Lücha's Free-Spirited Take on Mexican Classics Struggles as Much as it Succeeds: Review

Asada taco (beef brisket with seared onion & salsa), Pescado taco (tempura style fish with a vinaigrette coleslaw and salsa verde), and Al Pastor taco (pulled pork, seared pineapple, Guajillo and Ancho chiles). | Jennifer Silverberg

(522 North Grand Boulevard; 314-833-9993)
11-1 a.m. Tues.-Sun. (Closed Mon.)

Owners Hugo Perez and Brian Schmitz have wanted to open a place like Lücha for years, but were always hesitant -- how would St. Louis restaurantgoers receive a Mexican restaurant that deviates from the typical rice-and-bean-platter model? When the Kota Wood Fire Grill space came available, the veteran business partners (previous ventures include the Grind and Sol) decided it was time to push diners beyond generic Mexican food and celebrate the authentic flavors and dishes of Perez's hometown, Mexico City.

Lücha, which means "struggle" in Spanish, bills itself as a "Mexican soul food" restaurant, though it's more contemporary in its styling than the name would suggest. As Schmitz explains, the goal is to take traditional dishes and update them using modern cooking techniques. Think Abuela's time-honored recipes meet a Cryovac machine.

See also: A Look Inside Lucha's New Mexican Soul Food Restaurant in Midtown

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At Lona's Lil Eats, Huge Flavor From a Tiny Village in China: Review

Housemade dumplings. | Jennifer Silverberg

Lona's Lil Eats
(2199 California Avenue; 314-925-8939)
5-8:30 p.m. Tues.-Wed.
11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-8:30 p.m. Thurs.-Fri.,
5-8:30 p.m. Sat. (Closed Sun. and Mon.)

Lona Luo is from a small village in a remote corner of southwestern China. It's where she was born, raised and learned to cook -- but she's not Chinese. Her mother is Thai, her father is from a small tribe called the Luo Luo, and she is the first in her immediate family to learn to read and write. Luo and her husband, Pierce Powers, call their cuisine "Asian comfort" or "hill tribe" food, but St. Louisans will soon refer to it this way: some of the best food in town.

Luo met Powers in 1999 when he moved to her village to teach English. The two married, had a daughter, and came back to St. Louis to open a small import business at Soulard Market that sold silks and bags from Luo's hometown. When a food stall became available, the couple decided to sell Luo's handmade dumplings as well. The stall became so successful that the imports fell to the wayside, and the focus became the food. It took two years, but in September, the pair finally opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant on California Avenue in the up-and-coming Fox Park neighborhood.

See also: Lona's Lil Eats' New Storefront Serves "Asian Soul Food" in Fox Park

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Whitebox Eatery Brings Sleek Style to A.M. Dining: Review

Granola pancakes with housemade granola, sweet cream, berries and maple syrup. | Jennifer Silverberg

Whitebox Eatery
(176 Carondelet Plaza, Clayton; 314-862-2802)
7:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.
8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Correction: This article initially spelled Whitebox incorrectly as two words.

Since August, I haven't been able to make it through the store without ramming my shopping cart into an end-cap filled with holiday wrapping paper. Or gift bags. Or bows and ribbons and tissue paper and baubles meant to make even the least crafty individual look like the Martha Stewart of gift-wrapping. It's easy for the amount of money and effort spent on wrapping packages to exceed the value of the contents. This may seem wasteful, but the upside is that impressive packaging makes the actual substance of the gift seem more impressive.

I was reminded of this phenomenon when I dined at Whitebox Eatery, the breakfast and lunch spot that opened this past September in Clayton's Crescent development next to the Ritz-Carlton. The fast-casual daytime eatery is the brainchild of Modesto Tapas co-owner Brendan Marsden, Oceano's former executive chef Jon Hoffman, and Jamie Hardesty, who previously worked for (Marsden's brother's food truck) Vincent Van Doughnut. The idea was to put an upscale twist on quick-service breakfast and lunch food -- even grab-and-go items -- by making as much as possible in house, featuring local, seasonal ingredients, and taking creative liberties with otherwise standard daytime fare.

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Review: Grapeseed Serves Earnest, Seasonal American Cuisine in Southampton

Deppe Farms' heritage-breed Duroc pork chop is served with Ozark Forest wild mushroom madeira sauce, Double Star Farms sweet potato and cauliflower mash, roasted baby carrots and Brussels sprouts. | Jennifer Silverberg

(5400 Nottingham Avenue; 314-925-8525)
Dining room open 4:30-10 p.m.
Tues.-Thurs., 4:30-11 p.m.
Fri.-Sat., 4:30-9 p.m.
Sun. Closed Mon.

As I settled into my chair and glanced at Grapeseed's menu, I was transported back to my early days in the restaurant business, waiting tables -- before bartenders were called mixologists, and "seasonal" and "local" were a culinary philosophy, not buzzwords. In the late '90s and early aughts, when the hottest dining rooms in town were Harvest and Cardwell's, Grapeseed would have fit right into the scene.

Read chef and owner Ben Anderson's biography, and it becomes clear why Grapeseed is somewhat nostalgic. Before attending the Culinary Institute of America, he cut his teeth in the kitchen under the great Bill Cardwell -- arguably the godfather of seasonal American cuisine in St. Louis. Cardwell's influences can be felt on Grapeseed's menu (Cardwell's addictive red-pepper marmalade makes an appearance, for example), while trendier touches, such as snacks and small plates, craft beer and an on-trend cocktail list, make appearances as well. It's a throwback without feeling dated.

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Mary Ann's Tea Room Serves Tea and Kitsch for Ladies Who Lunch: Review

The mushroom quiche. | Jennifer Silverberg

Mary Ann's Tea Room
4732 McPherson Avenue; 314-361-5303
11 a.m.-4 p.m., Mon.-Sun.

