2015 has quietly been a good year for St. Louis' Chinese food scene. We lost the always interesting Szechuan Pavilion (again), but we gained Tai Ke Taiwanese, Yummy17, Private Kitchen, Lona's Lil Eats (in late 2014, really), and revamps of Lulu's, Jia Xiang, Corner 17, and Joy Luck Buffet. Lona's has enjoyed continuous hype and publicity since they opened, though Private Kitchen seems to be the Asian restaurant du jour. The concept is unique to St. Louis, as far as I know, in that it's reservation only, you must place your order beforehand (they pick up the ingredients the day of your visit), and it's operated and owned by a husband and wife. He's the chef, she's front of house.
As soon as the reviews, Tweets, and Facebook posts started popping up about Private Kitchen, I knew I had to go. There was so much hype, it had me wondering: is this The One? Will St. Louis finally have a Chinese restaurant that will put all others to shame?
I've visited a few times now and I'm going to have to say no, this is not that restaurant. At this point, without having tried Corner 17 or a proper meal at Tai Ke, I would say that it does go in my Top 3 Chinese restaurants in town, along with Yummy17 and Jia Xiang.
The food is Shanghaiese, which often (but not always) means a heavy reliance on sugar and sweetened sauces, and that is my biggest qualm with it: it's just too sweet for my taste.
Their xiao long bao (soup dumplings) are easily the best I've had in St. Louis. If you don't know about soup dumplings, read this. Private Kitchen's don't hold a candle to Din Tai Fung or Paradise Dynasty across the world, but they're more than passable. The skin is soft but sturdy enough to hold the piping hot soup and meatball and the soup itself has almost a truffle flavor to it. If you've never had a soup dumpling, these are a must try.
The black mushroom and bok choy is a simple dish done very well, with each mushroom acting like an edible sponge full of delicious broth. The smoked salmon was a very literal version: raw salmon rolled around fruit salad, stuck under a glass full of smoke. It was my least favorite of everything I ate at Private Kitchen, but I respect the new attempt at a Jewish deli classic.
The three entrees I would recommend you get start with the squirrel fish. The fish is deboned, then each filet is cut into little slices (while still connected to the fish), then deep fried and served with something close to a sweet and sour sauce. I imagine it's a pain to prepare, but the end product is worth the work. It's like having fish french fries!
There's a page of the menu (found on their Facebook page) that is in Chinese only. Ask for dishes off of that. Highlights from it include the sweet and tangy shell-on shrimp dish, which I made a mess peeling my first visit. I found out on the return that you just eat the whole thing, shell and all.
I can't imagine there's a dish that's much worse for you than the beef, also found on the Chinese page. Cubes of meat are fried and tossed in a soy and sugar sauce. It's like popcorn beef, but even more addicting because of the sweetness. We got this dish at both meals, and both times the beef was gone in about 2 minutes.
The crab and lobster both came in similar sauces—some mix of ginger, scallions, and sweetness. They're both good, but nothing special (aside from the dragon's head carrot with the lobster). If you're looking for whole crab or lobster at an Asian restaurant, I much prefer Mai Lee's.
If you're looking for authentic Chinese food in a more intimate setting, Private Kitchen is where you should be going. The food is better than most of what you'll find in St. Louis, and I can guarantee there are some dishes you haven't had before. If you've got a sweet tooth, you'll love it, but those with savory palates and diabetes aren't going to be fans. When you call to make your reservation and order, don't worry about looking at the menu. Order yourself some soup dumplings, then tell them what you like. Besides the dishes above, they have lamb, chicken, and duck available, as well.
Let me know what you think about your meal there. You can leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.