I don’t want cassoulet in June. Not an ideal St. Louis June of blooming flowers, cooling breezes and Cardinals baseball — and absolutely not the swamp-fire June we’re suffering this year.
More to the point, I didn’t need to order the cassoulet at 801 Local in Frontenac. The menu is extensive. I could have eaten a representative array of dishes without it.
Still, 801 Local has kept cassoulet on its menu into June, and that menu highlights andouille sausage and kale among the dish’s ingredients alongside more typical duck confit and white beans. These choices must mean something. My critic’s curiosity — like a cat’s, but with eight fewer lives to spare — demanded I order it.
The confit of duck leg deserved a starring role for its crisp, tawny skin and meat that was rich and tender but not fatty. The rest of the dish suggested someone had walked into the grocery store excited to make cassoulet but soon had to start Googling substitute ingredients. The andouille’s distinct seasoning and firm texture made it a poor stand-in for coarser, more garlicky Toulouse sausage, and without the heady heft of pork belly, the Great Northern beans were as bland as they were ample.
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I couldn’t fathom the point of the kale. I might have said the same about the cassoulet in general, but on this last visit to 801 Local, the dish crystallized what had been bugging me about the restaurant all along.
801 Local, which opened at the end of February just south of Plaza Frontenac, is the latest restaurant from the Des Moines, Iowa-based group behind 801 Chophouse and 801 Fish in Clayton. The easy knock on the new venture would be its disingenuous use of local — the 801 name refers to the Des Moines street address of the original chophouse — but 801 Local makes no pretenses to being St. Louisan.
Instead, it aims to fill the generic role of a “neighborhood establishment,” to quote its website — albeit a “classy” and “upscale” one. In other words, 801 Local is neither as formal nor as breathtakingly expensive as its steakhouse and seafood siblings. You can belly up to its handsome bar and order a beer and the Local Burger, two smashed patties gussied up with smoked Gouda, bacon, grilled onions, pickles and a harissa aioli less biting than you might have hoped. At $19, including side of hand-cut fries, this burger takes only a bit of your breath.
I liked the Local Burger, and I liked some appetizers, too: the warm, pull-apart Parker House rolls slathered with truffle-honey butter; the crab dip, which smartly cuts the lush blue crab with the grassy funk of goat cheese. Ahi tuna lettuce wraps brighten sashimi- planks of fish with jicama, mango, lime and Fresno chiles so potent finger Igrade if they were bird’s eyes in disguise. You get three of these lettuce wraps to an order, two or three bites each, and you will wonder if you’ve said goodbye to $22 more quickly in your life outside a casino.
Duck confit also stars as the featured ingredient inside the potstickers appetizer. Here, the kitchen, which is led by the chef Israel Rodriguez, pushes against convention, serving the fried dumplings atop a butternut-squash puree. It looks pretty on the plate, but it muddies the potstickers with a cloying and jarringly autumnal sweetness.
Likewise, blackened swordfish, a main course, lounges on an elegant bed of celeriac puree and rainbow chard with brown butter and capers. The fish is excellent, meaty but not tough, and the blackening seasoning enrobes it in a peppery, almost steak-like exterior. But that seasoning clashes with and easily vanquishes all of the dish’s more delicate flavors.
I knew the grilled pork chop I’d ordered was a miss before I picked up my knife and fork. The cut showed only a wan grill marking, and it tasted of no seasoning whatsoever, even salt. Given 801 Local’s chophouse DNA, 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 I was making my visits to 801 Local, I also a few meals at Uncle Julio’s, the Tex-Mex restaurant that opened in March 2021 in the same Frontenac development. Unlike 801 Local, which for now has only one location here or elsewhere, the Texas-based Uncle Julio’s boasts restaurants in 11 states, with this being the first in Missouri.
This is exactly the sort of higher-end chain restaurant I’m supposed to wag my finger at — the signature cocktail swirls frozen sangria through a frozen margarita; it’s called the Swirl — and my visits were comically impersonal and efficient. Eating dinner at the bar, I waited what couldn’t have been more than five minutes for both my appetizer and main course. At one lunch, the kitchen dispatched my order of guacamole before my server even had a chance to deliver the free chips and salsa.
I dug it. Uncle Julio’s knows exactly what it does well: skirt steak fajitas, precisely medium-rare as I had requested, folded into the soft, pliable housemade flour tortillas; the signature mesquite-grilled, bacon-wrapped shrimp stuffed with queso fresco and diced habanero chiles in a smoky-sweet honey-chipotle glaze. In true chain fashion, you can add two of these shrimp to many main courses.
801 Local’s cassoulet — out of season, not traditional, and not subverting or expanding that tradition in a provocative or even just plain delicious way — is the mark of a restaurant without personality and without the crutch of being a steakhouse or a seafood palace. It begins with a broad idea of what a “classy” and “upscale” restaurant should serve and backfills the details. If it isn’t as obviously a corporate chain as Uncle Julio’s, in an area that supported the great Cardwell’s at the Plaza for nearly a quarter of a century, it’s no less insidious.
Onde 801 Local, 2021 South Lindbergh Boulevard, Frontenac • more info 314-860-4400; 801local.com • Menu Upscale contemporary fare • hours lunch and dinner daily