The Libertine has closed.
In mid-2012, the "Cavern in Clayton", Chez Leon, closed its doors for the final time. Perhaps all its clientele died of old age and the younger crowd didn't want to eat mundane French food in a dark 1990's time capsule. Thankfully, Nick and Audra Luedde joined up with chef Josh Galliano and decided to create The Libertine.
The redesigned restaurant space is undoubtedly cool. Brick walls, custom wood tables and a very cool "The Libertine" sign centered against the back wall give it a much younger vibe, similar to something you'd see in Chicago or Boston.
The menu changes fairly often, though some dishes have been on as long as I've been eating there. Any restaurant that keeps things fresh and innovative gets bonus points from me. I cannot stand going to a nice restaurant and seeing the exact same menu that was there 3 months prior. On top of the monthly changes, there are often nightly specials, as well.
Chef Galliano's food reminds me of a more casual version of Sidney Street Cafe. Dishes sound familiar but often have an unexpected and inspired twist to them. My first visit to The Libertine, they had a Togarashi (Japanese chili powder) tuna dish that made me weep. My second and third trips consisted of their spin on fish Amandine($21.00). Marcona almond crust fish-of-the-night atop parsnip puree with a browned butter foam and preserved lemon. It is ethereal and is currently on their menu still. My fourth visit--I LIKE THE RESTAURANT, BACK OFF--I got the Grilled Beef Short Ribs ($25.00) with honey-glazed Rutabega, Kentucky grits and red-eye gravy. What I wish I had gotten was the Not Really BBQ Shrimp ($17.00), an absolutely fiery Korean inspired shrimp soup or stew. I stole some bites from my friend's and wish I had just stolen the whole bowl.
However, before you can walk, you must first learn to crawl. And by that I mean you must start with an appetizer and a drink to kick off the meal. All guests will get a bowl of crispy chickpeas dusted with some sort of dehydrated animal fat (foie gras, guanciale, etc). If you're smart, you're going to order the Crispy Pig Tails ($10.00). I have no idea what chef Galliano does to these in the back and since I already feel guilt enough eating them, I don't want to know, but goddamn they are good. Cooked in a buffalo wing style, three hot and spicy rolled up pig tails come on top of whipped Gorgonzola and brown butter polenta. They're crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. Eat them and be merry, then get on the treadmill and be miserable.
Another wonderful thing that The Libertine does is a Sunday Supper. Each Sunday there's a different theme, with one Sunday each month being dedicated to Fried Chicken. The best fried chicken in the world. My original comments were deemed too inappropriate by my brother, but this meal was as orgasmic as food gets. It was straight out of Anthony Bourdain's world of hardcore food porn. I was actually hesitant to write about it in fear of Guy Fieri hearing about it and then ruining what is undoubtedly my favorite restaurant in St. Louis. ON TO THE FOOD PORN!
On Southern Fried Chicken night ($30.00), there is no a la cart menu. You get what they give you and you are thankful for it! We did order the 2 Buttermilk Biscuits ($2.00) because why not? Our dinner started with a Grilled Andouille Sausage and Black Eyed Pea Stew. Absolutely great. The peas had a cream texture and light flavor, making it a perfect match for the bold Andouille with its spice and smoke.
Sausage and peas in our bellies, we knew what was coming next. The whole restaurant smelled like fried chicken. When our waitress appeared, my eyes widened and my belt tightened. Just kidding: no way I'm wearing a belt when I know I'm going to be eating this much. My only regret is that I didn't just wear sweatpants. Each person got an entire half chicken served with dirty rice, gravy and stewed cabbage. The biscuits were fantastic and the gravy was excessive.
I still don't know how to describe the chicken. The skin was as crispy as any I've ever had. Its texture reminded me of the double fried chicken wings I'd eat when I was refilling my love handles in Asia. The skin's seasoning was perfect. The meat was perfect. Galliano brines it in Sweet Tea, then buttermilk, then it's breaded and fried. How could that be bad? It couldn't. It's not. It's perfect. I tip my hat to you, Chef Galliano, for making the best fried chicken I have ever had. My dream is that one night The Libertine will make this Fried Chicken with waffles. The thought of it alone gives me goosebumps.
I wish I had taken more pictures of the chicken, but it smelled so good when they put it in front of me that I could barely remember my own name, let alone how to use a camera.
To close out the meal, we had Banana Cream Pie with whipped cream and vanilla wafers. It was another great rendition of an old favorite, but I was so full I could only put a dent into it.
The Libertine is, without a doubt in my mind, my favorite restaurant in St. Louis right now. The food is inventive, creative and unquestionably delicious. The Lueddes and Chef Galliano have birthed one of St. Louis' top 5 restaurants and I am so thankful for that. And you should be too.
Clayton, MO 63105