Farmhaus, A Star on the St. Louis Restaurant Scene

Tucked away in an unassuming storefront in a quiet St. Louis neighborhood is one of the city’s best restaurants.  Like its close neighbor, the famous Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, Farmhaus is set to become a St. Louis institution thanks to the creativity and skill of an excellent staff and focus on locally sourced ingredients of outstanding quality.  On a recent visit, I was treated to a demonstration of why Farmhaus is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the best restaurants in St. Louis.

Chef Kevin Willmann, an Illinois farm boy who earned his culinary stripes in the Florida panhandle, returned to his roots and rose quickly through the ranks of the St. Louis restaurant scene.  In 2010, with a deep respect and nostalgia for his farming past, Willmann opened Farmhaus as his first independent venture.  Willmann’s agricultural roots deeply inspired his relationship with food and cooking at Farmhaus.  With few exceptions, all ingredients are sourced locally and from the highest quality purveyors.  Only the seafood, his original specialty, makes a daily trip mostly from Gulf Coast waters.  Linking the land, fresh ingredients, and a belief that food unites us on a fundamental and familial level, Chef Willmann’s work showcases creativity and dedication to his art.

After hearing many positive reviews from friends, we decided to try Farmhaus on a recent Friday night.  Reservations are recommended and we quickly learned why.  The small storefront space quickly fills with patrons after 5:30.  We were the first diners, but within ten minutes half the place was full.  The welcoming atmosphere blended fine dinning with a casual feel.  Trays of ripening tomatoes greeted guests by the doorway and cheerful staff dressed in farmers’ plaids and blue jeans scuttled about.  Throughout the meal, their helpful, attentive, and unobtrusive presence showcased their professionalism.  Upon learning this was our first time visiting the restaurant, our waitress gave a brief rundown on the philosophy and style of the menu that changes daily to reflect the best available ingredients.  In keeping with the idea of food as a unifier, plates are designed to be small but shareable so ordering several items is recommended.

A finely crafted wine list features many Californian and Washington vintages for nearly all budgets from $24-$300 per bottle.  The beer list reflects the local St. Louis brewing heritage with a variety of craft and microbrews.  Most impressively, several signature cocktails feature house-infused spirits and other local ingredients.  My companion ordered an “All I See is Gold” cocktail with House-infused raspberry vodka, O’Fallon Wheach beer (a peach wheat beer), ginger ale, and mint, while I settled on a glass of Alberti 154 Malbec from Argentina (both $10).  The cocktail was the first indication that the kitchen staff mastered flavor combination as the essence of each ingredient shone through without being overpowering.

We noticed many people opting for that night’s special starter of fried Alabama blue crab cocktail fingers, which looked and smelled delicious.  The evening’s menu clearly had a fall theme running through.  In a nod to the pig-butchering season, many dishes had pork in one form or another.  On our waitress’s suggestion we tried the Butcher’s Plate ($28) as a representation of the philosophy and style of the restaurant.  It was perfect for two to share.  The dish exceeded its highly lauded expectations and then some.  Tasting portions of porchetta di testa (pig’s head), chilled pork pie, lamb rillettes, pig liver terrine, whipped lardo, Baetje Farms Bloomsdale (goat’s milk cheese), Marcoot Jersey Creamery Alpine (cow milk cheese), local honey, tomato jam, blueberry mostardo, assorted Farmhaus breads & New Orleans style butter pickles provided a challenge on where to start eating and what items to pair.  The scent of autumn permeated the plate as notes of nutmeg and cloves radiated from the terrine and butter pickles.  My personal favorite was to mix the whipped lardo with the apple butter for a decadent treat.  While I am personally not a huge fan of goat cheese, the Baetje Farms Bloomsdale may have converted me.  It was easy to see how this pyramid shaped, surface ripened cheese (seasoned with pine ash and salt) keeps taking top awards at international competitions.  We followed the parade of charcuterie with the roasted Ozark Forest wild mushroom salad featuring Crop Circle spicy greens, Baetje Farms goat cheese, toasted Missouri pecans, all lightly tossed in a warm bacon vinaigrette ($12).  The greens offered a crisp palette cleanser while the lightly fried and slightly crispy mushrooms provided a link back to the fall theme of butcher’s plate with their deep, yet subtle forest notes.

For our mains we continued the theme of fall and freshly butchered pig by ordering bacon wrapped meatloaf with sweet and Yukon Gold smashed potatoes, sous vide pearl onions, and a tomato-merlot reduction ($16) and the grilled Jones Heritage Farms Pork Chop with a confit of Weidner Farms red skin potatoes, house made sauerkraut, shaved Murray Orchard Jonathan apples, and a mustard reduction ($32).  Both arrived beautifully presented, as would all of our dishes that evening.  My pork chop was nicely frenched, one of the many small details that showed the care given to each item on the plate.  The meatloaf tasted almost like a country terrine with intense pork flavors, but it was nicely balanced with the creaminess of the smashed potatoes.  The very lean meatloaf was drier than some others I’ve sampled, but the flavor more than made up for it.

Jones Heritage Farms eschews industrial farming techniques in favor of raising happy and healthy animals on the family farm, and their pork truly exemplifies high quality food.  A naturally sweet and tender chop was grilled to a perfect medium with strong hints of wood smoke.  Shaved Jonathan apples and the mustard reduction provided a nice sweet and spicy match for the pork.  While the homemade sauerkraut seemed to be of excellent quality, there was so little of it that it was hard to get a true sense of that aspect of the dish.  A little more would have helped unify the flavors and composition in better keeping with the fall theme.

For dessert we were treated to the creations of pastry chef Jamie Everett who is a gem of a cook.  Of the many tempting options we decided on an apple pie with smoked apple butter and homemade vanilla ice cream, and a brioche French toast with a fall rhubarb jam flavored with Schlafly IPA and rhubarb sorbet (both $9).  The apple pie was tasty, but had a hint of flour as if it hadn’t quite been baked enough.  The smoked apple butter was a standalone star as the smokiness was pronounced without overwhelming the apples, a testament to great skill in its preparation.  A generous portion of that over the equally delicious ice cream would have been a perfect dessert.  But stealing the show for the entire meal was the homemade brioche French toast.  An intensely rich yet surprisingly fluffy toast was the best example of the dish I have ever had.  Both the jam and the rhubarb sorbet matched well with the richness of the toast- sufficiently sweet enough to equal the tartness of the rhubarb.  I hope this dish makes an encore appearance.

Farmhaus is a showcase for the high quality local ingredients produced by the skilled artisans and farmers of the greater St. Louis region.  Chef Willmann and his staff exemplify what passion and creativity can bring to wonderful local food.  I look forward to returning often.
Farmhaus, 3257 Ivanhoe Avenue, 314.647.3800, Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:00AM-2:00PM, Dinner: Weds-Sat 5:30PM to close [www.farmhausrestaurant.com]

(Ethan Bennett, 11/26/12)

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