November 23, 2013
There is something odd, if not disconcerting, about spying a $92 menu item during breakfast.
Fortunately, as I sat awaiting my French toast at a suburban St. Louis restaurant called Half and Half, I realized that the $92 item was not diamond-encrusted pancakes; it was dinner at a restaurant called Little Country Gentleman.
When did differentiating between two restaurants with different names become so demanding? When the two restaurants with different names are housed under the same roof.
From 7 a.m. until 2 p.m., the brick storefront amid a row of restaurants and retailers, operates as Half and Half, a fresh, modern take on breakfast and lunch. The room then is shuttered for four hours before reopening as the Little Country Gentleman, a gastronomic dinner adventure.
The restaurants share a dining room, walk-in refrigerators and a kitchen, where an image of young Bob Dylan, guitar in hand, lords over the proceedings. What they don't share are staff, menus or names.
Mike Randolph, 33, who has cooked in Chicago (Moto and M. Henry) and Charleston, S.C. (Peninsula Grill), opened Half and Half in 2011. It quickly became a hit, generating two-hour waits on the weekends. Yet he resisted when his general manager suggested that the restaurant stay open for dinner. Instead, he was struck with a novel idea: What about a completely different dinner experience in the same space?
The idea led to Little Country Gentleman, a restaurant he calls his "toy": There would be no fixed menu items but instead dishes that vary with the seasons, plus whatever inspires him at the moment. Randolph also owns a popular pizza spot in St. Louis called The Good Pie.
"Because of the shared-space thing, I didn't have the weight on my shoulders of having to structure a restaurant to pay off debt in Year 1," Randolph said. "I love making pizza and pancakes, but (the Little Country Gentleman) is what drives me."
On a recent trip to St. Louis, I visited the building on consecutive days for both sides of the Half and Half and the Little Country Gentleman experience.
I arrived at Half and Half about 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday to find a space both modern (white tile, dark wood walls with inlaid mirrors) and comfortably retro (light bulbs dangling from the ceiling in glass jars). Modern rock music played softly above. Nearly every table was full.
I was given a menu of that week's coffees and a lengthy description of the "coffee program," which relies on smaller roasters, such as Blueprint (St. Louis), Madcap (Grand Rapids, Mich.) and Intelligentsia (Chicago).
The food didn't seem to offer much surprise at first glance: omelet and hash, French toast and pancakes, hamburgers and grilled cheese.
But a deeper look showed flair in each option. The French toast, made from brioche, was covered in blackberries and infused with mascarpone. The veggie hash didn't feature any cop-out ingredients, such as green pepper. Instead it boasted that most underrated of vegetables, Brussels sprouts. The burgers were composed of house-ground chuck, brisket and hanger steak. There was even a banh mi dog, which was a hot dog topped with pickled vegetables, jalapeno, cilantro and cucumber.
And the French toast was no disappointment, arriving thick and fresh and doused in blackberries that veered tart rather than sweet. The mascarpone added a creamy backbone. At my server's suggestion, I paired the French toast with a locally sourced sausage patty that was fresh, lightly herbal and a pleasantly greasy counterpoint.
As my meal wound down, I spied the $92 fixed-price Little Country Gentleman dinner on a chalkboard above the restaurant's open kitchen, where dishes were churned out for a dining room that never slowed. I asked Half and Half's chef, Chip Bates, what I could expect at dinner.
"This is in your face and fast paced. That's slower, and you spend a lot more time on each plate," Bates said of the Little Country Gentleman. "There's kind of a big brother, little brother thing."
Who is the big brother, I asked.
"Depends on who you ask," he said.
When I arrived at the Little Country Gentleman the next night, the tables had been moved across the dining room, right in front of the kitchen, to give diners a front-row view of the culinary action. The lights were dimmed. Only two tables were occupied.
Nowhere to be found for breakfast, Randolph was impossible to miss at dinner; in ripped jeans, a white T-shirt and a red backward-turned baseball cap, he ran the kitchen with low-key authority. When a song came on that he liked — such as the bluegrass ballad "Wagon Wheel" by Old Crow Medicine Show — Randolph cranked the volume and continued to slave away.
Dining options are deliberately limited at the Little Country Gentleman. There's a $62, six-course fixed-price menu that includes six categories: lighter first and second courses, a pasta dish, a seafood dish, a meat dish and a dessert. The diner chooses one of each.
The Grand Tasting is the $92 option I had spied the previous morning; it offers two dishes from each of the six categories, plus another five or six items that Randolph called "the more adventurous stuff."
"It's whatever we're getting from the farmers and whatever we're excited about," he said. "If we find a really cool cheese, maybe we'll put that on a plate and send it out. Sometimes the best thing to do is leave something alone and let people experience it."
More recently, the Little Country Gentleman has offered a la carte ordering, allowing diners to choose a handful of the fixed-price options. But in the name of journalism and gluttony, I opted for the Grand Tasting and settled in for what I was promised would be a three-hour experience.
There was no need to waste time with a complimentary breadbasket, and the Little Country Gentleman did no such thing. Instead, the courses trickled out in small, refined and exact portions, usually occupying just a fraction of their dishes. It began with red and yellow beets with a muscular sheep's-milk cheese from Vermont. Then came dehydrated berries with yogurt and creme fraiche, a cast-iron dish of supple, juicy tomatoes and a bit of cucumber ice to clear the palate.
Those little dishes were assembled meticulously, but the way to eat them seemed to be with gusto, attacking the elements in one swoop to savor the mingling of their flavors.
On it came, increasingly complex and daring: cured fish roe, pig's head with corn puree and fermented jalapenos, pan-seared skate, sweetbreads with blackberries and a strozzapreti pasta with snails and Parmesan. Then a surprise: an intermezzo cocktail of gin, plum vinegar and club soda adorned with a lemon peel. It was sweet, tart and refreshing, gearing me up for a final push that Randolph apparently also needed at the halfway mark.
"OK, boys, let's finish strong with this (grand tasting menu)," he announced to his kitchen.
A scallop swimming in yellow corn soup. Rabbit sausage stuffed in rabbit loin wrapped in bacon. Corned pig's heart with anchovy, rye crisps, blackberry jam and a house-made, 55-day-old sauerkraut.
"Our version of a Reuben," my waiter said.
Fullness loomed, but it didn't matter. A celery board arrived, then a spoonful of gnocchi with a lamb-kidney-and-liver pate, lamb's hearts that had arrived that day from a local farmer, a Cornish hen (getting full), braised beef cheek with broccoli florets (fuller still), a funky cheese course, then a chocolate mousse and finally, cheesecake.
I believe my sentiment at that last forkful was, "Garrrrgggggggghhhh." Next was, "See you in the morning for the veggie skillet."
If you go
Half and Half (8135 Maryland Ave., Clayton, Mo.; 314-725-0719) is open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Little Country Gentleman is open 6 to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Reservations are suggested for dinner. More information: halfandhalfstl.com and littlecountrygentleman.com.
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