Posted On: 08/01/2012
Norah’s Crafted Food & Spirits,
Renaissance St. Louis Airport Hotel, 9801 Natural Bridge Road, 314.429.1100
It’s not as if hotels don’t have good restaurants. The Four Seasons has Cielo, The Chase Park Plaza has Eau Bistro and there’s Eclipse at the Moonrise. But these are quality restaurants that just happen to be inside hotels. They’d be destinations outside of any hotel corporate structure. They’re also located in vibrant urban areas where people like to flock: Laclede’s Landing, the Central West End, The Loop. Despite these examples, it’s safe to say that most hotel restaurants are afterthoughts, serving overpriced pedestrian fare to the average traveler.
Then there’s Norah’s Crafted Food & Spirits, a good restaurant that will never be a destination for most St. Louis diners because of its location: inside the Renaissance St. Louis Airport Hotel. It’s a fine hotel, recently remodeled and highly regarded. But unless Hustler Hollywood or watching a few F-18s scream in and out of Lambert is on their bucket list, even staycationers will stay away because there’s simply nothing to do nearby.
It’s unfortunate because Norah’s could play in the same sandbox as those other restaurants. The new space blends contemporary sleek with rural elements: sheer drapes; shiny plastic netting place mats; shimmery throw pillows; chicly appointed private dining alcoves met with natural wood floors; barn lamp sconces; replicas of early 20th century swivel stools; and heavy wood, iron and glass sliding doors. Above our table hung a small, twisted aluminum chandelier that looked like a metallic bow. Menus were clasped to unwieldy legal-size brushed aluminum clipboards and the beverage list came in a cumbersome metal binder. Low-vibe electronica music hummed throughout. The place is so organic and rich with texture that you want to touch everything.
Executive chef Chris Stroup, a 2010 St. Louis Area Hotel Association “Chef of the Year” winner, has created a menu that changes monthly and is much along the lines of the restaurant’s interior: modern American with a rustic twist. He also named the restaurant after his infant daughter. And just as he did when he helmed the hotel’s previous restaurant, T-Bone Trattoria, Stroup sources as much local produce and other ingredients as possible. Like the tart of Ozark Forest mushrooms, Heartland Dairy goat cheese and leeks, topped with local arugula. It was dense and rich, the crust buttery but not flaky. The only problem was temperature. Reheating it would destroy the texture. But serving it straight from the refrigerator muted the flavors; room temperature would have brought out the full creamy, earthy potential of this appetizer.
“Angry” mussels get their name from the confit of garlic, chile peppers and smoked tomatoes in which the 14 tender mollusks were bathed. Crumbles of fiama sausage, redolent with fennel and spiced with smoked Spanish paprika and black pepper, only amped up the heat and spice factor. The same confit and sausage showed up again, this time mixed with white beans and local kale as a bed for a thick piece of cod. The fish, sourced from the Georges Bank area off the coast of Massachusetts, was seasoned just with salt and pepper and simply roasted to juicy succulence. Yet too many crunchy, undercooked beans diminished what was an otherwise superb combination. Regarding the spicy heat of the dish, while I found it enjoyable, others may not; it was neither described on the menu nor explained by the server.
The locally raised pork chop, served with a cider jus, parsnip purée and apple-celery salad, was another example of a well-composed dish that didn’t completely come together. Yes, the bone-in chop was thick and juicy, not quite a blushing pink but not overdone, either. Yes, parsnips have a sweet taste, but this purée was more pudding-like and too thickly sweet so as to hide any parsnip flavor. And if there was celery in this salad, I missed it.
Other dishes worked flawlessly. Like the diver scallops: five plump, firm bivalves seared and set atop a bowl of creamy rich and dense yellow grits from South Carolina’s Anson Mills. Bits of bacon, thick and peppery from William Brothers Meat Market in Washington, Mo., were scattered about the scallops for the best kind of surf and turf. The mound of flash-fried spinach to the side made the dish deliciously indulgent. The menu simply stated “spinach,” but again the description should be more specific. Where some diners may yawn at the thought of mere steamed greens and forgo the dish, most cannot resist the crispy, salty pleasure of flash-fried leaves. Meat and potatoes are also on the menu. One offering, the strip steak – seasoned simply with salt and pepper and seared hard in an iron skillet – arrived a juicy medium-rare, as ordered. Underneath, the creamy blue cheese fonduta added a gentle tang. But oh, what potatoes: two halves of a Yukon Gold flattened and seared in duck fat. The little arugula salad on the plate at least provided some color of health.
Desserts are hearty, including Mississippi mud pie, cherries jubilee with almond ice cream, Missouri pecan pie, and salted caramel bread pudding. But it’s peach season and a slice of peach pie seemed in order. If you prefer your pie warmed up, ask. It’s a simple pie, just slices of fruit in a crust with a crumb top, a quartered peach wedge supporting the slice.
There were other dishes that I wanted to try, like chicken and dumplings made from scratch, but I probably won’t drive to the airport for it. If I just flew in from Cleveland and was hankering for a good meal, however, I’d be set.
Norah’s Crafted Food & Spirits, Renaissance St. Louis Airport Hotel, 9801 Natural Bridge Road, 314.429.1100
Don’t Miss Dishes
Diver scallops with pepper bacon, grits and flash-fried spinach; iron skillet-seared Angus strip steak with blue cheese fonduta and duck fat potatoes.
Think high-tech metallic meets country barn with an electronica chill soundtrack.
$18 to $32
Everyday: Breakfast, lunch and dinner
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