By Cheryl Baehr
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Back in the day, you didn't go to Cyrano's just for dessert. You went to Cyrano's to impress your date. Or, at the very least, to practice being romantic and cosmopolitan. Back then -- meaning anytime between 1960 (when it opened in a basement location on DeMun Avenue) and 1996 (when it closed, long after moving to Big Bend Boulevard in the space that's now occupied by Harvest) -- Cyrano's combined the charm of a cozy atmosphere, small plates of food (before they were known as "small plates," or, as they're dubbed at Cyrano's, "little plates") and big, decadent desserts that made most people swoon before lapsing into a sugar coma.
But by 1996 Cyrano's was as flat as a crêpe, so flat that then-owner Frank O'Donnell decided to sell the business -- and its name. The purchaser, restaurant consultant Charlie Downs, ran the place for a while with his wife, Carolyn, then transformed the space into the restaurant Harvest (which they operated for a few years, and sold). All the while, Carolyn, a pastry chef, was hankering to re-create the whimsy of Cyrano's in a new venture.
After a prolonged search for an appropriate location, the Downses reopened Cyrano's in October. The eatery's new home, near the convergence of Big Bend and Lockwood, is a massive space that was once home to a De Soto dealership and, later, to the Alpine Shop. It must have been an overwhelming task for designer Joan Colgrove to redecorate: How to create a cozy Cyrano's in a big open space with a cavernous ceiling? Colgrove has transformed this hulk of a room into three distinct yet interwoven areas: a coffee bar (which opens at 7 a.m.), a dining room and, anchoring the two, a comfortable lounge, complete with fireplace. The screaming pink, red and yellow walls in the dining room (and the pink lounge furniture) and the colorful broken-tile mosaic walls in the coffee bar are toned down by a harlequin-patterned wall (very de Bergerac!), warm-looking stone flooring, exposed galvanized ductwork and subdued lighting.
603 E. Lockwood Ave.
Webster Groves, MO 63119
Region: Webster Groves
314-963-3232. Hours: 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thu.; 7 a.m.-midnight Fri. & Sat.
In short, the resurrection of Cyrano's is a call to once again wallow in massive mounds of whipped cream, to ogle wide-eyed at the towering flames shooting from chafing dishes, to relish the thick meringue of baked Alaska, all in a coolly retro yet contemporary atmosphere.
But while dessert remains a focus, it's Cyrano's dinner menu that shows the most evolution. Back in the '60s, if you wanted a light meal you were hard-pressed to find much beyond finger sandwiches, Cobb salad and a bottle of red wine encased in wicker. For the new Cyrano's, restaurateur Mike Johnson (Figaro and BARcelona) was brought in as a consultant to create an eclectic menu that combines old with new -- and leaves room for dessert. Head chef Ryan Maher, formerly of Figaro, executes it well.
The sandwiches are still here: the roast beef, mortadella and Swiss cheese on small rolls; the smoked turkey with cucumber; a grilled chicken salad with grapes and walnuts; and a creamy egg salad with a tasty herb mayo dressing. But now there's a grilled portobello and goat cheese sandwich, too, as well as a four-cheese grilled panini sandwich (a hit with the three nieces and a nephew in tow one night).
The real evolution comes in the form of appetizers, those "little plates" priced between $5 and $10, which are supplemented with nightly specials that top out around $13. Four of these shared by two people make for a nice European-style repast -- while tricking the mind into thinking that eating a sundae the size of one's head is perfectly okay.
The bruschetta trio and a cup or bowl of soup is a good place to begin. The bru-schetta consists of three long slices of toasted dark bread topped with three spreads: a deliciously creamy salmon mousse with capers; shredded rare roast beef with a red-wine reduction sauce; and a mayonnaise spiked with crab meat. On the soup side, clam chowder was chock-full of meaty chunks of clam, potatoes, celery and smoky bacon, all in a brothy base. Odd to go without the cream, but perfect on a snowy winter's eve with a gas fireplace flickering nearby. (And again, no cream means more room for dessert.) The soup du jour, a thick, vegan-friendly sweet potato with leek, was flavored with a touch of spicy heat but otherwise bland.
Putting a rare seared tuna with wasabi aioli on your menu is just a step away from offering sushi (in keeping with local trends, perhaps). At any rate, this "little plate" was wonderful: five chilled, seared-around-the-edges slices fanned out on a small plate with aioli dotting the edges, accompanied by a vegetable slaw. Keeping with seafood, I also tried sea bass, offered one evening as an entrée special ($12.95). The fish, a small portion about an inch thick, had been pan-seared to seal in the juices, then drizzled with a smoky paprika beurre blanc. On the side, bacon and smoked fennel added depth to the mild-tasting fish. Also satisfying and wintry was the herb-roasted chicken entrée, a boneless breast cut with the wing drum bone intact for a more dramatic presentation. This dish was made especially delectable with a side of grilled mushrooms, pancetta, pearl onions and roasted garlic.
Cyrano's mission seems to be to cover as many bases as possible, and the restaurant's wine list is broader than one might expect from a restaurant that specializes in desserts. About sixteen wines are offered, all of them available by the glass ($4 to $8) or bottle ($18 to $40). For those who like to drink their dessert, five dessert wines are listed ($7 to $13 per glass, or half bottles, priced from $28 to $49), including three from Australia, a gewürztraminer from Washington state and a superb 1981 Hopler Noble Reserve Welschriesling from Austria. Finally, there are four ports and eight sparkling wines -- though none of the bubblies are offered by the glass; one, a Codorníu Brut, is available in a 187-milliliter bottle for $5). And I haven't even gotten to the (fair trade) coffee, cocoa and cider drink menu.
But you came for the dessert.
And not for the assortment of comparatively pedestrian-sounding sundaes and sorbets. You're here for the signature creations of Cyrano's gone by: cherries jubilee, bananas Cyrano, strawberries Cyrano -- all prepared tableside, for two ($18.95). Or for the Cleopatra, a mound of vanilla ice cream with sliced fresh strawberries and bananas tossed in, then covered with a hard shell of dark chocolate and more whipped cream than a human being should be permitted to consume ($8.95). Or the World's Fair Eclair, a split éclair in a preparation similar to the Cleopatra, minus the fruit (also $8.95).
My tastes, however, gravitated toward the menu's "continental pastries." Carolyn Downs, the head pastry chef, employs somewhat of a Harvest-like seasonal approach, as evidenced by a pumpkin crème brûlée and a pecan pie with spiced cream. My favorites were an apple tarte tatin and the blackberry financier. The apple dish was a fine example of the French classic, essentially an upside-down apple pie, with dots of caramel and chocolate contributing flavor and visual appeal. The blackberry dessert consisted of a small round of rich butter cake surrounded by whole fresh blackberries sitting in a small pool of blackberry reduction -- the financier. These are luscious, flavorful endings indeed.
Resurrecting a St. Louis institution as highly regarded and richly remembered as Cyrano's is a big undertaking. Trying to offer as many choices as Cyrano's does with equal attention is risky as well. The Downses, along with an experienced management staff, have gotten started on the right foot, balancing price, quality, selection and atmosphere in order to accommodate patrons' memories while meeting new expectations.
As for those who believe in eating dessert first: I dare you.