Dinner Lab: Anthos
The last time I saw Russ Bodner was in mid 2003 when he graduated from my high school, headed off to study accounting at Indiana University. Imagine my surprise when, in early 2014, Russ and I reconnected and I found out that he was some big fancy chef down in Alabama. We started talking fairly often about all things food related, one of which was his fondness of pop-up restaurants. Eager to try his food and an avid fan of Dinner Lab, I put Russ in contact with some of the Dinner Lab crew and voila: I present Russ Bodner's Anthos - Greek Interpretations from a Lost Restaurant. The evening's meal took place at the midtown Urban Chestnut, which is probably my favorite out of all the venue's they've used so far. The size was right, the beer barrels all around created an industrial atmosphere, and it was connected to a bar for post-dinner drinking.
Russ' career has taken him from NYC (Anthos) to Alabama (Springhouse, Kowaliga) to Colorado (Aspen Mountain Club) and now, possibly, back to St. Louis.
How did you pick the name for your dinner?
The very first restaurant that I worked at was Anthos, and I loved the food that we were doing. Unfortunately, they've since closed. I've taken some of my favorite items we did there and put my own spin on them for this dinner.
Did you have a favorite Mediterranean dish or restaurant in St. Louis? We don't have too many here...
I didn't have a favorite in St. Louis growing up. It was all in the kitchen at Anthos. They were doing "new-age Aegean", something that I found fascinating and unique.
How'd you pick the five dishes for this menu? I'm sure you have an arsenal of dishes at your disposal.
I knew that when I did a dinner in St. Louis, I wanted a fish-centric menu. I played around with doing a Southern progressive line up, but the Mediterranean won out this time!
On his way up to St. Louis from Alabama, Russ stopped by some of the farms he used to frequent during his Springhouse/Kowaliga days to get some fresh seasonal ingredients, including fresh lima beans, corn, baby Vidalia onions, and okra.
You come to St. Louis every few years and eat like a horse - where were you most excited about trying this trip?
I was most excited to check out Publico. It's in my old neighborhood.
What are some standout dishes you've had in town?
My absolute favorite dish I ever had in St. Louis was a carrot dish at Niche when it was on Sidney Street. I also loved the pig tails at The Libertine and the lamb heart at Publico.
I know you're looking to open a restaurant here. Do you have a concept in mind?
I have a few ideas in my head, but I will keep them close to the chest for the time being. I would love to do something that is different and not in St. Louis.
What are your favorite and least favorite ingredients to work with?
The tomato - for both. When the heirloom tomatoes are in season, I don't think there's anything better. But during the off season, there's almost nothing worse.
What's the most memorable meal you've had as a diner?
I'm not sure if this counts, but a few years ago, I was at an event in Virginia at Border Springs Farm. Craig Diehl and Bob Cook from Charleston were in charge of doing the dinner that night. Craig boned out a whole lamb, rolled it and slowly roasted it on a spit. He also slowly smoked and then grilled a skin-on pork belly. Both of the meats were so incredible, I can't even remember what the vegetables were!
If there is one dish of yours that would define your career so far, what would it be?
As far as a dish that got the most recognition, it would certainly be the catfish tacos I made when I opened Kowaliga Restaurant in Alabama.
Each course had an Urban Chestnut beer pairing. My favorite was the pairing of their Russian Imperial Stout Thrale's with dessert. The beer has a sour cherry and coffee taste, but man, it was a heavy, heavy beer. I'm not man enough to take down an entire bottle myself. Koval provided the house cocktail, a powerful gin and maraschino mix that would have rendered me useless if I had more than one.
Russ' first course was a lightly seared tuna with a sweet and intense fennel pollen crust. Celery leaves, radishes, Thassos olives - an oil cured olive from Thassos with this amazing ripe olive flavor, and dehydrated feta were sprinkled around the dish, along with a bit of orange and orange vinaigrette. The flavors were distinctly Greek, but unlike anything I can remember having before.
Russ is doing the same menu at Dinner Lab Houston; this dish was so good, I thought about going down to get it again. Then I weighed this dish versus having to actually be in Houston and decided it wasn't worth it.
His second course - and the most popular entree of the evening - were Sheep's Milk Ricotta Dumplings. I'm not sure anything about this dish was Mediterranean aside from the little pillowy dumplings, but it was outrageously good. Give me a Southern American + Greek restaurant! Russ cooked the crawfish in a crawfish stock with the lima beans and corn, then topped it with tobacco onions.
The result reminded me of something my grandma would have cooked when we were younger. Fresh, hearty, probably more unhealthy than it looks. I would happily, joyously pay for this at a restaurant.
This was the controversial dish of the evening, as octopus tends to be. Due to issues with the oven, some of the smoked octopus was undercooked, resulting in a chewy bite of seafood. I guess I was lucky, because my piece was tender. The octopus' smoked flavored was complimented by pickled shallots and mushrooms and subdued by coriander yogurt.
Lamb shoulders were donated from Border Springs Farm in Virginia, then slow roasted until it was time to serve. Like everyone worthy of your trust, I love nothing more than the taste of slow cooked, smoked meat. Seeing these lambs come out of the oven, I contemplated taking one and leaving, tearing it apart and eating it handful by handful like they serve it at Kapnos in D.C.
What you can't see in the pictures is the bulgar trahana, which tastes like grits and bulgar made a baby. The bulgar is cooked with dairy, resulting in a creamier texture and milder flavor. The red sauce you see at the bottom is a homemade harissa, also incredibly tasty. I will be going all Zero Dark Thirty on Russ to get that recipe. Grilled okra and baby vidalias rounded it off. If forced to pick 3 dishes from the meal to eat again, it'd easily be the tuna, dumplings, and the tsoureki shortcake with basil ice cream. Sweet desserts do about as much for me as monogamy does for Don Draper. They're wasted on me. This, however, was not. The tsoureki has mahlab, a spice made from cherry pits, giving it an almondy, nutty hint. On top of that was a thin layer of the piney, sappy mastic oil, then sweetened yogurt, strawberries, and finally, the basil ice cream.
The ice cream was on the same level (or maybe even higher...) than Anne Croy's basil gelato at Pastaria. You could tell looking around the room that this dessert was a home run. People stopped talking and just focused on eating as much as the could as quickly as they could, then trying to figure out who around them wasn't going to finish theirs.
Russ' Dinner Lab gave St. Louisans food that they can't find here otherwise. His love of Greek cooking combined with years in the South have left him with a unique voice in the culinary world. I hope he decides to make St. Louis his home once again - he'd have my business.