Norah’s Crafted Food & Spirits
By Stephen Lindsley
Immediately upon entering the Renaissance St. Louis Airport Hotel it is clear that this is no ordinary hotel lobby. Recent renovations have transformed the entire space, expanding the check-in area, while placing emphasis on the new restaurant and bar whose striking décor sets the tone for the entire facility
Norah’s Crafted Food & Spirits is the new soul of the Renaissance at the Airport. Its emphasis on local produce and St. Louis-inspired recipes is reflected in countless design features that echo the unique history of the Mound City.
A large wall covered with an image of the stainless-steel-clad Gateway Arch dominates the entryway. Ball chairs by Finnish designer Eero Aarnio are placed here in a nod to the futuristic pod-like elevators inside the Arch, which was designed by Aarnio’s fellow countryman Eero Saarinen. This eye for detail is evident throughout the facility, from the flowing rug designs that suggest the rivers that define the city, to the cinnamon-colored accents that evoke the red brick of so many St. Louis neighborhoods.
A successful restaurant, especially in a hotel, must be at once inviting and delicious. It should be a place where guests feel comfortable whether at breakfast, lunch or dinner, and the cuisine must live up to the environment. It is this successful balance that makes Norah’s so unique.
The renovation of the lobby and the restaurant took roughly 90 days, with the grand re-opening in May 2012. Working with Cauhaus Design in Frederick, Maryland, the entire space was re-envisioned, while executive chef Chris Stroup began constructing a menu that focuses on local, farm-to-table ingredients.
“We want to be as local as we can get,” says Stroup “and we are fortunate to have so many great sources of local produce, meats and cheeses.”
Stroup and his wife were also expecting a new member to their family during this time. They decided they would name their new daughter Norah, and Stroup thought the name would suit his new restaurant as well. Thus, a baby girl and her namesake restaurant were born about the same time.
MEETING OVER EATS
The innovative design of Norah’s was partly out of necessity. Not only is it a fine-dining establishment at the only AAA Four Diamond St. Louis airport property, but it must function as a traditional hotel restaurant – serving three meals a day to hotel guests – as well as a cocktail lounge and meeting space all in one. This is accomplished by combining generous open areas with more intimate enclosed spaces. One striking innovation is the hideaway breakfast buffet, which is open in the morning with a comprehensive and efficient arrangement of hot and cold offerings. “We place a special focus on breakfast,” says Chef Stroup “If you provide an exceptional breakfast, then people know the food is good and they are more likely to return for lunch or dinner.” Stephen Abbate, director of sales at the Renaissance St. Louis Airport Hotel, agrees. “You only get one chance at a first impression,” he says.
After breakfast has been served, a pair of sliding doors hides the breakfast buffet, and Norah’s is once again transformed into a sleek lounge and restaurant.
Set into the back of the space are several niches that provide a more intimate setting, perfect for small meetings. The largest is known as The Library, with built-in bookshelves and an interesting collection of leather and vinyl-bound mid-century furnishings, as well as high-backed chairs around a central table. The illumination throughout Norah’s has been chosen with special care, and this room is no exception, with subtle recessed lighting and large chrome floor lamps that create warm and inviting areas to congregate.
Right next to the Library is a smaller space known as the Nail Room because of its unusual wallpaper featuring countless galvanized nails. Long, plush built-in benches line three walls of the space, surrounding a low glass table. A group of ten or more might easily meet here over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.
The next room is a more traditional private dining area, with a large sliding barn door for even greater privacy. This room seats eight for dinner, amid the muted tones of the genuine cork wallpaper and overhead lighting from clusters of oversize chromed bulbs.
The dining room seats up to 62, with a generous open area and plenty of space between tables. The hardwood floors echo the heavy wooden beams overhead, but perhaps the most distinctive feature is a set of oval countertops containing shredded aluminum cans encased in polyethylene. If you look carefully, you can see the occasional scrap of Budweiser or Busch can. Even here, local elements find their way into the mix.
