St. Louis in New York: All kinds of local connections. I had lunch at Danny Meyer's new spot, Untitled. Coffee with Joan Lipkin, to find Jessica Hentoff two tables away.
St. Louis in New York: All kinds of local connections. I had lunch at Danny Meyer's new spot, Untitled. Coffee with Joan Lipkin, to find Jessica Hentoff two tables away.
Surely someone must have fallen off a chair laughing when Dave Bailey showed the plans for the second location of Rooster on South Grand. It's huge by that neighborhood's standards, two dining rooms and two outdoor eating areas, Whoever would think a neighborhood, even one known for its ethnic restaurants, could support a house that large? There's lots of light and wonderful paintings of the eponymous bird, and parking in the rear - does Bailey know St. Louisans or what?
Rooster began as a breakfast-lunch spot, and while this location serves dinner, much of the menu remains available throughout all the hours they're open. This review will talk about the daylight food, so to speak - although I acknowledge this time of the year, that's not quite accurate. Breakfast, brunch and lunch, in other words. Weekends may be the best because it's possible to go romping through the surprisingly interesting wine list and cocktail menu then without having serious commitments afterwards.
Sandwiches may be a little more difficult to find on the menus than one expects - they're all the way on the back, a sign of the respect given to those crepes, Rooster's original specialty, which take up the entire third page. But persistence is rewarded with choices like the BBLT, meaning a double serving of bacon along with the tomato, romaine lettuce and rooster mayo, no dangerously spicy but punched up a bit with sriracha. Lots of options for bread, a nice touch. (There's also a version of this with an egg on it in the breakfast options.)
Not quite as successful was the chicken banh mi. The chunks of marinated chicken were nice, but the vegetables didn't seem sufficiently pickled. Ingredients were piled such that it was difficult to get a bite with a good range of its components. Not a sandwich that one expects to knife-and-fork on.
The breakfast-served-all-day section commences with scrambles. They begin with a base of potatoes, seasoned and pan-fried in batches so that they're soft rather than crisp, notes of cumin and pepper waving to the diner. Then three eggs are scrambled with add-ins. We tried one with mushrooms, bacon, arugula and emmenthal cheese and it was, in a word, swell. A great combination, the leafy greens not overcooked, the mushrooms singing lead with bacon harmonizing, the whole more than the combination of the individual parts. Good stuff, and a fine lunch dish as well as for the early riser.
Perhaps the most interesting dish was the Finnish pancake. A single plate-sized pancake with a custardy batter, it was served with blackberry jam, fruit conserves being the traditional topping for these. Rooster's version of the pancake was pumped up a little with what seemed to be some nutmeg and maybe a little cardamom. A very simple-seeming dish, and certainly the sort of thing a hesitant diner, perhaps a very young one, would be quite happy with, but tasty.
Delightful and zippy service each visit. No reservations but it's so big that it's seldom a problem being seated.
3150 S. Grand
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Non-dinner entrees: $6-$13
A rainy Sunday in the Central West End - not that there have been any other kind lately - gave urgency to the need to Get Out And Do Something. The assemblage of the regulars plus an occasional habitue were ready for brunch. So we went to Scape, knowing that we could neither eat outside on Maryland Plaza, or in the outdoor area south of the restaurant, the courtyard that can be very welcoming.
It's probably superfluous to say that it's noisy. Everywhere seems to be these days, and while I have nothing against folks having a good time, it's rough on one's own conversations. But the menu is an interesting one, which makes ordering more of a challenge, especially with a group that tries to avoid duplication so we can try a little of each other's choice. (And I bravely forewent the wonderful pancakes with lemon curd and blueberries.)
Our server was patient and pleasant with our delay in ordering, although not quite on point with some details. He described the amuse-bouche bismarcks - the house's phrase, but around here, they're known as jelly doughnuts - as being made of puff pastry. No. It's a yeast dough. About the size of doughnut holes and tossed in powdered sugar, the filling du jour was a pineapple-coconut cream and very nice they were. There's a Bloody Mary bar, and we discovered that the standard bloody is pretty darned spicy. Mimosas are first-rate, probably with a small dose of Cointreau or Grand Marnier to push the orange notes forward. And the coffee tasted fresh and kept coming.
No, no duplication, but a mini-festival of crab dishes. An omelet of crab, roasted poblano peppers and emmental cheese charmed. The peppers didn't overwhelm the crab at all, perhaps because the quantities of each were carefully balanced. And the California benedict featured avocado and crab, along with lashings of a buttery hollandaise the waiter described as sweet. I'm sure it was a slip of the tongue, because it definitely wasn't. Each of those came with the breakfast potatoes, fortunately, since the Potato Queen was in attendance. In this case, the too-ubiquitous-too-generic phrase referred to wedges of potato deep-fried and seasoned with garlic and a hard grating cheese, probably a Romano.
The apple pie pancake was plate-sized, delicately tender, the apples sliced into it and probably sauteed some first. Whipped cream and a caramel drizzle topped things off. An order of bacon for the table went particularly well with it. The only less-than stellar dish was the duck hash. There was plenty of duck in it, certainly, with cubes of sauteed potato and onion here and there, a poached egg on top and a dribble of a port wine sauce on the periphery. It was technically competent, certainly, but it lacked the ducky goodness one anticipates in such a dish, not enough duck flavor to thrill, requiring the sauce to punch it up some.
The food was good, the pacing was great, and, well, you just have to live with that noise level. Have a drink and shout along with them. And by the way, there's valet parking at brunch.
48 Maryland Plaza
Brunch Sun., Dinner Tues.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Brunch entrees: $10-$18
One of the great brunch traditions in New Orleans, a great brunch town, is the eye-opener. That's an alcoholic drink served before or with the meal. Beyond the Bloody Mary and the mimosa, and far more local in character, is milk punch. Gentle and sippable, it's a welcoming drink, one of my favorites. But I'd never made it at home and finally tracked down and then adapted a recipe for it.
Some people make it with brandy, but I find I prefer bourbon; it's your call. It really is better with at least a little half-and-half in it, so use skim for about half your milky ingredient and half-and-half for the other half - if that makes sense. I find it's better to shake it with one batch of ice and then strain it over fresh cubes - somehow, it keeps things colder.
Another fillip that's optional is fresh nutmeg. You can use the pre-ground, of course. But it's easy to buy whole nutmegs at Penzey's or elsewhere. And one of the offspring gave me, not knowing exactly what it was, a wee grater that is perfect for grating it. Nutmegs are very hard, so it takes a little pressure to get things moving.
But here is the recipe for one serving.
1 1/2 ounces (3 Tbs.) bourbon (or brandy)
a dribble of vanilla - maybe 1/8 tsp.
