Feb. 3, 2017

The Cheshire Tastes, St. Louis

Booths along the walls each have gas-lit lamps. Reclaimed wood forms the ceiling. Above the community tables, directly in front of the staircase, modern lights hang in singular pieces like pins being dropped from the ceiling; a map of dark space now dotted with light.

“Do you love what you do?” we asked.

“You have to . . . to really do it well,” Executive Chef Rex Hale said, smiling.

Between intervals of purposed movement, he would come and sit calmly with us in the restaurant Basso. There was a passionate energy about him that reminded you to really focus on the flavors you were experiencing. As Executive Chef for all the restaurants at The Cheshire, a boutique hotel in St. Louis, Missouri, it is this man’s pride in his work, his love for all things taste, and deep passion for his craft, that are the constant undercurrents of his confident and calming presence. They are the impetus that keep the engine of the entire operation running magnificently.

First, we tried the pizza, for which Basso is known. We sat in a nook with couches on two sides of a long, beautiful heavy metal “table.” It wasn’t actually a table at all; it was likely once a trailer bed. Now reclaimed, refurbished, cool, interesting, and it was here our pizzas were served. This is how all of Basso is--an underground restaurant with inventive fixtures and furnishings making it feel like New York swank has met rural Italy in a stunning display of the old turned contemporary.

Above the community tables, directly in front of the staircase, modern lights hang in singular pieces like pins being dropped from the ceiling; a map of dark space now dotted with light.

The entrance is at street-level, but once inside, we were met with a wide-sweeping whimsically-curved stairwell that led down to the restaurant. To the right of the staircase, a few leather chairs are gathered together beside a wall lined with wood. In the wood, holes sit ready for the necks of wine bottles. Booths along the walls each have gas-lit lamps. Reclaimed wood forms the ceiling. Above the community tables, directly in front of the staircase, modern lights hang in singular pieces like pins being dropped from the ceiling; a map of dark space now dotted with light. The music is a collection of modern “cool-kid” bands like The Arctic Monkeys, Jon Bellion, The Black Keys and Patrick Sweany. Around the next corner, we sit on the couches with our reclaimed table and our pizzas; a view of the wood-fired oven and it's pizza maker before us.

The first pizza is the “Vampire Slayer,” featuring (obviously) garlic, as well as shrimp sausage, Fresno chiles, and salmoriglio. The savory from the meat meets a bite from the chiles that’s undeniably good. The second pizza is the “Emo Cover Band.” This one has sausage, cipollini, pancetta, mushroom, poblano, and “Basso” provel. It has all the good stuff and melts into a delicious combination, nodding to “supreme” but surpassing it at first bite.

With Basso presenting authentic Italian cuisine, next up was pasta. Mafalda was brought to our table, with its thick, wide noodles intertwined with beef and pork ragu. Pecorino romano and breadcrumbs christened the top and made the dish sing. The Mafalda was paired with a glass of Chianti to complement the depth in the red sauce. A few other notable tastes were the crispy meatballs and their perfect pairing with radicchio agrodolce, easily balancing it as a savory-sweet dish; the chicken wings with their lovely gorgonzola crema; and the Brussels sprouts (for which we’re constantly on the search) featuring pancetta, fennel, and parmesan breadcrumbs. Last was the tiramisu. We love simple desserts. Sometimes it’s just refreshing to let the natural beauty in cream speak for itself. This was one of the most luscious tiramisus I’ve tried.

After our delicious experience downstairs, we headed up, and met Chef Rex in the above-ground restaurant, Boundary. And it was here that his story began to unravel.

We know the same rolling hills, the same woods and trees, the same ground. There’s nothing quite like connecting to the earth.

“In the summers I would go to my grandma’s farm in Rogersville, Missouri” he said, “I would help her cook lunch for about 20 to 30 people every day and that’s where I first became interested in food.”

We were surprised to hear that it was in this location, in the very heart of the Midwest, where his love for food was first sparked. Rogersville is only 13 miles from Tuscan Hill--where our own love for hospitality and food was birthed. We know the same rolling hills, the same woods and trees, the same ground. There’s nothing quite like connecting to the earth.

