By Tara Mahadevan
By Ian Froeb
By Ian Froeb
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Gut Check
By Ian Froeb
By Ian Froeb
By Gut Check Guides
And now for something completely different.
For years, we'd heard about this log cabin in the middle of a cornfield somewhere beyond Eckert's as you go east from Belleville, where you ate this fabulous feast by candlelight off of one-of-a-kind antiques, featuring herbs from the surrounding garden and with the whole thing prepared by a student of Julia Child's. If you didn't feel like shlepping back to civilization after your degustation, assuming you'd reserved ahead, you could retire to one of the rustic but thoroughly modern bed-and-breakfast rooms upstairs, downstairs or in a separate outbuilding from the central dining area. In addition to the rumors, we'd seen articles in any number of regional and national magazines.
It all sounded too good to be true. And you know what? It's even better than it sounds.
Roughly a half-hour out of downtown St. Louis, perhaps even closer from the South County suburban density around the Jefferson Barracks Bridge, and not all that far from the Chain of Rocks link to North County, the Westerfield House is situated roughly three-quarters-of-a-mile from nowhere and at first glance appears to be a restoration of a frontier homestead. In fact, proprietor Jim Westerfield built the place about 20 years ago, so the exterior isn't authentic period, but the tales he tells about a 200-year-old table here or a rare pewter collection there make you realize that many of the furnishings and accessories certainly were in use somewhere about the time that Abe Lincoln wandered these parts.
Even as late spring turns to summer, the herb garden is in full splendor, sending out both expected and unexpected earthy perfumes as you walk from your car to the house. Jim is every bit the Renaissance man, with botanical experimentation one of his passions, and among the herbs are found several of his proprietary strains of mint, including one named for wife Marilyn, another for granddaughter Brittany, a third for garden writer Clarissa Start and another -- totally unusual because of its pear scent -- for a favorite cat called Jessie. As it turns out, Marilyn, the kitchen mistress of the house, did in fact study with and become friends with Julia Child, and so a citrus-scented hybrid is dedicated to her. A lemon-scented version developed about five years ago is named after Hillary Rodham Clinton. (We were unable to divine whether Jim is now developing a carpet-scented version as an homage to current New York politics.)
Jim -- the Chatty Cathy of the two Westerfields, with Marilyn serving as Teller-like counterpoint to his Penn -- on arrival greets diners in 19th-century period dress and takes them on a brief tour of the property, spinning tales of everything from the herbs to the remarkable collection of Windsor chairs. Guests are requested to arrive at 6:30 p.m. so that activities can be carried out with a single group, but even though we arrived about 10 minutes late (one of the men in the party having driven, and you know how we are about asking for directions), the dining room was a couple of tables short of capacity, so the hostess sent us on a self-guided tour, and Jim joined us later for a quick minilecture.
The dining room itself is L-shaped, with the section immediately inside the entry sporting a low ceiling that opens up into a cathedral space in the center of the room and another alcove in back centered on an antique candelabrum chandelier that has, as expected, a story of its own. Dried flowers and herbs hang everywhere, giving the room a country grandma's-house aroma.
Dinners are both prix-fixe and fixed menu, with the usually seven-course selection rotating at the beginning of each month. (I'd quibble with the counting methodology used to reach "seven courses," but given the huge volume of food that the meal cumulatively comprises, it's a moot argument.) Meals begin with a specialty cocktail, in this case something called "pink lemonade," a thoroughly refreshing and mellowing concoction containing cranberry juice, lime juice, lime soda, triple sec (an orange liqueur) and citrus-flavored vodka.
The meal that followed was fabulous, but much more so in the sense of traditional, straightforward preparation as opposed to catering to the kind of diner who lusts for arugula, foie gras, pomegranate, truffles or whatever the latest trendy or rare foodstuff happens to be. The appetizer course brought three shelled large shrimp, arranged in a pretzel-shaped intimate embrace and topped with a simple sauce of white wine, garlic, lemon and butter -- unintrusive, adding a hint of lemon flavor and a smooth sauce base but pretty much letting the clear, slightly sweet sea flavor of the shrimp stand on its own.
Next it was on to something called the "Strawberry Fields" salad, a sliced fresh strawberry atop a bed of greens mixed with chunks of the radishy, vaguely nutty root called jicama, all dressed with a raspberry vinaigrette. Then came a soup course, a tomato-basil announced as a "sipping" soup, which meant it was to be drunk directly from the demitasse in which it was served. The flavors were subtle rather than concentrated, with neither the sweetness or acidity of the tomato nor the mintiness of the fresh basil overpowering the other.
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