Dining out in St. Louis is a never-ending voyage of discovery. Here are a couple small but wonderful discoveries I have made lately...
Schlafly's Tap Room, at 2100 Locust St. in downtown St. Louis, is a loud, crowded place to meet a group of friends on Friday night. Nevertheless, if you arrive early enough to claim a quiet corner (such as the small private room directly facing the bar), you can enjoy hours of audible(!) conversation while also sampling some of the city's best locally-brewed beer. And the food is nothing to sniff at. I had an order of Schnitzel: a huge, mouthwatering, tenderized pork cutlet, lightly breaded and pan-fried, served on top of a tart, creamy, oniony sauce. Fancy bowls of brown and yellow mustard give you a choice of ways to perfect this dish, while the best warm, rough-cut, German-style potato salad this side of the Elbe comes not as a side, but as a generous pile on top of the Schnitzel.
The Tap Room benefits from its proximity to a working brewery. There are a good dozen varieties of adult beverage on tap, all of them brewed by Schlafly's. I tried four of them before, during, and after my meal: the Koelsch (delicious), the Belgian Singel (more than passable), the Spiced Belgian (perhaps a bit too spicy), and the Blueberry Cider (a very hard cider with nothing blueberryish about it, as far as I could tell).
Among the dishes my friends ordered were a "Plate of Swine" featuring a pork chop, bratwurst, and (I kid you not) a slab of breaded, deep-fried bacon, served over a mound of sauerkraut; a cast-iron cauldron of mussels, available in four flavors of seasoning; a "tap room burger" (which I had on my previous visit) served on an English muffin; and other specialties from every corner of the world. Greek dishes, Indian dishes, you name it. I won't let so many invitations to a night at the Tap Room go unanswered next time...
Tonight, I stopped on my way home from work to swill some Schlafly's Summer Lager and inhale a plate of stuffed peppers at Ari's. I have been hooked for some time on their stuffed eggplant, but I must confess (even if it is heresy) that I believe the stuffed peppers are even better. The tomatoey, well-seasoned meat mixture came packed into a yellow bell pepper whose caramelized flesh was so tender, juicy, and naturally sweet that I blurted out "Holy cow!" after the first mouthful. The guy down the bar, blissful in his ignorance with one of Ari's terrific Gyro Plates in front of him, immediately had to know what I was eating and what was wrong with it. "This," I informed him, "is a stuffed pepper, and it's obscenely good."
When it's on special, like tonight, this savory confection comes with a mess of "Greek potatoes" (cuboidal French fries with onions, peppers, olives, and whatnot mixed in), mixed vegetables (carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower that, at Ari's, are never overcooked), a bed of white rice, an admirable table salad, and a basket of toasted, sesame-seeded bread served with little foil-covered pats of butter. I passed on the bread tonight, left a little of everything but the stuffed pepper uneaten, and still came away with a full belly.
Between Friday and Monday, I think I may have eaten two of the best salt-of-the-earth food establishments in St. Louis. To be sure, I didn't hear my waiter say anything about lemon grass, pine nuts, goat cheese, or a port wine reduction. I didn't really have a waiter, though. I ordered at the bar, both nights, and ate at it tonight. But my taste buds were delighted, and the Pavlovian part of me salivates at the idea of eating at either place again.