Even after three years, Araka in Clayton packs ‘em in. It doesn’t hurt that the place is snugly ensconced in one of the toniest parts of town, near the Ritz. Nonetheless, restaurants in St. Louis have to earn their stripes because diners like to try new places.
For the most part, Araka does. It has a new chef, Steven Caravelli, who has put his own mark on the menu with creative additions like Duck Confit Tacos and Agnolotti with Cauliflower Puree and Blue Crabmeat. And Araka has a lively bar scene, thanks to a beautiful long bar inside and one of the city’s prettiest patios out front.
So what is the new menu like? It tries to add some attractive and ‘different’ touches to popular foods, while keeping prices to a dull roar. And there is an emphasis on local produce and provisions, even to the point of naming sources on the menu. Two tasting menus have been added, one specifically for vegetarians, also at decent prices ($48 and $68).
We started with two appetizers: Crispy Calamari ($11) and Tartare of Beets ($10). The first was flavorful and very crispy, like heavily floured fried chicken. It came with a thin arrabiata sauce for dipping, which had a little bite, and a mound of tangy Claverach Farms radish sprouts.
The beet dish was superb. It consisted of different varieties of beet, each perfectly cubed and held together by delectable crème fraiche. The rich cream worked beautifully with the naturally sweet beets, which were seasoned with bits of fresh basil. A handful of fingerling fries were on the plate, and they will convince you that not all potatoes are created equal.
Of the dozen entrees, we ordered Florida Grouper with Creamed Leeks ($30), Agnolotti with Pureed Cauliflower ($18), Amish Chicken ($24) and Fettuccini alla Chitarra ($20). The grouper was delicious, having been pan-fried to a wonderful, crusty finish. A naturally buttery dish, it has a firm/flaky texture somewhat similar to halibut. It sat on slivered leeks, lightly creamed, and a puree of cauliflower. The only problem was, the fish was undercooked in the center, necessitating another turn under the heat.
The chicken dish was superior. Half a small chicken came with its skin fried to delicious crispness, which added very good flavor. The meat was moist and good, and the two quarters sat on creamy, sweet, pureed acorn squash. This was a great, simple dish, with the sweet squash playing off the salty, crisped chicken skin and earthy Brussels sprouts.
I always have such high hopes for house-made pasta, but the agnolotti (cousin to ravioli) were thick, with unappealing, chewy skin. They were stuffed with a nondescript cauliflower puree laced with bits of preserved Meyer lemon. The best part was the blue crabmeat liberally sprinkled on top. And the sauce was a good, tomato-infused seafood stock.
The lobster-laced fettuccine was very good. Four large, meaty chunks of lobster dotted a plateful of al dente noodles tossed in a light, creamy white sauce made with béchamel and pureed onions (a ‘soubise’). Dotting the mix were Missouri wild mushrooms and corn kernels, making the dish slightly sweet.
Araka’s dessert menu is anything but an afterthought, with a half-dozen house-made tempters. We chose Passion Fruit Cake and Local Peach Cobbler, each $8. The cake was divine and attractively presented as a tower of three smallish circles of moist sponge cake with passion fruit custard between the layers. Sliced almonds in the custard added a nice crisp quality, and a tiny scoop of house-made (and excellent) banana ice cream completed the dish.
The cobbler was good, if not as original. It had firm peach wedges and blueberries baked under a lattice top of buttery shortbread pastry. On top was a scoop of brown sugar ice cream laced with bourbon.
There are definitely some exciting new things going on at Araka. I admire the emphasis on local foods, and the desserts were all creative (Valencia Orange Crème Caramel or Honey-Lavender Semifreddo, anyone?) And I like that the prices (but not the quality) have come down in response to economic realities.