At Tempus, celebrity chef Ben Grupe’s first restaurant, the bread served with your dinner is focaccia, and the butter served with your focaccia is bread. Kind of.
In the first year of Tempus take-out only, the restaurant made a tartine that generated hearty pieces of sourdough bread. Grupe didn’t want to waste those leftovers, but neither did he want to just turn them into breadcrumbs or croutons. Sous chef Justin Bell, Rob Connoley’s former lieutenant at Squatter’s Cafe and Bulrush, suggested turning the leftovers into a sourdough miso, which spawned the sourdough miso butter on the current menu.
This shares its dish with sorghum, and the two are soon inextricably mixed. Brushed over the focaccia, the velvety butter absorbs the sweetness of the sorghum into its own tangy, subtly savory essence. I wouldn’t have guessed the secret sourdough ingredient. I ate an entire serving of focaccia and butter on my own.
Buttered bread might seem like a strange place to start discussing a chef with Grupe’s resume and ambition. The St. Louis native completed a four-year apprenticeship program at the historic Greenbrier Resort in Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, and cut his teeth in this mysterious alternate universe of country-club kitchens ( Old Warson, Meadowbrook) and culinary competitions.
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In 2016, Ben Poremba named Grupe the Executive Chef of Elaia, and over the next two years he brought his own unique style to the already dazzling restaurant, earning a semi-final honor for “Best Chef: Midwest” at the James Beard Awards along the way.
I ranked Elaia #2 in consecutive editions of the STL 100 during Grupe’s tenure. His technique was impeccable and he knew how to balance splendor and soul. He would happily grate fresh black truffles over polenta with a veal stew, but he figured out (and you’ll soon learn) that the dish didn’t really need that finishing touch to make you vibrate.
Grupe’s cuisine is just as precise and appealing at Tempus. Here, however, the menu doesn’t read like a chef’s sacred vision. Instead, Grupe and his team asked themselves what diners might expect from this type of restaurant — high-end, yes, but no tasting menu palate — and applied their talents to the answer.
Thus, the bread and butter service becomes a sourdough miso butter focaccia. A croqueta appetizer topped with a slice of country ham, olives and a sherry dressing collapses in its traditional béchamel sauce filling. The kitchen prepared this béchamel not with ham, but with ground toppings of the same salty, intensely porcine country ham that tops the croqueta.
A prime rib main course is a Sunday roast — meat, potatoes au gratin, carrot, onion cippolini — neither too deconstructed nor ironically quoted. Grupe coaxes each component into its best self. You don’t need a cheat sheet to clean your plate.
Reminder: Short ribs are seared in beef fat then cooled, coated in a butter made with roasted garlic, black pepper and herbs, and cooked sous vide for 48 hours. Your individual portion is again seared to order while brushed with butter, beef fat and aromatics. This gives the short rib an even more succulent texture than traditional braising and intensifies the flavor of the meat with the complex flavored crust and primal heart of a steak.
Chicken, another main course, resembles a heavily seasoned chicken breast then baked or perhaps pan-fried. This one relies on wheat berries and mashed butternut squash next to roasted Brussels sprouts and a tangle of mustard greens. Call that high Shake ‘n Bake?
Grupe actually channels Dr. Frankenstein. It cooks the breast of a red chicken chicken at a low temperature; he turns the thigh meat into a smooth sausage, which he then layers on the brisket. The crust is the skin of the chicken reduced to very crispy pieces and mixed with dehydrated sauerkraut, mustard and horseradish. It is a marvel of composition, crunchy and supple and delicate in the same bite, its flavor intensified by a golden jus.
The kitchen brings the same ingenuity to its vegetable dishes. Crisp Persian cucumbers with yogurt, smoked trout roe and a flurry of seasonings and toppings – furikake, togarashi, herbs, squid ink bagel chips – conjure up both an tout bagel and the schmear and the lox on this bagel.
For the vegetarian main course, Grupe compresses maitake mushrooms in a fermented koji mushroom and green garlic oil sauce, smokes them, and serves them with caramelized onions and a classic sobise tweaked with leftover whey from homemade ricotta. Mushrooms are packed with the satisfying salty, smoky, umami notes you want from grilled meat, but are unmistakably their own mushroom, not a fake steak.
Grupe and his team spent a year perfecting the approach behind these dishes. Tempus opened in October 2020 in the Grove in Forest Park Southeast, but the restaurant didn’t open its dining room until November. This dining room is a beautiful, modern space of brick, wood, and shades of gray.
Two pieces of art give it real character. One is a mural by local artist Jacob Berkowitz along the back wall that connects the dining room and the bar. The other catches your eye several times at dinner, a piece from Humans Since 1982 that is both a digital clock and a kinetic sculpture of time.
For the catering service, Tempus has focused on a prix fixe format, with three courses for $75 per person. You pay in advance when making your reservation; at the restaurant, you choose one from a selection of (on my visits) four starters, four main courses and three desserts.
You can order cocktails, wine, and other beverages from the intriguing list, or opt for General Manager and Beverage Director Drew Lucido’s three-course pairing ($25, non-alcoholic $15). With this format and this compact menu, the kitchen imposes an efficient but not rushed pace. That might surprise those who associate high-end dining with persistence, but it makes sense for the COVID era.
The dessert can send you home on a vibrant tropical note of coconut panna cotta with yuzu yogurt sorbet, passion fruit curd and an invigorating lemongrass top note. Or he could warm you up with apples baked in yogurt caramel and served with brown butter cake.
Need I tell you that the kitchen uses nixtamalization to give the apple more bite than it usually retains when cooked? You just know that the apple is exactly what you want but not at all what you expected.
Currently, we do not award stars to restaurants. This review is based on the restaurant service.
Or Tempus, 4370 Manchester Avenue • More information 314-349-2878; tempusstl.com • Menu Progressive American Cuisine • Hours Dinner from Wednesday to Saturday; proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative PCR test from the last 72 hours required