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Clayton’s Neighborhood Eatery and Best Restaurant in St. Louis

There is no denying the pedigree behind St. Louis’ most talked about new restaurant, the Libertine. Executive chef Josh Galliano is a veritable legend in the St. Louis culinary community, best known for his time at the acclaimed, yet now shuttered, Monarch. He has garnered several James Beard Award nominations and last year won Food and Wine’s “People’s Best New Chef-Midwest” award. In other words, he is kind of a big deal. Owners Audra and Nick Luedde are no slouches either. The spouses made names for themselves at some of the most prestigious establishments in Chicago before returning to Nick’s hometown of St. Louis (Kirkwood High c/o 1995). And for a dash of farm-cred (so necessary in the current dining scene), the Libertine’s general mangers are former organic goat farmers (we are not making that up) Victoria Mitchell and her husband, Nate Weber.

With such an eclectic dream team, it almost makes it easy to root against the Libertine. The restaurant’s name alone suggests a certain smugness, a libertine being a person with a devil-may-care attitude toward society’s morals. Certainly the Libertine must reek of a similar hubris? Speaking of, what’s with this posh new restaurant calling itself a “neighborhood eatery”? Isn’t this akin to a well-heeled politician donning a folksy flannel shirt on the campaign trail or Fergie singing about how she still goes to Taco Bell?

Photos: Inside the Libertine in Clayton

But then walk through the doors of the former Chez Leon in Clayton, and there’s Audra Luedde, a beaming and welcoming hostess completely void of pretentiousness. During my visit, Luedde chatted me up about her son and how a date night for she and Nick now consists of running the restaurant. As she escorted us to the bar, all three bartenders were crafting cocktails, each more complicated than the next. What would these tattooed “mixologists” say to the hugely pregnant woman (me) hoisting herself into the barstool? The answer: How about a mocktail? (The virgin mojito hit the spot.)

The graciousness continued into the dining room, where our server had the rare talent of mixing culinary IQ with approachability. I even saw Galliano himself delivering food and checking on guests. What’s even more impressive is that he actually took the time to engage diners in conversation and seemed genuinely interested in what they had to say.

OK, so a restaurant can be hip and trendy without being arrogant and cold. What about the substance factor?

The Libertine delivers on this front as well. Galliano and team have assembled a diverse menu with a few winks at his native Louisiana. The selections range from small plates to entrees, divided by genre rather than course. While this can be a little confusing at first (is it an appetizer or a main course?), diners should look to their servers to guide them in the right direction.

On the day of my first visit it was 103 degrees, and I could not think of anything that sounded better than the tomato sorbet appetizer. The sorbet itself was a refreshing and tart concoction of tomato, mint and cucumber that instantly cooled me down from the inside. Cornmeal-crusted fried green tomatoes provided a welcome crunchy contrast, and the scattering of a few simple sliced heirloom tomatoes on the plate created an artist’s palette of color for those who enjoy eating with their eyes.

The heat from our second appetizer, the scorched peppers, caused my forehead to bead with sweat — a good thing. The smoky sweetness of the molasses bacon enhanced the peppers’ fire-roasted bitter char. A few blistered tomatoes further brightened the dish. What made it positively sinful, though, was how the drippings of the rendered bacon mingled with the molasses, benne (sesame) seeds and mysteriously tangy East African spice to create a creamy sauce at the bottom of the bowl. To mitigate the richness, my dining companion washed this down with the “Ribbon & Missile” cocktail, a concoction of El Tesoro Blanco tequila, white vermouth and Szechwan bitters. It was a fantastic pairing.

Our next plate, the twice-cooked duck egg, arrived atop a bed of greens and was finished with chicken fat sherry vinaigrette. While I loved how the duck egg (gently poached, then breaded and fried) oozed over the salad to form a rich dressing, I could have used a little more acid to balance out the dish. The chicken fat sherry vinaigrette was a little too rich for my preference, having an almost mayonnaise consistency when commingled with the egg yolk. Fortunately, my partner had paired the salad with a glass of the grüner veltliner, so the wine’s acidity was able to cut through the dish’s richness.

