St. Louis arts & eats
Tourist in my own Town
“All I want do is eat at those restaurants I see you posting on Instagram.” That’s what my friend Karen said two weeks before her impromptu visit. She had been to St. Louis several times to participate as an artist in the St. Louis Art Fair, but her time was booked running a very successful booth selling her ceramics. She lives in Asheville and her local newspaper ran a story touting St. Louis as a great weekend away location. We both thought this was a great excuse for her to spend a long weekend in St. Louis, showing off our arts and eats.
To start, we visited the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum on the Washington University campus. When I mention this museum to St. Louis friends, I often find they have either never heard of it or have not been. It is a wonderful St. Louis secret. The Kemper is free, features modern and contemporary art from around the world, and yet is small enough you can see everything in one visit. The permanent collection has some very impressive items, including works by Pablo Picasso, Barbara Kruger, Jasper Johns and Chuck Close. In the spring, the museum features the Master of Fine Arts student projects of those in their graduating year at Washington University’s Fox School of Art Visual Art program. This exhibit is always a fantastic collection of innovative and funky pieces, plus you never know if you are looking at the early works of a future famous artist.
After the Kemper visit, with the late spring weather cooperating, we swung by the Saint Louis Zoo, one of the top zoos in the country. With over 16,000 animals from 600 species and a personal guide (my husband has been a zoo docent for 30 years), Karen got to see all her favorite animals. She was amazed that the zoo was free.
I was initially concerned about getting reservations in some of the restaurants I wanted to share with only two weeks’ notice. But it turns out the Resy app has a very handy feature called “Notify Me” where you can sign up for an alert in case a table becomes available. Thus we nabbed a spot at Louie, one of my absolute favorite restaurants, on Thursday night. Before dinner we had a drink at Sasha’s Wine Bar next door where people spilled out onto the patio basking in surprisingly warm April weather.
Our meal at Louie was the usual excellence we’ve come to expect from this special spot. We tried an eggplant dip for the first time, which came dotted with yellow tomatoes and was accompanied by a generously sized puffy pita-like bread hot from the oven. Louie’s roasted Brussels sprouts with lemon were a perfect accompaniment to a burrata pizza, and we couldn’t skip my everlasting favorite, the Roman gnocco. The gnocco is like a giant semolina dumpling providing a dreamy base for a slow, roasted pork ragu with bechamel sauce and pecorino cheese on top. Luckily, there is a recipe available for this fantastic dish and I’ve tried to recreate it at home with some success…but recommend eating it at Louie if you can. [see my St. Louis Top 12 Bites piece for more gnocco love]. The service was spot-on as always and we were sadly too stuffed after this buffet to entertain dessert options.
Before heading into our next afternoon of art, we visited Nudo House, Qui Tran’s fantastic ramen restaurant in the University City Loop. My son joined us for lunch and I watched him and Karen battle to see who could use the most hot sauce on their lunch. Sean peppered his pork Bánh mì sandwich with sauce and Karen doused her ramen with a requested side of chili sauce. I ignored their spicy showdown and enjoyed my regular Nudo House favorite, the Curry Up bowl: tempera fried chicken, a hard-boiled egg and roasted vegetables swimming among the noodles.
Fueled for more adventures, we headed to the St. Louis Art Museum, located in Forest Park. This free museum has a diverse collection of art from different periods and regions, including ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, modern America and contemporary Africa. I forget what an impressive museum we have until seeing it through a visitor’s eyes. We sampled the permanent collection, which includes Degas, Monet and Renoir masterpieces, and perused the two main exhibits, Age of Armor (through May 14) and Monet/Mitchell: Painting the French Landscape (through June 25). I didn’t think I would care about armor, but found the exhibit very interesting. An interactive feature allows you to experience what it would be like to wear various helmets (and how did anyone walk, much less fight, in this gear?).
While the St. Louis Art Museum is always free, on Fridays the special exhibitions are also free! You will need a timed ticket, which they are happy to offer at whatever times are open. The art museum sits at the top of Art Hill in Forest Park, with an iconic statue of King Louis of France (the namesake of St. Louis) and offers a view of the lake below with fountains. This view was an important landmark to notice before we visited the Missouri History Museum.
While Resy may have delivered another reservation surprise with a little effort, instead for dinner we hit the grocery store for gourmet supplies and settled in for a night of cooking together, drinking wine and catching up like friends who’ve known each other since we were 15 do.
A Missouri saying about weather is “just wait and it will change,” and when we woke the springlike weather had morphed into winter. We had gone from 72° and sunny to 55-mile per hour wind gusts and a windchill in the 30s. This was not exactly what I had planned as we were heading to the Laumeier Sculpture Garden for strolling amid the outdoor art. We bundled up in scarves, gloves and winter coats and walked around mostly by ourselves on this freezing Saturday morning. We certainly did not make it through all 105-acres of this beautiful park, which features more than 60 outdoor sculptures.
