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STLtoday.com: Taste in Central West End transforms simple into sophisticated

April 29, 2011

This article appeared on www.stltoday.com on Thursday, April 28, 2011 READ IT HERE
Story by Joe Bonwich

In its original incarnation on Sidney Street, Taste — then known as Taste by Niche — was probably best classified as an upscale bar with interesting food, as opposed to a dinner destination. Taste v2.0 opened in March in the Central West End space that was formerly Moxy, dropping the “by Niche,” even though it’s next door to Brasserie by Niche. The menu notes that dishes are “designed to be shared,” but most also can be used to construct individual appetizer-entree-dessert meals.

The new space is cozy but, at about three times the capacity, not so near-claustrophobic as the old place. The design morphs Moxy’s polished hipness into a more subdued, much warmer state of cool. It feels, dare we say, cosmopolitan, although that word’s connotation of cartoonish “Sex and the City” sipping sophistication would be an unwarranted slight of head bartender Ted Kilgore and his team.

Niche mastermind Gerard Craft retains partial ownership of Taste, but chef Adam Altnether is the official “proprietor.” His approach appears to revolve around fairly mundane ingredients taken to unexpected heights.

The roasted chicken leg quarter ($13), for example, complemented rich and perfectly cooked dark meat with a concentrated, succulent jus — and then counterpointed those flavors with florets of cauliflower that had been pickled and roasted.

Braised pork belly ($12) was a gourmet riff on pork and beans, placing the full-bodied but tender meat and silky, rich fat of a rectangle of belly atop white beans chilled for more-pronounced flavor and contrasting temperature.

An apple-and-Taleggio panini ($11) also played with contrasts, using two thick slices of airy butter-browned bread to border the crisp tartness of Granny Smith slices and the oozy richness of the cheese, with lemon-vinaigrette-dressed arugula contributing variations of tang and bite.

Crispy trout ($16) and ramp risotto ($8) each elevated usually humble root vegetables to much higher stations. The filleted half-trout was served atop a grapefruit-color swirl of radish purée whose aroma was distinctively earthy but whose flavor was at once mildly peppery and slightly sweet. Standing alone, the trout was relatively bland; saucing it with the purée was unexpected, but the flavors matched in much the way as a creamy horseradish would have.

The ramp risotto was an off-menu special designed to capture the transition from winter to spring. Newly sprouted oniony-garlicky ramps flavored the rice and turned it green, while halved tiny turnips and parsnips from the root cellar browned alongside into a luscious caramelization.

Altnether is one the area’s young chefs who have embraced the “nose to tail” concept of using as much of an animal as possible. This was vividly illustrated by the evening’s selection of terrines ($7, for one, two for $13, or all three for $18): Grand-mère was a standard, coarse liver pâté, densely flavored but simple, perhaps included for those who might be scared off by the other two. Pig’s ear had a firmer texture and a smoother, richer flavor, owing to soft chunks of pork along with chipped pistachios; and beef tongue set thin slices of tender tongue, along with small bits of carrots, in a vaguely beefy jelly.

For amped-up bacon and eggs, we paired three halves of deviled eggs stuffed with bacon-whipped yolks ($5) with an order of six small slices of bacon candied with maple and pistachios ($5).

The pigwich ($5), a bacon-butter-cream cookie sandwich that was one of the most popular items at the original Taste, is still on the menu and is still an ideal way of ending the meal.

This isn’t a bar review column, so I’ll touch only briefly on the cocktails. Two, three and sometimes all four bartenders shake, muddle and roll — occasionally with a twist but never a shout — through a menu of almost three dozen cocktails. Sitting at the bar provides the proverbial ringside seat.

Duck fat Grand Marnier, concocted on-site, provided a new textural context for a beverage while adding no distracting flavors. At $10 a drink, you can run up a considerable bar tab if you don’t sip your cocktails slowly from start to finish. (A brief but well-chosen and moderately priced wine list is also available, as is a vast selection of hard liquors.)

The dining areas consist of standard tables downstairs, and two communal tables and a conversation pit upstairs. For any semblance of privacy, stay downstairs, although the table spacing is high-rent-lower-Manhattan tight.

The dimly lit interior, including lines of tea candles marking the way up the stairs to the mezzanine, makes Taste feel like an elite club. It’s one you should join at your next opportunity.