Restaurant review: Elmwood

Elmwood Restaurant in Maplewood is an imperfect yet exciting new eatery with a strong foundation but room for improvement. The newly-opened establishment from Niche Food Group alumni and culinary-world heavyweights Adam Altnether and Chris Kelling has many components of an incredible dining experience, but doesn’t feel cohesive and polished. Both Kelling and Altnether have impressive resumes: Kelling worked under Gerard Craft, a pioneer in the St Louis restaurant scene and a highly-regarded chef both locally and nationally. While working under Craft, Kelling managed the impeccable front-of-house service at Craft’s fine-dining restaurant Niche, which received numerous awards and accolades under Kelling’s tenure before closing in June 2016.  After his work at Niche, Kelling relocated to California’s Napa Valley to work front-of-house at the three Michelin-starred* Restaurant at Meadowood.

At Elmwood, Kelling brings his fine dining experience to the restaurant’s front-of-house service, managing their team of waiters and bartenders. The food program, headed up by Altnether is globally inspired but focused around one central piece of equipment: the Josper charcoal grill. Josper grills are highly coveted, top-of-the-line grills used in some of the best restaurants around the world and known for achieving a perfect balance between nuanced smoke flavor and perfect char. 

The grill is used for many of their dishes, creating smoky flavor on the wagyu beef skewers and the dry-aged ribeye, charring broccoli for the broccoli caesar salad and providing an interesting preparation for seasonal vegetables. The aforementioned grill is part of the kitchen, which is behind a large glass wall separating it from the main dining area. The complete separation deprives the guests of many elemental aspects of wood-fired grilling: the smell of smoke, heat of the flames and the sound of the embers. Hidden behind the thick glass partition, the restaurant feels very clinical. The overall ambiance leaves something to be desired. On the October Tuesday that I visited Elmwood, the dining area felt empty, dark and sultry, with blank black walls and bright pink light from the neon restroom sign casting an eerie glow over the dining room. The highlights of the restaurant’s dining room were the surprisingly comfortable wooden chairs and candles on the tables which provided some warm ambiance in the otherwise cold and empty space.

Kelling’s bar program highlights an impressive selection of well-made nonalcoholic options with complex flavors. In the past, spirit-free drinks were a side thought for restaurants, limited to sodas or commercially available drink mixes. At Elmwood, nonalcoholic drinks occupy their own dedicated section of the drink menu, further showing the thought put into them. The options include seasonal beverages with aromatics and layered flavor, similar to many traditional mixed drinks. I ordered the grilled pineapple cocktail which was refreshing and delicious with a hint of smokiness from the charred fruit. Aside from the fact that the glass was overfilled with ice, I was impressed by the attention to detail and complexity of flavors. 

After ordering almost every item on the menu, I got a good idea of which are worth the money and what to skip. I was encouraged by our server to order to wagyu beef skewers to “get an idea of the restaurant”, however I was not particularly impressed with the flavor. Wagyu beef is a very expensive and rare variety of meat revered for the consistently flavorful fat marbling throughout the meat, but the flavor didn’t come through in these skewers. They were very delicious and well grilled, but not worth the hype. 

The vegetable dishes are where Elmwood excels, including a deliciously complex Caesar salad style broccoli dish which swaps out the traditional limp, soggy lettuce for delightfully crunchy grilled broccoli. The broccoli was topped with an incredibly rich and flavorful Caesar salad dressing, toasted breadcrumbs, cheese and herbs. Green beans came charred on top of an herby green curry with roasted almonds, and sweet potato was made into a delicious Mediterranean baba ganoush (mediterranean-style dip) topped with pomegranate and herbs. Each of the vegetable dishes were packed with layers of unexpected flavor that will turn even the pickiest eaters into converts. 

One dish that was a showstopper (to my surprise) was the mussels: tossed in a Szechuan-style sauce that was pleasantly spicy without being overwhelming, topped with crispy shoestring potatoes and herbs. The crispy chile sauce coated the mussels and pooled in the shells while the shoestring potatoes give the perfect satisfying crunch. With an incredible variety of textures and tantalizing spicy taste, there is no wonder these mussels are one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. 

The menu transcends borders and features food from around the world, as well as innovative takes on dishes such as the burger (which is served with a Korean barbeque sauce, bacon, shallots and American cheese) and the jerk chicken wings. Each dish by Altnether’s team is interesting and unique, with interesting flavor pairings that walk the line between their high-end training at niche and approachable dishes. Overall, Elmwood is a delicious restaurant that with a few minor improvements to their service and hospitality can earn its place among the new crop of innovative and imaginative restaurants changing the culinary scene in St Louis. 

*The Michelin Guide, founded in 1900 by the Michelin company to increase demand for their tires, is a food and dining awards system. Originally published exclusively in France, the guide is now published in many countries internationally. In the U.S., the Michelin Guide rates restaurants in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington DC. The restaurants are rated out of three stars: One star means “a very good restaurant in its category”, two stars notate “excellent cooking, worth a detour” while three stars recognize “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”.