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Traveling Will & Robin

Current travels: Three months in the wilderness of Siberia, Mongolia, and the South Pacific

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Thu
26
Aug '10

St. Louis is Listening, Part 2: A Vagabond’s Picks

I’ve always found giving tourist advice in San Francisco to be problematic; usually the visitor, whether a traveler met on the road on their way to my fair city or a houseguest whose belongings are already strewn around the spare bedroom, will ask a loaded and troubling question like “What should we do while we’re here?” I suppose this sort of thing shouldn’t weigh so heavily on me, but it’s in my nature to be pedantically precise about answering the guest’s intended question. I presume them to mean “What sort of activities, attractions, and amusements are indispensible to the San Francisco tourist experience?” The problem is that there’s very few of those things that we actually do, and I feel like a failed host if I don’t provide them with what they want. Usually I suggest the few things that have actually stuck with me — visit Alcatraz, walk around Chinatown — before stumbling and explaining to the person that we in San Francisco really spend almost all of our free social energy pursuing food and drink. Thus, in an historic and bustling city like St. Louis, subject to four different nations throughout history and the sixteenth largest city in America, my first priority is to find out where a brother can get a good bite to eat.

Katie’s Pizza

If you are of my parents’ generation and wanted to find Katie’s Pizza, you might start by looking in a phone book. If you did you’d learn that the restaurant is in the City of Clayton; this fact bears some explanation about the geo-history of St. Louis. Like the City of London (size one square mile), St. Louis is one of those strange cities whose official political boundary bears no relation to any real demarcation of citydom. Bounded on the east by the mighty Mississippi River and surrounded on the west by the St. Louis County, the City is an independent city, subject to no other local government below the state. This historical oddity meant that the city literally had no land to annex and no way to grow; thus, as people were fruitful and multiplied they spilled into the many adjacent counties. Thus the St. Louis Metro Area (whose official practical and political bodies, like the Metro Police, are the de facto governance for the whole area) incorporates both cities like Clayton, which in any other locale would be considered a neighborhood or district, and more remote cities like Chesterfield, which would likely be considered suburbs.

Thus properly located, Katie’s Pizza is a find in any city. Stopping for only a snack in the middle of the afternoon, I had the toasted ravioli. This is a signature St. Louis dish, and Katie captured it perfectly. The large, handmade ravioli were stuffed with gorgonzola and artichoke, then breaded and lightly fried. They were served atop fresh spring greens and paired with and amazing fresh pesto on the side. It was delightful. I watched as others enjoyed their pizzas: I saw squash blossom, arugula, fingerling potatoes, beets, fennel, and the rest of the farmer’s market piled to perfection, and every pizza looked delicious. Up there with my favorite pizza places in San Francisco (City & County).

Bailey’s Chocolate Bar

I have a passionate and life-long love affair with words (as evidenced by the verbose ramble of this blog), but I can’t begin to express how much I appreciate a business that can live up to the two words of its name with such complete perfection. This is the quintessence of a drinking establishment for people who love chocolate (as evidenced both by their menu and by the astounding frequency with which its Yelp reviews mentioned it being “perfect for Girl’s Night Out”). Their menu begins with fifteen different Chocolate Martinis, ranging from White to Very Dark; Sexual; Nutty; and Mexican. They had Liquid Dessert Martinis, made with ice cream. And after a few more pages of chocolate-themed delight, the had a real dessert section that tilted even more towards the sweet while still managing to always combine booze and chocolate. I had the Cinnamon and Stout Beer Shake: stout beer blended with house-made cinnamon ice cream and chocolate. Strange? Yes! Delicious? Absolutely. And reason for me to get out my blender as soon as I get home. That was so good that I went back to the beginning to try a Hazelnut Chocolate Martini. Clear and served with a few hazelnuts in the bottom of the glass, this drink effortlessly combined all the tastes it promised. Gaah. This is what (drinking) dessert is supposed to be.

1111 Mississippi


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1111 Mississippi - Oh. My. God. Good food.

Ohmygod this is good. In an elegant and trendy place like this I was fully right to feel out of place sitting at the bar in my mountain bike shorts and California Republic cycling jersey, but if I was stripped naked I would have still remained to have this food. I ordered the mussels and a glass of wine, and they were nothing short of breathtaking, probably the best mussels I’ve had in my life. The sauce was featured a generous amount of pancetta, with onions, tomato, and god-knows-what balancing out the saltiness and the meat of the mussel itself. I was perfectly contented and full to boot, but when the man next to me asked about my dish and I his shrimp bisque, I knew I was stuck for another round. This time there was no question: it was the best I’ve ever had. I can’t now convey my immense feelings towards this dish because even while eating it I was forced to put down my spoon and let the waves of inarticulate gastronomic pleasure crash over me; my conscience won’t let me sully that feeling by trying to describe the dish in detail, except to simply say: Eat here.