1/2 cup milk and/or half-and-half (see above)
2 Tbs. powdered sugar
In a shaker or other leak-proof container, put alcohol, vanilla, milk mixture and powdered sugar wtih some ice cubes or crushed ice. Close container and shake hard for about 30 seconds - you want some froth on there.
Strain over fresh ice in a glass. Top with nutmeg, freshly grated or otherwise.
This can be easily scaled up for a quantity and simple syrup can be substituted for the powdered sugar, using a teaspoonful of syrup for every tablespoonful of powdered sugar.
[At this writing, the rivers are getting ready to rise again. But keep this spot in mind.]
It's always amazing how little St. Louisans actually look at their river. The out-of-towner's question, "Isn't there somewhere we can eat and look out at the river?" is often a challenge. Beyond the lovely views from Kemoll's, we're often out of luck. The Illinois side of the river, especially north of St. Louis, does far better than we.
But between St. Charles and West Alton, there's a spot with a view, a marina, and multi-level outdoor dining, plus an air-conditioned dining room with fans for those lazy, hazy days of haute summer. The Boathouse, while it offers entrees like steak, seems mostly a deeply casual spot for locals to lunch and music on the deck on weekends. There's nothing intimidating about this place.
To mix a baseball metaphor with this marine setting, a lunch was a tie game until the bottom of the ninth, when the kitchen hit one out of the park. We kicked off with onion rings, greaseless with a coarse and very crunchy breading. The bistro sauce promised on the menu seemed to be a southwestern ranch, quite spicy despite its creaminess. Crab cakes, no longer exotica in this part of the world, really were unexciting, a little spicy and again, carefully fried, but tasting of seasoning that ran all over the delicate crabmeat.
Slices of steak on a roll were still pink, and the slicing itself is a graceful touch - too often steak sandwiches seem merely to be a piece of beef tossed intact onto the bread, and making for difficult eating. The beefy-tasting cut was surprisingly tender and its horseradish sauce could have been superfluous. It was topped with caramelized onions, adding savor. Those same onions also graced the fat hamburger. The bad news here is that it was ordered medium rare, and arrived with no visible pink - but it was very juicy and again seemed to be of high-quality beef. The onions and beef paired up with considerable grace, rendering the white cheddar spread pretty much in the background, not that there's anything wrong with that.
The onion rings are available as a side, but since we'd knocked off an order of them to kick things off, it was the housemade chips and baked beans that arrived with the sandwiches. The beans are excellent, generous pieces of bacon, a sweet bourbon-esque sauce, very more-ish, to use the Britishism. But the chips flunked. The seasoning, a little garlic and probably some cheese, was fine. But the chips themselves were stale, not to the point of being damp and chewy, but hard rather than crisp.
But then. Ah, yes, but then...came the bread pudding. Described as having Granny Smith apples in it, they had been very thinly sliced and layered in with the bread. Tender to the spoon and laced with cinnamon, it was paired with lots of whipped cream, not surprisingly, but also coffee ice cream and toasted sugared pecans. Those last two items are what lifted it from really good to memorable, bouncing off the cinnamon and dancing on the tongue.
A few items to note: The featured sandwich is a pork steak, which wasn't available on this visit, but according to the menu is braised. Pizza looks to be St. Louis style.
The restaurant, reached on via a drive through a park-like setting after leaving the county roads, is on the second floor, looking out on the river.
To get there from St. Charles, take Highway 94 east out of town. Go past the turn for Golden Eagle Ferry and take a left on either Blaise Station Road, which comes first, or County Highway V, which is better marked. Those roads converge. Watch for the signs; your turn will be to the left on North Shore Road.
611 North Shore Road, St. Charles
Lunch & Dinner Tues.-Sun., Breakfast Sat.-Sun
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Elevator
Some places are too good to forget about. And it's always interesting how some restaurants seem to make it into a pleasant middle age after a busy youth. That's Frazer's, which I wrote about for St. Louis Mag's blog Dining. And while you're there, check the stools in the bar - they may still be the ones Frazer Cameron got from the original location of Tony's.
Just when it looked like things were cooling down a little in the excitement over Lona's Lil Eats, they were named to the Eater website's list of the Hottest Restaurants in St. Louis this past week. We're praying mightily that success doesn't spoil Lona's, because it's too good for the city to lose.
A corner storefront on California between Russell and Gravois, Lona's evolved from the Soulard Market stand of Lona Luo and her husband Pierce Powers. Lona is from the Yunnan province in the south of China, and her cooking reflects the wide range of influences the area has. That's a good thing for St. Louis, because we really haven't tasted things quite like this before.
The airy, high-ceilinged room has a tiny bar in the back, next to the counter where customers place orders. And they've placed several picnic benches outside for an al fresco option. Lunchtime seems to be very busy, evenings not so much, at least on my visits.
Lona's primary original offerings were giant rice paper wraps, spring rolls on growth hormones, and they remain. You can still choose exactly what you want in the wrap, but there are some suggested combos that now are on the board and printed menus, too. The website menu doesn't seem to be up to date (try their Facebook page), so be aware there's more choices than meet the electronic eye.
The wraps - which are also available with a flour tortilla or just as a plate - are indeed huge, the size of a model's forearm. A spicy chicken one charmed, lots of flavors and textures dancing around, although the rice paper wrap is a tad fragile and collapses when about two inches of it are left. Nice, and not a huge amount of heat. One ordered with spicy tofu arrived with turkey instead, a little less assertively flavored. The confusion with orders also manifested itself with each ordered wrap - they come with one's choice of sauces, according to the menu, and neither time was that mentioned by the person taking the order.
As a consequence of that, it wasn't until an order of shrimp with noodles came my way that there was a chance to try the lemongrass pesto. The shrimp and stir-fried glass noodles was very good, the shrimp not overcooked and the noodles nicely seasoned. It really didn't need adornment. But that sauce - oh, the sauce! It would make aging Reeboks taste wonderful. The best bite I've had in a number of months. Also available are several other options, all of which I need to explore.
Dumplings come as mushroom or steak-and-mushroom. Of these, the combination is the better, the mushrooms alone being so subtle in flavor as to nearly blush when bitten into. The meat adds real savor, and the chili oil alongside is only occasionally called on for a bit of kick. The serving is six of them, easily shareable - and nice that it's an even number, avoiding that who-gets-it kerfuffle.
The salad with grilled chicken was also a hit, the slices of chicken sitting atop shredded, dressed vegetables. It was a slaw, actually, with a gingery, cilantro-esque dressing, done far enough ahead that the vegetables were soft rather than crisp, another large serving, and very worthwhile, as well as virtuous-feeling.
