Café Osage, An Urban Oasis in the Central West End of St. Louis

Recycling in St. Louis takes on special meaning with the continuing renewal of city neighborhoods.  Streets are slowly improving, building by building, in the Central West End, the central corridor of St. Louis, just north of Forest Park [www.slfp.com/CentralWestEnd.html].  At one edge of the expanding urbane boundaries of the Central West End is Bowood Farms, which refurbished a former garage and plastics factory into an urban greenhouse, garden center, and the Osage Café that began operating in 2006.  Bowood Farms has its origins as a wholesale plant supplier and fourth generation family farm in Clarksville (Pike County) on the Mississippi River north of St. Louis.  Utilizing green construction techniques, Bowood Farms has contributed to an urban renewal that helps preserve the rich industrial architecture of the city, while innovating for the future with a living green roof, radiant heat flooring, and abundant use of natural light.  A garden plot across the street from the café supplies produce while the green roof is a source for fresh herbs.  Many of the plants sold in the garden center are still grown at the Pike County farm  that is now also home to a growing bison herd.  The bison represent a return to the roots of Missouri and enjoy the freedom of a hands-off ranching approach that allows the animals to live naturally.  The meat is available both in the restaurant and for purchase in the garden center.  On its website, Bowood Farms lists the weekly deliveries of “plant material” grown on the family farm available for purchase at the garden center.  This past week’s deliveries included 38 types of plants including chives, mustard greens, Lenten roses, oregano, lavender, geraniums, rosemary, sage and thyme.

Spring has sprung early in Missouri this year, and Sunday started as a wonderfully bright, warm day that seemed perfect for a trip to the garden center for breakfast at the Café Osage.  Entering through the garden center is like walking into the greenhouse of a Gilded Age estate.  The large industrial layout reminds you of the building’s working past and agricultural purpose, but the tropical houseplants, refined garden implements, and clean, well-light interior add a touch of sophistication.  Lemon, orange, and fig trees can be found alongside more common decorative plants and utilitarian produce.  The café continues the theme of old industrial space with concrete floors and a copper bar, but softens it with warm colors and small tables that give the impression of intimacy in an open space.

We arrived shortly after the cafe opened at 9:00AM, and by the time we left nearly every seat was taken.  An attentive but unobtrusive staff was friendly and kept supplying ample refills of water and coffee.  Regular coffee ($2.00) was perhaps the best I’ve had in St. Louis.  Full, smooth flavor was thankfully not accompanied by the bitter acidity of over-roasted beans or poor brewing that is unfortunately so common in the Midwest.  Daily specials are mixed with a regular menu that focuses on making traditional fare with a special twist.

Instead of standard breakfast fare of eggs, French toast or pancakes, I opted for the biscuits and gravy ($8.50), which is a typically Midwestern and Southern dish usually made with white sausage gravy.  Some examples of this meal result in a heavy gravy that more closely resembles paste products than sauce, so I was hesitant as I waited to see how Café Osage would do.  Their version featured cheddar and chive biscuits topped with creamed chicken, mushrooms, and leeks.  This lighter version of the classic comfort food featured excellent flavor with the leeks providing a subtle, yet noticeable presence that linked the sauce and the chive biscuits.  The cream sauce itself was hearty enough to enjoy without being texturally overpowering.  It was a wonderful reinterpretation of the classic that made my dining companion, a native Southerner who is quite knowledgeable of this dish, very jealous.  She opted for the mixed grain pancakes and seasonal fruit compote ($8.00).  The multiple grain flour gave the pancakes a hearty feel without making them heavy while the fruit lent a nice sweetness to complement the tartness of the lemon sauce.  Portions were adequate and reflected the high quality of the product.  Lower grade food so often tries to mask itself with super-sized portions, but Café Osage has the right balance of quality and quantity to provide both a filling and fully satisfying meal.

Café Osage is the perfect weekend breakfast spot to relax.  The vibrant atmosphere filled with natural light and lush green plants offers the illusion of relaxing gardens and the casual elegance of a more formal garden house, but with the practicality of a working urban space and the comfort of good honest food prepared carefully and to high standards (Ethan Bennett 2/22/11). [Café Osage @ Bowood Farms, 4605 Olive Street, 314.454.6868, Breakfast: Mon-Sat 7:00AM-10:30AM, Sun 9:00AM-2:00PM, Lunch: Mon-Sat 11:00AM-2:00PM www.bowoodfarms.com]

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