Sidney Street Cafe chef and owner Kevin Nashan just makes you feel exhausted, doesn’t he? He was a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest in 2012 and 2013. He represented St. Louis at a big-deal dinner presentation at New York’s highly hoity eatery City Grit. He’s hosted a slew of local charity events… And he’s a six-time Ironman Triathlon finisher.
And you think it’s a productive day when you straighten your sock drawer.
In his free time, Nashan helms one of the most iconic restaurants in the city, a place cherished by virtually all St. Louis gourmands. The Benton Park café is chic without pretension, stylish instead of affected. Inside, it’s dark, with polished wood and weathered brick, graceful arched doorways and spotless charm. Think upscale bistro—both comfy and gracious. The antique bar, a testament to Art Nouveau extravagance, needs only Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec standing by, pastis in paw, to be perfect. Everything about the place, from the no-nonsense glassware to the efficient service, suggests fine dining. Appreciate it before you start eating, though: Once the food arrives, you could be dining in an airport hangar for all you’ll care.
It’s immediately obvious that Nashan has a thing for Southwestern fare. Tortillas appear frequently here in ways you wouldn’t expect, like wrapped around a creamy falafel of black-eyed peas and squirted with tzatziki. That bistro classic, a hanger steak, is rendered into a tender, spicy carne asada—though it’s probably the only one in town accompanied by a purée of stinging nettle.
There’s a culinary nod to certain foods, too. Rabbit gets more attention here than at any other local eatery. It’s slowly stewed in a steaming, fragrant pot-au-feu, with a luxurious oxtail broth. And local pork is something of a specialty. It changes every day: One night, it’s pork meatballs; the next, a slice of belly prepared…well, who knows? A visit is like a trip to the casino, except the payoff is inevitable—and delicious.
There’s a frisson in dining at Sidney Street. It’s not unlike watching a tightrope walker dance on the wire, suspecting disaster is coming with the next step. Manchego cheese and black truffles in a barley porridge? “The guy’s going down hard on that one” is the thought, and then damned if he doesn’t pull it off. Last spring, word spread that Nashan had scored some of the season’s first shad roe. When we scanned the chalked menu, we were convinced that he was teetering on that tightrope, matching fish eggs with “sorrel ice cream.” Thirty minutes later, we wondered whether the dish might be among the best things we’d ever tasted.
Those are the surprises. Then there are the anticipated dishes, those that are frequently talked and tweeted about. The apple wood–smoked duck breast is a local legend, and deservedly so. The combination of pink, juicy meat and luscious, glistening fat is beautifully fragrant, sitting atop a sweet-potato latke, which itself sits atop an emerald mound of charred rapini. Another must-try, when it’s on the menu, is the barbecue Cornish hen. The delicate little bird’s flesh is rendered perfectly tender, every bite redolent with curry. Yogurt-stuffed dumplings, fresh garlic, and pickled walnuts add their own layers of texture and taste.
And as always, there is that exquisite attention to detail that’s inevitable in a great restaurant. A seafood broth is sufficient for the typical bouillabaisse, but here it’s replaced with a golden-russet bisque that tastes like an offshore breeze. A niçoise salad of smoked salmon is tricked out with tomato confit, pickled green beans, and—get this—a barigoule of artichokes. The preparation is classic Provençal. The ’choke heads are braised in wine, giving them a piquancy that turns the salad from remarkable to unforgettable.
Desserts? Think a deconstructed Snickers bar of chocolate mousse, nougat, and dulce de leche, or a “red velvet cake” that somehow incorporates goat cream cheese…
A wine list with lots of vintages by the glass or by half-bottle, as well as plenty of local draft beers, are great with meals and while waiting for a table.
It’s never easy, choosing a Restaurant of the Year. In the case of Sidney Street Cafe, though, there isn’t any doubt that the House That Nashan Built is special.
And to think he did it in his spare time.