requires a password to enter it.  They have dinners on a somewhat regular basis with a menu and price available for viewing online. Making it even more exciting is the fact that you don’t find out where the dinner will be held until the day of the event.  On top of that, most underground restaurants are technically illegal because they don’t pay taxes and there are no county health inspectors poking around either.  (However, some of the excitement dies when you realize that pretty much anyone can get a password and it’s not really exclusive…damn).

When I first heard about it, I was all over it.  So on February 13th we got the location of our dinner and headed to St. Louis. Our location was in what I think was a rented room of a theater, with two tables set up family style.  Sorry for the crappy quality, it was dark and it’s a cell phone camera. At any rate, the menu for the night was prix fixe and was $65 per person, + $25 per for wine.  Steep for sure.  The menu was as follows:

Oyster Rockefeller: arugula, bacon and yuzu

Lobster Cappuccino: saffron, shaved foie gras

Terrine of Lobster and Leek: pickled mustard seed buerre blanc

Sous Vide Bison Tenderloin: pommes maxim, cocoa nibs, pickled strawberries, dark chocolate beer puree, smoked duck fat hollandaise

Brown Butter Shortbread: chocolate mousse, chambord sabayon, caramel powder

An inventive sounding menu, something that is made to sound very impressive for sure.  Here’s the reality: the quality ranged from outstanding (the dessert was fabulous) to flavorless (the leek and lobster terrine).  There were parts of it that felt very well thought out and were executed by someone who knows what they’re doing, yet other parts felt thrown together and pointless.

The lobster and leek terrine is a prime example: when I say it had no flavor I mean it, it tasted like nothing.  I was expecting a punch from a mustard seed beurre blanc, but alas.  The pomme maxim again was pointless, it tasted like a very bland roasted potato which is not at all what pommes maxim should taste like.  Frankly, it should have been left off the plate.  The “shaved foie gras” on the lobster cappuccino (soup) might as well have been shaved beef jerky because I couldn’t taste that it made any difference at all, it appears to have been there for show.

But for every low point there was an equally high point.  The shortbread cookies were very good, special even.  The lobster soup was delicate and wonderful on the tongue, and the dark chocolate beet puree was an interesting combination I’d like to have again.  The coffee they served with the dessert was done through a french press, and was very good as well.

All in all, it’s something I’d recommend to most people to do at least once.  We sat across from some great people and my food criticism aside, had a wonderful time meeting and eating with people and we left full, fat and happy.  I’m not going to rate it, but I will do it again.

Chefs – artists or craftsmen?

February 6, 2010

The more I think about it, I feel that great cooks and chefs are not artists, but craftsmen.  Not that this is an original thought, but one that I’m not officially agreeing with.  While it’s true that some food is beautiful and there is an artistic flair to cooking, the repetition and perfection aspect of professional cooking tells me that it’s truly a craft, a trade like a carpenter.  The onion soup we had at Niche Brasserie inspired me to make some as well.  This is a “simple” soup.  It has 8 ingredients: onions, butter, beef stock, salt, pepper, bay leaf, thyme and sherry vinegar.  However, caramelizing the onions for 4 hours, chopping them perfectly so that they’re the same size, making sure the onions have cooked down to the correct point before adding the stock, it’s all technical. It all needs to be done correctly to make sure that the end product comes out right.  It’s a devotion to this craft, to strive for perfection no matter how simple the task that makes a great cook.

A Review of Brasserie by Niche

February 6, 2010

Not exactly a Mid-Mo restaurant, but just down the road in what is fast becoming a culinary mecca in the midwest, St. Louis. Brasserie by Niche is owned and operated by the owner/executive chef of Niche restaurant, Gerard Craft.  I’ve had the pleasure of dining at Niche twice, and it’s one of those blow your mind type of places.  Whereas Niche is very forward-thinking in their cuisine, Brasserie is very traditional.  A French bistro, set up to do traditional and relatively simple French dishes, but to execute them flawlessly.  They do this very well.