Park Avenue Coffee


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Park Avenue Coffee

Park Avenue Coffee is two doors down from Chocolate Bar and around the corner from 1111 Mississippi, all part of the charming neighborhood of Lafayette Square. (Geography buffs: the eponymous park has a corner at Park Avenue & Mississippi St. See if you can find the pattern here). Excepting the fact that my stupid Windows’ stupid wifi couldn’t connect to their stupid network (my Apple iPhone had no trouble, of course), Park Ave was a delightful coffeeshop. In my two separate visits I got a total of two black coffees and a muffin; all were quite tasty, the coffee especially standing out as above average. I also noted the prominent advertising and customer discussion of their many flavors of Gooey Butter Cake, though I did not try any despite it sounding perfectly delicious. What I liked best about the shop, however, was how well if fit into the neighborhood.

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See what I mean?

Lafayette Square is the city’s oldest park, created in 1836, and most of the neighborhood dates to that era. The park is surrounded by Victorian row houses that capture the French heritage of the region. A trendy area through the nineteenth century, the neighborhood declined into a ghetto through the first half of the twentieth, but the second half brought a wave of resident purchase and renovation that returned the houses to their former visage and the cachet of the area to its peak hipness. This is an area with obvious and beautiful history, but it’s also trendy and gentrified. The park is gorgeously landscaped, providing trails to walk and bandstands for free concerts, and you’ll never want for an organic cappuccino or gelato around its borders. In this setting, Park Avenue Coffee is just the right shop.

Anheuser Busch Tour and “Beer School”


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Playing tourist

It may seem odd that I would visit Anheuser Busch, given that in many ways they are my arch-nemesis in the beer world, but their size makes them interesting, and I reckoned that a visit to St. Louis wouldn’t be complete without it. Indeed, this corporation seems to be as large a part of the city as its French heritage or the Arch; in every neighborhood and all strata of society can you find evidence of one or the other name. It was Busch who revolutionized the scope of what a beer distributer could be, and it was this industry that seems to have built the city into what it is today.

I like that the sprawling factory campus is part of its neighborhood; built of the same red brick as each of the surrounding houses, its edifice, gates and smokestacks look like they could be the impenetrable workshop of some nineteenth century Klaus-like toymaker. If you inhale, however, that fantasy evaporates, for the entire neighborhood is permeated with the deliciously sweet and floral smell of wort, the fermenting union of cooked hops and barley malt. This is an industrial smell I’d be happy to wake up to.

The brewery tour was acceptable if uninspired. I’ve certainly seen better demonstrations of how beer is made, but the company’s history is interesting, and the Clydesdales and Dalmatians were adorable. I also paid $10 for “Beer School” under the theory that for a Hamilton I should always sign up for whatever “more better” tour is available. The “more behind the scenes” tour was full, so I got the “learn about how to taste beer”. This was a mistake. When the class began and we were all asked what kind of beer we liked, I answered something about “darker ales with a good hop and some nutty, carmelly tones”. Most of the rest of the class answered Bud Light or Heineken. One girl answered Bud Ice. We then tasted Budweiser, Bud Light, Bud Light Lime, and Wild Blue with Blueberries, all while learning that (a) glassware is important, (b) pouring is important, and (c) smelling is important. You can imagine my edification. That said, the blueberry beer did taste like grape juice (no relation to beer) and was 8%, so if I need to get some children drunk I now know where to start.

John D. McGurk’s Irish Pub


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McGurk's neighborhood - Soulard

Finally, to good beer! This is a true Irish Pub. The first thing I noticed, even before I walked in the door, was that Lad Lane played there weekday nights. Huh? Lad Lane is an Irish folk band that I’ve had in my music collection for some years and quite enjoy. I knew nothing about them besides their music, however, so was shocked and delighted to find them playing in St. Louis in a slightly sketchy neighborhood. This did bode well for the bar, however. The next thing I learned about McGurk’s was that they have their own beer. Huh? Indeed, McGurk’s Irish Ale, which I naturally tried. It’s quite good. One very good burger later and I was listening to good Irish music. I listened and sipped what turned a very generous snifter of good Scotch for a downright cheap price. McGurk’s is the one place that I found myself glad to not live near, for it would be far too dangerous.

~fin.

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