For me, it was soup, steaming hot in the unavoidable front-door draft of a cold January evening. Electric-green chive oil criss-crossed a puree of potato with cream, leeks and mirepoix. In every other spoonful bobbed a bite of bacon. Hearty for winter, but laced with a brightness that hinted at spring, the soup soothed and sparkled in equal measure. I couldn’t ask for anything more than another cup ($4) or bowl ($6).
For you, it might be the toasts slathered with goat cheese and topped with luscious braised pork ($12) or the Farmhouse burger ($11), two smashed patties larded with cheddar-cheese sauce and the runny yolk of a sunny-side-up egg.
Somewhere on its menu, 3-month-old Retreat Gastropub offers exactly what you want to eat right now.
Owner Travis Howard, a first-time restaurateur, describes this Central West End establishment as a “modern American pub.” That might be too vague, and the term gastropub too dated, to elicit much enthusiasm. But while Retreat doesn’t break any new ground — except, maybe, in the number of Edison bulbs per square foot; these cast a warm glow over the bar at the center of the single room and the wood tables and light-green walls that surround it — Howard and executive chef Michael Friedman have invigorated familiar favorites with skill and spirit.
Friedman, whose résumé includes Remy’s Kitchen & Wine Bar and Scape American Bistro, divides the dinner menu roughly evenly between small plates and main courses (burgers, sandwiches and flatbread pizzas included). Some of these small plates are simply fun snacks: fries ($6) accompanied by a smoked-tomato sauce and a Parmesan aioli, or slices of candied bacon ($8) and thin strips of crisp flatbread with a maple aioli for dipping. Even here, though, Retreat impresses. Gild the bacon with that maple aioli, and the resulting sweetness isn’t cloying but fleeting and autumnal.
Other “small” dishes are more substantial. The mac & cheese ($8) enrobes cavatappi in a velvety sauce of havarti, Parmesan and mozzarella cheese. Retreat’s version of poutine ($8) smothers roasted potato wedges with a mushroom broth and molten cheese curds. The mushroom broth is exceptional, umami-loaded and “meaty” without overwhelming the dish, but I would have preferred it ladled over the fries that the menu promised rather than the heavier wedges that I was served.
You could easily and happily build a meal out of two or three small plates. I’d return tonight for the potato-leek soup, the cedar-smoked trout ($12) cut with a lemon-caper aioli and the pork toasts. But you shouldn’t ignore the larger courses, and not simply because the Farmhouse burger is one the best versions of a griddled burger that I’ve encountered, the cheese and egg more than compensating for the necessarily well-done patties.
The pepper steak ($18) is a teres major, the lately trendy cut, lightly chewy and fully flavored. Friedman funks up its natural essence with a balsamic glaze and then sauces it with a verdant, mildly spicy chimichurri. On the side are truffled Parmesan fries — a rare step into cliché in theory, though the often overwhelming and only vaguely trufflelike flavor of truffle oil was relatively muted in practice.
Retreat might consider giving its porchetta ($18) a different name. The dish doesn’t quite reach the glories of the fat- and herb-kissed Italian classic. Taken on its own terms, however, this is a fine piece of roasted pork shoulder, a touch dry, but softened by a red-wine glaze and an apple-cherry chutney.
A strong selection of craft beer on tap and in cans fulfills the pub half of the gastropub equation. More intriguing, though, is the cocktail program overseen by beverage director Tim Wiggins. Alongside classic drinks, Wiggins serves up such delicious creations as the Hemingway Lookalike ($10), a sophisticated riff on the author’s beloved daiquiri with Don Q gold rum and the herbal liqueur genepi and topped off with a thin slice of grilled grapefruit.
As winter descends upon us in force, Wiggins’ most appealing cocktail must be the Oaxaca Flocka Flame ($11), a smoky, spicy concoction of Blanco tequila, Vida mezcal, curaçao and Ancho Reyes ancho-chile liqueur with lime and passionfruit. Trust me: Even if you don’t get the name (ask the nearest millennial), this is exactly what you want to drink right now.
Where Retreat Gastropub, 2 North Sarah Street • 2½ stars out of four • More info 314-261-4497; retreatgastropub.com • Menu Modern American pub fare, with a strong cocktail program • Hours Dinner daily, lunch Monday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday, closed Tuesday
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Excellent ★★★★ Extraordinary