French Toast

Under new ownership, Malmaison still turns out some of St. Louis' best French food

Maybe a brief parlay with a French teacher is in order.

I found myself musing over this as I took another bite of one of the finest lamb chops I've had in a very long time, potent enough with the distinct flavor of lamb but not to the point of gaminess, resistant when bitten into but easy to glide through with tooth or knife. The cote d'agneau at Malmaison includes one double-rib chop still on the bone and four or five more of the meat only, served over skinned small carrots that retain their green-spiked punk hairdos, fluffed potatoes and simple haricots verts (green string beans), all served with just a drizzling of a meat-juice reduction.

Yet over at the adjoining table, a waiter was explaining the menu to a party of eight; his pronunciation was astounding even for an inhabitant of a city that has institutionally butchered the names of its French founders whose names now grace our towns, streets and rivers. First he noted that the two prix-fixe menus were the "menu day café" and the "menu day Malmaison" when in fact the "day" should sound much more like "duh" (d'oh!) -- a fairly common mispronunciation that was repeated by another waiter on our second visit. However, when the "veau" came out as "vous" and the lamb chops were renamed for Nixon's first vice president, I started to wonder whether there was a line to be crossed when appealing to Francophile tastes but ignoring the French tongue.

For those to whom none of this sound and fury matters, the good news is that Malmaison under Eddie Neill -- the proprietor of Café Provençal and Eddie's Steak & Chop and part of Chez Leon -- is generally as good as, and in some ways even better than, Malmaison under longtime owners Gilbert and Simone Andujar, who had operated the charming country retreat in St. Albans from 1988 until their retirement earlier this year. The best change is the introduction of the two prix-fixe menus, one (the menu de café, $30) described as "less formal"; more accurately, I think, the menu de Malmaison ($40) costs more simply because the entrées it contains cost more. In each case, it's a three-course mix-and-match situation in which you can have appetizer-entrée-dessert or appetizer-soup-entrée or even a fine authentic French approach of appetizer-entrée-salad -- or you can order purely à la carte, or you can take the prix-fixe and tack on an additional course à la carte. With the prix-fixe, though, especially the cheaper one, it's now possible, much more so than before, to get out of Malmaison for under 100 bucks with a frugal wine selection.

Over the river and through the woods: Top-notch French cuisine is a short drive away at Malmaison in St. Albans, Mo.
Mark Gilliland
Over the river and through the woods: Top-notch French cuisine is a short drive away at Malmaison in St. Albans, Mo.

Location Info

Map

The Gardens at Malmaison

3519 St. Albans Road
St. Albans, MO 63073

Category: Restaurant > Continental

Region: Franklin County

Details

Three-course prix-fixe menu $30 and $40
Escargots $7
Foie gras aux fruits $17
Gnocchi comme ma mère $7
Joue de veau $19
Filet de boeuf $25
Cote d'agneau $27

636-458-0131; Hours: 5-10 p.m. Wed.-Sun.

St. Albans Road, St. Albans, Mo.

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Our visits included one graze for each of us through both menus. When we tried the menu de Malmaison, the entrées were the superlative lamb and an equally succulent beef fillet, each served with a complement of green beans, potatoes and carrot. As starting points, we chose escargots and foie gras (which required a $5 upcharge on the prix-fixe). The half-dozen snails were served shell-less on the classic plate with recessed cells to hold clarified butter with a strong but not overpowering garlic flavoring. The foie gras, we were informed, had not come from the renowned Hudson Valley but was on that day directly from France; it was airy in texture but dense in flavor, served with a compote of berries that had a minimum of added sweetening, resulting in an edge to the flavor not unlike framboise or other eaux de vie.

The foie gras appeared to be somewhat pinkish on the interior, but it was difficult to discern the color accurately because we were seated for this meal in the glassed-in-porch side of the restaurant, which has a distinctly different atmosphere than the barn-loft side. The porch side is low-ceilinged and dim; sit here for the effect of a romantic, secretive, candlelit evening. It's so dim on this side that you could probably be naked, at least from the waist down, and no one would notice.

Sit on the barn-loft side, though, if you enjoy a roaring fire, soaring ceilings and a higher level of visibility that allows you to savor the log-and-caulk construction and exposed rafters of the original 19th-century structure. The tables on this side are topped by white linens with fresh flowers and pewter serving plates engraved with an image of the building.

This is where we were seated on our second visit, when "less formal" translated into truit aux amandes (trout with almonds) and joue de veau (veal cheek, a cut that indeed comes from around the jaw). The latter was another silk-purse type of preparation -- like beef daube and onglet -- that Neill should get credit for popularizing and promoting locally. In this case, the meat looks for all the world like large chunks of a stew cut, but the texture is just slightly different, a bit like a cross between muscle-based meat and an organ meat such as sweetbreads. The slow cooking makes it rich, rich, rich, both in terms of the meat flavor itself and the concentration of the reserved juices.

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