Three is a trend, I know, but I am confident making the following claim with only two examples in hand. The team of owners Brian Schmitz and Jonathan Schoen, executive chef Thomas Futrell and beverage director Travis Hebrank makes excellent restaurants.
First came Polite Society, which opened in March 2017 in Lafayette Square. Polite Society is a neighborhood bistro, upscale but unfussy, where you feel equally comfortable dropping in for a bite at the bar or making a reservation for date night. It arrived at a time when, in the city at least, this sort of restaurant suddenly seemed endangered: Both Atlas Restaurant in Skinker-DeBaliviere and Three Flags Tavern in Southwest Garden had recently closed, and Grapeseed in Southampton would shutter a couple of months later.
Polite Society filled a void, but it has succeeded on its own merits. When I awarded the restaurant three stars in July 2017, I admired Futrell’s synthesis of exacting technique and a modern sensibility: chicken wings cooked confit-style before being fried to order for additional lusciousness; a teres-major steak, the lately popular cut, paired with an throwback foyot sauce. When I returned to Polite Society for this year’s edition of the STL 100, my appreciation was undiminished.
Now, Schmitz, Schoen, Futrell and Hebrank have followed Polite Society with the Bellwether, which opened in May in the former City Hospital power-plant building, about a half-mile east of Polite Society in the adjacent Peabody Darst Webbe neighborhood.
The Bellwether occupies the power-plant building’s second and third floors, the spaces that previously housed Element restaurant. Element, which ended its five-year run in October 2018, used the second floor as its kitchen and dining room, the third as its bar and a lounge area. The Bellwether has kept the kitchen on the second floor but converted the rest of that level into the Reference Room, an event and overflow space. The dining room proper and the bar are on the third floor.
If you didn’t already know that the Bellwether and Polite Society were siblings, you probably wouldn’t guess so the first time you step off the elevator onto the third floor. You enter into the bar area, which besides the bar itself features booths with tie-back curtains on a slightly elevated platform. Above the dining tables hang Moroccan-inspired pendant lights, which suffuse the space with a warm, twilight glow. For a literal twilight glow, the third floor also boasts patio dining.
The vibe is definitely more “date night” than “drop by,” and Schoen told me in an interview when the Bellwether opened that he and the others see the new restaurant as “a little bit more of a destination place” than Polite Society, which they intended as “a neighborhood restaurant that kind of overachieves.”
But if the Bellwether does become a destination, it will be for the same reason that Polite Society has “overachieved”: Futrell’s cooking.
Futrell displays a few new tricks at the Bellwether. If scallops call to mind nothing but bronzed pucks of ocean butter, his scallop carpaccio ($18) will be a revelation: thin scallop slices cured ceviche-style with lemon juice and then served with chanterelles and sliced Asian pears in a lemon-bacon vinaigrette with rosemary oil and a garnish of chive, basil and edible flowers. Between the chanterelles and the bacon, the flavor has the heft and smokiness of a cooked dish, but on your palate the scallops are light, clean and sweet.
I don’t recall any memorable pasta at Polite Society, but at the Bellwether, Futrell is confident enough to give it a section of the menu. And with good reason. The English pea ravioli ($22) nestles plump, al-dente pockets of ricotta and grana bianco cheeses with peas, chicken braised in rosé and crisp baked chicken skin in a sauce based on the chicken’s braising liquid. As the filling inevitably spills from the ravioli, it thickens the sauce, transforming this into two dishes, the ravioli and a creamy chicken-and-pea soup.
Even heartier than the ravioli is the short-rib ragout ($24), housemade rigatoni in a meat sauce fortified with roasted mirepoix. The dish as a whole is a study in balance, with acid (cherry tomato), complex sweetness (the anise notes of caramelized fennel) and bite (red onion, arugula) to cut the short ribs’ richness.
The pork steak ($27), on the other hand, follows the Polite Society playbook: a beloved dish distinguished by Futrell’s technique. Here he sous-vides the pork steak for 18 hours before finishing it in the oven and, for a final char, on the grill.
The meat is as tender as great pulled pork, and the long cooking concentrates its natural flavor in a way that barbecue or straightforward roasting don’t. Futrell serves this and a garnish of compressed cabbage over German potato salad that itself displays excellent technique, the potatoes yielding but not mushy. Carolina-style mustard barbecue sauce adds a vital, tangy top note.
Furtrell turns to classic technique for the octopus ($32), poaching it in an old-school court bouillon for about three hours before searing it to order. I liked the octopus more than its accompaniments: roasted cauliflower, a Calabrian pepper oil and a curried-mustard beurre blanc. The dish needs to choose between the beurre blanc or the pepper oil — or maybe the bland cauliflower diffused the twin punch.
And as I would happily sit at Polite Society’s bar and snack on those confit chicken wings or the shrimp and grits, I would return to the Bellwether for tender lamb meatballs over grits ($14) or simply for the fries ($8). The latter Futrell seasons with togarashi, a nice change of pace from Old Bay or Red Hot Riplets seasoning. He serves the fries alongside gochujang-spiked ketchup, which makes sense, and nuoc cham, which combined with the fries blew my mind.
The cocktail list features literary names and intriguing pops of floral, fruit and other botanical notes: the blackberry-myrtle syrup with gin, aquavit and rosé cava in the Long Ships; senna-pod gastrique and magnolia bitters with Russell Henry Hawaiian Ginger Gin and crème de banana in the Gravity’s Rainbow.
The wine list rewards deeper pockets than mine or my employers’, though the by-the-glass selection is more thoughtfully composed than most restaurants’.
As a whole, the evolution from Polite Society to the Bellwether isn’t dramatic. It is marked by the confidence of experienced operators who know what they want to do and have already proven they can do it. Two isn’t a trend, but two fine restaurants in three years is more than impressive enough.
WHERE The Bellwether, 1419 Carroll Street • Three stars out of four • More info 314-380-3086; thebellwetherstl.com • Menu Contemporary American fare • Hours Dinner daily