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Chef’s Table at Cielo in the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis

Chef’s Table at Cielo in the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis


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Our contributor describes what it's like to sit at the best table in the house

Cielo is at the Four Seasons Hotel in St. Louis.

The best table in the house: we’ve all heard that movies stars, rock stars, and business moguls demand special seating when they approach the maître d' in a fine restaurant. It’s a table where they can see and be seen, but discreet enough to do whatever business is at hand.

The best table in the house doesn’t apply to me. I’m neither angling to have the paparazzi snap a photo of me having dinner with Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon nor brokering deals that will change the course of American commerce. I’m just a gal with a blog and column, I make reservations at good-to-great restaurants, and I’m happy wherever I’m seated.

Really, I’m there for the food.

But boy, oh boy, did I ever get a taste of the sweet life. I may be ruined for good!

My friend and colleague, Sherma Mather, was visiting St. Louis from Richmond, Va., and I wanted to introduce her to one of the best fine-dining experiences in St. Louis, Cielo at the Four Seasons Hotel*. Rather than call for a reservation, I Facebooked** Stephen Wancha — the fab food and beverage director — to ask whether I needed a late reservation for a Wednesday night.

He Facebooked me back and said that my reservation was set.

I thought to myself, "Wow, how cool is that?" Even after all of the years I’ve known this wonderful staff, I’m honored by the way they take care of me. And let’s face facts: I was being lazy by not calling. (Yup, I own it.)

You simply can’t imagine my reaction when I received a reservation confirmation phone call that told me that Sherma and I would be sitting at the Chef’s Table***. Yes, I got weak in the knees. Yes, I felt a little woozie. Yes, I got flushed. It’s a big deal, and I couldn’t stop giggling.


Go-to hotel restaurants in St. Louis

These hot spots have become as much dining destinations as places to stay.

Cielo · Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis

Gian Nicola Colucci faces a challenge as Cielo’s executive chef: satisfying two distinct types of diners. For patrons who come to gamble at Lumière Place Casino, he prepares comfort food: steak and potatoes, “beautiful” burgers, classic short ribs. For special-occasion diners and guests at The Four Seasons, he focuses on international cuisine: octopus, carrot ravioli, a seafood medley. As a result, Cielo’s menu draws on Colucci’s experiences working in some of the world’s best hotel restaurants. 999 N. 2nd.

BaiKu · Hotel Ignacio

Executive chef Eliott Harris emphasizes seasonal ingredients and might offer as many as four types of tuna at the sushi bar. A self-described purist, he’s been in the industry for more than 20 years. Harris credits his team, including former Sekisui sushi chef Kenji Nemoto, with pleasing their patrons. Don’t miss BaiKu’s happy hour: 20 percent off the entire bill. 3411 Olive.

Boundary · The Cheshire / Three Sixty · Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark

As executive chef of Boundary and Three Sixty, Rex Hale thinks a lot about speedy service. At the latter, in particular, “dishes have to be executed quickly,” he says. (The resulting house-smoked salmon chips, grass-fed–beef burger, surf n’ turf, and Easy Money cocktail are musts.) With nearly 40 years in the industry, Hale enjoys working at hotel restaurants because he can enhance the experience with great food and service. 7036 Clayton 1 S. Broadway.

It was out with the old and in with the new when the Cheshire reopened this hip subterranean space. With a convivial vibe and deep menu of craft beer and wine by the glass, it’s become a new place to see and be seen. 6300 Clayton.

Robust Wine Bar · Embassy Suites by Hilton St. Louis Downtown

With their unpretentious approach, Stanley and Arlene Maminta Browne have created a dining destination on Washington Avenue. Rather than being categorized by varietals, the wine list is broken into helpful descriptors—Crisp, Luscious, Robust—that even a wine novice can appreciate. 610 N. Seventh.

The bacon-mushroom soup is the color of autumn fog on a meadow. Crunchy bacon flakes are scattered over a cream-rich slurry of smoked Gouda and meaty slivers of wild mushrooms. It’s a warm, fragrant full moon in the bowl and one of the most addictive soups in town.6177 Delmar.

