Things are downsizing. There are tiny cars like the Mini Cooper and itty-bitty houses for those wanting a smaller footprint. Some vegetables and fruits now come in miniature versions. Even restaurants have taken up tiny-ness (Benevolent King, Fork & Stix, Taco Buddha, Milque Toast, Seedz).
This month a new restaurant opened in Clayton called Akar (pronounced “ah-kar”). The intimate space seats 12, with 30 more seats outdoors, when the weather’s good enough to sit on the sidewalk patio along Wydown. The bar is charming, as is the menu, and the flavors coming from the kitchen are robust and righteous.
The Transition to Clayton
Yes, Chef Bernie Lee has exchanged his famed Malaysian restaurant on Washington Avenue for new digs in the county. (Hiro’s Asian Kitchen closed, but Hiro’s Poke is still downtown). I’ve mixed emotions about the move, because I loved the food and decor at Hiro’s. But having Bernie’s new place just minutes from my condo is cause for me to break into a Snoopy-style happy dance.
My daughter, Robin, went to Akar several weeks ago and raved about the soft shell crab, short ribs and meatballs. Last week we returned together to dine al fresco on the patio. With things under control in the kitchen, Bernie sat down to visit with us.
I Ask a Few Questions
Me: I’m intrigued by what goes into opening a new restaurant. It seems intimidating, especially the menu decisions.
Bernie Lee: (laughs) It is a very long process for me.I serve the things I love, foods that were part of my growing up in Malaysia. I work with the recipes until they taste and look just the way I like them. I want the flavors and colors to be appealing, as well as the presentation so it takes time. Each dish must be perfect for my guests.
Me: This is quite a transition from downtown St. Louis. How are you liking the neighborhood?
Bernie Lee: I love it! Very friendly. Each day before I open (Tue-Sun 11a), I see people outside running or walking dogs. Some stop and rest on my patio. That’s fine with me. I want to be a good neighbor. (When open, he provides doggie treat.)
Me: I saw you featured in St. Louis Magazine this month along with 3 other prominent restaurateurs: Ben Poremba, Zoe Robinson, and Gerard Craft, each in their home kitchen.
Bernie Lee: Yes, my kitchen at home is small and open-style. Things are near-at-hand, where I can reach them easily whenever I’m preparing a meal.
Me: Having an upscale French neighbor (Bar Les Freres), alongside your casual Asian-leaning place, how is that working?
Bernie Lee: Perfect! Each of us brings a different dining experience to our guests and that gives more choices in fine food to the area.
A Small World on An Old Corner
There’s some history to the corner (Wydown and Hanley) now marked by Fernando Botero’s Man on Horse sculpture. (Or as some refer to the art: Fat Man on Horse Turning Left.)
A guy at the next table told me he remembered as a kid in the 40s, eating at the corner ice cream shop (now Starbucks). But that night, along with his family, he was enjoying the space in a new way.
This time he was dining on some of the finest Asian cuisine in town in a setting akin to a Parisian-style street cafe, while overlooking the amusing artwork of the famed Colombian artist. I call that Clayton-fusion.
Akar. 7641 Wydown Blvd. in Clayton. Open: Lunch: Tue-Thu 11a-9p; Friday 11a-10p; Dinner: 5p-9p week days and till 10p on Saturday. Sunday 10a-5p. Closed Monday. Owner: Chef Bernie Lee.