Every year in our annual Tastemakers issue, we say that there’s never been as much creativity or energy in the local restaurant scene as there is right now – and every year it’s true. That’s because the volume of talent and innovation we see year after year only continues to grow and flourish. The Midwest is teeming with highly skilled and creative chefs, sommeliers, mixologists and hospitality professionals, and it’s our pleasure to share the following Tastemakers whose boundary-pushing work caught our attention this year.
We’re shining a spotlight on Industry Innovators: the professionals who are actively involved in defining what it means to eat and drink in our region. Much of that forward movement is also reflected in our list of Best New Restaurants of 2017, a roundup of the can’t-miss spots that have opened in the past year.
We're lucky to live, eat and drink in the Midwest, where there is always something new and exciting to savor.
Mike Randolph, Privado
Mike Randolph isn’t afraid of change. Over the years, he’s ended pop ups at the height of their popularity and transformed beloved restaurants into entirely new concepts. Maybe that’s why, when he shuttered his acclaimed Italian restaurant, Randolfi’s, in September, it felt more like a beginning. Enter Privado, a weekend-only “culinary idea house,” inspired by his Diversion dinner series and housed in the former Randolfi’s space in the Delmar Loop. With Privado, which debuted in October, Randolph wants to provide a more playful fine-dining experience. Make a reservation for the tasting menu and upon arrival you’re greeted with sparkling wine at the bar. The first of 12 to 15 courses is displayed at the pass as Randolph explains the dish. Menus only hint at what’s to come – you’ll know the theme of the third course is “poached,” for instance, and will include lobster, duck liver and avocado. What follows, though, are delightful surprises: You were anticipating the liver, but not that it would be grated over plates tableside. No reservations? The bar serves an a la carte menu and welcomes walk-ins. –Liz Miller
Privado, 6665 Delmar Blvd., Ste. 100B, Delmar Loop, University City, Missouri, 314.899.9221, privadostl.com
Natasha Bahrami, The Gin Room
Natasha Bahrami didn’t set out to make St. Louis home to the largest gin festival in the world, but that’s exactly what she’s done. Growing up in the restaurant industry – her parents opened Café Natasha – taught Bahrami how to be an entrepreneur, but she wasn’t sure of her path until a gin Martini sent her “down a rabbit hole” while living in Washington, D.C. Gin was beginning to garner more national attention, and Bahrami was fascinated by the range of flavor profiles available. Eager to share her newfound knowledge with her hometown, she moved back to St. Louis and opened The Gin Room inside Café Natasha in 2014. Today the bar features more than 65 gins, including locally produced options and infusions and five housemade tonics in flavors like calamansi-mint and strawberry-pepper. If you’re new to gin (or think you’re not a fan), Bahrami recommends ordering either the gin and tonic flight or the straight-up gin flight, which both spotlight the different flavors and nuances of various gins – dry, warm spice, floral, citrus, piney or barrel-aged. Just ask for “The Gin Girl,” Bahrami’s preferred nickname, and she’ll help you find your favorite. In 2015, she hosted the first Gin Festival at Café Natasha, a small celebration featuring tastings and distiller talks. A year later she hosted Gin Week and Gin Fest, the largest gin festival in the U.S. Gin Week featured more than 50 local bars and restaurants and was capped off with Gin Fest, where 70-plus gins were available for tasting. Last year Bahrami tackled her most ambitious project yet: Ginworld Gin Week, which expanded the educational platform and festival from St. Louis to New Orleans; San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; and Oxfordshire, England. –Liz Miller
The Gin Room at Cafe Natasha’s, 3200 S. Grand Blvd., South Grand, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.771.3411, natashasginroom.com
William Pauley, Confluence Kombucha