I would not normally order a burger at a place such as the Libertine, but it features so prominently on the menu that I couldn’t pass it up. The fact that it was topped with “cheese whiz” and a bacon bun added to the intrigue. I’m glad I took the leap. The two patties had the robust meatiness of local grass-fed beef, and the onions caramelized in molasses bacon fat dripped flavored the burger with a sweet smoke. The “cheese whiz” was actually white cheddar foam, created by forcing the cheese through a pressurized canister (fun times!), and the bun, also infused with the richness of bacon drippings, took on a pretzel-like nuttiness. This was a gooey stack of awesomeness. But like the duck egg, it could have benefited from some sort of tanginess. Perhaps a housemade steak sauce would have provided some balance to the burger’s richness.

By far, the best dish that we tried was the “Three Little Birds,” a whimsical stack of juicy game hen, chicken and quail. The meat was positively buttery, with each layer melting into the other. Galliano’s Southern charm is on full display here, as scorched okra and the classic corn and vegetable dish, macque choux, gave off the right amount of sweet and savory crunch. His grits are impeccable, perhaps the creamiest I have had the pleasure of eating.

It’s rare that I can be talked into passing on gooey butter cake, but our server’s discussion of her impassioned love affair with the Libertine’s blondie gave me pause. The rich buttery bar (that tastes an awful lot like the aforementioned St. Louis specialty) came topped with a scoop of coconut sorbet. The macadamia nut tuile that also accompanied the dessert provided a savory contrast, though it was a bit of a challenge to cut with a spoon. I ended up breaking it apart by hand and dipping it in the ice cream. (Yes, I’m a savage.)

The Libertine is as proud of its cocktail program as it is of its food, so do not miss the opportunity to try some of its concoctions. Although presently I cannot fully partake in adult beverages, I begged my dining companion to order the “Fear & Loathing” so that I could have a tiny sip. This is the Libertine’s version of a rum and Coke. Do not expect the pedestrian open-bar staple. Not only does the Libertine’s feature the more complex Gosling’s Black Seal dark rum, but it also uses homemade cola. This soda is nothing like the industrial standard but has an almost citrus and ginger-like tangy refreshment. To add to the party, the drink is topped with pecan foam (yes, it almost tastes like pecan whipped cream) and a little lemongrass dust to brighten things.

So, in the end, what to call the Libertine: neighborhood eatery or best new St. Louis restaurant? Either way, the hype is well deserved.

Libertine St Louis Kitchen Q&A

Nick Luedde’s voice was so passionate—and so loud—while discussing his new restaurant, The Libertine (scheduled to open this month at 7927 Forsyth), that he felt embarrassed enough to buy lunch for a nearby complainer. The man voted among Chicago’s best sommeliers and mixologists then whispered the remaining details of how The Libertine’s atmosphere and blockbuster team of sommeliers (including Luedde’s wife), managers, and chefs (including Josh Galliano) will offer Clayton a dining experience that every neighborhood covets—in his words, “transcendent food at exorbitantly affordable prices.” Go ahead and speak up, Nick. That’s something to shout about.

You won several different awards while in Chicago.

I did, but I tend to blow that stuff off. That said, getting your name in the paper a few times can help get you a tough restaurant reservation.

Did you have a mentor there?

My mentor is here: Jimmy Kristo [of Jimmy’s on the Park Café]. During the several years I worked for him, I learned all I needed to know about how to work the floor. Ever seen Bill Clinton work a room? Same thing. It’s a verbal hug. Some call it old school; I call it hospitality. Dude should write a book.

Strong statement.

Oh, I’ve had other mentors, like Greg Harrington, the master sommelier. I thought I knew everything about wine until I met him, and then realized that I knew nothing. He’s a think tank for wine.

Where did you meet him?

