a blog about food and fun in the saint louis area

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sweet Tomatoes for Healthy Eating

My Salad
I discovered Sweet Tomatoes several months ago as I was looking for healthy options to eating out in the area. It was receiving nice reviews for the salad bar so I tried it out and found it to be perfect for what I was wanting. As you enter, you are greeted by a long two-sided salad bar with a host of ingredients. Six different lettuce mixes, lots of vegetables, dried fruits and nuts, pasta sides, and meat toppings were plentiful. It was nice to see several different proteins offered including turkey and ham, bacon, black beans, kidney beans, and chick peas. I was even a bit surprised to see julienne butternut squash and beets as two of the options.
Veggie Bean and Barley
In addition to the salad bar, there were eight soup options including two low-fat offerings of turkey noodle with whole wheat noodles and vegetable bean and barley stew. I opted for the bean and barley stew and found it to have a nice variety of vegetables including chunks of tomato, carrots, corn, and of course the beans and barley. The broth had a thick consistency, exactly what you would expect for something labeled a "stew." They have a nice pasta bar which included several different types of noodles and sauces, as well as a few bread options. Since I was tried to "eat healthy" I bypassed the breads and the pasta for this time around, but this area of the restaurant was definitely getting a lot of diners.
Banana Crunch & Bran Muffins

Their bakery offered assorted pastries and muffins, though not nearly as many options as offered with the soups and salad. It was nice to see two low-fat options with the fat free cranberry orange muffin, the whole wheat banana crunch muffin, and the bran muffin. The banana crunch muffin had lots of flavor with a nice dense muffin consistency. The bran muffin was nothing special yielding little flavor and having a very dry consistency. They also have some fresh fruit, though it only consisted of grapes, bananas and oranges when I was there. Not sure if this is typical or if these are rotated on a regular basis.
Overall, I anticipate this to be a regular stop for me since I can fill up on low-calorie soup and salad containing high-quality, fresh ingredients. There are two locations - one is Crestwood and the other in Creve Couer. Before you go, check online for dining coupons as these are easy to find for Sweet Tomatoes.

Ratings Summary:
Yelp - 3.5 (out of 5)
Google - 20 (out of 30)
urbanspoon - 83% Likes

Monday, January 14, 2013

Lola for Crepes

Shrimp and Grits

I first came across Lola when looking for a restaurant within easy walking distance to the Peabody Opera House prior to the Train concert. Yelp led me to the location which is a bit out of the way unless you really know where to look. I have since made a return trip. As you walk in you gt the feel of a typical bar and grill with a large bar, a good-sized stage, and a scattering of tables and chairs. The menu immediately caught my attention with a heavy dose of crepes and several interesting main dishes. On our latest venture, we ordered two appetizers - the Surf and Turf Sliders and the Creole Crispy Crepe. The sliders resulted in a .500 average. The Turf was a typical burger and cheese slider with little to brag about. The Surf, however, was a delicious crawfish crab cake with cajon aioli and mixed greens. THAT was a homeroom. Our entrees included Chicken and Waffles, the Delilah Crepe, the Carmen Crepe, and BBQ Shrimp and Grits. This was the second time ordering the Chicken and Waffles because Lola does this one perfectly. The chicken is crispy with a golden crust and moist white meat inside. The waffle has a similar crisp exterior and a soft, savory center. The syrup tasted like maple with a hint of vanilla and some other flavors we could not quite pinpoint. In all, a wonderful dish. The crepes are definitely stars here as both were devoured by everyone at the table. The Delilah is filled with shrimp, crab and tomato confit, while the Carmen has tenderloin, Boursin cheese and wild mushrooms. Top notch on both of these. The final entree was the BBQ Shrimp and Grits with large shrimp glazed with a sweet and tangy bbq sauce and cheesy grits yielding the perfect texture.

