By Cheryl Baehr
By Mabel Suen
By Cheryl Baehr
By Mabel Suen
By Cheryl Baehr
By Nancy Sitles
By Nancy Stiles
By Patrick Hurley
If chef Lou Rook III has had previous lives, one of them may have been as George Gershwin.
Rook truly is an artist at flavor composition, and the musical parallel to Gershwin popped into my mind after the third or fourth dish in which he had taken fairly mundane elements of everyday dining life, used them as props for a sublime central theme and created a rhapsody. A graduate of Mizzou's food-service-management program and of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., he came up through the ranks at the Trellis in Williamsburg, Va., the original Cardwell's, the now-defunct Grappa in the Central West End and Harry's downtown.
For about eight years now, Rook has been king every night (and day) in the kitchen at Annie Gunn's, the multiple-personality restaurant adjacent to longtime country store the Smoke House Market in the developmentally out-of-control Chesterfield Valley. Old-timers who remember the area when it had little more than an airport, an art studio, a jail and a tendency to flood may also remember that it's called Gumbo, which is no small irony, given the diverse influences that come together and wander out of Annie Gunn's kitchen.
16806 Chesterfield Airport Road
Chesterfield, MO 63005
As for the "multiple personality" description, Annie Gunn's is every bit the clubby Irish bar, "proudly serving Anheuser-Busch products" right alongside a pull of imported ale or stout, with a by-the-glass wine list that includes over-$10 selections. Some of the soups, sandwiches and appetizers (and even, as is found in several nicer places in and around Galway, the smoked salmon) are basic pub grub and can feed two for under $20.
At the same time, Annie Gunn's is a melting pot for bald hog riders, families with little ones, river-bottom bicyclists (although these are becoming rarer as the vehicle traffic explodes), folks in loud golf outfits, wine connoisseurs and women who still give air kisses as greetings. It's virtually always wall-to-wall, even when warm weather permits overflow into the outdoor area, and the fact that only half the tables are available to be reserved on any given night makes advance planning a requirement if you don't wish to spend a long time hanging out at the counter in front of the wine case waiting for your table.
Above all, though, Annie Gunn's has earned, and maintains, a reputation for great food that has transcended local geographical boundaries to include write-ups in some of the major national food and wine mags. Be forewarned that you're probably going to drop close to 100 bucks (or more, if you'd like to include, for example, a well-aged red Burgundy or boutique California white). But for palates that appreciate everything from extreme subtlety to broad boldness, Annie Gunn's is among the very best St. Louis has to offer.
Located as it is adjoining one of the best butcher shops in the area, Annie Gunn's offers a quintessential steak menu, but we actually had even greater success with the seafood, which was available in as many as four off-the-menu entrées (and a few appetizers) on both evenings we visited. Of all the great items that we had, I continue to fixate on the Georges Bank scallops on a bed of poblano corn cream, topped with black caviar -- a stunning dish that really wasn't all that elaborate but was a perfect illustration of Rook's compositional skills. The main body of the dish was four half-dollar-sized scallops, about an inch high, cross-hatched with grill marks and topped with a buckshot dollop of caviar. The flesh of the fish offered ideal resistance when bitten into and an inherent slight sweetness that was teased by the similar, but not identical, sweetness of the corn cream and notable fire from the all-but-invisible poblano chiles. As I put it into my mouth, it finished with the pop and gentle saltiness of the caviar.
A similar genius in flavor groupings was found in the mahimahi with golden kiwi Riesling butter. The fish was sublime to begin with, in and of itself almost buttery in texture, and the gentle honey and fruit overtones of the Riesling wine came through in the sauce, blending with the quite fruity sweetness and slight acidity of the kiwi to achieve something of the same effect as a lemon butter but with infinitely more dimension to the flavor.
Sliced breast of Muscovy duck presented yet another combination of successful flavor surprises, with the rich, pure poultry taste of the thin slices of duck meat playfully interacting with a thin, crisp layer of fat right at the skin -- another smoky, bacony flavor fitting of a "smokehouse" provisioner -- but also with another fruity chutney. Variants on potatoes are a recurring motif at Annie Gunn's, and the side dish, along with crisp asparagus and I-can't-believe-it's-butternut squash, was something called Champ, mashed potatoes that pretty much define the state boundary between solid and liquid.
We also found great rewards in dishes with humbler origins, most notably an appetizer of potato pancakes with peppered slab bacon. The pancakes themselves were fluffy and relatively thick like batter pancakes; more important, their primary role was as a base for the rich smokiness of the bacon and sweet-tart tang of a pear chutney, with little bits of onion and red and green pepper, along with the black pepper crusting the bacon, providing additional flavor bursts.