By Kristi Ruggles
Brian Hale has long known what he wanted in life. He wanted to be on stage. He wanted to create. And he wanted to get paid for it.
Enter Monarch Restaurant, where a plate has become Hale’s canvas, where the stove is the stage, where reviewers rave.
Hale is executive chef at the not-yet-two-year-old Monarch Restaurant in St. Louis, winner of the title “best new restaurant of 2003” in the Readers’ Restaurant Awards from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In 2004, it claimed the best overall title as well as best wine list and best service in the same poll.
Among other titles Monarch has earned are best overall atmosphere from Sauce Magazine in 2004, a top pick for fine dining restaurants from St. Louis Magazine and accolades from many prestigious national magazines such as Wine Spectator, Bon Appetit and Gourmet.
The attention for Hale – and owners Aaron Teitelbaum and Jeff Orbin – is motivation. They see it as a call to take the St. Louis restaurant scene to the next level.
“I want other chefs to say, ‘You know what, if you keep working hard, you could be another Brian Hale,’” Hale says. “I live for this. If I weren’t here 75 hours a week, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”
Hale joined Monarch before it had a name or space.
Orbin and Teitelbaum formed a business partnership based on Orbin’s sense that the city was ready, and on Teitelbaum’s experience as a chef and restaurant manager. They conceived of a place that fused food, wine and art (Orbin is an artist and restaurant designer), and they went looking for a chef.
At the time, Hale was executive chef at SqWires Restaurant in Lafayette Square – another award-winning dining spot. Orbin stopped by SqWires for lunch because he’d heard Hale was considering moving and opening his own place. He ordered Hale’s signature lobster mac-and-cheese.
“It blew me away,” he says. “It was a cool restaurant with a different menu, and so I decided to talk to Brian.”
Hale says Teitelbaum and Orbin explained their restaurant philosophy to him, and he knew he was in.
“We got very lucky,” Hale says. “It’s more of a brotherhood than a partnership. We all take steps every day to make this place a little better than it was the day before.”
Eventually, they found the location – a corner in Maplewood where local foodies say the restaurant scene is picking up. The menu features international cuisine.
Orbin, Teitelbaum and Hale are all from St. Louis. Teitelbaum spent seven years in New York City in culinary school and in kitchens such as the Mesa Grill and Restaurant Daniel. Hale found his way back to St. Louis after spending time in Europe. His culinary career began 17 years ago in a series of apprenticeships in Milan, Paris and Brussels.
“I just traveled and found different chefs to work under,” he says. “I’d go in and cut celery and onions and carrots for eight hours a day for free. I’d gain speed and precision at that level while I was soaking up as much as I could from each chef. I took everything I learned and I used it to create my own art.”
That art has been on display at a few metropolitan restaurants, including Al Bakers, Harry’s Restaurant in downtown St. Louis and SqWires. At Monarch, it has become edible art in a place that takes the visual arts quite seriously.
Orbin owned Project 13 Inc., a graphic design firm in St. Louis. He designed and marketed Miso on Meramec, a sushi restaurant in St. Louis.
“That’s when it got in my blood,” Orbin says. “I called Aaron in New York and said, ‘Let’s do this. St. Louis is ripe for something like this, and if we don’t do it now, we never will.’”
And so the partnership was born. Teitelbaum brought education and experience in classic French cooking and restaurant management. And Orbin brought art and design. The floors are an exotic African hardwood. The restaurant and an attached gallery serve as exhibition space for local artists. The colors, fabrics and prints in each room play into the theme of the butterfly and create a mood – a glow – that diners find as memorable as the meals themselves.
“The whole idea behind this place is that it is always going through a change,” Orbin says. “We don’t get complacent. The menu will change. The art will change. I know even great spaces with great menus can get stale. I want to do something every day to make this place better.”
That unrelenting pursuit of perfection has led to touches such as black linen napkins for patrons who wear black. It is behind Web site postings that report, “Every time we go, we’re treated like the most important guests.” It leads Hale to tables to chat with dinner guests. And it leads to rare opportunities for events.
The restaurant has a skybox – a glass-encased room for 10 people, suspended above the kitchen for a bird’s-eye view of the mayhem. Hale chats with skybox diners and creates a five-course meal to their liking.
“On a crazy weekend, we’ll seat as many as 300 people,” Orbin says. “That means guests in the skybox will get to watch 300 plates go out of the kitchen. They love it.”
Hale loves the skybox, too. It feeds his inner entertainer.
“I dance a little more when someone is at the chef’s table,” he says. “I get a little more animated. Spoons fly. Flames rise.”
Parties of up to 20 also can dine in Monarch’s wine cellar – a narrow room with glass and mirrors featuring 3,000 bottles of wine.
Monarch offers groups a banquet room that can seat 70 people. It is attached to the art gallery, which provides a private entrance for groups as well as a gathering place for serving cocktails.
Hale says he’s happy to work with groups to develop a menu that will make their events memorable. He is, after all, in a place that strives to be extraordinary.
“We are going to surround ourselves with great competition and continue to get better,” Hale says. “We are riding a wave of success right now, and we want to stay on that wave by constantly changing and improving.”
If you’d like information about planning an event at Monarch Restaurant, you may call 314-644-3995. MM&E
(Kristi Ruggles is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.)