Central Station

Even after 30 years, Duff's can incite rapture in diners

In heaven, the chosen few will have access to fresh peaches year-round, and handmaidens and manservants will replenish your bowl of fresh peach cobbler, warm enough to melt the ice cream but not so hot as to scald your tongue. It will keep coming, an endless procession of fluffy biscuits drenched with peaches, perfectly ripe and eternally juicy, and cream.

In hell, the same cobbler will be served, but four days later and damaged by repeated forays into the oven. As a result, your cobbler will suggest heaven, and you'll be eternally tortured by the truth that this stale, gummy creation was once perfect, but not anymore.

Welcome to Duff's, somewhere between heaven and hell, where such contradictions are played out in many ways.

Duff's has been a Central West End mainstay for 30 years. Along with Left Bank Books, Dressel's, Balaban's and Llywelyn's, the restaurant has established the corner of Euclid and McPherson avenues as boho baby-boomer central. It's one of the most solid, engaging intersections in the city, and Duff's sits smack-dab in its heart. On mild afternoons and evenings (and weekend mornings -- Duff's weekend brunch is one of the best in the city), Duff's, along with Kopperman's Deli next door and Zoë's Pan-Asian across McPherson, fills the neighborhood with the rumble of a hundred conversations while a parade of former longhaired pot-smokin' freaks, now upstanding members of clubs VW and Land's End, waltz by and contemplate the quirkiness within Rothschild's Antiques before retreating to Bissinger's to gobble fancy chocolates.

For those who like dining outdoors, Duff's has a perfect patio, umbrellaed by trees and Paris-picturesque. Those of us who prefer our meals bugless, though, love the inside: Duff's exudes comfort and feels like your coolest aunt's winter home. All is brick and brown; a few rustic tapestries hang on a wall; a solid, classic wooden bar consumes half the front room.

For those who like dining outdoors, Duff's has a perfect patio, umbrellaed by trees.
Jennifer Silverberg
For those who like dining outdoors, Duff's has a perfect patio, umbrellaed by trees.

Location Info

Map

Duff's Restaurant

392 N. Euclid Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63108

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: St. Louis - Central West End

Details

Bruschetta di pomodoro $7.95
Creole crawfish cakes $8.95
Pork chops with apricot mustard $16.95
Vegetarian platter $12.95
Tournedos Louise $19.95
Peach cobbler $4.95
Cherry sorbet $3.75

314-361-0522. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tue.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fri.; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10:30 p.m. Sat.; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Sun.

392 N. Euclid

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Diners are greeted with genuine smiles from owner Karen Duffy or someone else who seems equally familiar (the low turnover among the waitstaff is legendary), then led through an archway and into one of the nicest dining rooms in the city, about the size and shape of a racquetball court but made of wood and masonry. Purple checkerboard stained glass glows on overcast days, and a half-dozen simple antique mirrors consume one wall (although they're hung too high for you to double-check your lipstick).

And even when the room is packed with beret-wearing elders, their chatter doesn't interfere with your tableside witticisms; likewise, when the table explodes with laughter -- you're so funny! -- it's not going to annoy the double date at the next table.

However, smokers are relegated to the Addition: the room, about the size of three bowling lanes, that feels like what it is: an '80s expansion. Being sentenced to the Addition is best avoided, not because it's terribly unpleasant but because in dining, context and sense of place are often as important as the food.

Duff's menu is a mess o' influences, a virtual foods-of-the-world tour, which seldom yields sublime inspiration. Restaurants that go this route are often perceived as lacking a clear vision, of creating a menu that loots a cuisine and waters it down with ridiculous or unnecessary variation.

Duff's chef Jimmy Voss has done some parachuting in his time. His entrées and appetizers riff on Thai, French, Italian, Greek, Indian, Japanese, Mexican and Cajun. Voss dabbles in cross-pollination, but he is a versatile chef. More of these riffs were delicious than were duds, and said duds were not so because of poor execution but because the entire concept was flawed. To wit: the appetizer of black-bean ravioli with smoked-jalepeño cream and an avocado-tomatillo salsa.

The best ravioli preparations rely on subtle flavors that massage your buds -- a simple sauce that complements the ravioli filling, which in turn complements the sauce, say, a gentle browned-butter sauce, broth, light pesto or simple tomato sauce. All provide a context without trouncing the filling. Duff's ravioli was crammed with three huge flavors: The black bean stuffing had an urgent kick. The avocado/tomatillo salsa overflowed with the tomatillos' tang and, coupled with lemon juice, was overwhelming. The entire dish was then drowned in the smoked-jalepeño cream sauce, yet another muscular flavor. Combined, it was a bit much.

Other appetizers were very good, although one, the crawfish crab cakes, arrived as crawfish crumb cakes. There they sat, two disintegrating specimens, sad and broken, strewn across a bed of mixed greens topped with remoulade dressing. But I'm fine with a little mess if it tastes good, and these cakes were delicious, filled with bite-size yet distinguishable bits of crawfish, mixed with the requisite breadcrumbs and peppered with cayenne.

The bruschetta di pomodoro was perfect: ear-size ovals of toast supported a creamy goat cheese, which had just enough backbone to give it character but not so much as to overwhelm a bite. On top of the cheese was a tomato-basil relish; the orange, marble-sized tomatoes were wonderfully sweet and flavorful, and the shaved Parmesan added a touch more depth. (It bugged me, though, that fresh shaved Parmesan was used on the bruschetta but dry, horrific store-bought Parma-powder was used on the caesar salad.)

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