Matt Bessler is calm, contained and speaks with a low, even tone, but there is a chef’s urgency in his eyes. As the brand new executive chef of The Libertine (7927 Forsyth, Clayton, MO 63105), he has taken on a position with no shortage of challenges. As Chef Josh Galliano announced he was moving on a few weeks ago, it became utterly important for owner and proprietor Nick Leudde to choose a chef who would exemplify and execute the kind of food that would please regulars of the well established restaurant, as well as bring in new diners all while maintaining the upscale neighborhood eatery feel that the restaurant is based upon. Leudde chose Bessler, who was chef at Schlafly Bottleworks. After what Bessler describes as “a very long, six-hour beer drinking session in his garage,” Bessler accepted. “I’ve known Nick since elementary school. We talked about food and what we thought food should be. We just hit it off.”
Stepping into the chef position at The Libertine was going to be full of challenges, with the main focus being almost a complete change of staff. “Everything is different,” explains Bessler. “Both chefs left, front of the house management has changed, bar management has changed, we lost about half of the kitchen staff, and we were going to transition without closing the restaurant. Plus, we were headed into Clayton Restaurant week.”
The solution that Bessler and Leudde implemented is a savvy and unassuming one. Upon completely overhauling the menu, they quietly pulled back on more experimental aspects and focused on fundamental cooking techniques and classic flavors. This is not only a clever way to introduce a more accessible feel to the menu, but also necessary in building a largely new kitchen staff. Matt Duffin, the new executive sous chef, explains, “Getting a new staff to understand the flavors we are working with first is really important. Then we can introduce new techniques and be more experimental. All of that will happen in time.” Bessler adds, “Right now we don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable reading the menu, the ingredients or the format.”
So is Bessler concerned that a lack of smoke and mirrors might reduce the “wow” factor to dining at The Libertine? “It’s not just about food, it’s about the hospitality business,” says Bessler. “It’s about looking at a guy and remembering what he likes and what he ordered from you in the past. A chef taking the time to know somebody or making them the best steak they’ve ever eaten can wow them. We’re a neighborhood eatery, a neighborhood high-end bistro. A place where you don’t feel weird coming to eat more than one time in a week. For example, in this business there are only a few places chefs will go to on a regular basis besides them knowing the chef or owner. When I want a good sandwich, I always go to Blues City Deli. I know every time I go there, it will always be good. At Joy Luck, the secret menu is phenomenal. They know me by name from Corner 17, which they also own, and when I came into Joy Luck, one of the guys recognized me and said I’ll order for you. It was so good. The stuff I picked out he said wasn’t adequate for me, so he picked out my menu and it was so, so good. That wowed me.”
Bessler points out that this is, however, only a transition time for The Libertine. “The menu is going to change a lot,” he explains. “We’re constantly going through the process of testing a dish, experimenting with it, with the techniques and ingredients. Then we’ll run it as a special. We’ll put it on the menu for a month. Then, it’ll be time to do it all over again with different seasons. A great fish, a great steak, a new twist on a classic like we’re doing with the Nicoise salad with octopus instead of tuna.”
When I comment on how relaxed he appears to be, Bessler exhales. “I have to be. You need to be in this business. I don’t like yelling and throwing things. I mean, that has its time because of the stress of a small kitchen, but it’s the way you control it all that makes you a great chef.” So how do you control it, I ask? He smiles and says, “Grin and bear it?”
Chef Bessler shared an abundance of vibrant, flavorful, thoughtfully executed dishes with me. Highlights included the Fish Acqua Pazza ($25) which Bessler describes as “a very traditional fisherman’s dish that they would make on the docks with seawater. Ours is olive-oil-poached sea bass in a fennel frond and chili-thread-infused tomato water with blistered heirloom tomatoes.”
A majestic roasted bone marrow of braised oxtail with fig gastrique, frisee apple salad and house-made sourdough bread ($15) was a dynamic play of flavors and textures and temperatures.
The “Montreal style” poutine with foie gras gravy, Marcoot Jersey Creamery garlic cheese curds and a thick slice of seared foie ($15) is fast-becoming a menu favorite. The foie gras gravy that laps at the house-made fries is heart achingly gorgeous and as oleogustus as you can get.
Pulpo Salad Nicoise ($12) is “spice-infused, olive-oil-poached octopus with haricot vert, roasted potatoes and a five-minute farm egg.”
Grilled Street Corn ($7) with lime, Korean chili, crema, and Marcoot Creamery grated tomme highlighted the plumpest summer corn in a playful, sweet, tangy, and rich finger-food combination.
Steak and Frites ($26) with foie gras butter lifts the classic French bistro staple to another level of sophistication and savoriness. “This is upper-end neighborhood bistro food,” says Bessler. “It’s a good representation of the direction of this restaurant. Come in and have this on a Tuesday, not come in once every six months.”
Trout Saltimbocca Cartoccio ($26) was among the most perfectly executed and remarkably flavorful of the dishes. Cooked “en papillote,” the Troutdale Farms trout was wrapped in prosciutto, placed atop Zephyr squash and herbs, and baked until it was firm, moist, and beautifully infused and fragrant.
Polenta ($22) is suggested as a shared item and served tableside with a daily ragout. Creamy white polenta enriched with buttery mascarpone cheese was topped with a ragout of bison from Meramac Bisonry, pork, herbs, and tomatoes. “It’s a really simple shareable starter, a lot of fun and a customer favorite,” says Bessler.
The cocktail menu, created by Beverage Director Ben Bauer, is split into two categories: Imagined and Historic, the former giving Bauer freedom to be creative with seasonal ingredients, new creations and inspirations. Watching Bauer create one of The Libertine’s cocktails is playful, entertaining, and pretty mesmerizing. The first visually impressive step to serving up a chilled drink includes Bauer pouring liquid nitrogen into the glass he’s chosen. A fog of mist surrounds him as he then combines, squeezes, and sprinkles components before shaking, straining, and pouring the cocktail into the ethereal-looking and now well-chilled glass. Bauer’s cocktails are painstakingly thought out – each ingredient and detail considered both artistically and with respect to the flavor dynamics. The “Big Sur Reverie” I tried was a beautifully balanced and exciting combination of confit-style pineapple juice (from a whole pineapple cooked in duck fat), Pineapple Cachaca, Big O Ginger Cordial and summer citrus served in a glass washed in duck fat. Glorious, interesting, and, as the cocktail warmed from the heat of my hand, the duck fat became more prominent, making the flavor evolve from citrusy and spicy to savory. A true pleasure to experience. Cocktails average $10 dollars each.