The Preston · The Chase Park Plaza Royal Sonesta St. Louis

An elegant multilayered starter, the charred octopus arrives in a puddle of sunchoke purée, accompanied by knobs of brown-butter gnocchi and topped with smoked-paprika vinaigrette. The succulent meatiness of the octopus is tamed perfectly by the flames. 212 N. Kingshighway.


“There is so much talent and good food in this town right now.”

Craft also recognises that his story has encouraged local chefs to gain experience in other cities and then return to St. Louis to open their own restaurants. “There is so much talent and good food in this town right now.” Craft also credits the quality of local ingredients as a positive for the St. Louis hospitality industry overall. “I think St. Louis has come a long way in that regard. There are a lot more young people out there who find farming as a great career right now. Whatever we need, we can get it.”

So what is a still-young, rule-breaking chef doing partnering with a top-of-the-line and long-established luxury hotel group? Craft has always been impressed by the Four Seasons brand: “There’s a ton I can learn from this company.” He once stayed at Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, housed in a former prison in the Old City, and remembers it as one of the coolest hotel experiences he’s ever had. “Four Seasons is a great brand for my brand to be associated with.”

When not shaping the dining scene surrounded by the wood-burning oven at Cinder House, Craft enjoys hanging out with his wife and daughters. “We’ve got two dancers, and one of them has already fallen in love with camping.” Meantime, he is sticking with St. Louis. “There’s so much cool stuff to do in this town,” he says, noting in particular paddle trips with a local outfitter on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. “It’s a lot of fun. You pretty much pull up and get out right at Four Seasons.”


Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis

“They replaced everything – especially the stoves,” says Gerard Craft, sizzling with enthusiasm over his vision come to fruition for the kitchen at the Cinder House at Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis. Tapped in 2017 to create a new concept for the Hotel’s signature food and beverage experience, Craft found inspiration from the open flame. With heavy influences from the “grilling meccas” of South America such as Argentina and Brazil, Cinder House’s menu features the chef’s take on global grilling techniques with meats, seafood, vegetables and more.

Like a trophy catfish reeled in from the nearby Mississippi River, Craft is quite a catch as a partner for the Hotel. The first-ever St. Louis honouree of a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest, he was just 25 years old when he arrived in the city and shook up the local dining scene. With Craft’s work as Consulting Chef of Cinder House, his Niche Food Group now encompasses six restaurants in St. Louis and one in Nashville.

Cinder House marks Craft’s first foray into South American cuisine. The menu is inspired not only by the continent’s grilling traditions, but also by Craft’s early food memories. His beloved nanny, Dia, was a native of Brazil and introduced him to flavours of her country at an early age. “She was like a second mother to me, and one of the best cooks I’ve ever met,” he says, recalling the many dishes she created to nourish his youth. As a young chef, Craft and his wife, Suzie, spent time with Dia in her kitchen, jotting down recipes and cooking side-by-side to master her techniques.

Many of those Dia-inspired dishes are now on the Cinder House menu, albeit transformed by Craft’s creativity and the heat of the wood-burning hearth. There’s feijoada, for instance, the national dish of Brazil, which the restaurant serves with grilled duck legs and a stew of black beans surrounded by bold Moroccan chermoula sauce. And there’s the addictive pão de queijo, an airy cheese bread made with tapioca flour that can be found on home dining tables across Brazil. “When I was growing up, I ate pão de queijo almost everyday.”

Craft also provided inspiration for the design of Cinder House. The restaurant takes full advantage of its eighth floor setting, with an extensive open-air patio and bar and commanding views of the Mississippi River and the Gateway Arch from the Hotel’s Sky Terrace. He also had a hand in the restaurant’s beverage program, with original takes on cocktails such as the Caipirinha made with Brazilian rum – “similar to a Mojito, but a little bit sharper” – and the Argentine favourite Fernet con Coca – “I have a weakness for drinks mixed with Coca-Cola.”

Following a couple of years studying history in college, Craft pursued a more adventurous profession as an apprentice snowboard photographer in Utah. He took a restaurant job to supplement his creative endeavour. There, he fell in love with the energy of the kitchen. He progressed rapidly, landing cooking gigs at Bistro Toujours in Park City, Utah the famed Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles and Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey. Then he headed for St. Louis.

