ST. LOUIS — It's an hour commute from Okawville to Clayton, but while Josh Galliano has his eyes on the road, his thoughts are on food.
"I come up with oddball things on the drive home in the dark," he said about concocting recipes.
Josh is the executive chef at The Libertine, which opened in May for dinner on busy Forsyth Boulevard in downtown Clayton. The restaurant, which calls itself a "re-imagined neighborhood eatery," started serving lunch Sept. 3, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays.
"There's so much foot traffic here," he said, as well as competition of the fast-food and sit-down varieties. Still, The Libertine wanted to be a player and Josh and his executive sous chef Josh Poletti dove in with dishes like the Diner Burger, with molasses bacon, caramelized onions, house-made "Cheese Whiz," served on a bacon-studded bun with french fries ($10). Or, go for the Coffee Brined Pork Chop, with roasted broccoli, "smashed" new potatoes and stout pan jus for $12.
While Josh's wife, Audra, says he cooks "weird food," Josh thinks of it more as playing with ideas. Like turning pigs' tails into something not just edible, but extraordinary. Or using a pressure cooker to help turn sunflower seeds into a mouthwatering dish akin to fried rice.
A 2012 James Beard contest semifinalist, and regularly touted as one of the most innovative young chefs in St. Louis, Josh has made his presence known in St. Louis as the executive chef at An American Place on Washington Boulevard and then Monarch in Maplewood.
The 36-year-old was tapped by The Libertine proprietors Nick and Audra Luedde to create a menu that Josh calls "accessible for people who are interested in food ... and doesn't break everybody's budget."
A Louisiana native and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, he landed in the area eight years ago, pushed out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. He and wife Audra Aholt Galliano met while working at Commander's Palace in The Big Easy. She was working the front of the house and Josh was a sous chef. They came north and put down roots in Audra's hometown of Okawville. She is finishing a degree in international finance at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and works two days a week at The Libertine.
Married almost six years, they have three children: son Emil, 5, and daughters Petra, 3, and Sawyer, 1.
Josh imports meat, produce and cheese from Illinois for his menu, particularly from Wenneman's Meats in St. Libory and Marcoot Jersey Creamery in Greenville. Seasonal vegetables often come from neighbors' farms.
Josh buys the meat for his Crispy Pig Tails from Wenneman's. They are served "buffalo style" with whipped Gorgonzola and Brown Butter Polenta ($9). They are so popular that the kitchen goes through about 40 pounds a week. Think pulled pork surrounded by medallions of crispy skin.
An unusual dinner entree is Sunflower Seed Fried Rice with Chinese Bacon (an uncured, unsmoked bacon), a sprinkling of pickled carrots and sprouts, and a sunny-side up egg ($17).
Josh's seafood entrees include Herb Cured Wild Salmon, served with Caldo Verde, preserved lemon, creme fraiche and crispy basil ($13).
His Southern heritage reveals itself in creating a fried chicken critics have raved about so much that "it's taken on a life of its own," he said with a shake of his head. Josh serves it sparingly: You can order it for lunch as part of the Fried Chicken Salad, accompanied by creamy Waldorf Dressing, chopped apples, toasted pecans and shaved celery ($12). Or, you can make reservations now for his Sunday Supper on Oct. 13, when it will be served. (Sunday's three-course prix fixe menus, $30 per person, vary from week to week. Check libertinestl.com for the schedule. Plan ahead; these sell out quickly.)
The name of the restaurant suits Josh's style. "Libertine means free spirit." The decor is uncluttered but welcoming, with pale blue-gray walls, reclaimed wood counter and tabletops, exposed brick walls in the dining area and white subway tile behind the bar.
To add to the notion that The Libertine wants to be a neighbor establishment, an array of exclusive cocktails made from boutique liquors are offered, as well as craft beers and even a St. Louis whiskey on tap: Still 630 Double Oaked High Rye Whiskey.
Dessert can be decidedly homey: Milk and Cookies ($5) for lunch, and Gooey Butter Cake ($8) for dinner are among the choices.
When you make a reservation, make sure to include that 618 area code in your number. Josh likes to know who has come over from Illinois to dine with him.
"I go out of my way to see those people."
Location: 7927 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton. (Between Central and Maryland.)
Hours: Dinner is served 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, to midnight Fridays and Saturdays and to 10 p.m. Sundays. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays.
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Reservations and information: 314-862-2999 and libertinestl.com