Valet parking is a must, parking is atrocious.  When entering the restaurant I noticed 3 things immediately: packed, loud, quaint.  Red-checkered table clothes covered with torn brown butcher paper. Odd-and-end chairs and tables and fixtures complete the look.  It might have been due to the large party seated near us, but the noise level was about 10 dB  higher than what I would have liked.  It was a very social place, perfect for a gathering of friends or family but not so great for a quiet date.

We were quickly brought miniature baguettes and a small ramekin of unsalted butter.  The bread was terrific, crusty with a soft interior.  I ordered the head cheese, braised grass-fed lamb and chocolate cake with almond ice cream.  The other half ordered the onion soup (oddly, they don’t call it French onion soup in France, just onion soup:) ) and the croque madame.  The head cheese is made in house and served with bread, grainy mustard and cornichons, or small pickles.  It’s good, rustic, and very porky.  The onion soup was also terrific.  It was evident that the onions were allowed to fully caramelize as the soup was so deeply flavored, rich and sweet.

Next came the main courses.  My grass-fed lamb was cooked to a perfect medium rare.  Tender, flavorful and delicious.  Served alongside it was a beautiful potato gratin and sauteed spinach, which was cooked and flavored well.  None of these required additional seasoning, which is a sign that someone is paying attention in the kitchen and I like that.  The croque madame is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich topped with a fried egg and mornay sauce (white cheese sauce).  It’s incredibly rich and flavorful, paired with a frisee salad with a very light vinaigrette.  It’s really wonderful.  Too big to eat the whole thing and I don’t think you’d want to because of the richness, but what a flavor!

Dessert is sometimes a toss-up in these types of places, but I ordered hopeful that it would be thoughtfully done, and my hopes were fulfilled.  It was a liquid chocolate cake and almond ice cream.  When cut open the chocolate oozed out of the cake and had more of a dark-chocolate, bittersweet taste to it.  The almond ice cream was awesome, simply put.  It was definitely made in house, creamy and smooth with the best texture I’ve had in ice cream in a while.  A lemon tart was also ordered, which came with a tender crust and delightfully tart filling.  Also worth checking out.

The prices aren’t bad, though it’s still more of a special occasion type of place than not.  Service was good, wine was reasonable, and the restaurant was clean.  I’m definitely going back.

8/10 – – Simple food executed perfectly in a slightly louder than desirable environment.  I’m still going back though!

Co-Op grocery coming our way?

February 4, 2010

This could be cool, from today’s Trib:

http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/2010/feb/03/co-op-grocery-in-works/

Columbia Career Center’s Culinary Program

February 3, 2010

For those that aren’t aware, Columbia is the proud home of one of the finest high school culinary programs in the country.  It’s staffed by 3 knowledgeable chefs who are also great people to talk to.  The culinary students have a lot of different products that they make and then sell at a very reasonable price, including sausages, bacon, pork belly (lay off, I’ve already claimed their last 2!) chicken stock, soups and more.  They put on lunches about once a month or every other month that gets you a lot of good food for about $5-$6.  You can e-mail Brook Harlan at BHarlan@columbia.k12.mo.us and get on his e-mail list to find out all of the details.

What I’m reading and watching:

February 1, 2010

I’m reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and just finished In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan.  I also just finished watching A Botany of Desire and Food Inc.  To say that my food habits are changing is a huge understatement.  I’ll tell you what I’m telling everyone else: Just know that ignorance can be bliss because this is life-changing stuff, for most people anyway.

January 6, 2010

My ratings might seem a bit odd, so I feel the need to clarify.  I don’t consider every restaurant to be on the same scale and therefore don’t rate them on the same scale.  For instance,  you might be a bit surprised to see that I rated Tin Can higher than Justus Drugstore.  Is the food better there?  No, it’s not even close.  Justus Drugstore is fine dining, and I will rate it on the same scale as I would Niche in St. Louis.  Tin Can is rated on the same scale as other taverns/bars/diners would be.  It’s great, but it’s great for what it is.  I didn’t have high expectations going in to Tin Can like I did when I went to Justus.  Hope this helps you not think I’m crazy. :)

A Review of Justus Drugstore

January 6, 2010

I took a trip recently to Kansas City for a fun night and my choice for dinner was an easy one. We headed over to Smithville and dined at Justus Drugstore. It was opened a few years ago by Jonathan Justus and his wife Camille. He’s a big farm-to-table and eat-local guy. I watched a cook pour local Shatto milk straight from a glass jar into a sauce and was sold.