The wraps come with your choice among several sides, including those glass noodles. The cucumbers, fresh and crunchy were the peppery-est thing we had. A spicy eggplant dish was not so intense, and the bamboo stew mixed various slow-cooked greens with bamboo shoots, a strongly flavored although not hot-spicy dish, just quite earthy tasting.
A liquor license has brought an interesting selection of wine by the glass and local beer on tap, plus a punch of the day from the bar. There are also several types of tea, as well as iced green tea and Ski beverages from across the river in Illinois. Cane sugar, not HFCS, in those. I can recommend the grapefruit one as being perfect with the cuisine.
Not perfect, but awfully good and worthy of attention.
2199 California Ave. at Accomac
Lunch Mon.-Fri, Dinner Mon.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor
"Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenaged Blockhead" is an odd and somewhat disturbing play currently on offer from Stray Dog Theatre. Based on and definitely not authorized with rights from the "Peanuts" cartoon strip and related material, it follows the characters as adolescents.
None of these characters are using what we can't help but think of as their "real" names - Lucy, Schroeder and ol' Charlie Brown (not the same one being sung of on another local stage right now) aren't names we hear, but the first part of the play finds the audience trying to figure out which kid grew into which lanky galoot. Sometimes there are hints, like the color of CB's shirt, but other times, it's an effort. One is forced to wonder about potential audience members who are only familiar with the characters as subjects for tote bags and motivational posters, rather than newspaper comic strips - although perhaps the television specials have lingered in their brains. Still, there are small, semi-insider jokes that cause laughter.
But overall, things aren't good. Like Morley, Snoopy is dead, to begin with. Lucy (described only as "Van's Sister"), gone away, is no longer holding the football for CB. Linus - excuse me, Van - is a stoner. Marcie and Peppermint Patty - I give up, you'll be able to figure this out - are shallow and air-headed and mean. The list goes on.
And amazingly, at least for people who have "known" the Peanuts gang most of our lives, we care about these kids, and mourn their falling apart. Michael Baird is CB, only slightly less unsure of himself than he was when last we knew him, and Ryan Wiechmann is Van, whose identity we're not quite sure of until he reveals himself as germphobic and someone reminds him of how he was always grimy as a kid. Good work with both of those, but particular applause to Chris Tipp, Beethoven, the piano player, who's mastered the art of the small gesture.
Don't go expecting a comedy. Director Justin Been understands it's far from that.
Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenaged Blockhead
through June 20
Stray Dog Theatre
Tower Grove Abbey
2336 Tennessee Ave.
Someone left "Smokey Joe's Cafe", now running at Stages St. Louis, complaining that there was no story. Well, no, this is a revue. It showcases a fraction of the popular songs written by Stoller and Leiber that became the sound track for a generation, maybe two. It ran more than 2,000 performances in New York when it opened, and not all those folks weren't around when the songs of three decades were popular.
But still, it's more enjoyable if you remember them the first time around, to be sure. And this show is a lot of fun. I don't ever remember seeing a Stages audience more involved than on opening night.
The first act - and I'm the generation this show is aimed at - mixed the familiar and the unfamiliar, but it was where "Kansas City", pace Wilbur Harrison, showed up. The act ends with a three-parter beginning with "On Broadway", continues with "D.W. Washburn", and ends with a vigorous rendition of "Saved", belted by Keisha Gilles to the mostly-unrepentant Washburn, as sung here by Richard Crandle.
The second act really kicks things into high gear, with a couple of favorite songs from the Coasters, "Yakety Yak" and "Charlie Brown" with fine work from the pipes of Jason Samuel. Even early Elvis Presley songs appear, like "Hound Dog", "Jailhouse Rock" and "Loving You".
Theater doesn't always have to offer emotional challenge. Some nights it's enough to just feel good. Stage St. Louis is doing that - and already some performances are sold out, and they've added an extra performance.
Smokey Joe's Cafe
through June 28
Stages St. Louis
Kirkwood Community Center
The donut competition at Jazz At The Bistro with 15 entrants has just ended. I was there as a representative of St. Louis Magazine to help with the judging. Results? You wanted results? Here they are:
3rd Place: Vincent Van Doughnut
2nd Place: Pharoah's Donuts
and the winner, a new champion: John Donut
It was pointed out that they open at 11 p.m., so for that after-baseball craving, it's a fine idea.
No photos - I was too busy working.
There are still some of us around that remember the Class of '72, the restaurants opening the year that changed St. Louis dining forever. One of those prescient restaurants was Duff's. And if one of the folks who recall those days walks into Gooseberries like I did recently, they, too, would be taken back to the very, very early days of Duff's.
It's a storefront in an emerging neighborhood, and the Saturday brunch - note that it's not served on Sundays, please - partly feels like an impromptu party at someone's house, with crockpots set out in rows. But the service at the counter, where a guest presents him- or herself to choose an omelet and pay before moving on to the buffet, is warm and welcoming and knowlegeable. The room itself, a little dark, seems as spontaneously decorated as the brunch line, making it feel even more like it was recently a home.
Now, about those omelets. The list of possible fillings is lengthy. Very lengthy, to be precise. To perhaps save dithering, they've also offered up a list of suggested combinations, most of which are unusual. Unable to resist the name, I had a W. C. Fields. No chickadees were harmed in the making of this omelet, but it did have something else remarkable: A chopped up cheeseburger slider, thus the W. C.. The Fields were represented by sauteed spinach, kale and green onion. Done in the French style with a browned exterior, and arriving with packets of White Castle horseradish sauce and spicy mustard, it was pretty amusing. Fortunately, it also tasted very good.
On the buffet tables is an assortment almost equally uncommon. Tortilla chips fried in-house to make nachos sit next to pulled pork, smoky and moist, a thinnish beer cheese, and crunchy toppings of slaw, chopped onion and jalapenos. Really good bacon, thick cut, and, in an interesting move, there were very crisp pieces and others almost English style, just crisp around the edges. Canadian bacon, as well. The potatoes are chunks that are seasoned and fried, a little garlic note in there, although probably had they been warmer they would have been more endearing.
Do not pass up the biscuits. Nubbly-looking drop biscuits are so tender they crumble in the hands. Three kinds of gravy are offered, sausage, red eye and a vegetarian one, but it seems almost a sin to sully these angelic babes with anything more than some butter. Your mileage, of course, may vary, but do try them sans gravy. Chicken wings with a vaguely Asian feel stay moist despite the buffet, and there are a couple of tofu options. They, and two salads, one with kale, were untried, so much did the omelet fill me up. Pancakes and waffles, the latter rather tough but the pancakes, which looked ho-hum, turned out to have cherries in them, the tart red ones that go into pies.
