Bon appetite's fantasy menu celebrates the fresh but sophisticated approach that Italian chefs are taking to invigorate rustic old-world flavors for today's more adventurous diners, and lists St. Louis' Acero Restaurant among the best. If national recognition isn't enough to convince you to try Acero's new old-world cuisine, consider their $25 four course tasting menu and the fact that their talented Executive Chef, Adam Gnau, is also great eye candy. (I'm pretty sure Mama and Papa BaCon would bring me to Acero every time I come home, in hopes that Chef Gnau and I would find true love over a plate of Tuscan Anchovies, if they didn't love Mr. Luz so much.)
Acero is part of the Jim Fiala family of restaurants (see also Liluma and The Crossing) and Fiala keeps Acero's food simple yet stunning with the best ingredients and thoughtful flavor combinations. With every bite, I couldn't help but think "This is exactly how this food, each element of this dish, is supposed to taste." Chefs Fiala and Gnau manage to tease the most flavor out of each component of each dish with just a little heat, oils, acids, and seasoning, and the overall effect as enjoyable as it is surprising.
My antipasti of chicken liver mousse on crostini was rich, and buttery, and the crostini was brioche-like in taste and texture--sweet, and dense. I also tried the bruschetta with caramelized onion, blue cheese, and honey and was surprised by how balanced the dish was given all of the sweeter elements. The blue cheese was perfectly acidic, and the onions were more piquant and creamy than sweet.
I ordered one of the specials for my primi, a ricotta and parmesan gnudi with a simple tomato sauce and guanciale, or cured pork cheek. One of my favorite foods of all time is the swiss chard malfatti at Al Di La in Brooklyn, NY, also a gnudi dish, and I'm always on the hunt for something to satisfy my herb and cheese craving when I can't get to NY. Acero's gnudi did not disappoint. The guanciale added a salty savoriness to an otherwise sweet and delicate dish. It's safe to say that I've found my Midwest malfatti. I also tried Acero's Egg Raviolo--a large, thin ravioli filled with herbs, spinach, and soft cheeses, and topped with a farm fresh egg yolk. The pure opaque richness of the soft-boiled egg yolk essentially served as a sauce for the light, sweet pasta and delicately herbed cheeses. If Acero's Egg Raviolo was my last meal on earth (hopefully paired with a dry aged steak and a SuperTuscan of Glenn Bardgett's choosing), I could certainly die happy.
Between courses, Chef Gnau brought us a few fun and interesting dishes as a little lagniappe to our already amazing meal. (Perhaps he was attempting to wooing me with briny and fried things, Mama BaCon?) First, we had white anchovies with heirloom tomatoes, basil, and lemon. I have recently fallen in love with all things anchovy, I'm addicted to their mild sweet, salty funkiness, and this little taste was a nice combination of anchovy with some bright, fresh Summer flavors.
Next came what Chef Gnau jokingly described as meat doughnuts (Wooohoooo!) The simple presentation of thinly shaved prosciutto, deep fried bread beignets, a ripe and golden olive oil, and biting red lava salt was seriously heavenly and appealed to all of the senses at once.
Like all of Jim Fiala's restaurants, Acero is unassuming and friendly despite its superstar status and the utterly confident talent and innovation that characterizes its kitchen. As if I were in an old friend's kitchen after a long and successful dinner party, I finished my meal at Acero with a glass of port, their simple dessert of vanilla gelato covered with a shot of espresso, and happy, drowsy conversation that drifted off as we each got lost in our thoughts, remembering our favorite parts of our meal. And no, Chef Gnau didn't send out his personal phone number with my tawny port, but there's always next time.