Why St. Louis? “I wanted to be part of the rise of the city, building something as opposed to just swimming upstream in New York.” His timing was perfect, putting him on the leading edge of a wave of creative types who had eyes on doing the same. Craft is modest about his influence on the local dining scene. “If I did something, I think that I made it okay for a lot of young chefs to break the rules,” he says. “There was a set kind of restaurant in town for a long time, and I’d like to think that I broke that mold a bit.”

Craft also recognises that his story has encouraged local chefs to gain experience in other cities and then return to St. Louis to open their own restaurants. “There is so much talent and good food in this town right now.” Craft also credits the quality of local ingredients as a positive for the St. Louis hospitality industry overall. “I think St. Louis has come a long way in that regard. There are a lot more young people out there who find farming as a great career right now. Whatever we need, we can get it.”

So what is a still-young, rule-breaking chef doing partnering with a top-of-the-line and long-established luxury hotel group? Craft has always been impressed by the Four Seasons brand: “There’s a ton I can learn from this company.” He once stayed at Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, housed in a former prison in the Old City, and remembers it as one of the coolest hotel experiences he’s ever had. “Four Seasons is a great brand for my brand to be associated with.”

When not shaping the dining scene surrounded by the wood-burning oven at Cinder House, Craft enjoys hanging out with his wife and daughters. “We’ve got two dancers, and one of them has already fallen in love with camping.” Meantime, he is sticking with St. Louis. “There’s so much cool stuff to do in this town,” he says, noting in particular paddle trips with a local outfitter on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. “It’s a lot of fun. You pretty much pull up and get out right at Four Seasons.”


Sweet August Nights and Dinner in Cielo's Kitchen

So we’re lounging about on the patio at Cielo during A Taste of Summer, a fundraiser for St. Louis Children’s Hospital, on a night when Seattle’s summer seems to have accidentally been sent to St. Louis. This is during the August St. Louis Never Saw Before, when it's in the low 70s by six in the evening, with a delightful, soft breeze. For once during the summer, we are dressed nattily, in a sport coat and tie, and we are not miserably steam-wilting.

We are tucking into some ice cream, loaded into a clear, handball-sized plastic globe. It’s delicious—amazingly sweet: white chocolate whipped with lemony perfumed essence of yuzu, layered with strawberry sorbet, and topped with a pink thumb of macaroon (below). It was conjured by Ritz-Carlton pastry chef Nathaniel Reid.

Along with the ice cream, we’re sipping some kind of cocktail that has lots of tequila in it, along with Sriracha honey syrup and amaro. We never thought of tequila going well with ice cream—but we aren’t complaining.

We are contemplating the immediate future: a series of dessert dissertations, a tour de force of the best, most creative offerings from about half a dozen of the city’s best, most imaginative pastry chefs.

Now, while we were only tangentially involved in the famous, unfortunate Lemon Sauce Covered Chocolate Bunny Incident, we’re no slouches in the arena of eating sweets. But we are concerned that this might be a daunting task. So we’re relieved when a Cielo waiter shows up, bearing a platter of green olives, stuffed with veal, then battered and deep-fried. It's beautiful—a palate cleanser. Refreshed, we figure we can manage another of those little globes. We do. Then someone comes out and tells us the fun’s just starting, in the kitchen.

Even assuming you’re a dedicated connoisseur, chances are small that you spend any time at all in the kitchens of top-flight restaurants. That’s a loss. A kitchen of Cielo's caliber makes the floor of the New York Stock Exchange seem like a sleepy country store—it’s busy. And it’s fascinating to see what your food looks like before it arrives at your table and how it gets that way.

The size of Cielo’s kitchen is impressive—past impressive. It’s also like a maze. Room after room are connected by sharp-angled hallways you navigate the latter with care because there are people pushing carts, loaded with clean and dirty plates, pots and pans. There are other people who are laden with finished meals, schlepping them swiftly out into the dining room, and still others are coming back with the remainders of dinner. In a Chinese kitchen, the activity at peak-service periods is called “anthill time.” It looks like a teeming anthill, its inhabitants scurrying. The ants are going at it here at Cielo, more than a dozen, all attending to their tasks, with some of them, younger ones, answering “Yes, chef” to orders.