Very good coffee, and a cold beverage that I suspect changes at the whim of the kitchen. This visit it was an orange mango spritzer that was flavorful and very unsweet, refreshing but not cloying at all.
One of my friends used to talk about a restaurant in the city where he went to graduate school that offered what they called a beggar's banquet, which was a bowl of soup, a homemade yeast roll and some butter. The price for this brunch is $13, which is remarkable in this town.
Gooseberries does breakfast and lunch, and an early dinner, rather sandwichesque, although not exclusively,Tuesdays through Thursdays. Brunch only on Saturday.
Breakfast, Lunch and early Dinner Tues.-Thurs., Brunch Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor
Okay, show of hands, please. How many of us know nothing about "Threepenny Opera" except Bobby Darin singing "Mack The Knife"? (You count if you didn't know the song came from that show but remember it anyway.)
The opening number from New Line Theatre's production of the show will make even diehard Darin fans - like me - find a whole new feeling in that song. Descended from John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera", a show with its own interesting blood lines, the play talks about amorality and corruption through society's levels. It doesn't harangue, it just shows the results in words, action and music. Taking place in the days before Queen Victoria's coronation in 1838 with a properly dicey group of characters, it feels much like a precursor to "Sweeney Todd" in appearance and attitude.
A fine cast all around, headed up by Todd Schaeffer as Mackheath, far more subtle than a Snidely Whiplash-like character could be played. His nemesis, Mr. Peachum, is Zachary Allen Farmer, motivated not by fatherly love but by belief that his daughter, Polly (Cherlynn Alvarez), has no business marrying "Captain" Mackheath and taking herself off the market. But are they really married? The family Peachum is completed with the missus, Sarah Porter, and a fine group they are, interacting with all the fervor of escapees from Dr. Phil's show. Porter gets extra credit as the costume designer, whose work excels here. Mackheath's henchmen, Brian Claussen, Kent Coffel and Todd Micali, have plenty of fun and sound great; ditto the women at Mackheath's favored house of ... well, ill repute seems sort of redundant, given these characters overall. But you already get that. The women are Margeau Baue Steinau and Kimi Short, who work with Jenny Diver, Mackheath's longtime paramour, played by Nikki Glenn.
A 7-piece house band handles the score with elan, although I will admit to being surprised at how abruptly most of the songs end. That's not how I generally think of Kurt Weill's music, but perhaps I just haven't heard enough of it to judge. Scott Miller's done a good job directing it, and given his love for Steven Sondheim, perhaps the "Sweeney Todd" inference isn't accidental. A worthwhile evening.
through June 20, 2015
New Line Theatre
Washington University South Campus Theatre (old CBC building)
There's no comparable experience in St. Louis to Circus Flora. The tent is up, the band is in place and children of all ages are wiggling in their seats ready for the show. This is the 29th edition of the small European-style spectacle that's so intimate that when the show is over, the performers are standing outside the exits and thanking guests for coming.
Yes, air conditioning. Yes, live music. Yes, family-friendly - no one will be shushing the children, whose squeals contribute to the atmosphere as much as the music does. There's seldom a dull moment on the lot behind Powell Hall in Grand Center.
This year's show is entitled "One Summer On Second Street", giving us a theme and some characters. It takes place in an unnamed American city during what seems to be the post-World War I period.
They open with a bang with the St. Louis Arches. How can anyone not smile when seeing these kids? Jessica Hentoff's group has produced young ones who have gone on to international careers in circus, and it's easy to see why when you watch them work. Equally smile-producing is Adam Kuchler, a modern clown, as the handyman. No greasepaint, but body language in the classic style, and a pleasure to watch this year, as always. And then there's Iking and Melvin, two Arches alum who are traveling the world but who have returned for part of this year's circus. They're acrobats, and on top of their skills, they seem always to look like they're having a swell time.
Flying so high in the sky, or at least walking and riding bicycles there are the Flying Wallendas. They're headed by patriarch Tino, resplendent in a naval uniform as the captain of the Lusitania, who apparently managed not to go down with the ship and thus is laying low - or, in this case, high - on Second Street. At only slightly less altitude are David Jones and Blaze Birge, known professionally as the Daring Jones Duo, and playing the landlord and his sweetie. They have an intricate trapeeze act that starts out as a tango - and leads one to speculate that most circus performers are probably good dancers, given their awareness of where their bodies are at any given millisecond and need for timing.
Animals? You bet. A rooster named Dos Passos, a couple of goats, a miniature donkey and miniature horse are just the start. Mayya Panfilova's cats leave us applauding, and the Alanian Riders with their horses thunder around the ring.
The newest and most intriguing addition to the Flora cast is Quatuor Bounce, composed of Pauline Baud-Guillard, Jasmin Blouin, Marine Crest and Felix Di Pasquale. What they do is described as wall trampoline. It's amazing, looking effortless and spontaneous but cannot possibly be either. It's the finale to a fine evening that moves along at a good clip. Or maybe that's a good flip.
Kudos to all, from the band and sound direction (between the air conditioning and the crowd, quite a challenge) to Cecil Mackinnon, who continues to write, direct and narrate as Yo-Yo The Clown.
through June 28
Attention, ice cream aficionados. Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams will be opening in the Central West End on June 4. And there's free ice cream that day. (Added bonus: The first 50 people will get a free mug.)
We don't know if she'll have her Gooey Butter Cake ice cream available then (but she should!), but understand this is not the sort of place with ordinary flavors. Who knows if Bangkok Peanut or Sweet Corn with Black Raspberries will be there? Fine chocolate, of course, and I'm sure there'll be a vanilla for the timid of palate. But the fun is the unusual stuff. Hard not to ask for a taste of absolutely everything in the case.
Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams
389 N. Euclid Ave.
Harbingers of the season in St. Louis: Ted Drewes begins selling Christmas trees. Opening day for the Cardinals. Shakespeare Festival St. Louis opens.
This year's offering, "Antony and Cleopatra" opened Friday night on one of the most beatific opening evenings I recall, and I've only missed two of them. Most of us looked at the weather forecast and brought a jacket to pull on sometime during the first act, which was fine, and a very light occasional breeze kept insect nibbling at a minimum. A good crowd, considering that this is not one of the more frequently performed of Shakespeare's plays, and lots of folks arriving early not only to picnic but to enjoy the theater-related activities that start well before curtain time - festive times for the festival.
Just as in movies, the history in this play is adjusted for dramatic impact, so don't let the fellow next to you start muttering about how many times Antony actually married or that sort of thing. To me, it's a play about how hormones and the love that can either cause them or result from them, makes people do things they well might not do otherwise.