“I would go out and get the eggs, the chickens, the vegetables and herbs,” Chef Rex recalled. And it’s a practice he still has today, except with others’ farms, as all the produce and protein for the restaurants are locally sourced.

Allison, our server in Boundary said “Chef even has dinners in the restaurant for his suppliers--farmers and their families. The way he connects with the community is amazing.”

Through the front doors, you’re met with one side of the bar, whose backing is simply a glass vault--reaching almost to the ceiling--that makes up the wine cellar. The cellar, although see-through, creates a very large partition between the bar and restaurant, making them two distinct spaces. Guided into the restaurant, we were seated beside the fireplace where staff, throughout the evening, would add logs to feed the fire and the glowing atmosphere.

Plantain and taro chips were assembled beside the carved-out coconut that held the ceviche like a bowl.

The first dishes we sampled in Boundary were from the raw bar. Ceviche was served with coconut milk added to the mixture, taking the dish from ordinary to extraordinary. Plantain and taro chips were assembled beside the carved-out coconut that held the ceviche like a bowl. There was an unbelievable and straight-forward tuna poke dish, with it’s only true necessities: avocado, soy and ginger. The kona kampachi, with a refreshing combination of beet, ginger, chile, sea salt and coriander, was stunning. Presentation was overflowing with every dish.

We then sampled hot dishes including: pork ribs, so succulent, and so well-paired with pickled radish and local figs; the grilled, housemade sausage dish with potatoes and whole grain mustard--hitting the nail of “comfort food” on the head; and sea scallops, huge and tender, atop butternut squash and smoked bacon risotto.

Now, completely in awe of the art that Chef Rex consistently exhibited, we had to know more of his story.  

“I grew up here in St. Louis, but I left in 1975 and didn’t come back until 2002,” he said.

Those 27 years were all about cuisine. During that time he was executive chef at restaurants in Houston, Kansas City, Dallas, Ojai, and internationally in Antigua, South Africa, and the British Virgin Islands.

“My time in Ojai, California influenced my cooking style because of the simplicity of the ingredients,” said Chef Rex, “I used to walk down the street in Ojai and pick up produce as I went; everyone grew their own food.”

The glamour of the green brings a seafaring mysticism to the space that’s in harmony with the raw bar sitting on the restaurant side of the wine cellar.

The embodiment of the words “fresh” and “clean” are seen in everything from food to space.

Chef Rex was instrumental in creating and shaping the dining atmosphere, bringing in all of his experiences, connecting space with taste. The ambience of Boundary brought one word to mind: rich. It was rich in color, in detail, in architectural design. In Boundary, once again, rustic meets modern but in a different way than in Basso. In Boundary, modern flair is brought in with massive chandeliers of pleasing neutral-colored fabric, that hang lower than the arched ceiling of brick and wood above them. A long bench of bright green leather is the focal point of the floor plan. The glamour of the green brings a seafaring mysticism to the space that’s in harmony with the raw bar sitting on the restaurant side of the wine cellar.

To finish our tasting experience, Chef Rex sent a small sampling of desserts. Meyer lemon cheesecake--bright, and not too sweet, Tcho chocolate mousse--an organic chocolate from San Francisco, and cardamom ice cream--brilliant.

Basking in the soft light and the warmth from the fire, we sat impressed, full, and feeling like we’d witnessed magic. The raw expression of loving what you do translates into everything you touch within that space.

Chef Rex and his culinary team have accomplished just that.


Tips:

Check out Boundary’s events featuring local farmers and their specialties.

Ask for a glass of Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc. I don’t usually choose white wine, but I was in love with this one.

Check out Basso for happy hour. There are select $5 wine, $4 craft beers, and $6 cocktails (try the Aperol Spritz). There are also $8 pizzas, and other food items that are $4-$7.

Check out Fox and Hounds, the small pub inside The Cheshire. Pub-style food is served with English flair, including lamb sliders, fish and chips, Cambridge smoked pork, Liverpool wings, and a Nottingham cheese and salumi plate. While a full bar is at your service, there are many beers on tap that will complete the English experience.


Click here to learn even more about Basso and Boundary.

Read the rest of the story on The Cheshire here.

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Posted in: The Taste