He worked for BR Guest Hospitality, one of the biggest multi-unit operators in the world, parent company of Fiamma Trattoria, Blue Fin, Blue Water Grill, all the J Bar’s—kind of a higher-end Lettuce Entertain You. Now he makes wine. Natural progression, I guess. He’s making Tempranillo in Washington state, at a place called Gramercy Cellars, and it’s good.

Restaurant service is criticized, not just here but across the country. What’s your plan for doing it better?

The first questions that Tom MacDonald—who owns Webster’s Wine Bar in Chicago—asks in an interview are: “What else is the person into? What interests them? What—besides food and wine—could the customers relate to or learn?” That made sense to me.

Interesting approach.

The best servers are those you’d want to spend some time getting to know. Then, they need to multitask without losing it, and know how to move through a space—this is right out of Danny Meyer’s book. The cuisine? That’s why I hired Josh [Galliano]. He can teach that. Beverages? I can teach you all about that.

So experience isn’t important to you?

You’re hiring jadedness; it’s hard to untrain that. I’d rather focus on passion. Wine is not a career move for most, for example, but I bet my passion for wine would rub off on you just a little.

What was your most memorable part of being in Chicago?

I worked for a company, Feast Catering, that catered a lot of touring shows: The Stones, Paul McCartney, Britney Spears… I had many a discussion about wine.

Who was fun to hang with?

Brian Dennehy, when he was in town doing Death of a Salesman. Wine, scotch, cocktails—he and I covered a lot of ground. Matthew Broderick was shy; Sarah Jessica Parker was just the opposite. She’d pour wine at other tables and walk right into the kitchen. Mel Brooks was awesome. He asked my name, I told him “Nick,” and he’d say, “I have a son named Nick,” which put me at ease. Comparing notes later with staffers, we figured out he had a daughter named Susan, another son named Bill… He worked that same bit the whole month he was in Chicago.

Your favorite celebrity?

Tom Hanks is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.

Are St. Louisans any different than Chicagoans?

St. Louisans are a bit more relaxed and approachable. Up there, the pace and expense and difficulty of getting around can make people…angry. Here, we want to park right out in front.

Is the dining scene significantly different in Chicago?

I don’t know that it is. There are more people there who have a massive amount of disposable income. Dropping a couple of hundred bucks at dinner on a Tuesday night is no big deal. That part is different. And the restaurants respond to that.

But there’s no place like The Violet Hour here?

Not true. Taste, Sanctuaria, Blood & Sand… People visiting from Chicago say it’s just as good or better here. Niche, Farmhaus, Sidney Street… They’re killing it. That is why I came here. Chicago just has more of those places… We have six; they have 60. Hopefully, we’ll have one more. That, and I had a 1-year-old and just didn’t want him to grow up a Cubs fan, [smiling] accustomed to failure.

Talk about this team you’ve assembled.

The best talent is often the 24-year-old kid who hasn’t been discovered yet, so I try to surround myself with people like that. My GMs, Victoria Mitchell and Nate Weber, managed restaurants in Chicago and at Home Wine Kitchen here. My wife will be one of the sommeliers. And sous chef Josh Poletti [from Niche, Monarch, and Dressel’s Public House] will assist Josh.

How important is it having Josh Galliano in the kitchen?

Oh, not very… It’s just everything. People will come because we have a killer chef. We’ve got a Picasso in the kitchen, but we’ll charge prices like when Picasso was still alive.

Josh has become known for his fried chicken. Will that item play a part?

I’d like to pair that fried chicken with champagne, a weekly Sunday supper, because, hey, what goes better with chicken than champagne?

Can you pigeonhole the concept?

It’s an amalgamation. How about “transcendent food at exorbitantly affordable prices?” To give diners the best food we can means involving the local farmers; to call us simply a farm-to-table restaurant is a compliment, but it sells us short. Every good restaurant is a farm-to-table restaurant.

What’s transcendent food?