There's been a lot of argument over Cleopatra over the years, but Shakespeare was around and writing during the later reign of Elizabeth I - he knew something about female rulers and how they used their gender and their power. The Cleopatra that director Mike Donahue gives us is a fine cross between a powerful woman of her time and a modern woman. Shirine Babb, our Cleopatra, grabs the role and absolutely explodes with it, in the best possible sense. She's a force to be reckoned with.
Antony, Jay Stratton, is absolutely torn between his allegiance to Rome and his desire for Cleopatra, or Egypt, as he often addresses her. (No, this does not appear to be Freudian.) Duty as one of the triumvirate ruling rome calls and he reluctantly parts from his beloved, but when he's in Rome, his duty is - usually - foremost. But his ambivalence is never far from his mind and he heads back to the woman he loves whenever he has a chance. His back-and-forthing in terms of loyalties, never mind the long commute, are ultimately his undoing.
Good support comes from cast members like Kari Ely, as Charmian, Cleopatra's leading maid, who seems a stock role until the last scene when she mourns her lady's death, and more. Conan McCarty is Domitius Enobarbus, an ally of Antony's and a wise voice that often isn't heard.
The stage looks very simple. It's wonderfully elegant, with four giant gold columns standing for the palaces of Rome and Alexandria. And it's huge, bigger than it looks until you realize performers are running on and off the stage. Full credit to Scott C. Neale for this creation, far more complex than it looks. Dottie Marshall Englis does the fine costumes, and a particular ovation for Rusty Wandall's sound design, beautifully executed and easyeasyeasy to hear this complex dialogue.
A worthwhile evening. Go.
Antony and Cleopatra
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
through June 14
Shakespeare Glen (by the Art Museum)
Perhaps the word to describe Publico is "locaMex". Just inside the front door of the very modern interior, not a sombrero in sight, thank goodness, is a chalkboard with the local suppliers contributing to that evening's dinner. However it isn't quite Mexican either - certainly not in the Tex-Mexican sense we still automatically think of, but even beyond that. The fare runs south from the Rio Grande, sure, but it continues way beyond that, hopping over the Panama Canal and continuing until I wouldn't have been surprised to see regional specialties from the Puntas del Este and Arenas. There are arepas, the fat little corn cakes that come out of Colombia and Venezuela. There's a parrilla, the wood grill that we've come to know via Francis Mallmann, the hot chef from Argentina. But this is the newest project from Mike Randolph, known to St. Louis from The Good Pie, Half and Half, and the now-gone Little Country Gentleman and MediaNoche, and this kind of creationism coming from him shouldn't surprise his regulars.
On the drinks menu is alcohol from lots of Latin American countries, but the prime component is tequila. The wine list has Argentinian and Spanish wine, but none from Chile. Que pasa with that, anyway? Also some interesting cocktails involving those alcohols,both in the classic style and some innovations; from the former's list, there's a Frozen Paloma, made with Espalon Blanco tequila and a housemade grapefruit soda all put through what's essentially a Slushy machine. The result is happily, dangerously, tasty, superb on a warm night. (The soda is also available without alcohol, and not at all bitter, for those who hesitate at the idea of grapefruit.)
Most of the menu are lighter items, small plates, and tacos, so it's easy, and more fun, to nibble on lots of things. Take the pinto beans, for instance - and this is coming from a person who feels that of all the beans, pintos are her least favored. They're great, verging dangerously close to fabulous. Flavored with lamb drippings and, astoundingly, some mint, they delight. The dish is served with an arepa for wiping up the last bits. Arepas, which might be the love child of a corn tortilla and cornbread, also serve as a base for some other items, including one topped with lamb liver butter and crisp fried sage leaves with a drizzle of maple syrup. For the growing number of those who love salty-sweet, it's a revelation, the lamb butter like a foie gras pate, very salty on its own but balanced by the arepa and the dab of sweet from the syrup.
Far simpler are the cebollitos, grilled green onions. I didn't pick up much from the cilantro vinaigrette, but they're sufficiently tasty on their own. We did ask for some tortillas to wrap them in, creating a sort of onion mini-burrito. Returning to the complex, a composed salad with the very seasonal ingredients of morel mushrooms and fiddlehead greens, along with barley arrived warm with a properly assertive vinaigrette, lots of lime and more cilantro than the onions had worn. Impressively delicious.
Interesting options in the tacos' fillings, but do pause briefly to note that Randolph is buying corn from Mexico and grinding and pressing it into tacos in-house. They're about the size of street tacos you'd find at our more authentic Mexican eateries in town, two or three bites. No ground beef here, for sure. Fish, an al pastor, a smoked beef tongue. We tried some with leg of lamb and a charred onion salsa. Tacos are two to an order, and one is not allowed to get two different tacos in one order, despite all varieties being the same price, $6.50, so it was easy to share with my pal. The lamb was good, but not remarkable. What was remarkable, however, was the mushroom taco. Oyster mushrooms snuggled under julienne of radish and cucumber, and a little of the earthy-tasting fungus called huitlacoche, a light dribble of a goat cheese cream adding to the fun.
Four entrees total, two of which are meant to be shared. That's the whole roast fish and a whole roast chicken. Individuals may chose between a hanger steak and a pork chop. The pork chop, nicely brined and cooked to the point between pink and creamy white, sliced and using its bone as a decorative piece (although the barbarians among us could easily gnaw on it), it looked great. The dab of peach and habanero butter drizzled over it, though, didn't give the expected flair. In fact, except for a weensy bit of heat on two bites, it seemed non-existent.
Two desserts, a rice pudding with mango and lime and bits of grated dried foie gras sprinkled on it. The texture on the pudding was perfect, and the lime added a nice note. It seemed short on the mango, and the foie gras' contribution was neglible. The winner was the flan, that seeming cliche of Spanish-Mexican desserts. Satin-smooth and sitting in a puddle of what the menu called cherry mezcal soup but was more like a sauce, the rich custard and the sharp sauce balanced each other wonderfully.
Good service on two visits, although the kitchen's pacing seems slightly off. An early-evening visit when things were very quiet had the pork chop arriving about three minutes after the appetizer did. If this is going to be one of those spots where food arrives whenever it's finished, no matter the part of the menu it comes from, they need to let customers know. It's not an inexpensive spot, and that means standards are a little higher. The pork chop, for instance, was $19, a la carte, no sides, not even garnish beyond the bone rampant.
Nice pictures on the website but not much else - try Facebook. Reservations via Open Table.
Worth it if one chooses carefully is the early word here.
6679 Delmar Boulevard, University City
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
There's probably nothing that warms an old, careworn heart of a food writer more than finding a good little neighborhood spot. Those high-end spots with a PR person and aspirations to make the Wine Spectator list? All very nice, to be sure, but it's a whole different set of expectations for an eater, whether professional or amateur.