Champagne Cocktail
Both times I have been there the restaurant has been almost empty, so I asked our waitress if this was typical. It seems that Lola packs them in at night for various bands and DJ's and an extensive cocktail menu ... and extensive it is. Behid the bar are large drink menus featuring a wide assortment of "mocktails and fauxtinis," champagne cocktails, martinis, "lofty libations," Cognac/Armanacs, beers and wines. It is obvious where the priorities lie, and it does not seem to be with promoting the wonderful food they have to offer. I have not been here at night, so I cannot attest to the evening vibe. This place could easily be winning some awards with the local foodies if management pushed their food as heavily as the drinks (winner of Riverfront Times' Best Cocktail in St. Louis in 2011). Overall, Lola is a wonderful, yet unknown, foodie destination.

Ratings Summary-
Yelp: 3.5 (out of 5)
Urbanspoon; 78% likes
OpenTable: 4 (out of 5)
Google: 19 (out of 30)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Pastria (Sort of Close to Italy)

Pastria's Pizza Oven
I should probably confess up front that I am a big Gerard Craft fan. Ever since Food and Wine named him as a best chef I have followed his story and eaten as his restaurants (when my budget allowed). So needless to say I highly anticipated the opening of a fourth restaurant in his empire. Pastria does not disappoint. This high energy, bustling restaurant has an open kitchen, a kitchen counter (so you can get up close to the action), a nice bar, a mini-market (for purchasing pastas, sauces, gelato, etc.), and a fun, casual feel to it all. Be warned that Pastria does not take reservations, so be prepared to a wait of an hour or so. In the end, though, the wait will be worth it. I have made two trips to Pastria, the first time sitting at the kitchen counter (highly recommended), and the second time at one of the tables. Here is a rundown of the appetizers, entrees, and desserts i have had the pleasure of savoring!

Radish Bruschetta

Appetizers - Seeing Roasted Radish Bruschetta on the menu was unusual enough to spark my interest. Bright red radishes, tart but not bitter, come on a thick toasted artisan bread slice. Certainly different from any other bruschetta I have had, but a wonderful start to the evening. Crispy Risotto Balls, ordered on both visits, have a crispy shell with a soft, creamy center. They are wonderful by themselves, but elevate a few notches when paired with the dipping sauces. Roasted Brussels Sprouts were quite good, but nothing extraordinary. The Shaved Kale salad was a fresh change of pace from the other appetizers we have had, served with a nice creamy anchovy dressing.

Pistachio Ravioli
Entrees - On my latest visit I went with the Chitarra because it had been recently named as one of the best 50 dishes in St. Louis. It is definitely a simple, classic pasta adorned only with olive oil, garlic and chili. It was good, but I am not sure I agree that it is "top 50" good. The Pappardelle has been ordered on both visits, and could very well be a part of the third and subsequent visits as well. This dish is extraordinary. Wide flat noodles paired with shredded smoked pork, mascarpone, and thinly sliced granny smith apples. The pork is rich and flavorful, and the apples provide a welcome balance of taste and texture. Pistachio Ravioli is a fun take on other raviolis I have had. The mint ad lemon brown butter and a refreshing twist, and the nutty crunch of the pistachio provides another level of texture. The Italian Ramen was listed in the pasta section, but really turned out to be more of a soup. Still good, but not what was expected. Spaghettini, chicken, parmesan broth, and chili is topped with a soft poached egg. In my opinion, almost everything benefits from a perfectly cooked egg as a topper!

Pizza of the Day
Now for the pizza. When you enter Pastria you will see a beautiful pizza oven straight ahead, and throughout your stay it will produce amazing pizzas. We opted for the pizza of the day which consisted of garlic, rosemary, bacon, fingerling potatoes, fontina, and bechamel. It was a decadent feast for the taste buds. It was salty, gooey, crispy, chewy ... perfect. The crust is delicious by itself!

