Wiping the Plate Clean

Our intrepid reviewer calls for the last check and leaves some generous tips

The answers to all the other questions are easy, too: Chez Leon, Truffles, Racanelli's, Fio's, the Courtesy, Hot Locust, Riddle's, the Black Thorn. They're the best restaurant in St. Louis.

But "where should I go for dinner?" is another story. Dinner is among the deepest of deeply personal issues. Dinner = desire, the root of all suffering. No two people have the same desires when it comes to dinner. Emotions run high in the blue umbra of dusk. The lush perils of possibility are endless. Possibly you want the best restaurant in St. Louis, but it is a mythical place. Its parameters can change at the drop of a hat. Sometimes it's your birthday, sometimes you're a vegetarian, sometimes your boss is buying, sometimes the chef has PMS, sometimes the dishwasher quit, sometimes the maitre d' just won the lottery -- each new variable affects the outcome. You never know what can happen. That's the beauty of it. Dinner is edible drama.

So where should you go for dinner? Beats me.

Grenache chef Justin Keimon (right), joined here by sous-chef Steve Scherrer, tints each dish with a sunny, azure-sky feeling unparalleled elsewhere in the city.
Jennifer Silverberg
Grenache chef Justin Keimon (right), joined here by sous-chef Steve Scherrer, tints each dish with a sunny, azure-sky feeling unparalleled elsewhere in the city.

Location Info

Map

Nachomama's

9643 Manchester Road
Rock Hill, MO 63119

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Webster Groves

Balaban's Wine Cellar & Tapas Bar

1772 Clarkson Road
Chesterfield, MO 63017

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Chesterfield

Blueberry Hill

6504 Delmar Blvd.
University City, MO 63130

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Delmar/ The Loop

Chez Leon

7927 Forsyth Blvd.
Clayton, MO 63105

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: Clayton

Truffles

9202 Clayton Road
Ladue, MO 63124

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Ladue

Racanelli's Cucina

6655 Delmar Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63130

Category: Restaurant > Bistro

Region: University City

Riddle's Penultimate Café & Wine Bar

6307 Delmar Blvd.
University City, MO 63130

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Delmar/ The Loop

The Wine & Cheese Place

14748 Clayton Road
Ballwin, MO 63011

Category: Retail

Region: Manchester/ Ballwin

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So long, and thanks for all the fish.

I don't know where you should go for dinner, but I'm going to Grenache. They'd just opened as an appendage to Clayton's Cheese Place when I first visited a year ago, and I remember being as captivated by their undulating uptown interior as I was by the subtle, Mediterranean-infused menu. Since then, chef Justin Keimon has replaced Bryan Carr at the stove, and the results are stellar.

The thrust hasn't changed, but the execution has gotten tighter and more refined. Keimon tints each dish with a sunny, azure-sky feel unparalleled elsewhere in the city. Meticulously conceived, exactingly prepared and exquisitely presented, the food here is exotic in the best sense of the word -- it neither lapses into the vulgar nether regions of the cloning innovative nor overtly dredges ethnic cuisines for tired goodie puns. I am often accused of being outré, but trust me: Grenache is superb.

I give my highest marks to all 11 dishes I sampled on a recent visit, but a few were nothing less than perfect. An appetizer of sautéed snails, presented in a pastry cup, were the garlicky pinnacle of their species. Just as enticing, and possibly even more fragrant, was a plate of mussels steamed in herb-infused white wine. And naturally I could not resist the siren call of a salad of mesclun greens topped with harissa oil (a sort of Tunisian hot sauce) and three tiny crab cakes. Yum.

No vegetarian could hope for more than Grenache's quartet of baby eggplant. Roasted and stuffed with couscous, squash and pecorino, they sat bolt upright like a tiny Stonehenge on a bed of spinach. Bright semicircles of lissome red- and yellow-pepper coulis surrounded the vegetables. Rarely is a meatless dish so entertaining or so flavorful.

More substantial -- but no less tactful -- the beef filet with a blue-cheese-and-mushroom sauce durn near left me speechless. The meat was gorgeous, sure, but the sauce was a revelation -- barely perfumed with the tangy cheese, it was almost esoteric in its subtlety. An elegant potato gratin elevated the dish beyond mere meat and potatoes.

Yet, enlightening though they were, the aforementioned delicacies did not prepare me for the peerless experience of the shellfish linguine. Handfuls of prawns, lobster, cockles (yes, cockles) and fresh peas were tossed with perfectly cooked pasta in a saffron sauce that can only be described as transcendent. Unlike many concoctions that contain shellfish in such abundance, it was sumptuous without being tawdry. The dish was a triumph.

Only one flaw marred the evening: the longish lull between the first and second courses. One of my accomplices remarked that she found the portions a bit skimpy, but I'm not having any of that. Although there's no denying that no gargantuan platters of food were heaped before us, I applaud any chef who knows the difference between good livin' and gross excess. For once I was able to enjoy my dessert, an indescribable, soufflé-like chocolate pecan cake with a gooey middle. Grenache is the best restaurant in St. Louis.

GRENACHE, 7443 Forsyth, 727-6833. Hours: lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner, from 6 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and from 5:30 p.m. Sat. Entrees: $14.95-$25.95.

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