(Other than working in a hospital as an aide or orderly, probably the best summer job for a high-school kid is in a restaurant kitchen. There aren’t excuses in those kitchens, no backtalk or sullenness. A kid in a restaurant kitchen of this class learns, right away, that he or she has to produce, take orders, and suck up a lot of grief—which are lessons that will hold him or her in good stead for a lifetime.)

A kitchen like Cielo's is no place for outsiders, for anyone can be a hazard to navigation there. So it’s surprising that the chef would allow a sort of “progressive dessert tour” to unfold right in the middle of the action. We’re mindful of this. We figure we incur enough ill feelings among the local chef population with our writing even though we’re incognito on this night, we don’t see any reason to get in the way. So we’re careful, trying to stay out of trouble and just enjoy the pastries.

Those pastries, not incidentally, have not declined in quality since that first one we enjoyed on the patio. We are standing with our back to some hot, head-high bread ovens and eyeing some baguettes that just came out. We're enjoying a tiny frangipani-scented muffin, topped with blackberry cream and fresh blackberries studded into the cream (above), made by Pint Size Bakery's Christy Augustin. And right next to it, there's a crostada (below), still crispy and warm and stuffed with plums and hazelnuts, made by Pastaria's Anne Croy.

What’s really fun is that the pastry chefs have time to visit. You don’t often see chefs doing this. We’re taking advantage of it by asking them questions: How do you deal with the mind-boggling Midwestern humidity when making pastries? How long do you chill your dough before rolling it? It’s fun to see how they answer some questions quickly and how they sandbag on others that are clearly proprietary.

Overall, though, they’re eager to chat. If everyone were as enthusiastic about their work as chefs are about theirs, this would be a much nicer world. We take advantage of more offered divertments, including some crispy circles of fried squid and slices of bruschetta topped with a piquant tapenade, and then we wander out to Cielo’s Wine Cellar and private dining space, the Gaja Room. There, on a thousand-pound table made from reclaimed rafters of an old Baptist church, are dozens of little alabaster nests of Pavlova (right). Seriously, when’s the last time you had a Pavlova? To celebrate Armistice Day? We briefly regret not wearing spats.

The Pavlova was made by Mary Boehne, right there at Cielo. They're delicately crusty, just faintly sweet—the Pavlova, not Ms. Boehne. They're filled with brandied cherries, and on top is an impossibly rich and creamy candied cherry. Incredible, those cherries.

Beside the mountain of Pavlovas are gateaux, with lavender-poached pear and marscapone, topped with the same tiny macroons that decorated the night’s first pastry. They're made by La Patissere Choquette's Simone Faure, who is originally from New Orleans. It doesn’t hurt that Faure agrees with our assessment of Riverbend Bar as the place to get the best gumbo in town, but man, those slices of gateaux (below) are lovely.

In all honesty, our warm feelings about the gateaux may have been influenced by the cocktails served with it, an elixir of brown butter-infused rum, apple and lime juices, and maraschino liqueur.

After we’ve ingested enough sugar to stupefy an entire kindergarten class, we take advantage of the opportunity of being loose in this wonderful kitchen. Nobody’s yelled at us so far, so we push our luck. We start wandering through its labyrinth.

Matthew Ely, the sous chef who normally works Cielo’s banquets, is overseeing the line tonight. We venture a few questions again and don’t get yelled at. He asks if we’d like a tour. He promptly shows us the pastry kitchen, as well as the line where Cielo’s big, buttery ravioli stuffed with veal and spinach and slathered with a truffle-rich sauce are being plated, along with beer-braised short ribs and seared tuna with an eggplant caponata.

“This is old hat to you,” we say, “but for a lot of people, this would be like watching surgery or something.”

It's a poor analogy since most people’s mouths don’t water while watching surgery, but he agrees and observes, “You know we have chef’s dinners back here.”

We didn’t realize this. It turns out Cielo’s kitchen has a second, separate line. There were originally supposed to be two attached restaurants, so the second line—which has a huge, broad granite tabletop (below)—is occasionally used for banquets. During such occasions, the chef stands right in front of diners, preparing the dishes. There are some extraordinary experiences available to the St. Louis gourmet, and this must rank up there as one of the most promising.

