Recently, the James Beard Foundation released its list of award semifinalists for 2019. Ny Vongsaly, executive chef of Billie-Jean, was listed among the nominees for Best Chef: Midwest.
Having just eaten at Billie-Jean, it was one of the least surprising things I’ve ever read.
Billie-Jean, located on Wydown Boulevard in Clayton, is the latest opening from restaurateur Zoë Robinson and Vongsaly, her longtime friend and collaborator. Anyone who gives a damn about food in St. Louis is likely familiar with Robinson and her various restaurants, including Cafe Zoë, Zoë Pan-Asian Cafe, Bar Les Freres and I Fratellini.
The former are no more, but Bar Les Freres and I Fratellini are both located on the same stretch of Wydown, which has become a veritable Murderers’ Row for Robinson. Billie-Jean bears little resemblance to its sister restaurants, though.
Their well-appointed spaces offer old-school European charm and elegance that you don’t see much in an era of industrial chic and mid-century modern accents. They’re rather obvious in their missions and identities, as well.
Bar Les Freres feels like a Parisian parlor where it’s perfectly appropriate to indulge in a glass of wine and foie gras. It’s also one of the only places in St. Louis where I can get a properly made aviation, which, to borrow a Bourdain-ism, doesn’t suck. I Fratellini feels like the little trattoria the locals eat at, not the one mobbed by tourists. The one an Italian nonna told you about.
Billie-Jean, though...Billie-Jean is different.
The space is small (32 seats only) and sleek, dressed in black top to bottom. It feels like a hip restaurant in Manhattan that Abbi and Ilana would get kicked out of in Broad City. The shotgun setup brought me back to the New Orleans vacation house I once stayed in. That house wasn’t quite as—and forgive me for not having a “better” word—cool.
My meal started with complimentary scallion pancakes, which were a perfect introduction to Billie-Jean’s cuisine. One might describe it as “fusion.”
In the restaurant world, the term “fusion” is a dirty word—not to be spoken lest it conjure a mish-mashed ’80s entree that Patrick Bateman probably enjoyed thoroughly. However, some of the most interesting food—in my opinion—being done right now is technically “fusion” food.
For instance, Ed Lee is guided by his Korean heritage, while using ingredients from his new home, Kentucky. The Crispy Pig’s Ear Congee at his restaurant Milkwood in Louisville was one of the best things I ate in 2018.
In the grander scheme of things, I don’t believe fusion cuisine, as we traditionally think of it, really exists. This gets into the issue of “authenticity,” which I’ll save for another day. But cultures borrow things. They adapt. They are not, and cannot by their nature, remain static.
In this incarnation, at Billie-Jean, Vongsaly has taken traditional continental classics and added a touch of his Laotian heritage and other Southeast Asian influences. It’s nothing outrageous, rather the menu is full of subtle twists that belie exciting surprises. It’s an an impressive accomplishment.
Afterall, when was the last time something subtle was exciting to you?
Now that my verbosity is out of the way, let me touch on the rest of the meal.
To start, we ordered the Hamachi Crudo. It’s something that has become a menu standard for many restaurants. Yet, rarely is it exciting. On Top Chef, it’s the kind of dish people make to avoid going home, but not something that will win. This, on the other hand, would blow those mediocre renditions out of the water.
The hamachi, or yellowtail, was buttery and fatty, but not overwhelmingly, and the other components added up to a perfectly balanced bite. The tamarind added sweetness and a little tartness, while the frisee provided and undercurrent of bitterness. The smoked Fresno chile and chile ponzu gave it a little heat, as well. They worked together, adding up to something more complex than appearances would suggest.
Next, we had the Duck Spring Rolls and Warm Thai Brussels Sprouts Salad. Duck is a sort of Kryptonite to me. Basically, if it’s on the menu, I have to order it. The chili soy accompanied the duck’s gaminess well, but the Brussels sprouts were the star.
The salad could almost be a meal in itself, as half the portion was almost too much for me. The sprouts were roasted (the superior method of cooking them, which I’m glad we’ve now agreed on) and glazed. It’s not listed on the menu, but I can almost guarantee the glaze had fish sauce in it. The umami present in each bite indicated as much. It’s a smart choice and something that I’ll be stealing for my own kitchen.
For the mains, I went with the Roasted Quail with Cornbread and my fiancée opted for the Braised Short Rib. As I noted already, I have a proclivity for game birds, and I’m always interested in a place that can get quail right. It’s a rarity, but Billie-Jean succeeds where others fail.
Quail are not large birds, and like duck, the breast meat is dark. Because of this, quail is often butchered by overcooking. I had nothing to worry about, though. The skin was crisp, like a perfectly roasted buttermilk chicken.
The meat was tender, aided by stuffing composed of cornbread, golden raisins and pine nuts. The earthy, fragrant stuffing was exactly what I wanted to accompany a game bird. It was reminiscent, in a way, of English or Irish country cooking—something April Bloomfield or Marco Pierre White would cook. It just happened to utilize a more international larder.
The short rib was cooked and presented on-the-bone, á la the Flintstones. The meat fell off the bone with little effort and was deeply savory. It came with horseradish gremolata, which felt like a very natural way to introduce a little acid and heat to the dish. My other half is not really a fan of horseradish, but I thought it balanced the richness of the short rib nicely. The fingerling potatoes were tasty, but mostly served as vessels to soak up the jus from the short rib—which didn’t bother me.
We’re not far into 2019, but this is easily the best meal I’ve had all year. I’m sure plenty of other people feel the same way about their experiences. When buzz surrounds a restaurant like this, it can be hard to know if it’s truly warranted.
But I can confidently say, go to Billie-Jean. It just might surprise you.