Just a year after a devastating car accident left Confluence Kombucha chef-owner William Pauley recovering in the hospital, he’s putting out one of the most creative menus in St. Louis. Where else are you going to find pancakes made with chickpea flour, celery, dill, cumin and caraway, poppy and celery seeds? Along with chef Chris Krzysik, Pauley cooks vegetable-forward dishes on a tabletop griddle behind the counter of his 12-seat restaurant and kombucha bar in The Grove. Pauley is mostly self-taught – he started in the industry as a dishwasher – but working under Chris Bork, then chef at Blood & Sand, inspired him to experiment with food. You’ll find tomatoes topped with sherry crumble, black garlic paste, baby arugula, fennel pollen, soft cheese and dehydrated bread, and Japanese nukazuke, or fruits and vegetables fermented with rice bran and served with beet mousse, coconut yogurt, pear butter and flaxseed chips. Fermentation and pickling are key to Pauley’s menu, which is heavily inspired by his travels. Look for ingredients like Missouri pawpaw, aronia berries and Citra hops. –Nancy Stiles
Confluence Kombucha, 4507 Manchester Ave, Forest Park Southeast, Missouri, 314.625.2655, confluencekombucha.com
Chris Bork, Vista Ramen and Mothership
Ask any St. Louis chef their favorite spots to dine when they’re off the clock, and Vista Ramen will likely be on the shortlist. The Cherokee Street noodle shop is widely considered one of the most exciting new restaurants to open in St. Louis in the past few years, and chef-owner Chris Bork continues to turn out some of the most innovative food in town. Bork first made a name for himself as executive chef of the members-only Blood & Sand, and at Vista, he does ramen – and just about everything else – his own way. You won’t find a strict take on the traditional Japanese soup; rather, the creative liberties the chef takes make for some truly delicious food. Take the pozole ramen, a south-of-the-border spin that nods to the many taquerias in the neighborhood. But the seasonally inspired small plates are perhaps where Bork best shows his chops in thoughtful dishes like pork ribs gilded in crab caramel; fried Brussels sprouts with green romesco, strawberry and Thai basil; or delicata squash empanadas with apple-miso butter. Even the restaurant’s weekend brunch menu eschews the classic Benedicts and waffles in favor of creative takes on familiar, comforting dishes like grits with a smoked-shrimp XO sauce, furikake, chile oil and poached eggs; or matcha pancakes drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and elderberry compote. This fall, Bork rolled out a new concept, Mothership, just down the street at Earthbound Beer. Most items are made in a smoker, and the menu combines the experimental nature of the brewery with Bork’s Asian-inspired cooking in dishes like smoked chicken chili with pickled daikon and cornbread with gochujang-honey butter. No matter the location, Bork’s food is some of the most thought-provoking – and delicious – in town. –Heather Riske
Mothership, 2724 Cherokee St., Cherokee Business District, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.769.9576, mothershipsaintlouis.com
Vista Ramen, 2609 Cherokee St., Cherokee Business District, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.797.8250, vistaramen.com
Aleks Jovanovic, Truffles
When sommelier Aleks Jovanovic first arrived at Truffles in Ladue, Missouri, seven years ago, the restaurant was in the process of transforming from a French-inspired bistro to one with an Italian influence, before eventually settling into a more contemporary American approach. With each development, Jovanovic worked closely with his assistant Brandon Gibbons as well the owners, the Cella family, who are wine collectors themselves, to create an award-winning wine list. Last summer, Truffles was one of 50 restaurants in North America and 112 worldwide to win a coveted Jury Prize in The World of Fine Wine’s World’s Best Wine Lists; judges noted its comprehensive breadth as well as “some lovely original touches.” As general manager and wine director, Jovanovic hosts a free, informal wine tasting at 5pm each Thursday, but he’s known to give impromptu tastings if you aren’t sure where to start. His extensive list – around 12,000 bottles and 1,800 labels – changes daily, and is more than triple the size it was when Truffles first launched its wine program. He estimates he tastes up to 100 wines a week, and works to include small producers, indigenous grapes and more unusual varietals. –Nancy Stiles
Truffles, 9202 Clayton Road, Ladue, Missouri, 314.567.9100, todayattruffles.com