A weekend in St. Louis: Great food, memorable sights, freezing rain that turned sidewalks into ice rinks and so many nice people that I thought I was in Minnesota, not Missouri.

First, the food: A spectacular dinner at chef Gerard Craft’s Niche, a remarkable experience for its creative muscle and technical prowess. “People come here for our pork,” said my server, and she was right, along with a deconstructed lobster roll that I’ll be daydreaming about for a long time.

It was a toss-up whether the smoked prime rib or the melt-in-your-mouth pastrami was the meat of the moment at Bogart’s Smokehouse, but one thing was for certain: the molasses-laced, brisket-dripped baked beans were well worth the 20-minute wait. I loved chef Kevin Nashan’s endlessly imaginative tasting menu at Sidney Street Café, and my brunch at the elegant Salt – fennel-studded pork meatballs glazed in a blackberry jam, a coral-tinted pan-seared trout, crisp shoestring potatoes fried in duck fat -- could not have been better.

Ten bucks bought a fantastic lunch (tender fried fluke with red beans and rice and a big plate of garden-fresh spinach tossed with mustard and an onion jam) at farm-to-table-focused Farmhaus. And it was fun to dive into Monarch chef Josh Galliano’s clever and contemporary Louisiana cooking, right down to the zesty root beer that he should be bottling on the side.

Oh, and the sights. There was the thrilling swoosh of stainless steel, a towering symbol of American’s can-do post-war optimism, that is the Gateway Arch (pictured, above), and the exercise in claustrophobia that is the elevator journey to its summit. I’ll never forget the transfixing, took-my-breath-away beauty of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis’ mosaic-covered interior, or the eye-grabbing collection of Max Beckmann and other German Expressionist canvasses at the Saint Louis Art Museum, housed in a stately building designed by Minnesota architect Cass Gilbert.

But my secret favorite St. Louis souvenir?


This photgraph. I stumbled across it inside the Soulard Farmers Market, the city’s 150-year old melting-pot collection of greengrocers, butchers, florists, lunch counters, bakeries and specialty food vendors. Most of the inventory among the produce vendors wasn’t locally raised – St. Louis is south, but it’s not that far south – although I did manage to run across knobbly black walnuts and purple-streaked pecans, both harvested in nearby Perry County,

Still, the cases inside the busy Frandeka Meat n Fish was packed with a fascinating collection of cuts that pretty much define the opposite of mass-market, including pork brains, beef tongues, ham hocks and smoked jowls. The topper was clearly the sign that read, “Yes! We have ‘coon.”

Holy locavore, Batman! I don’t know that I’ve ever stumbled across raccoon in a butcher shop, but after I thought about it, the delicacy made perfect sense given where I was (and no, I didn't find it on a single menu). After all, 2010 Ozarks thriller “Winter’s Bone” (if it's not on your Netflix queue, it should be) was filmed in the Show-Me State.