Nevertheless, when I was heading north on Morgan Ford (how is it we have two different spellings of that, by the way?) with Bevo Mill slowly waving a vew blocks ahead of me, I saw a little spot calling itself Taco Circus. Hmm, went the mental dialogue, in this neighborhood? And that name?
Three good-sized steps lead to the corner door. Inside, it's a fiesta of vintage posters and memorabilia, uncommonly interesting. Order at the counter, and they bring the food. It's small, but my guess is there's a fair amount of take-out happening.
Mostly tacos, but a few other things available, like a burrito and Frito pie. For those unfamiliar with this delicacy, it's traditionally a small bag of fritos opend along one side, a ladle of chili poured in and topped with cheese and perhaps some onion. Plastic spoons are the requisite utensil. Meant to be eaten sitting on the hood of a '54 Ford, probably, but a fine indulgent retro treat, at least in theory. We didn't try their version; next visit, probably.
The tacos come on flour tortillas, soft corn tortillas or crisp corn tortillas. It's the fillings that bring this little kitchen into the spotlight. An order of three soft corn tortillas holding beef fajitas, pork steak and one of the two vegetarian options, rice and avocado, topped with onion and cilantro (the other option for topping is lettuce and tomato) gave some good eating. The pork steak was rich and very moist, and quite tender. Normally, I choose pork over beef almost any day, but one bite of the beef fajitas, though, blew me away. Freshly cooked and incredibly full of beefy flavor, it was hard to keep from grunting with pleasure at each bite. The rice and avocado used guacamole as the avocado, topping the rice and keeping spills under control. A good amount of lime flavor in the guac predominated. A burrito made with those beef fajitas alco excelled, with a good balance of beans and rice with the beef, but the meat was still the star.
It turns out that the beef Taco Circus uses is grass-fed organic, hormone and antibiotic free, and the pork is from Missouri-raised Berkshire hogs. I'm sure that's not the entire story about the deliciousness, because much credit has to go to the cook, but it certainly gives a great base.
Another piece of good news is that Taco Circus does breakfast. We've been woefully short - which is to say, totally lacking, as far as I've been able to find out - of breakfast tacos hereabouts, and this is a great development. The chorizo-and-egg option gently scrambles the two together, the chorizo nicely drained to avoid the orange grease that tastes so good but is utterly disastrous to the eater's clothing. Well-flavored and needing no addition of salsa, it charmed. But the really intersting one was the potato and cheese. Rather than the more common one, at least in Texas, with soft cubes of steamed potato, this used crispy cubes that had been fried and topped with a shower of cheese waiting to melt. A dribble of the medium red salsa (four flavors, two colors), which is particularly full-flavored, rounded things out to perfection.
One note for newcomers: The order of guacamole does not come with chips, but rather as a slather for the other food. Interstingly, the queso does, though. The drill is order at the counter, they bring the food to you, and most customers seemed to be busing their own tables. The salsas are in a glass-fronted refrigerator case, and guests are urged to help themselves.
4258 Schiller Place at Morgan Ford
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Impossible, alas
Entrees: $2 (a single taco) -$9
Are the chicken wars of St. Louis over, or will this prove to be a long-term argument like pizza and barbecue? I certainly hope so. An ongoing discussion of good food has no downside to it. And here's a nod in the direction of the pleasures of cold fried chicken, too. Here's a link to what I wrote about them in the St. Louis Mag blog Dining
It's a mark of how far St. Louis has come that the New Jewish Theatre is staging "My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding" in a quiet suburb and the opening night audience was not only plentiful but having plenty of fun. This Canadian musical, which began at a fringe festival, hits a topic that's suddenly very timely in the United States.
The play, which is which is semi-autobiographical, is told from the standpoint of a kid from Nebraska. His mother takes a teaching job in Ottowa after her divorce - and discovers a whole new life there. One can argue that the first twenty minutes or so which involve the coming out are deeply superficial, but, hey, this is a musical comedy, and that's what we need to get to point B in the story.
Plenty of good work from the cast. Laura Ackermann is Claire, the mom, who falls in love with Jane, played by Deborah Sharn. Their voices work well together in the plentiful and often very funny duets. David, the son and narrator, is a relaxed and charming Ben Nordstrom. His younger self, Pierce Hastings, goes from 12 to old-enough-to-be-married pretty believably. And who knew John Flack, playing the ex-husband Garth in a very funny turn, could sing do-wop so well?
Many of the cast do multiple roles, helped by hats and wigs. The versatile Anna Skidis leads things off, and Jennifer Theby-Quinn also charms. A particular toss of the scarf to costume designer Michele Friedman Siler who hints at but avoids the cliches of the situation - no Birkenstock sandals, for instance - and utilizes those hats and wig consultant Christie Sifford's contributions to great effects There's a point where I found myself so intrigued with the costumes of some of the singing chorus that I completely missed the lyrics, so amusing are they.
Ed Coffield's direction keeps things moving quickly, leaving this play with no intermission a fast evening's entertainment.
My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding
through May 31
The New Jewish Theatre
Wool Studio Theater
2 Millstone Campus Drive
Years ago, when I was visiting New York, I would slip into a saloon called Bradley's on University Place in Greenwich Village. All I knew was that it was a bar with a music schedule. It took me a while to realize it was famous as a hangout for serious jazz musicians and that the piano had belonged to Paul Desmond of "Take Five" fame. But it was also a fine place for a woman alone to have a quiet drink and enjoy the music. When it closed some years after its owner's death, there was a gap in the jazz scene with no small piano-centric club to take its place.
Now there may well be a successor, and on a fast trip to Manhattan, I wanted to investigate. Mezzrow, named for the late jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, is a long, narrow basement bar. It offers a few snacks to soak up the alcohol, but nothing so substantial as even sandwiches, so plan on dinner first. Or after; this is, after all, New York City.
There's a cover charge, of course - which also covers its sibling club, Smalls, in the same block. When I arrived a little before 11 on a weeknight, the music was...sort of the jazz equivalent of Phillip Glass, discordant and atonal to my ear, at least. The man on the door volunteered that soon there would be different music, implying that it would be more to my taste - but was he saying that because I was obviously old enough to have hung out at Bradley's and he was assuming?
The acoustics are good, the atmosphere is relaxed and the drinks are swell. Besides the music (of which more in a bit), the best thing about it was the age of the patrons. There I was, the oldest in the place, a couple of guys maybe in their 50s, and everyone else was below that. Young people grooving on jazz: How great is that? The atmosphere was not hushed and reverent; like the clubs of the glory days of the mid-20th century, there was the clink of glasses and the murmur of conversation.
