When Executive Chef Steven Caravelli announced he was leaving Araka in Clayton after only one year last June, he was succeeded by longtime sous chef Michael Burnau. Burnau has been with the eatery since it opened in 2007, and owner Brad Beracha looked no further for a new head chef.
“Michael was showing real leadership in the kitchen,” Beracha said. “We talked about what direction we wanted to head in—introducing some new menu items—and he agreed.”
The direction includes vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free selections such as grilled eggplant timbales and watermelon gazpacho. But you'll also find duck confit tacos and short-rib flatbread. And customers who prefer the restaurant's traditional fare needn't worry: Beracha said many popular items will remain, including the grilled pork chop with sherry-mushroom sauce.
“We're still offering many of the favorites,” Beracha said. “But we're adding some healthier choices. We're transitioning.”
The new menu at Araka, 131 Carondelet Plaza, debuted Friday. Earlier in the week, Sauce magazine hosted a small group of food aficionados to have a sneak peek and taste of some of Burnau's new offerings.
Guests gathered in the two-story bar area and were offered house-made red or white sangria. Both were a refreshing and welcome respite from the summer heat. The red proved complex and fruity with the alcohol taste in the background, while the white was more crisp and assertive.
The friendly and attentive waiters served watermelon and heirloom tomato gazpacho along with crispy spinach and goat-cheese ravioli. The gazpacho bristled with flavor: The acidity of the tomato harmonized with the subtle sweetness of the watermelon. The ravioli, served with mascarpone sauce, was creamy, light and airy.
Crispy tempeh bites were served cocktail party-style, living up to the crispy moniker with panko coating the outside. The citrus hot-and-sour dipping sauce was a nice and necessary component.
A boudin and mushroom tofu square—if I understood the waiter correctly—served on a bed of oriental noodles, julienned carrots and edamame rested in a pool of gentle soy sauce that wasn't overly salty. The noodles and carrots provided texture, and the tofu held a lot of flavor.
The delicate, pan-seared scallop, served over a mound of delicious creamy coconut risotto, featured a red pepper-citrus salsa. The scallop was tender without a hint of chewiness. The sweetness of the coconut remained in the background and lent a flavor that made the dish as luxurious as dessert but not overly sweet.
The final offering—seared duck breast—rested on a bed of goat=cheese risotto and featured remarkably flavorful roasted cauliflower. The blackberry jus was delightful, and the blackberry on top was attractive and playful. The duck breast was cooked a perfect medium-rare. It was a delight from start to finish.
Executive chef Burnau has been given credit in the past for having created many of the restaurant's original dishes, so his taking control of the kitchen and adding more of his own creations—especially in light of the excellent dishes sampled—will propel Araka into a new and successful chapter as one of Clayton's and St. Louis' finest restaurants.WHAT Araka WHERE 131 Carondolet Plaza in Clayton HOURS Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinnerr is served from 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Happy hour runs from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. The restaurant is closed Sunday. PRICES Appetizers, flatbreads, soups and salads range from $8 to $14; pastas and entrees range from $18 to $42