Sometimes, as a restaurant critic, I am a befuddled every-diner, wondering why anyone lacking an expense account and the abdominal constitution of a goat should stand for this. Sometimes, I am an advocate for a chef whose talent demands recognition even if — especially if — that chef’s work pushes beyond conventional expectations.
This year, in the first rush of St. Louis’ hotel boom, reviewing restaurants in new hotels and at least one new restaurant in an existing hotel, I am Goldilocks. This one is overpriced and self-satisfied. That one is earnest but underpowered. That other one is so generic I’ve already forgotten its name.
The Last Kitchen, which opened with the Last Hotel in late June in downtown west, might not be just right, but I will happily camp out here until the bears return home and drag me to the next new hotel.
The Last Hotel is a project from the Milwaukee-based developer Tim Dixon, whose work includes the boutique hotels the Iron Horse in Milwaukee and the Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis. I have stayed at the Hewing Hotel, and I was charmed by its blend of modern style and quirky sense of place drawn from the Minnesota Northwoods.
The Last Hotel has gained its quirky sense of place from its Washington Avenue building’s previous life as the home of the International Shoe Co. A last is the foot-shaped form shoemakers use, and among other amenities in the hotel’s lobby you will find a functioning shoeshine stand. On one of my visits, a bartender offered me a coaster made from a shoe’s heel as a take-home souvenir. He already had several himself, he said.
The Last Kitchen dominates the hotel’s lobby. The bar stands at the center of the room, flanked by dining tables and, near the hotel’s main entrance, a lounge area that includes a vintage pool table. The kitchen itself, though open to the rest of the room and featuring a wood-fired oven, is maybe the lobby’s least dramatic aspect, tucked back to one side. As a whole, with its soaring ceiling and stately columns, the Last Hotel lobby looks and feels like it is poised to become a vital city space, a hub for power lunches, happy hours and Tinder dates as well as tourists.
It should also interest the gastronaut set. Chef Evy Swoboda was previously the chef de cuisine at Gerard Craft’s Pastaria. As she and Dixon developed the Last Kitchen’s menu, she toured several of the states along the Mississippi River, staging at such acclaimed restaurants as Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis and Compère Lapin in New Orleans.
Swoboda puts her Pastaria experience and the kitchen’s wood-fired oven to work with the salsiccia pizza ($15), with a restrained spread of tomato sauce, mozzarella and housemade sausage (her grandfather’s recipe) on a blistered, airy crust. And her Mississippi River journey reveals itself in the meaty pan-seared frog legs ($16) with rice tinged green with fermented hot sauce and creamy red beans or the boudin ravioli ($11), larger and plumper than standard toasted ravioli and with a piquant blend of coarsely ground wild-boar meat and rice.
A restaurant with the Mississippi River as the spine of its menu is a fascinating idea. I don’t think the Last Kitchen is quite that restaurant yet. Instead, it offers the sort of broadly appealing fare you would expect from a modern hotel restaurant, distinguished by the finesse and thoughtfulness of a talented chef and a dash of St. Louis pride (those aforementioned T-ravs and a judicious deployment of Provel).
The Last Kitchen offers two main menus, one available for lunch and all day at the bar, one for dinner. During dinner service, though, you can mix-and-match between the bar and more upscale dinner selections. (The restaurant also serves breakfast, and the rooftop pool deck offers its own compact menu.)
The bar menu declares one dish a “must have,” and while I am generally skeptical of such claims from new restaurants, the Last Kitchen is right. The Last Pantry Buffalou Chicken Bites ($11) are a smart riff on buffalo chicken, boneless hunks of dark meat brined in buttermilk, smoked and then battered and fried. The strong smoke flavor gives them a dimension that the tang and heat of buffalo sauce alone can’t provide. Likewise, Swoboda takes the straightforward pleasure of a pork chop sandwich ($14) and electrifies it with the barbed sweetness of a raspberry barbecue sauce and the bite of pickled green apple and shaved Brussels sprouts.
The frog legs, an appetizer, were my favorite dish from the dinner menu. The duck ($32), one of only four main courses, was a close second. You wouldn’t want the dry-aged, pan-seared breast prepared any differently: crisp skin, just the right amount of rendered fat, medium-rare meat. Swoboda sets the duck breast over a springy smoked-mushroom spaetzle with tomatoes for acidity and shishito peppers for a whisper of heat.
The half-chicken ($29) roasted in the wood-fired oven is as impressive a piece of cooking as the duck, both white and dark meat juicy beneath delicate, crackling skin. Swoboda serves the chicken with creamy wild rice and kale, and here things go awry. The kale is kale, but the wild rice is strikingly sweet in a way nothing on the plate can counter.
The kitchen slices the grilled sirloin ($39) for you, so I could see that my cut, sensibly served with polenta and carrots roasted in beef fat, had been cooked to my requested medium-rare. But I could also see that the slices alternated between deeply browned and barely browned at all. This — a result, I suppose, of how the steak had been positioned on the grill — made for a frustrating meal.
A few other misses weren’t so confounding. The burrata in the burrata bruschetta ($11) didn’t showcase the luscious interior creaminess you want from the cheese. The Provel-capped patty in the Classic Cheeseburger ($12) occupied that unsatisfying space between smashed and thick — a rare instance when Goldilocks would have been happy with too skinny or too plump, but nothing in between.
Where The Last Kitchen, 1501 Washington Avenue • 2½ stars out of four • More info 314-390-2500; thelasthotelstl.com • Menu Contemporary American fare • Hours Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily