The Art of Restituo
Appointed to the corner of Shenandoah and Thurman Avenues, Restituo has more of a tucked-in sensibility situated as it is in Shaw. This paradox is telling as the interior simultaneously provides a relaxing environment and an atmosphere of frenetic energy.
“It’s the New York Minute mentality.” owner, Nicole McCormack provides. The St. Louis entrepreneur yearns for her regular clientele to enter the restaurant verbally rapid-firing, “Where’d that painting go? Did you sell it already? Wait…this table wasn’t graffiti-painted yesterday. Can I get a ‘Triple Threat Panini’ to go? By the way, how you doing?”
“When you live in a tiny New York City apartment, the nearest coffee house is your living room. It’s where you go to think, read, chill or meet friends.” Recreating that vibe involved McCormack’s creativity and sweat. The cozy furniture is an upcycled, mish-mash of McCormack’s best refinishing, reupholstering, repainting efforts. Each piece is visually inviting, physically comfortable.
Coffee at Restituo is so delicious and smooth customers can forgo their usual creamer, sipping from ceramic mugs-also created by McCormack. No two are exactly alike, and if one finds a favorite heft, height and depth, they can pay for that mug to be reserved for their sole use at this Shaw destination.
People can sip and hang at Restituo until they are restored from the inside out. Restituo originates from Latin and has no fewer than ten definitions, which revolve around being refreshed, renewed, and revived.
Creative since cradle days, McCormack’s life has presented remarkable opportunities to develop her artistic muscles starting with a first job at Mangia Italiano to earn the money for a pair of Doc Martens. “I was fourteen and playing guitar. I couldn’t imagine doing so on stage without a pair of Docs.” Working towards this goal, McCormack learned from the owners how to make superb salads, and fortuitously, a marinade she still uses. She later worked as a booking agent for St. Louis bands, while investing in the local scene as co-owner of The Galaxy. Life’s twists and turns dispatched her to New York where she worked in a large advertising firm followed by a stint in a smaller firm. McCormack accepted a scholarship to Aveda working as a beautician by day, still playing guitar by night.
The young creative eventually left New York for London. There she “worked in a high end cocktail joint, learned a lot, and somewhere along the way, contracted a rare illness.” This robbed the already petite woman of weight and energy. While recuperating, she watched cooking shows, learned from them and then applied her lessons to healthy cuisine. “I was cooking more than I ever had. It became my release.”
McCormack added, “Pottery and guitar-I’ve never been a natural talent at either, though I was driven to do both. But food, I consider that my art-think of those famous painters who never went to school but had talent-food is my Monet.”
At a rehabbed table, Bob Marley’s “Turn the Lights Down Low” playing in the background, McCormack described a jaunt through Jay’s International Foods on Grand. There she pieced together a recipe as she wandered the store. Here, in her words, is how that particular recipe was developed.
“I wanted to use tofu in a Panini. I called it a ‘Thai-ish Panini.’ I went to Jay’s to get Thai peanut sauce and the tofu. I’m walking around trying to think about what to do with this sandwich and thought, ‘Okay, peanut, tofu, Thai…that’s like a Pad-Thai which is good, but kind of boring.’ I was circling the aisles, examining spices and sauces – that kind of thing. I started thinking about black beans and tofu since those go well together. I had already planned to do a black bean paste for a Mexican influenced Panini. This would help me double up on my batches. I knew I wanted a texture to compliment the tofu, so I figured that I would use rice noodles and coat them in black bean paste and lightly fry them.”
McCormack explained, “If you over-do black beans in a frying pan, it crusts and that served me there since it would give me a crunchy texture almost like a veggie patty. This is a good contrast to the soft inner layer of the tofu. So I had a good start. I spotted the fresh flowering chives, which I had heard of, but hadn’t used before.”
McCormack googled. “I learned they have a strong garlic/onion flavor. I figured that would give the sandwich sweetness combined with a bit of punch. I like a Panini to have a sauce or dip. I started walking the aisles again and got inspired to do chutney. Chutneys are awesome! I remembered I had pineapple back in the kitchen, leftover from the jerk-pork Panini I had done earlier. I thought, ‘Well, mango and pineapple go great together.’ I picked up the mango chutney and thought, ‘This is going to be lovely!’ I did a dry run the next morning and was just blown away. It was a Thai meal in a sandwich!”
At the conclusion of our interview McCormack sent the writer away with two Panini which were delicious, hot and constructed from fresh, local ingredients in front of the author’s eyes. At the risk of typing on Ian Froeb’s keyboard, the “Triple Threat Panini” with fresh spinach, marinated mozzarella and some amazing black olive-ricotta spread is the perfect blend of textures and taste. The second standard, the “Red Strutter” was made that evening with an earthy Fontina cheese, melted onto the tender lemon pepper chicken. The nutty, citrus flavors were topped with roasted red peppers which left the author rock-paper-scissoring with a loved one for that last beautiful bite. Both sandwiches were perfected by the crunch of the fresh bread. Visiting Restituo is refreshing, renewing and reviving-but never, never boring.
In each of these features, our subjects answer the same last three questions and those answers are featured here.
1. What or who in Shaw is the thing/person you cannot live without?
“This neighborhood is awesome! The people, the energy, the park–it’s all so central. This city finally has what I left for: music, culture, life, and a great vibe.”
2. What’s on your Shaw bucket list?
“The art fair. Last year I was so buried in opening this place that I didn’t get to attend.”
3. If you could time travel, what would you like to see in Shaw?
“I would like to open another restaurant where everything is based on a philosophy of local, fresh and as much as possible, the answer to the question, ‘What looks amazing today?’ Customers would have a delicious adventure. I would call it, Nom Enu. Taking the words, No and Menu and reconfiguring them a bit. Fun to say; more fun if I can do it.”