Thankfully, I’d scored tickets to the indoor Yayoi Kusama exhibit, another free art experience. Kusama’s Narcissus Garden is made of stainless steel balls placed in various layouts, creating semi-distorted reflections. We stared at our reflections to infinity and beyond while warming up.
To reward ourselves for freezing our asses off and walking around Laumeier, we proceeded directly to Balkan Treat Box for lunch. I’d shared with Karen how much I love this restaurant and Karen was intrigued with what she’d read about the chef and co-owner Loryn Nalic in a recent issue of Food & Wine magazine. I hadn’t been to Balkan Treat Box on a Saturday in a long time and forgot how long the line can be. Luckily, the line moves fast and we thought it was worth every bit of the wait to dive into a delicious football-shaped wood-fired pizza, known as pide (pronounced “PEE-dae”). The crust had a perfect char and crunch to balance the kaymak (a thick creamy spread) and ajvar, the tangy pepper and eggplant spread. Karen had never experienced Bosnian food before and she loved it. [Check out the pide recipe from Balkan Treat Box in Food & Wine]
Full, warm and happy, we headed to the Missouri History Museum. This free museum covers the history of Missouri and St. Louis from the early Native American civilizations to today. The museum is housed in an impressive building that was once the Jefferson Memorial Building, built in 1913. Some of the museum's most impressive exhibits include the 1904 World's Fair exhibit (where we remembered the view at the top of Art Hill at the Art Museum—although the other buildings from the World Fair are gone, it was cool to see photographs from 1904 of the same spot we stood on
yesterday). We saw the current exhibit, Coloring STL (open through May 2024), which showed off architecture and elements of St. Louis over many years, including an impressive display of color from all over our city (examples: the green roof of a school, the decorative elements of a door, the many shades of red in St. Louis’ bricks). Part of the exhibit showed projects that were considered and what could have been built on the riverfront downtown instead of the famous Gateway Arch. Karen declared it was a great visit and it enhanced her knowledge base for future trivia nights.
After the seeing the history museum, it felt even more appropriate to visit the Arch. This iconic stainless steel symbol stands 630 feet tall and symbolizes the westward expansion of the United States. We drove slowly through the Central West End on the way to the Arch downtown, admiring some of the architecture we’d just learned about. Hitting the Arch late on a Saturday afternoon when the Cardinals just finished playing a day game meant it was crowded with families, kids and tour groups, so trips to the top were sold out. Instead, we enjoyed the free Museum at the Gateway Arch which extended our learning about Missouri and St. Louis, as well as the history and significance of the Mississippi River. Of course, we took a picture with the Arch in the background, like every tourist does.
DINNER AT BULRUSH
For dinner, I was thrilled to have scored reservations at Bulrush, a restaurant focused on Ozark cuisine. Chef Rob Connoley and his team forage for many of the ingredients, and each course comes with a story: about the ingredients, Ozark history, zero-waste restaurant-ing or the heritage seed project. As I told Karen, “Bulrush is dinner and a show.”
Our menu included:
Collard greens, Kim's Cross squash, grilled maitake mushroom, acorn dotorimuk, Ozark chili crisp
Smoked catfish croquette, horseradish beets with tomato and mushroom hunter's sauce
Acorn daquoise, roasted celeriac, celeriac panisse, mulberry jam, mushroom conserva, venison powder
White bread, pecan butter, radish marmalade, marshmallow fluff
Tempeh gratin, sweet potato and rutabaga, Brussels shaved salad, pickled shallots, toasted hazelnuts
Honey cake, passion fruit sauce, hazelnut mousse, sumac crunch
(Video below) Acorn donut: white chocolate potato mousse, nocino glaze, roast pumpkin
During our seven-course dinner, I was dazzled by the artistic presentation of each dish and the creativity of the entire experience. As a ceramist, Karen loved the plates and platters and ended up talking to Chef Rob about the creators of the artistic dishware—yes, small world—they knew ceramicists in common. As a gracious send-off, you leave Bulrush with treats after dinner. On this visit, we got mini acorn cookies and watermelon seeds to plant in our gardens.
No surprise someone in Asheville is writing about St. Louis. My city is a great destination for anyone who loves culture, art, history and spectacular food. In three days and nights, we visited six free museums and attractions, and ate our way through some of the best restaurants in town. Shortly after her visit, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch restaurant critic named Balkan Treat Box number one on their restaurant reviewer’s top 100 list, Bulrush number two, Louie number 10 with Nudo House also included in the top 100. It was a blast being a tourist in my own town and Karen says St. Louis lived up to the hype.
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