The James Beard Award semifinalist is bringing the heat to his hometown in the form of salmon skin handrolls, Thai larb, and salted egg custard buns.
Credit: Courtesy of Indo

At Indo, Nick Bognar, a recent James Beard Award semi-finalist, aims to cook the kind of food you won’t be able to live without once you've tried. Think spicy salmon skin handrolls, Thai larb made with lamb, and salted egg custard buns.

“Since I was a teenager, I’ve been excited to open up my own restaurant,” he says. “As a line cook, I used to complain that a lot of the cooking was very mainstream ... I always thought that if I could just get my own place, I’d be able to serve the foods that meant something to me.”

Indo, the chef’s first solo restaurant opening in St. Louis’ Botanical Heights neighborhood, will focus on modern Asian cuisine, a fancy way of saying he’ll serve interpretations of age-old Bognar family recipes.

Born into a culinary royalty of sorts, the chef grew up inside the kitchen of his parents’ St. Louis restaurant, Nippon Tei, a pillar of Southeast Asian cuisine in the city. Two decades since its opening, he’s ready to go back to his roots, preparing the foods he fell in love with when he first started to cook. Consider it his full circle moment.

“I wouldn’t be able to do this without my family,” he says. “Not only do I have the normal parental support like, ‘Hey, you’ve been working all day, so I’ll come and let the dog out for you,’ but I also have parents who help me with vendor issues and permits. All the time I spent working for and with my parents has gotten me here.”

Credit: Courtesy of Indo

Through a partnership with his restaurateur parents, Bognar and his team will serve a la carte lunch and dinner at Indo, as well as a coursed omakase menu available at an eight-seat chef’s counter Thursday through Sunday.

“I’ll be able to take control of dinner with the omakase counter,” he says. “It’s a lot less traditional than what you’d see at an old-school omakase restaurant. I want to create relationships with my customers where I can then serve them foods they would have never thought to try. Because it’s not set in traditionalism, we can get a little whimsical.”

Two years ago, as Bognar completed a total overhaul of his parents’ menu at Nippon Tei, which contributed to his James Beard Award nomination, the chef was simultaneously in recipe development for Indo. The result is a menu that extends far beyond sushi. Besides the aged fish program and a nigiri menu with fish flown in from Japan, the plate Bognar is most proud is the Thai larb.

“My family has made this for such a long time,” he says. “It’s one of my grandma’s best recipes. It’s made with a lamb tartare and a bold spice blend. The gaminess of the lamb stands up nicely to the bold flavors. It’s that secret spice blend, with cinnamon notes, that gets people’s eyes to light up.”

Otherwise the menu is divided into hot and cool items, ranging from pork and chicken gyoza, and fried spice peanuts, to negitoro maki with fatty and lean tuna, and Madai ceviche with leche de tigre sauce, puffed hominy, and aji amarillo. The shrimp toast, made with deep-friend shrimp and chicken fat croquette on Union Loafer’s potato bread, is Bognar’s take on a dish from his family’s restaurant, Manee Thai, from the 1990s.

Credit: Courtesy of Indo

Larger items, meant to be shared, include short rib curry, made-to-order crab donabe rice garnished with ikura (a red Japanese caviar), and koji-aged Joyce Farms ribeye, a grass-fed beef aged in-house and served with nam phrik and sticky rice. There’s also a rotating nigiri menu, which features up to ten different items, some of which will change daily.

As for dessert, look for the salted egg custard bun, in which a house-made custard is wrapped in bao dough, roasted, and basted with butter and sugar, as well as sweet roti, a buttered Indian flatbread filled with dulce de leche and topped with an almond crunch, and coconut and honey panna cotta served with melon flavored shaved ice and lychee boba.

“When you open your first restaurant, it’s never as amazing as you imagine it,” he says. “But with their support, we’re coming out of the gate with a platform to do better. Nippon Tei will always build off what my parents first started, but with Indo, it’s a little more fun. It’s what I’ve been preparing for all this time.”

Indo. 1641D Tower Grove Ave., St. Louis.