Desserts - The tiramisu ranks as one of the very best I have had, this coming from someone who has tiramisu ranked as his all time number one dessert of choice. The Dark Chocolate Tart was good, highlighted by possibly the best whipped cream I have tasted, but the tart itself was not over the top. The Yoghurt Panna Cotta with cherry compote, however, WAS over the top and the highlight of the desserts. This is a dish to be slowly savored with each bite. Of course, do not forget to have some gelato. They offer way too many flavors to get into on this post, but suffice it to say that since they offer samples you cannot go wrong!

Rankings Summary:
Yelp: 4 (out of 5)
Urbanspoon: 80% likes

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Shaved Duck for Upscale BBQ

Baked Apple
I often select my restaurant destinations with the help of foodie web sites and other local resources. I first heard of the Shaved Duck when Sauce Magazine named it as one of the most underrated restaurants in town. Their website says that they specialize in rustic American cuisine with a “quaint, funky yet soulful vibe …” So of course I had to try it! This is not your typical BBQ joint as this is definitely a more upscale sort of place. You won’t find cowboy motif or large neon beer signs as part of the d├ęcor. When you drive up, however, your taste buds hit overdrive as the smell of smoky goodness greets you. Inside is a comfortable, rather cozy arrangement of tables and booths with a small bar. It definitely has a sophisticated vibe, but is still casual and comfortable. To this point I have been to the Shaved Duck twice, and have had a chance to sample some wonderful dishes. On our most recent visit, appetizers of Baked Apple with pulled pork, bacon and pistachio butter and Smoked Chicken Wings with a mango, ginger and habanero sauce started us off. The apple was cooked just enough to soften the flesh but not to the point of being mushy. The topping, however, was the focal point as the flavors blend perfectly. Ever since my first visit to J Bucks I have been a BIG fan of smoked chicken wings, and these are among the best I have had. Smoked with a dry rub giving a nice level of spice, they come with the habanero sauce on the side. Of course you can use other bbq sauces on the table, but I can’t imagine why you would! Truthfully, the wings need no sauce at all!

Some of our entrees included a Confit Pot Pie with corn, carrots, green beans, potatoes and duck confit in a puff pastry, Smoked Meatloaf with root beer glaze, smoked Shrimp and Grits, and slow smoked duck. Every dish was shared at our table yielding a variety of “best dish” ratings.  The Pot Pie had a melt-in-your-mouth flaky crust covering this wonderful filling highlighted by the duck. The Smoked Meatloaf is a hefty, dense slice that has just the right level of smokiness. I had this on my first visit and was immediately inspired to try and replicate this at home. Though I have done a decent job, it is certainly hard to beat the original! The first time I had the Shrimp and Grits I was blown away by the flavor combination. This second time, not so much. Not sure what changed, but the flavor was a bit bland on this second go around. The Smoked Duck with cherry juniper jam was moist with a crispy skin, and the jam added a nice sweetness to the dish. Two orders of the cornbread rounded out our order for the evening. Regardless of what you order, get the cornbread as a side. It is so good, it could take the place of a dessert. As for desserts, I have never had room to try any of their offerings. Guess I will just need to come back and try again!

By the way, if you go you will see a picture wall dedicated to Drive-ins, Diners and Dives as Guy Fieri and his crew paid the Duck a visit recently.

Ratings Summary:
Yelp: 4.5 (out of 5)
Tripadvisor: 4.5 (out of 5)
Google: 24 (out of 30)

Friday, January 4, 2013

Rockin’ Christmas with TSO!

Jeff Scott Soto
Interested in experiencing a rock opera of Christmas music to get you in the holiday spirit? The Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) brought their Lost Christmas Eve Winter Tour 2012 to Scottrade Center in December to rock St. Louis. Considered by Billboard as one of the top touring artists of the past decade, their new show dazzled with lasers, multiple stages, lightening, fireworks, fog, “snow,” fire (from row 9 you can feel the heat!), and an expansive light show. With a crew of solid musicians, the ensemble powered their way through “The Lost Christmas Eve” rock opera, and then followed with some new music and assorted favorites from “Christmas Eve and Other Stories.”  Once again Al Pitrelli (guitar), Angus Clark (guitar), Johnny Lee Middleton (bass), John O. Reilly (drums), and Jane Mangini (keyboards) provided an experienced nucleus to the band. Asha Mevlana (strings) and Angus Clark were certainly audience favorites as they moved from one side of the stage to the other, ran up and down the main floor aisles, and soared OVER the audience on two different hydraulic stage platforms.  Vocal highlights of the evening included Jeff Scott Soto singing “Christmas Nights in Blue” and Chloe Lowry singing “For the Sake of Our Brother.” These two vocalists know how to capture an audience with their voices, expressions, and passion for a song.

