Cafe

Bill and Brenda's PlaceBY JOE BONWICH

After several decades of working at a virtual roadmap of St. Louis-area value-priced, family-oriented restaurants, Bill and Brenda David figured they could make a go at it themselves by offering, well, a little something extra.

Thus evolved the name of their new Soulard restaurant, Lagniappe's, the possessive of a Creole word that describes something above-and-beyond or unexpected. (My dear wife, in her lust for clever onomatopoeia, noted that it might be more appropriate as the word for the sound a small dog makes when it wanders the frontyard in the morning.) Whatever the source, the restaurant itself is a little Italian (befitting folks whose résumés include Rigazzi's, Mama Campisi's, Lou Boccardi's and Luigi's); a little Cajun (befitting the gumbo of Soulard restaurant styles); and a lot friendly, sweet and charming, befitting a couple who finally crossed the boundary between working for others and working for themselves and are now pouring their hearts and souls into their own place.

This is not to argue for a visit to Lagniappe's simply on the basis of a sympathy vote. We found Bill to be a heck of a cook, tossing in the unusual ingredient here and performing subtle but memorable variations on standard preparations there, and offering portion sizes that more than justified the mean $10-$12 entree prices. There's a wonderful courtyard for outside dining, and the Davids have also expanded the inside capacity of the space (which is probably most famous as the original location of Arcelia's) by converting the former second-floor apartment into several small dining rooms.

Brenda seated us on both of our visits, then turned around and waited on us the first time (although by the time of the second trip, Bill had apparently taken pity on her and gotten her some help in the dining room). To put diners in a good mood, each meal actually begins with a lagniappe (sometimes known as an amuse-gueule or amuse-bouche in other Quarters) — in one case, a perfectly prepared Italian dumpling called a gnocchi, which elicited some playful giggles as the waiter tried four or five pronunciations; on the other, a half-a-jalapeno stuffed with hamburger and Parmesan, a spicy little tidbit that presaged Bill's lack of timidity in the use of fiery ingredients.

The printed menu includes five appetizers and eight entrees, but these were supplemented on each of our visits by half again as many daily specials from a chalkboard. Many items are breaded, fried or both, but Bill has a nice, delicate touch with both procedures, resulting in dishes that are neither over-oily nor over-doughy. One of the nightly specials was fried spinach ($4.95), which seems to be evolving into a local delicacy, showing up on more and more menus lately. Fresh whole-leaf spinach is flash-fried, resulting in a papery texture with concentrated spinach flavor that's best cut with a little lemon juice and also well counterbalanced by fresh ground Parmesan. The portion served at Lagniappe's could easily be shared by two.

We also tried the on-menu fried portobello mushroom ($4.95) and chalkboard-special fried calamari ($4.95), both of which showed only bare insinuations of breading. The calamari, like the spinach, was perfectly prepared and came in a massive portion. The portobello portion was large (six slices of the oversized cap, arranged in starfish alignment), although not as much so as the previous examples, and perfectly matched with a gently curried warm mayo.

Another of the evening specials was an appetizer/salad hybrid called shrimp Louie ($6.95), the dressing for which Bill must have pulled out of an old bag of tricks, because I haven't seen it often lately. It featured more than a dozen shelled medium shrimp over mixed greens, served in the classic Louie (or Louis, but pronounced the way in which locals would never say the name of our fair city) dressing, which is basically a lightened cocktail sauce, complete in this case with a fair dose of horseradish.

The concept of "lagniappe" appeared in several of the entrees, most notably the fish items we tried. For the tuna steak ($12.95), an approximately 8-ounce steak was cooked to nicely retain its moisture, but the little something extra in this case was a topping consisting of a relish of capers, onion, tomato and slivers of artichoke heart, juiced up ever so slightly by bits of jalapeno. Meunière as a preparation generally means "breaded continued on next pageLAGNIAPPE'S continued from previous page and served in lemon butter," but in the case of Lagniappe's catfish ($12.95), chef Bill takes a moderate chance by adding Worcestershire to the sauce, and the diner reaps the reward.

The nightly special of blackened grouper ($12.95) showed that Bill has an equally deft hand with this Cajun technique, managing to cook on a crispy, pepper-spiced coating without overdoing the heat or actually charring the fish. The New York strip steak Mudega ($16.95) was cooked exactly to our rare order and came with a large portion of grilled mushrooms, but I'm still not exactly sure what prompts the local affinity for Provel cheese.

And one more "little something extra": the side dishes. A touch of garlic in the butter on steamed broccoli. Plump risotto with the perfume and subtle flavor of saffron. It's the kind of stuff you'd expect at higher-end restaurants but that you're somewhat surprised to find in the middle level.

Only one of our two visits left us with room for dessert, and luckily we chose to split it on that occasion; the homemade bread pudding ($3) — flavored with peach, raisins and the gentle orange essence of a Grand Marnier sauce — once again illustrated Lagniappe's penchant for giant portions.

The wine list is short and cheap (under $15) and features several oddities, including an Austrian red. Service is pretty folksy: Brenda told us stories while taking our order, and Bill came out to visit at least twice both times we were there. The second time, we had a new kid who seemed to be on his first night out, and he did just fine as far as staging and promptness, although the Davids might want to spend a little more time briefing him and other new employees on preparations and ingredients. He simply ran back and forth to the kitchen when we asked questions he couldn't answer, but when the place starts to get busy, the gaps will become more noticeable.

Right now the place is officially open only until 10 p.m., but Bill says he is hoping to start keeping later hours on weekend nights if the market demands it. And well it should, because Lagniappe's is a lovable little restaurant, with an incredibly hard-working couple serving up good value and just enough surprises to please both simple eaters and more adventurous diners. Take your cheri or cherie, and let the nice folks do a little something extra for you.

LAGNIAPPE'S, 2501 S. Ninth (at Victor), Soulard, 771-2090, www.soulardlagniappe.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Entrees: $8.95-$16.95

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