Maybe this winter, when the weather isn’t quite so wonderful as it was (or ever will be again in August in St. Louis), we'll make reservations for a kitchen dinner at Cielo.


Cielo Restaurant & Bar

Italian eats can be found at Cielo in St. Louis, and fans will argue it's the best fare in town (fantastic reviews are everywhere in sight). Cielo also offers dishes without gluten, so that every stomach can find something to satisfy. Find time to peruse the wine list here ? this restaurant offers a variety of drink options. Don't leave the kids at home ? youngsters will love the family-friendly cuisine at this restaurant just as much as mom and dad. Check out the brews and bites at happy hour, and kick back without spending a fortune. Dine out in the open during Cielo's summer season when patio tables are available for use. Stay connected at no cost thanks to Cielo's wifi. Have a large group? No problem. Head to Cielo for easy seating.

If your weekend plans include a trip to the restaurant, avoid the packs of people by securing a reservation ahead of time. Leave the suit and tie at home ? Cielo is business casual all the way.

At Cielo, diners can make use of the nearby valet parking options. Make use of the safe and efficient bike parking at Cielo.

With an average price of around $50, Cielo is perfect for a special celebration. The dinner menu is a crowd pleaser at the restaurant, though breakfast and lunch are also served. See for yourself why Cielo's Italian food is so highly considered.


'Edible nostalgia'

Chef Gerald Sombright watches the kitchen at Ario in the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort in Marco Island, Fla., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. Sombright (Chef de Cuisine at Ario) will appear on the upcoming season of the Emmy-winning Bravo hit, "Top Chef." (Photo: Logan Newell/Special to The Naples Daily News)

Sombright never went to culinary school but instead earned his chops at award-winning fine dining restaurants and working alongside esteemed chefs.

His résumé includes the Cielo Italian restaurant at the St. Louis Four Seasons the historic Annie Gunn's in Chesterfield, Missouri, under the tutelage of James Beard Award-winning chef Lou Rook the Wit & Wisdom restaurant at the Four Seasons Baltimore Waterfront led by celebrity chef Michael Mina and most recently as restaurant chef for PB&G at the Four Seasons Resort in Orlando under the direction of award-winning chef Fabrizio Schenardi.

Back then, he said, cooking was serious business, and he learned from the best.

"When I started cooking, people were crazy," he said. "It was a reverential fear. I grew up in urban America, so I didn’t necessarily fear the chef, but I did have a certain reverence between his action and his actual ability."

At Ario, where he's been developing the menu and managing the kitchen staff for the last year, Sombright practices his own version of tough love.

Chef Gerald Sombright shows Orasya Saisangthong some plating for the night's dishes at Ario in the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort in Marco Island, Fla., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. Sombright (Chef de Cuisine at Ario) will appear on the upcoming season of the Emmy-winning Bravo hit, â"Top Chef." (Photo: Logan Newell/Special to The Naples News)

"Cooking is a very honest craft," he said. "You can either do it or you can't. I do a lot of coaching and energetic banter to engage and inspire speed and accuracy. . I teach a lot and attempt to get people to understand the whole picture, not just their stations."

Chef Gerald Sombright shows Orasya Saisangthong(not pictured) how to plate the night's dishes at Ario in the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort in Marco Island, Fla., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. Sombright (Chef de Cuisine at Ario) will appear on the upcoming season of the Emmy-winning Bravo hit, "Top Chef." (Photo: Logan Newell/Special to The Naples News)

Sombright's cooking style pays homage to his personal and culinary history, he said, like the sous vide beef tongue he prepares with green beans and shallots, a nod to his mother's signature green bean casserole.

"My food philosophy is 'edible nostalgia,' because every meal is evocative of the past, present and future," he said. "Some people tease me because they say how can I say you have a memory in the future? If you go to the Caribbean and I make you a dinner before you go to the Caribbean, it’s looking forward to that memory, and I’ll try to incorporate those flavors."


New To Four Seasons

The reason for our success is no secret. It's the Golden Rule – the simple idea that we should treat others the way we would want to be treated.

Isadore Sharp Founder and Chairman