Acclaimed James Beard semifinalist and chef/owner Rob Connoley will debut his 24-seat Bulrush restaurant to the public on April 18. The 3,400 square-foot-space at 3307 Washington Avenue inside the Grand Center Arts District will be the city’s first fine dining restaurant dedicated to Connoley’s locally foraged reimagining of beloved Ozark cuisine classics.
“This is going to be the food you grew up on, the food you love but presented in a way you’ve never experienced before,” says Connoley. “Let’s face it — your grandma’s fried chicken will always be better than mine. Since I can’t compete with those food memories, we’re going to create the food you love in a way that’s exciting, new and maybe a little unexpected.”
Bulrush’s signature dining innovations are unveiled as soon as guests arrive inside the century-old space designed by SPACE Architecture + Design. When diners step inside the restaurant, they view the kitchen in the center of the room ringed by an 18-seat bar and three two-top tables. This is where Connoley and sous chef Justin Bell will work each night, interacting with guests, theatre-in-the-round style.
Eschewing traditional menus, each evening’s seasonal offerings will be projected for diners on a nearby wall. By creating and delivering dishes personally, Connoley and Bell hope to build a stronger and more intimate bond between the kitchen and each diner. Staggered seatings at 6, 6:30, 7 and 7:30 p.m. nightly allow diners to preview the next course being delivered by Connoley or Bell to their next door neighbor. And as a way to continue the forage-focused dining dialogue for guests, each diner will receive a parcel from Connoley containing a breakfast treat, a copy of the evening’s tasting menu, along with a recipe and a seed to plant at the conclusion of their meal.
A sampling of dishes from the opening menu reveal a fried savory hand pie with mustard greens, chickweed, kudzu tuile and redbud vinegar drizzle; venison loin served with a venison and pork belly pâté wrapped in salted rutabaga and raw apple sheets with a rutabaga and apple cider purée; and a persimmon vinegar pie with Thai-style rosette crisp and crème anglaise.
Connoley has relied on letters and family journals — most from 1820-1870 — as inspiration for his dishes. After that time period and due to mass communications, cookbooks become too homogenous to capture the concept of Ozark cuisine. For further recipe development, a history intern continues to research rare document collections at universities.
“Ozark cuisine is a sub-genre of Southern cooking with strong ties to Appalachian cooking due to emigration patterns,” Connoley explains. “At Bulrush, the goal is to take a recipe or a flavor profile from 1830 and give it a modern makeover designed for today’s palates.”
For those who require a slightly accelerated dining experience on the way to other activities, Bulrush offers Ozark-centric samples from the menu, along with craft cocktails, an innovative array of spirit-free beverages, homemade shrubs and foraged ingredients, along with the best of St. Louis’ beers on tap and in bottles and a stunningly on-brand wine list, all overseen by Bulrush beverage manager and self-professed history geek Chris Voll.
“We’re not a big turnover restaurant,” explains Connoley. “Bulrush was specifically designed for guests to come in and relax and engage in a lively conversation with us about the history of Ozark cuisine and enjoy a leisurely evening with us.”
Taking the necessary time to find the right space and an architect who shared his center stage kitchen vision for Bulrush, Connoley, a St. Louis native and the author of “Acorns & Cattails: A Modern Foraging Cookbook of Forest, Farm & Field” was able to try out new recipes at a series of sold-out pop-up dinners around the city and at his Squatter’s Café, the temporary incubation kitchen the chef operated in the KDHX building, three blocks away until last fall. The extended homecoming celebration allowed Connoley an opportunity to reconnect to his roots after years away, operating the Curious Kumquat, his nationally acclaimed restaurant in New Mexico that earned him write ups in the New York Times, Saveur magazine and a James Beard Foundation Best Chef-Southwest semifinalist nod.
“With the opening of Bulrush, it feels like my entire life has come full circle,” says Connoley. “From the summers I spent fishing and foraging at my family’s log cabin in Mark Twain National Forest to exploring the sustainable forage-focused food we served at the Curious Kumquat, doing the research for “Acorns & Cattails” and gathering feedback from the pop ups and Squatter’s Café, it’s all had a role in the creation of Bulrush.”
Bulrush, located at 3307 Washington Avenue in the Grand Center Arts District, will open to the public on April 18 at 6 p.m. Reservations can be made by phoning 314-449-1208 or by visiting bulrushstl.com. All dining reservations will offer all-inclusive pricing (with tax and hospitalities included). Bulrush’s operating hours are Thursday-Sunday 5-10 p.m.