Separated from the dining area by a dividing wall with glass panels and gauzy curtains, the lounge area is awash with chairs and pillows, couches and coffee tables. A large square lighted feature covering a wall at the far end casts cool blue light through the space – the designers’ nod to the blues in St. Louis. Two large high-backed couches face each other near the middle to form a booth, with long black straps reminiscent of the baggage-handling carts at the nearby Lambert International Airport. Handsome coffee-table books are sprinkled liberally, no doubt competing with smart phones for attention during happy hour.
The bar itself was designed and built especially for the new facility. It curves gracefully into the space, its reverse wall forming part of the new circular hotel check-in area. The bar is a work of art itself, and it features 60 bottled beers, eight on tap (including five local brews, changed seasonally). An extensive wine list is also available, which arrives in a custom-designed stainless steel notebook. This matches the steel clipboard on which the menu is presented, and both of these were chosen by Chef Stroup to follow the overall design one step further.
LOCAL FLAVORS TO SAVOR
This brings us to the menu itself, at long last. As with the restaurant’s design, Chef Stroup was pleased to find that Renaissance Hotel Corporate allowed virtually free rein, within a basic framework. The idea from the beginning was a menu that highlights farm-fresh local fare, beginning with breakfast. Granola is made in-house, and the Berkshire bacon is produced locally. Along with a classic eggs benedict, Norah’s offers a Sausage Fiama Benedict, with local pork sausage and a smoked tomato hollandaise. Classic buttermilk pancakes are available, but Chef Stroup’s version is Missouri organic pecans & apple cinnamon pancakes with Centennial Farms apple butter.
Lunch continues along the same lines, with traditional offerings augmented by local ingredients, with an eye towards diverse choices and value. Missouri goat cheese and other farm-to-table items add flavor to salads, soups and more.
The dinner menu is a three-part adventure. Appetizer and salad highlights include a blue crab cake with O’Fallon 5 Day IPA beer mustard vinaigrette, braised short rib raviolo with local shiitake mushrooms and Collinsville horseradish crème fraiche, and “Theis Farms” artisan baby lettuces, cherry tomatoes, radish and house vinaigrette. Cheese and charcuterie plates are also available, changing with the seasons and availability of local ingredients.
For the main courses, the fresh pasta is from Mangia’s, a venerable St. Louis establishment. One example is a fresh linguini in sweet corn nage with market-fresh vegetables. The diver scallops are served with nuggets of William Brothers pepper bacon, Anson Mills grits, and spinach, while the simply roasted Georges Bank cod comes with local fiama sausage, white beans and Theis Farms kale.
Which brings us to dessert, arguably the most important part of the meal. Here we find a Mississippi mud pie, cherries jubilee with almond ice cream and candied pistachios, and a native Missouri pecan pie with vanilla ice cream.
It is worth pointing out (as Chef Stroup did) that all the juices used, both in the bar and in the kitchen are fresh squeezed, and even the bar food offers local treats, such as chicken wings with a Fitz’s root beer barbeque glaze, local cheeses and salumi, and fresh bread from Companion Bakery.
THE WORD ON THE STREET
John Zents, vice president of sales at Hunter Engineering says, “We do a lot of business with the Renaissance at the airport, and we have held a lot of events at Norah’s. The food is amazing, and our clients love it. We have specific data that if our clients have a good experience at the hotel on the night before a meeting, they will have a better experience when they come to our office. We’ve tried a lot of different places, but Norah’s is the best by far.”
“I stay at the Renaissance in St. Louis a lot,” says John Harms, director of Phantom Works business development at Boeing, “and I think everything they have done with the lobby and Norah’s has been a big improvement. It’s very inviting, the atmosphere is relaxed, and the food is very good. They’ve done a nice job refreshing the menu. There is a good selection of choices, and everything is well prepared – even the small plates served at the bar. I’ve taken clients to Norah’s for dinner, and held leadership team meetings there too.”
Norah’s has already hosted several events, including a recent official concert pre-party for four-time Grammy-nominated R&B artist Eric Benét, including autograph signing and Q&A session. Spacious and flexible, with large open areas and several quieter, more intimate meeting rooms, Norah’s is perfect for less-formal meetings, while remaining sleek, stylish and delicious for a night out with clients, co-workers or friends.
Norah’s Crafted Food and Spirits
Renaissance St. Louis Airport Hotel
9801 Natural Bridge Rd. St. Louis, MO 63134