The Rooster and the Hen Arrives

I was ecstatic when I heard that the Chef de Cuisine of Blue Hill at Stone Barns (the restaurant was on Netflix's Chef's Table), Michael Gallina, would be returning to his hometown of St. Louis to open a restaurant. I was even happier when I saw what a warm and excited welcome the rest of St. Louis has given him. It's good to see people getting excited about new high level dining experiences in our fair city. The more Michael Gallinas that move here, the sooner we get to have our own places like Momofuku and The Catbird Seat. Then we'll finally be cool.

Before making the big move of opening a restaurant, Michael and his wife, Tara, have begun doing pop-up dinners under the name Rooster and the Hen. When tickets to their first event went on sale, I was all over it. No way I wasn't going to this dinner. I would have just showed up anyway if I hadn't gotten tickets.

I pull up to Bowood Farms at 4:30 PM, a little earlier than the dinner's 6:30 PM start time. The Gallinas have graciously invited me to come beforehand and take some photos of a few of the courses being cooked and plated. As sexy as dim lights and candles are, they do not make food look good. I walk through the outdoor courtyard and there's a fire pit with two pork shoulders roasting. Beneath them, Michael has put two huge heads of cabbage in the coals. For a moment, I think that perhaps he forgot about them or that he has some crazy way of having cabbage-smoked pork. Instead of asking anyone, I just take pictures of them then move inside.

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I'm blown away by Bowood and Cafe Osage. What a beautiful space! I'm a little surprised no one has told me to go here before. You have failed me, readers. For anyone who hasn't been before, make it a priority. Have brunch and do some shopping. Tara and her team have already rearranged Cafe Osage by the time I get there and it looks beautiful. I immediately notice that there appear to be hundreds of wine glasses on the bar, as well as the five drink pairings we'll be having that evening. They are, in order of serving:

  • Marie-Pierre Manciat, Cremant du Bourgogne, France

  • Perennial Artisan Ales, Foeder Saison, St. Louis

  • Domaine Saint Romaine, Roussette de Savoie 2010, France

  • Bonny Doon, "Clos de Gilroy" Grenache, 2014, California

  • J.L. Chave Selection, "Mon Coeur", 2013, France

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Flash forward a few hours: guests are arriving, a veritable pantheon of culinary giants and diners, and they are thirsty. We're all greeted with a passed starter of watermelon radish topped with lardo, as well as a cocktail called Forager's Fizz. The gin, elderberry, dry vermouth, and rosemary go down easy—too easy. One drink in and I'm realizing I probably should have Ubered.

Soon, we're ushered into the dining room. I'm seated at a table of all-stars: Rick Lewis,George Mahe, Jeff Lehman, Russ Bodner, Qui Tran, and Mike Emerson. I feel cool by proxy. The table decorations double as our first course, a healthy Willy Wonka-style starter, and a strong introduction as to what the Gallinas will be bringing to town. Raw turnips, carrots, bok choy, and radishes have been set on the tables, along with a carrot and turnip top pesto, a tarragon vinaigrette, and garlic yogurt. Bowood Farms lettuce has Salume Beddu soppressata folded throughout, like some kind of charcuterie plant I dream Monsanto will create.

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The dish, as a whole, is an exercise in freshness. Without cooking a thing, they've created a wonderful starter. The turnips dipped in tarragon vinaigrette are my favorite. I mistakenly refer to a radish as a turnip. Rick Lewis shames me.

Like magic, a tray of kohlrabi tacos appear on the table. I pop up to take a picture and snag one. Thin slices of kohlrabi act as the taco shell, and inside is a dab of goat cheese and a wonderful, crispy piece of jowl bacon. I considering taking Lewis' as revenge before passing it on, but don't. I don't want to jeopardize my supply of hot chicken.

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Servers begin pouring the Spent Hen and Horseradish course, which immediately takes me back to my childhood (though I can't quite place why—perhaps it just speaks to my Eastern European roots). The flavor is simple, but outstanding. It's like every chicken broth I've ever made, except much better. 

The next course is the charcoal-roasted cabbage, sliced, topped with a piece of lonza and a sauerkraut cream. It feels very Swiss. Next comes a play on broccoli cheddar soup: Michael made a Missouri wheat berry risotto, then topped it with a broccoli broth, cheddar foam, broccoli stem, and this crazy frozen egg yolk. The texture of the egg yolk is almost like...Playdoh. Sounds strange, feels strange, tastes good.

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Pig coppa, served with lightly roasted rutabaga and a whey sauce, comes next. The Gallinas love pork, and so do I. The penultimate dish was brought out, which is what I was waiting for. Seeing "beef fat-aged beets" had me very intrigued. Chef Gallina aged the beets in beef fat and served them with an unctuous braised beef cheek, plus a little yeast puree for good measure. The meat and yeast puree together reminds me of getting prime rib and eating it with horseradish and Yorkshire pudding; that wonderful combination of unctuous meat and an almost sour, bready sauce. I finish my plate and look around the table for someone who isn't finishing theirs. Qui gets to them first. Damn him.

Our dinner plates are taken and replaced with Chestnut Old Fashioneds, a delightful mix of bourbon, brown butter chestnuts, and black walnut. I drink a little, but knowing I'm going to have to drive, I offer the rest to Mr. Lewis.

As I watch him enjoy my drink and listen to him and Russ debate the merits of different Southern sauces I've never even heard of, dessert comes.

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I take a spoonful of the parsnip, pecan, malted milk, and chocolate mix and my eyes light up. Parsnip ice cream topped with a toasted pecan butter and malted milk meringue shards—and a nice shaving of malted milk chocolate balls. Oh shit, this is great! I look across the table and Qui has not only finished his, but he's already pleading for seconds. I beg too. There is no more dessert to be had. It tastes like cereal on steroids. Great finish to the meal.

I'm excited to see what Tara and Michael have planned as the year moves ahead.   Will they stick with their Blue Hill-style focus on simplicity? They're certainly embracing St. Louis' local farmers and artisans (13 were used for this dinner). I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge what a fantastic atmosphere Tara set up  for us diners; I've been to a lot of pop-up dinners, but this one was the most fun.