When the discordant sound ended, there was a little polite applause. The minute that group abandoned ship, a young woman with a large bass started to set up shop. She was joined by a piano player. I later learned the bassist was Adi Meyerson, the piano player Miki Yamanaka, and they often host the late-night jam sessions, where other musicians often sit in. After a couple of songs, they were joined by a trombonist. More fun ensued, as the New Yorker would say.
When I left, I asked if the music I heard when I came in was programmed often. "No," growled the manager-type. "That's not our style at all. This," he added, nodding toward the back of the room where a little Ellington could be heard, "is more what we do. I don't think you'll hear that other stuff again."
I think I've found a home away from home.
163 W. 10th St. at 7th Ave., New York City
Relative radio silence here is related to a new baby in the family and a college graduation. Things should get back to perking soon. In the meanwhile, I've got some stuff here in the St. Louis Magazine Food Lovers Guide. And there's about to be discussion of a jazz bar. So stay tuned, please.
It's always difficult for me to remember that Yasmina Reza's play "Art" is a comedy. It's always seemed as I looked back on it that it's a drama about friendship. So the current staging at St. Louis Actors Studio felt fresh to me.
Director Wayne Solomon has given us a particularly emphatic version of this show, which is a clear reminder that no one, no matter how competent and functional they are to the public, isn't completely that way to the people closest to them. The play takes place in Paris, and the only reminder that it isn't freshly minted is that the price of a contemporary painting, Serge, a dermatologist, is 200,000 francs. (The Euro is now more than 20 years old.) His friend, Marc, is horrified by this for reasons that aren't quite clear. Their pal Yvon, the third one of the group, wavers back and forth in the feud and has plenty of woes of his own.
Marc, John Pierson, kicks things off with a calm, explanatory monologue. He's smooth and reasonable and certainly isn't leading us down the primrose path. Drew Battles, a newcomer to St. Louis stages, plays Serge, enthusiastic about his purchase but wary about Marc's not-unexpected reaction. The two play off each other carefully, perfectly, naturally. Yvon arrives a little late with a tale of woe. He's Larry Dell, who has successfully resisted the urge to turn Yvon into a Woody Allen clone - listen carefully to his lines and you'll see what I mean. The interplay among the guys is like clockwork.
Christie Johnson's set manages to be three different apartments with a simple screen that clearly clues us in. Dalton Robison's light design, with Carla Landis Evans on the light board, is an important part of this 90-minute multiple-segment piece of work.
The play was originally written in French and performed in Paris. Reza gives considerable credit to her translator, Christopher Hampton. He says he does both English and American versions of her plays, but that English and American audiences tend to laugh more at performances than French ones. (Hampton also says that it was Sean Connery who originally bought the rights to produce the play in English. Who would have thought?)
And, yes, it's very funny. It's not until it's almost over that one is forced to think about meaning, but that's what stays with one for a while. Worthwhile on a couple of different levels.
St. Louis Actors' Studio
The Gaslight Theater
through May 3
A drawing room comedy set in the late 21st Century: That's "An Invitation Out", a new play by Shualee Cook at Mustard Seed Theatre. It's about virtual reality and real reality, the "out" of the title, and the widening gap between them.
Cook makes no secret of her admiration for Oscar Wilde, the emperor of bon mots, and the play clearly shows Wildean influence. Don't, of course, expect an evening free of defiantly vigorous over-acting. That's part of the fun.
Our hero, Wridget, played by Bob Thibaut, is a very successful avatar designer ("so gifted with placing those freckles"). He's planning on proposing to Flutterbye, the world's most popular blogger - but he wants a child, and that can't be done in virtual reality, only Out. This could create a problem. There are no bodily fluids in virtual reality. So they'd have to go offline for a while, at least.
Wridget and his sister Buttercup, Julie Venegoni, are the most realistic characters of the assemblage. Buttercup lives Out, and has had a child with her husband FlyByNite, Daniel Lanier - it's the new niece that has Wridget thinking the unthinkable and making the leap to Out. But Flutterbye, Laura Ernst, has her own agenda, and it's her business - literally, as she tweets and posts constantly to her millions of followers. Actually, it's the house robot that actually does it at her command, but that's niggling.
The leads in the play are all strong and doing worthwhile work. But it's the secondary roles that often keep us leaning forward in our seats. Among them are Alicia Reve Like, playing Wridget and Buttercup's Aunt Scandalicious. Witty, and as sharply catty as a purebred Persian, with a walk, to carry the feline comparison farther, that belongs on a catwalk, Reve is purely a piece of work. Even when she's not speaking, she's hard to take your eyes off. And then the Reverend Variety.Org, Richard Strelinger, a catalog in himself of clergy types. (I kept thinking about Shakin' Sammy, the Protestant chaplain in M.A.S.H. - the book, of course.)
Serious credit to the costume designer Beth Ashby, bringing on one amazing outfit after another - Flutterbye reminds me of those Fifties decorative dolls with immense skirts costumed to sit on beds, for instance, and the Rev wears a yarmulke with the Batman design on it and a stole with multiple religious symbols from around the galaxy on it. He carries a light saber for a cane, not that it's discussed. Mark Wilson's set design puts the drawing room in a whole new world. And Michael Sullivan's lights are particularly important here, adding to drama and depth.
The script is full of bon mots and would-be bon mots, and gives us something to think about in terms of identities both online and off. It would benefit from considerable tightening, dragging at times in both the first and second act. Still, there's much worthwhile in this show.
An Invitation Out
through May 3
Mustard Seed Theatre
Fine Arts Theatre
6800 Wydown Blvd., Clayton
It was the first place I ever ate chocolate mousse. the first place I ever ate sunflower seeds. The former picky eater actually scarfed down the date nut bread. It was the Sunshine Inn on South Euclid. Another RIP, to be sure, but what we all learned from it...
There are out there, somewhere, probably, souls so dead that they could resist a dish called turkey leg nachos. Well, maybe vegetarians. But for the rest of us, the giggle of the name lures us onward. It may well be the most popular dish at Grapeseed, which has been planted on Nottingham at Macklind Avenue. Serving boards laden with them fly out of the kitchen far faster than the birds themselves ever could.
Grapevine, located, as so many of the SoHa neighborhood restaurants are, in an old storefront, opened this past autumn. The food is Local Modern American, with a slightly gentler price point than many such spots. (We may start abbreviating that as LMA, the concept is becoming so ubiquitous.) At least that's the feeling - mains run from $19 to $25. Nevertheless, there's more than twice as many smaller plates listed than entrees, a hint that exploring that category might be worthwhile.
