Picture a two-room farmhouse in rural Missouri with wood plank floors and candles in every window. Add white linens, cut crystal stemware and a telegenic chef, and you’ve got Stone Soup Cottage in Cottleville, a destination dining spot 30 minutes from Clayton.
This is the kind of place you go with a few friends, making reservations weeks in advance, and settle in for an indulgent evening of fine food, fine wine and fine service. Run by chef Carl McConnell and his wife Nancy, Stone Soup Cottage is ‘an experience.’ Because of its size—seven tables and 24 diners—you feel more like you are dining at the chef’s home than in a commercial setting, and the McConnells work hard to create that ambience.
They greet each party at the front door, sharing a little bit about the menu and wine pairings as they lead diners to the table. The dining room could have been lifted right out of the French countryside. The restored 1850’s structure has walls of exposed brick and stone, and windows on all sides adorned with deep valances and wrought iron candleabra.
Chef McConnell cut his teeth in the luxury travel industry, working for Clipper cruises and Orient Express, and took advanced culinary studies from the prestigious CIA graduate program at Greystone, Napa Valley. If he looks familiar, that’s because you might have seen him on the PBS special, The Rockies by Rail. He and his wife service every course of the four- or six-item tasting menu, stopping at each table to explain the dish’s execution and ingredients, some of which come from their Cottleville garden, where they grow micro-greens and herbs.
Our meal began with cracked black pepper and rosemary bread, brought to the table warm from the oven. It had a crusty base and light, airy insides that were heavily dotted with pepper bits and subtly flavored with rosemary. I detected a hint of sugar sprinkled on the crust, as well. The flavor was distinctly peppery, cut by the sugar and whipped butter.
A flute of champagne was served to each diner, courtesy of the McConnells, as a thank you for “joining us for dinner.” An amuse bouche of toasted almonds and brie appeared next. In a buttery phyllo dough cup, the crushed almonds sat on a dollop of sweet damson plum conserves, with a small slice of warm brie topping all. The tiny nibble surprised the taste buds with its sugary jam, a flavor I don’t expect in a palate teaser.
The first course was a classic French lobster bisque, very rich with cream and butter-poached lobster. The meat was tender and much more plentiful than expected. It came from lobsters flown in from Maine that day, and you could taste the freshness. A drizzle of sherry floated on top.
The salad course consisted of a Burgundy-poached pear topped by beet micro-greens with a blue cheese soufflé nearby. The pear was sweet and still firm—very good. The micro-greens were tiny red shoots piled high atop the pear, lightly dressed with a citrusy flavor. Tiny, young versions of conventional plants, micro-greens are considered a delicacy for their concentrated flavor and colors. The light, eggy and well-salted soufflé was divine. Subtly herbed, it had only the faintest hint of blue cheese, which allowed us to concentrate on the delicate fluffy texture.
Next came sea scallops en papillote, a very tasty ‘entrée’ of two diver scallops delicately steamed in a parchment pouch with Pernod and fresh fennel greens. The chef came by each table to slit the pouches and release the fragrant steam. The scallops were a real treat, tender and sweet, with a texture not replicable by the farmed variety. I have only one criticism: As this was the final course for several of the diners, it needed to be bigger.
For diners continuing on, there was a course of potatoes Dauphinoise and one of Chateaubriand, both ‘tasting’ sized.
The meal ended with a choice of chocolate pot de crème or a fromage plate, and we had one of each. The former was rich and creamy, densely flavored with chocolate and topped by three of the plumpest raspberries I’ve seen. The cheeses were spectacular: slices of imported aged brie, aged cheddar and Reypenaer, a pungent, mature gouda.
This is a singular restaurant that I highly recommend. It is the most personal way to dine, reminiscent of the experiences in the French countryside Julia Child so fondly recounts. That said, you should be warned that the menu is clearly a tasting menu, which means each course is small (the lobster bisque was an exception). Prices are $50 for the four-course menu, $69 for the six (sometimes the menu is served as five or seven courses). But here you are paying not only for a meal, but for an experience—and you will definitely have one.
LOBSTER BISQUE FROM STONE SOUP COTTAGE
2 live lobsters, claws and tails removed
4 cups water
1 cup white wine
1 yellow onion, finely diced
3 celery stalks, finely diced
2 carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 tbsp. paprika
1 tbsp. garlic, fresh minced
1 tbsp. tarragon, fresh minced
¼ cup tomato paste
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup butter
½ cup olive oil
2 dried bay leaves
¼ cup heavy whipping cream
salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup sherry
Boil lobsters at a rapid boil for ten minutes. Take them out of the pot and allow to cool, then remove tails and claws and set aside.
In a large stock pot, add lobster heads, tomato paste, tarragon, onion, celery and carrot with olive oil. Sauté on medium heat for no more than 7 minutes. Add white wine, bay leaf, garlic and paprika. Reduce by half. Add water. Cover and simmer for 1 hour.
In a sauté pan, melt butter and add flour. Thoroughly whisk and set aside. You have now made roux.
Season lobster stock to taste, then whisk in roux and simmer for 10 minutes.
Strain mixture and return to heat. Add claws and tails and simmer for 5 minutes.
Remove tails and claws and allow to cool at room temperature, then remove meat from tails and claws.
Return tail and claw meat to lobster stock. Simmer for 5 minutes and add cream. Finish with sherry and serve immediately.