TSO never disappoints as they put on one of the very best stage productions of any band I have seen, and their music is spot on. I think I have seen them eight times now. This year I was sitting with a family of “TSO Newbies.” It is definitely a lot of fun to watch someone experience TSO for the very first time! Personally, I did not like this new show as much as their previous tour, maybe because I did not get to hear some of my favorite songs. Then again, I picked up some new favorites this year! Regardless, TSO is a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday season. It certainly does not hurt that they donate part of their proceeds from every show to a local charity. You gotta love a band that gives back to the communities that support them through ticket and swag purchases.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Half & Half for Brunch

Half & Half
If you are looking for a wonderful place for brunch, then Half & Half in Clayton should definitely be high on your list. When you first walk in, you will start to feel the vibe of this place. A fully stocked bar, an open kitchen, and a variety of seating options of high tables, bar, booths, and regular tables/chairs. This was my third trip to this restaurant, but my first since starting this blog. Naturally, it has become one of my favorite destinations for starting my day. With four in our party we arrived on a weekday around 8am and were met with a wait of about 20 minutes. The receptionist quickly offered to get us coffee as we waited, an early sign of what we could expect for service. This place is popular (for good reasons!), so expect a wait when you come. If you are dining on a weekend, it is best to arrive close to opening - the crowds will pick up quickly.

Once seated we ordered the doughnuts, a treat of sugar, cinnamon, crunchy outside, soft inside delicious goodness. They are decadent and addicting. For entrees, we ordered Veggie Hash, Sausage Biscuit, and two omelets (Brussels Sprouts and Cheddar; Beans, Cheddar, and Avocado). The Veggie Hash consisted of perfectly sauteed brussels sprouts, potatoes, onions, and spinach, with two eggs sunny side up. The brussels sprouts were slightly charred while still maintaining that crunch you want in cooked veggies. The potatoes were well-seasoned and cooked to a dark brown. The Sausage Biscuit consisted of a flaky biscuit, mildly spicy sausage, scrambled eggs and gooey cheddar cheese. The waitress asked if she should bring some sausage gravy with it. Though the diner initially turned her down, she offered to bring it at no charge because she KNEW that he would want it. He relented, and we were all glad that he did! Both omelets were a nice size, bulging with the selected ingredients. One omelet had the brussels sprouts, adding a nice crunch and a change of pace from your typical omelet veggie. The second omelet had just the right amount of beans with a slight kick, and generous slices of avocado to add yet another texture to the meal. With each omelet there was a nice balance among the eggs, cheese, and veggies.
Veggie Hash

 For drinks we had orange juice (fresh squeezed!), a batch-brewed coffee (Buziraguhindwa Burundi), and a 24oz carafe of their signature pour-over coffee (Cerro Azul Geisha). If you are a bit of a coffee snob, this is a good place to go. The batch-brewed coffee was excellent, but the pour-over is by far the best. The waitress was especially helpful in describing the coffee, even going so far as to encouraging one of our diners to omit her normal splash of cream because "I don't think you will need it." She also described how the flavor profile would change as the coffee cooled, taking on a silkier texture as the flavors intensified. Well, she was spot on with everything!

 Half & Half has everything you would want for a brunch spot.

Summary of Ratings:
Yelp: 4 (out of 5)
Urban Spoon: 86% likes
Google: 21 (out of 30)
tripadvisor: 4.5 (out of 5)