Food you’ve hopefully never experienced before—something similar, maybe, but different. Often such experiences come with pretension. That will not happen at The Libertine. The last thing we want you to feel is intimidated.

How will you handle menu-item descriptions? Overly detailed explanations can come off as pretentious, too.

I hate all of that. But if something special needs to be mentioned—a rare, heirloom breed of pig, for example—we’ll certainly mention that.

You have opinions on certain kinds of food.

I love innovation, but certain things—certain classics—are sometimes better left alone. French-style escargot, for example, with herbed butter and a little bread for dipping, are perfect just like that. I say don’t mess with it.

You also said that appropriately: The Libertine will defy some conventions.

Diners are often more forgiving—in food, service, drinks—when dealing with their neighborhood restaurant. We’d like to change that, and open a place where we’d like to eat, without having to compromise.

Will you accept reservations?

We will. I wasn’t going to, but I don’t want to see people—and that includes me—waiting who knows how long for dinner. I believe diners mentally allocate a fixed amount of time for dinner, especially if they have kids at home. Reservations allow them to keep within that framework. We’ll accommodate walk-ins as well. We’ve designed the bar and waiting area to be as comfortable as possible, but you can still leave if you want, and we’ll text you when your table is ready.

Discuss parking. That’s always an issue in St. Louis.

There’s this perception that there’s no parking in Clayton, which is ridiculous. But because the perception exists, we will offer free valet parking. Since it is an issue, I say, “Fine, just give it to ’em, especially since people tend to remember the free stuff.”

Can you do a quality cocktail for less money? Ten to $12 per seems to be the going rate.

Most do so because they can. Ours will be $8 or $10 on the high end, and that’s just because some components are more expensive. There’ll be a 10-to-15 item cocktail menu, with more emphasis on classics than on specialty drinks. Peter Vestinos, who [was a renowned mixologist at] Sepia in Chicago, will help me both write that menu and train the staff.

You say Libertine is “fun, comfortable, stylish, and perhaps, even a little bit sexy.” Elaborate on that last part.

My idea was to take an English pub and shove it inside a sexy, circa-1930s French salon. Both epitomize the best in socializing, so why not fuse them? The key is to make it as comfortable for three guys having a drink as for a couple on a date. You do that by using different gradients of light throughout the space: lights set at angles, accent lights, back lighting. Plus cushions with four-hour padding, nice wall treatments—the same comforts you have at home. My mom said, “I feel like I’m in an old country house that someone dropped a pub into.” Exactly.

How will you address noise?

There are sound diffusers all around, with carpet placed under tables and chairs. A restaurant floor is no place for carpet, in my opinion. Spills equal smells. Later, I hope to arrange the facade so that you can sit and dine at the bar, basically outside, which will also dissipate noise. That element has been done everywhere but here.

How large a part will your wife, Audra, play?

We’ve worked side by side for a long time. I get to work with my best friend. We’re good at it.  I’m not sure we could do it any other way. She’s a sommelier and is culinarily trained, but since we have a child, we’ll tag team our time at the restaurant.

You originally wanted to do a restaurant called Verona. It even had a website. What happened to that idea?

It was to be true Northern Italian, Piedmontese cuisine—simple sauces, game meats. It might have been too aggressive, though, requiring too much education, especially as a flagship. Now, Verona well could be the second place…or a Ligurian restaurant. So many ideas.

You’re a certified sommelier. Any wine surprises up your sleeve?

We’re planning to do an organic King Estate Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir—both on tap—for less than $8 a glass, along with about 20 glass pours from $9 to $12.

Do you have any other interests?

I’ve written several fiction books, short stories, novellas, a book of poetry—the kind of metaphysical nonsense you write in your 20s. That’s how I originally got into wine. I was on a book tour, and all of the other authors knew about wine but me. I was feeling left out of their club, so I took it as a personal challenge.

Are you still writing?

I am. [Smiles] But right now I’m busy opening a restaurant.