The holidays are around the corner, which means it's time for Grandma Bea or crazy Aunt Myrtle to make their annual winter pilgrimage from Boca Raton back to St. Louis. Or perhaps you're overdue for a lunch date with Mom that typically involves white-wine spritzers. If this is your predicament, dear reader, I'd like to make a special suggestion: Take them all to Mary Ann's Tea Room.

See also: Mary Ann's Tea Room, A Posh New Lunch Spot in the Central West End

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Critic's Notebook: Historic Cottleville Is a Burgeoning Food Destination

The dining room at Stone Soup Cottage. | Carmen Troesser

In this week's review, I visited Plank Road Pizza (5212 Highway N, Cottleville), the latest spot to open in St. Charles County's Cottleville. Buzz began surrounding the small community in 2009 when Stone Soup Cottage, a food lover's paradise, opened in the historic town. The word on the street is that Cottleville is poised to be the next Edwardsville, and these five spots lend credence to that claim.

See Also: The Best Destination Restaurants Within Driving Distance of St. Louis

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Review: Plank Road Pizza Paves the Way to the Area's Newest Dining Destination -- Cottleville

The "Chestnut Street" pie is topped with olive oil, roasted garlic and mozzarella, as well as a host of vegetables, including onions, peppers, olives, tomatoes and mushrooms. | Jennifer Silverberg

Plank Road Pizza
5212 Highway N, Cottleville; 636-477-6154)
11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tues.-Thurs,
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat.,
10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sun. (Closed Mon.)

Pass the Chesterfield Valley outlet malls and cross the Boone Bridge, and you'll find yourself at a fork off the Highway 94 exit ramp. If you turn left, you'll be amongst the rolling hills of Missouri wine country. A right turn looks like it takes you into beige suburban terrain without much beyond the Bed & Bath. But duck down a small side street headed north and the landscape turns from subdivisions to historic downtown Cottleville, a quaint strip of genuine, old-timey storefronts, poised to become the Edwardsville of St. Charles County.

The oldest standing building in Cottleville houses Plank Road Pizza, a recent addition to the city's burgeoning dining scene (the acclaimed Stone Soup Cottage, one of the metropolitan area's top restaurants, is located down the road). Named for the old Western Plank Road -- once literally made from wooden planks -- that connected St. Charles and Cottleville, the restaurant serves American-style, wood-fired pies reminiscent of an independent California Pizza Kitchen. Owner Andrew Brewer was taken by the 1840s-era building, originally envisioning it as an ice cream parlor, and eventually settling on pizza as a better year-round concept. He bought the building, did some remodeling, planted a garden and fired up the oven.

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Critic's Notebook: Red Fox Baking & Catering at Grove East Provisions Is a Slice of Heaven

The butternut-squash tart and apple galette from Red Fox Baking & Catering | Jennifer Silverberg

The charming tale of owner Barry Kinder is only part of the Grove East Provisions (3101 Arsenal Street; 314-802-7090) story. The Tower Grove East storefront is also home to the white-hot Red Fox Baking & Catering, a small collective of bakers who have been churning out some of St. Louis' best bread since 2013. Owners Jake Marks, Chris Scheets and Jenny Wilson started making their baked goods out of Black Bear Bakery, but finally got a place of their own this year when they were presented with the opportunity to share Kinder's space.

See Also: Review: A Drummer Finds a New Calling with a Charming Neighborhood Bodega at Grove East Provisions

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Review: A Drummer Finds a New Calling with a Charming Neighborhood Bodega at Grove East Provisions

Grilled veggie sandwich with grilled zucchini, red pepper, caramelized onion, spinach and cheese. | Jennifer Silverberg

Grove East Provisions
(3101 Arsenal Street; 314-802-7090)
11 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Sun.

Barry Kinder admits his new café and grocery store, Grove East Provisions, is a work in progress. Sometimes he runs out of product. (On my initial visit he discouraged me from taking the last apple galette in the dessert case because he feared it wouldn't be fresh enough.) Other times he orders too much stuff. Then there are the folks who wander in and complain about what he doesn't carry. ("You don't have channa masala seasoning and cooking sherry?!"). Still, Kinder should be proud of what he has been able to accomplish in the five months since Grove East Provisions opened its doors.

A drummer by trade, the 48-year-old Kinder has zero grocery or retail experience. He decided to delve into this new career path upon returning to the United States from London where he worked as a touring musician. He loved how in England, and everywhere else he visited in Europe, there was a market in every neighborhood. When he moved back to his native St. Louis a few years ago, he noticed a dearth of these neighborhood bodegas, especially in the Tower Grove East area he calls home.

See also: Grove East Provisions is a charming little south side bodega

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Review: Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co. Is a Delicious, Transportive Experience

The Maine lobster boil at Peacemaker. | Jennifer Silverberg

Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co.
(1831 Sidney Street; 314-772-8858)
4:30-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.,
4:30-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.,
1:30-8:30 p.m. Sun.

To say that Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co. brings good seafood to St. Louis is a huge understatement. It's more like the doorway to the Benton Park eatery is some sort of wormhole, transporting diners to a dockside table on the Chesapeake Bay. It's a good thing, too -- Peacemaker was the most hotly anticipated St. Louis restaurant opening of the year (even the national food site Eater took notice). That's mostly because of the man at the helm, chef Kevin Nashan, whose Midas touch has earned him acclaim for Sidney Street Cafe, a James Beard Award nomination and a passionate fan base. It's no surprise, then, that his new seafood concept lives up to -- no, exceeds -- the hype.

See also: Kevin Nashan Talks Battling New York Chef Harold Moore on Knife Fight

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