Hey, Restaurant Critic asks a city’s anonymous restaurant critic about the art of, well, reviewing restaurants. This just in: It’s a difficult job, people. The weight gain. The terrible trends. Those wigs!
Ian Froeb, the 33-year old restaurant critic at the Riverfront Times, moved to St. Louis on a whim after visiting while attending grad school in Iowa. And though he admits the city had some issues at the time (crumbling infrastructure, a depleted tax base), there’s was some serious upshot — including beautiful architecture and ethnic quirks like the largest populations of Bosnians outside of Bosnia itself.
But it’s the vast neighborhoods — 79 to be exact — that compelled him make the move. “St. Louis as a whole rewards patient exploration,” he says. “I didn’t intend to become a restaurant critic here. It has turned out to be a great place to be a food writer.”
We caught up with Froeb, who’s held the job for just under five years, to talk about good/bad pizza and the great misconception about St. Louis barbecue. (There isn’t such a thing).
What should the rest of the country know about the St. Louis restaurant scene?
As in many cities, the St. Louis restaurant scene has moved toward local produce and chef-driven restaurants. Beyond these buzzwords, though, I would say that the interest in and passion for food and restaurants here is remarkable. For example, we have a fantastic artisan maker of cured meats here, Salume Beddu. For a while, they operated only at farmers’ markets and by direct order. Now, they have a modest storefront in the city, and they even serve lunch. It’s a splendid lunch, by the way.
So let’s talk ribs. Can you define what a “St. Louis-style rib” is?
This is maybe the biggest misconception about both St. Louis and barbecue that there is. A newcomer to town who starts asking around about those famous “St. Louis-style ribs,” as I once did, will quickly (but, in most cases, politely!) be corrected. St. Louis-style ribs refer to a butcher’s cut, rather than a barbecue style like Memphis dry-rub. Take spare ribs, remove the rib tips — at many St. Louis barbecue joints these are then cooked separately and are quite popular with customers — and a flap of excess meat, and, voilà, you have St. Louis-style ribs.
Is being world famous for barbecue a blessing or a curse for a restaurant critic?
Actually, let me turn this question around, if you don’t mind. St. Louis isn’t world-famous for barbecue — not yet, at least. The most prevalent barbecue here hews closely to Kansas City–style, much of it drowned in tangy, sweet (and often, sadly, sub-par) sauce, but this isn’t “St. Louis barbecue,” and at the best barbecue joints here you can find dry-rubbed pulled pork alongside beef brisket that will make a Texan weep with happiness. This variety makes trying and writing about new barbecue joints much more interesting.
I wasn’t kidding about that “not yet, at least,” either. In recent years, St. Louis has welcomed some truly world-class barbecue. Mike Mills, who has won the Memphis in May “Super Bowl of Swine” barbecue championship multiple times, has a location of his 17th Street Bar & Grill in O’Fallon, Illinois, a 20-ish-minute drive from downtown St. Louis. Mike Emerson opened Pappy’s Smokehouse three years ago, and it still has a line out the door every day. The pork ribs there, dry-rubbed and smoked over apple and cherry wood, are the best I’ve ever had.
I’m in town for 48 hours. My bank account is full. Go…
Farmhaus is the year-old restaurant of Kevin Willmann, one of this year’s Food & Wine Best New Chefs. Seafood is a specialty of his, and the escolar poached in traminette and butter with grilled prawns and grilled seasonable vegetable (asparagus right now, I think) is the standout dish. Taste is a new (well, relocated and reinvented) restaurant from Adam Altnether, a protégée of St. Louis’ most acclaimed chef, Gerard Craft of Niche. Any pork dish is a winner — if you’re lucky, some of the house-cured prosciutto will be around.
How do you avoid being recognized in restaurants? And if you are recognized, what happens usually? Does this change your opinion?
I use the same arsenal of “tricks” that most other critics use, I guess. Never make a reservation under your own name. Pay with cash or someone else’s card. That sort of thing.
I’m a realist, though. These days, if chefs or restaurateurs want to know what a critic looks like, they’ll figure it out. It doesn’t help that St. Louis sometimes feels like the biggest small town in the world. If I don’t run into this or that chef at one of our farmers’ markets, we’ll probably cross paths in a bar.
How do you avoid gaining weight? Do you have a particular workout plan?
I don’t avoid it, it seems. Perhaps this question will shame me into dusting off my gym-membership card. I do try to prepare lighter meals when eating at home.
Is there a menu item or ingredient or preparation you just cannot deal with?
In general, I try to keep an open mind. The only thing I dislike is specific to St. Louis. We have our own style of pizza: a very thin (I mean, Saltine-cracker thin) crust topped with sauce and Provel cheese. Provel is what I can’t stand. This is a processed cheese made from cheddar, provolone, and Swiss. In sliced form or grated over salad, it’s innocuous enough, no worse than American cheese. But when it melts, it takes on this odd, unpleasant consistency, not at all like mozzarella. It’s like alfredo sauce or thick winter snot. It’s terrible.
Are you a fan of any other restaurant critics around the country?
Jonathan Gold, of course. He’s on another plane entirely from the rest of us. You finish one of his reviews—the term review doesn’t seem appropriate—and you feel like you’ve just walked out of the restaurant with him. Two of my other favorite critics have stepped away from reviewing over the past couple of years: Robb Walsh of the Houston Press and Jason Sheehan of Westword in Denver and then the Seattle Weekly.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Reporting on a restaurant’s closure. Even a place I didn’t especially like is someone’s baby. I try to keep that in mind as I write my reviews.
And the best part about your job?
I love the process of discovery. One of my favorite things to do is pick a major thoroughfare and drive until I see something I haven’t tried before. I’m pretty sure that’s how I first noticed the new (to me) trend in Mexican restaurants here.
If you could review restaurants in another city in the world, where would it be?
Barcelona, even though I know very little Spanish and no Catalan. I spent a week there over a decade ago, and its beauty and energy remain as vivid now as the day I left.