An offshoot of South City’s Local Harvest Grocery, the cafe bearing the same name is small in size but mighty in concept. Who knew that St. Louis had a devoted corps of locavores? A couple recent visits to the little restaurant revealed full tables of diners savoring wholesome foods mostly grown and produced in the region.
The storefront located near Tower Grove Park has a homespun appeal in keeping with its mission. Natural wood floors, an exposed brick wall and deli cases laden with house-baked sweets and boutique brews convey what is important here: natural food. The menu changes daily, depending on what’s available from Local Harvest’s purveyors, places like Greenwood Farms in Newburg, Mo., (lamb, pork, poultry and raw milk) and Claverach Farm in Eureka (produce).
The daily dinner menu includes a couple of salad offerings ($4 small, $7 large) a couple of soups and desserts, and about a half-dozen entrees, with vegan and vegetarian meals always represented. On one visit we enjoyed a blood orange and fennel salad and a salad of sprouts with bacon crumbles and bleu cheese ‘crème.’ Anyone who still thinks all vegetables are equal needs to get over here. The farm-freshness was nowhere as apparent as in these salads.
The orange and fennel salad consisted of a small pile of baby greens topped with blood orange ‘supremes’ (sections sans skin and inner membrane) and thick, sweet strips of fennel bulb. Each tender lettuce leaf was worth savoring on its own, and the fennel, with its unique spiced character, was crisp and flavorful. The blood oranges, only four small segments, were sweet, clearly the crowning touch for this bouquet of the winter garden. The dressing, a citrus vinaigrette, was house-made, delicious and the right complement here.
The sprouts salad offered a pile of plump pea sprouts, tangy and delicate, topped with crisp bacon and a dab of creamy bleu cheese mixed with cream that enhanced the sharp flavors. The salads were small, which at first had me wondering whether they were worth the cost, but naturally grown produce doesn’t come at supermarket prices, or with supermarket taste.
The soups that night were butternut squash-apple and potato-bean. The squash soup was sweet and flavorful with just a hint of cayenne. The potato soup was thinner than I expected, more a chicken broth brimming with pieces of potato, carrot, mushroom and tiny beans.
An order of savory bread pudding ($4) was an interesting and flavorful appetizer. More egg than bread, a tall wedge of herbed soufflé was topped with hot pepper-peach jam, giving it a pleasant sweet and tangy flavor.
On one visit, our entrees were polenta and mushroom ragout and roasted lamb shoulder with new potatoes. The polenta was firm but still airy and served with mushroom halves and the jus created from sautéing them. There was a hint of garlic and a carrot ‘purée’ (really grated and blanched carrots) on top that added a pleasant sweetness and a little crunch.
The lamb, from Greenwood Farms, came from grass-fed animals raised naturally in the field without chemicals, and it showed. The meat was perhaps less tender than conventional lamb, but the flavor was very mild by comparison. It had been cooked with garden herbs…rosemary, thyme and others, and served with a ragout of mushrooms and the most amazing ‘new potatoes’ (baby potatoes of any variety) that were positively sweet.
On another night, we sampled the three-cheese lasagna ($8) and the barbecue pork sandwich ($8). The lasagna was pleasantly subtle, conveying the blended flavors of its cheeses: Gruyère, provolone and ricotta, none of them heavy-handed. The noodles, too, were blessedly thin and almost innocuous. This dish came with a delectable, naturally sweet ‘veggie mash,’ a soft and chunky concoction of carrots, red beets, tomatoes and yams.
The pork sandwich, by contrast, was very spicy, made with Gates Bar-B-Q sauce from Kansas City. It was quite smoky and hot, for the most part obliterating the pork’s flavor, which I would have liked to savor because it was raised locally. It came with house-made slaw in a light mayo sauce and house-made ‘bread and butter’ pickles, i.e. sweet and spicy, very tasty.
For dessert we chose carrot cake and brownie. The cake was quite moist, filled with coconut, crushed pineapple, carrots and black walnuts. The icing was good, but not the traditional cream cheese variety. The brownie was divine, very rich and chocolatey, with a liberal dose of nuts.
Although not your typical St. Louis restaurant, Local Harvest is a hidden gem of good taste and good food. It’s a very ‘granola’ type of place, but the daily $8 meals cannot be topped, whether you’re omnivore, vegetarian or vegan. What you give up here in fancy atmosphere and slick service, you most certainly recoup in fair prices and fairly produced foods, many of them very satisfying.