The size of the servings in that column are generous, for the most part, so they're shareable, or can serve as a light meal in themselves, like those nachos. Based on house-made sweet potato chips, ultra-thin, greaseless and crisp, the turkey is, hooray, nuggets of dark meat from thigh and drumstick - breast would be far and away too dry and boring here. It's topped with housemade ranch dressing and an unnamed clear, sweet-hot sauce, then sprinkled with good bacon, chives, roasted sweet peppers and a few grape tomatoes. Of course it's messy to eat - the sweet sauce even made its way off the plank onto the center of the table - and the sweet potato chips are delicate enough that carrying this weight makes things a bit tricky, but press on. The sweet-hot-salty balance is too good to miss, even if it devolves into a knife-and-fork thing, the way it did for one diner.
Nachos are lighthearted. Fresh pasta is more serious. A serving of ravioli stuffed with crimini mushrooms and served with a few pearl onions, oyster mushrooms and a dollop of fava bean cream was almost enough to recall the scene from "When Harry Met Sally".
A salad of grilled hearts of romaine is a winner. Paired with diced Asian pear, hard-cooked egg, a bit of cheese, and some pickled rhubarb, the crowning touch was a warm bacon vinaigrette, reminiscent of what might be on a German potato salad. Very different, quite remarkable.
Interestingly, both french fries and a hamburger are on this section of the menu. It's a handsome, tall burger, so precisely constructed they surely use a mold. The "special sauce" holds the shredded lettuce in place, the pickles are housemade, and the brioche bun isn't too sweet for the dish. They almost managed medium rare, too. But it somehow lacked savor, not enough beefy flavor, lost, perhaps, in the vegetables surrounding it. The fries, arriving in a cunning wire basket, look great, and they're hot and fresh. The dipping sauce are a nicely spicy seasoned ketchup and an aioli that's lightly smoky. Fatter than the average fry around town, although not to the size of a steak fry, my pal, who loves larger fries, was ecstatic. Me, I like thinner ones, with more crunch. Handsome, and not technically bad at all, just not my personal style.
There's a heritage pork chop on the entree list that stands out - it's a fine chop, nice and juicy, but the smoked apple butter on top of it is remarkable. It's sided by a sweet potato hash containing shallot, some kind of cooked green, and julienne red and yellow peppers, but they fade into the background compared to the pork and apple butter.
The desserts vary, but bread pudding remains. It's made with brioche, and arrives architecturally clean-cut in a wedge with a creme anglaise and currants. Rather unusually, nearly the entire serving, except a bit at the edge seems to be a single piece of brioche soaked with the custardy mixture before baking. The texture hits the perfect spot between firm and tender, and the edges are nicely crisped from its warming trip through a hot oven.
The cocktail menu is interesting without creeping into that I have no idea on earth what THAT would taste like mode, and there's a good list of wines by the glass. Between that list and the house being more than comfortable with people eating at the bar, it's a fine spot for solo dining. Service, both at the bar and at tables, is smooth and knowledgeable.
Owner-chef Ben Anderson has given us a new destination.
5400 Nottingham Ave.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Adequate
A Tasteful Affair is 27 years old. Food Outreach has been helping nourish St. Louisans a long time. They've broadened their client base, and serve folks of all ages with cancer and HIV/AIDS. This is one of their big fundraisers. And that silent auction...my, my, a villa in the south of France? It's Sunday, and I talk about it here in the St. Louis Magazine blog.
Couscous has in recent years appeared in restaurants that aren't North African at all. Most of what appears on the plate is what's known as Israeli couscous, which is really little pearl pasta. I'm not fond of it, having begun my couscous adventures with a friend who'd lived in Libya years ago. The newer iteration of it reminds me of the bubbles in boba tea, chewy and slightly odd when one's expecting a much smaller and differently textured material. Couscous, to me, is not unlike polenta in that it provides a superb base for moist stews, indeed, better than polenta (as much as I like it) because its texture allows the juices to sink in rather than pool on top. And, yes, couscous salads, too, but I'm not quite as cranky about the Israeli stuff there.
That rant is the opening to a discovery I made yesterday. Starr's, known for its wine, has markedly expanded their specialty foods line, along with weekends-only seafood. And there on the shelf was hand-rolled couscous, the way it's traditionally made. Imported from Tunisia, it cries out for something wonderful to go on top of it. The word "couscous" also refers to the stew it's traditionally steamed over (you won't need to worry about doing that), and with the farmers' market season arriving, the options are wide open, including some great vegetarian recipes out there. Or consider a tagine with it.
Two styles, with and without peppers, 500 grams, a little over a pound. $7.99.
1135 S. Big Bend Blvd, Richmond Heights
Looking for a rowdy evening? Hie yourself to Stray Dog Theatre's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood". Based on the unfinished last work of Charles Dickens, it uses the play-within-a-play concept set in a late Victorian music hall. The large cast - Dickens novels absolutely teem with characters - roam the audience before the start of the play and the last half of the intermission, chatting madly in character, joking and encouraging the audience to respond and even heckle them during the play.
The aura is much like the melodramas of the days of riverboats. The only element lacking is moustache twirling. A nephew of John Jasper, one Edwin Drood, is coming to visit his uncle and see his fiancee, an orphan who lives nearby. The fiancee's name is Rosa Bud - Dickens often had fun with his characters' names, one of the few characteristics he shared with W.C. Fields.
Now pay attention here, because there may be a quiz later. Drood is played by Miss Alice Nutting, "London's Leading Male Impersonator", and Miss Nutting is played by Heather Matthews. John Jasper, the most potentially moustache-twirling of all, is Mr. Clive Page, and he's Zachary Stefaniak, who also did the fine choreography. The near-angelic Rosa, Miss Deidre Peregrine, is Eileen Engel (who also did the costumes). Got that? Good, because that's how it works. I'll spare you most of the rest of this game, because I understand how chaotic it seems.
Matthews' portrayal of the title character shows his youth, seemingly far younger than the few years the script says separate him from his uncle. It's not a deep incongruity, though. Zachary Stefaniak takes this opportunity to gnash his teeth and cast knowing looks aside, generally chewing the scenery as befits the occasion, fun to watch. Engel sails smoothly through her perfect-girl role and has a dynamite voice.
We are led through the rather necessary exposition of things by the chairman, a sort of master of ceremonies of the English music halls of the era, played by Gerry Love. Lavonne Byers is the Princess Puffer, and has a whale of a time with it. Lots of other good work from other folks, but a strong suggestion that you watch the almost-silent Michael Juncal, Mr. James Throttle, who plays the bartender and, primarily, The Stage Manager. His wordless work is priceless. This is not to say that he's actually the stage manger - that's Justin Been, who also directed the play.
This is probably not a musical that will last though the ages, but it's fun. The only tweak would be some opening night sound problems with cues and balancing.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
through April 18
Stray Dog Theatre
Tower Grove Abbey
2336 Tennessee Ave.