I don’t want a cassoulet in June. Louis in June of blooming flowers, cool breezes and baseball cardinals – certainly not the swamp fire we have this year.
More than that, I didn’t need to order a cassoulet at 801 Local in Frontenac. The list is extensive. I could have eaten a representative array of dishes without it.
However, 801 Local has kept cassoulet on its menu until June, and this list highlights andouille sausage and kale among the dish’s ingredients alongside traditional duck confit and white beans. These choices must mean something. The curiosity of my critics – like a cat, but with eight fewer lives – asked me to ask.
Duck leg confit deserved the starring role due to its crunchy, dull skin and rich, tender but not greasy flesh. The rest of the dish suggested that someone walked into the grocery store excited about making cassoulet but soon had to start searching for alternative ingredients on Google. Andouille’s distinctive seasoning and firm texture made it a poor standout for Toulouse’s coarser, more garlicky sausage, and without the intoxicating heft of pork belly, great northern beans were as bland as they were plentiful.
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I could not understand the point of view of the turnip. I may have said the same about cassoulets in general, but on this recent visit to 801 Local the dish crystallized what had been bothering me about the restaurant all along.
801 Local, which opened at the end of February just south of Plaza Frontenac, is the newest restaurant from the Des Moines group in Iowa behind 801 Chophouse and 801 Fish in Clayton. An easy hit on the new venture would be its disingenuous use of local language – the name 801 refers to the Des Moines Street address of the original restaurant – but 801 Local doesn’t pretend to be St. Louis.
Instead, it aims to fill the public role of a “neighborhood institution,” in the words of its website – albeit one that is “upscale” and “upscale.” In other words, 801 Local isn’t as formal nor surprisingly expensive as a steak and seafood restaurant. You can hit up its cool bar and order a local beer and burger, two patties mashed with smoked gouda, bacon, grilled onions, pickles, and a mashed aioli that’s less choked than you’d hope. At $19, including a side of hand-cut French fries, this burger takes a few breaths.
I loved the Local Burger, and I also liked some of the appetizers: the warm, decadent Parker House roll topped with honey truffle butter; Crab dip, cleverly shredded lush blue crab with herbed goat cheese. Ahi tuna lettuce wraps plates of bright, sashimi-grade fish with jicama, mango, finger lime, and Fresno chili so strong that I wondered if they were disguised bird eyes. You’ll get three rolls of this lettuce in an order, two or three bites each, and you’ll wonder if you’ve said goodbye to $22 more quickly in your life outside the casino.
Duck confit also stars as a signature ingredient within the potstickers appetizer. Here, the kitchen, led by Chef Israel Rodriguez, pushes against tradition, serving fried dumplings over walnut and squash puree. They look pretty on the plate, but they sour crockpots with a choppy, contrasting autumnal sweetness.
Likewise, black swordfish, a main dish, rests on an elegant bed of celery puree and rainbow chard with brown butter and capers. The fish is excellent, meaty but not tough, and the black seasoning makes it look almost steak on the outside. But this seasoning counteracts and overpowers all the subtle flavors in the dish.
I knew the roast pork chop I ordered was missing before I picked up the knife and fork. The cut only showed a small grill mark, and it didn’t taste like spice at all, even salt. Given the DNA of 801 Local’s chophouse, this was as inexplicable as it was disappointing – the most inexplicable dish here until I finally succumbed to temptation and ordered the cassoulet.
Now, during the weeks of my visits to 801 Local, I also had a few meals at Uncle Julio’s, a Tex-Mex restaurant that opened in March 2021 in the same Frontenac development. Unlike 801 Local, which now only has one location here or elsewhere, Texas-based Uncle Julio’s boasts restaurants in 11 states, with this being a first in Missouri.
This is exactly the kind of high-end chain restaurant I’m supposed to wiggle my finger at—the signature cocktail swirling frozen sangria through a frozen margarita; It’s called Vortex – and my visits were comic, impersonal and effective. While eating dinner at the bar, I waited no more than five minutes for both the appetizer and the main course. At one lunch, the kitchen sent my order of guacamole before my server had a chance to serve up the complimentary chips and salsa.
I dug it up. Uncle Giulio knows very well what he’s doing: skirt steak fajitas, delicately medium and rare as I ordered, folded in soft, homemade tortillas; Mesquite-grilled shrimp and bacon-wrapped stuffed with queso and chopped habanero peppers in a sweet-smoky honey chipotle coating. In true chain fashion, you can add two of these shrimp to many main dishes.
801 Local cassoulet – out of season, not traditional, not subverting or extending this tradition in a provocative way or even just delicious way – is the mark of a restaurant without personality and without crutch for being a steakhouse or a seafood palace. It starts with a broad idea of what a “upscale” and “upscale” restaurant should offer and re-fills the details. If it’s not for a chain of companies like Uncle Giulio, in an area that has supported the great Cardwell in the Plaza for nearly a quarter century, it’s no less deceitful.
where 801 Local, 2021 South Lindbergh Boulevard, Frontenac • More information 314-860-4400; 801local.com • food menu Upscale contemporary fare hours Lunch and dinner daily