Though Smithville is a bit out of the way, this place is worth it. It’s in a building that use to be a drugstore operated by Jonathan’s family. It manages to have both a modern and antiquated feel to it at the same time. The bar area is where the old soda fountain used to be and some old fixtures remain to add to the ambience. It’s a bit loud, but cozy and enjoyable nonetheless.

We were lucky enough to have Jonathan’s wife Camille as our server and she was out of this world. She really knew her stuff and was fun to talk to. She seemed very genuine and even brought us seconds on the bread that she bakes in-house every day.

Now to the food. We started with an amuse-bouche of a sous vide Kobe beef croustade with a horseradish cream and unidentifiable but delicious green sauce. It was sliced thinly which helped mask the potentially mushy texture that sous-vide can produce, but was very tender and cooked a perfect medium-rare.

Next course we had salads, the first of which was a curly endive salad mustard vinaigrette, berkshire bacon ‘lardon’, breaded soft boiled egg, smoked trout roe, truffle oil. This is a “breakfast” salad with bacon and eggs. The breaded soft-boiled egg was amazing, with a golden fried exterior and a yolk that runneth over. Delicious and rich. The second salad was a goat cheese salad with Berkshire bacon wrapped local goat cheese, thyme, rosemary, white wine shallot vinaigrette, mixed greens, apple and brioche crostini. This was my favorite of the two. It was the lighter of the two, but the bacon wrapped goat cheese helped make it rich still. The vinaigrette was one of the best I’ve had, a perfect balance of sweet and tart.

The main courses were: pan seared bass filet, smoked tomato, Berkshire bacon, basil, lemon confit cream, bass/risotto cake, pea tendrils and his famous Berkshire Pork 2 ways with a grilled pork ribeye, braised pork shoulder, elderberry/Norton verjus/house sweet vermouth, cauliflower gratin, bok choy. To start with the bass, it was perfectly cooked and the risotto cake was really interesting. It was sauced well and had a nice touch of acid, which I particularly enjoy with fish dishes. I think the pork was the star though. When I first took a bite of the pork ribeye, I giggled. I’m not much of a giggler by nature, but I tasted that melt-in-your-mouth perfect pig with the Norton sauce and it was beyond words. The shoulder was also very good, but nothing compared to that ribeye.

I was stuffed, really stuffed. But with me being me, I got dessert anyway. We got the Crêpe Napoleon, which is a chocolate crêpe with pumpkin custard, Boulevard’s Bob’s 47 ice cream and pecan brittle. It was good enough, but came on a teeny-tiny little tea plate. I probably wouldn’t get dessert again because after the meal they brought out a nice warm mulled wine, which they make in house and is excellent.

8/10 – Not quite as good as Niche, but in my opinion a close second for best restaurant in Missouri.

Sigh for Uprise…

November 28, 2009

They never seem to be open when I want them to be open or have what I want when I want what I want. :)

When I get fixin’ on a chocolate croissant, I can’t get it out of my head and Upper Crust’s chocolate croissant is terrible!  I need them on the West side of Columbia too now that I’m complaining.

A perfect fall dinner

November 23, 2009

I’m full, fat and happy at the moment.  I had an abundance of squash and apples at my house and decided, “Why not roast them?” Well that’s exactly what I did, with a honey-thyme infusion, cider vinegar and a bit of olive oil.  A perfect side dish to any poultry or pork product. I happened to have some pork belly on hand. Slow-braised and then crisped, it was perfect on top of my roasted squash and apples. A nice 2004 Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz and some crusty bread to soak it all up and it was a little bit of fall-perfection.


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