Fuse Company

609 comes close to the ideal balance of substance and style

There we were, the five of us, each knowing somebody in the group but none knowing all, sipping drinks and getting acquainted at the U Lounge, the new, ultra-hip bar/club conjoined with 609, the new, ultra-hip restaurant on Eastgate Avenue in the University City Loop that's been stirring up more interest and controversy than The Passion of the Christ. Interest because it's the first new restaurant in the Loop in quite a long time, controversy because of its difficult-to-pin-down cuisine, which embraces the Asian-Fusion/American-Comfort/ What-the-Hell School of menu planning.

But back to where it all began -- in that dimly lighted, highly stylized, coolly sensuous lounge, where we waited for our table, getting up every so often to slide open the stainless-steel door that separates lounge from restaurant to inquire about our seating. The bar is inlaid with a long, shallow, stainless-steel trough filled with ice, which reflects the room's subtle lighting and is perfect for setting your drink in as you prattle away or absorb the surroundings and the piped-in music (DJ Alexis and the Hot House Sessions provide the tunes on weekends). Beyond the bar, a back area comprises small, cordoned-off sections and low tables arrayed around the dance area. Seating is limited to the foam cubes that you pull out of a large cubbyhole on the wall. It's Romper Room for the hipoisie! The only problem was that the cubes are so small and light that one tends to fall off them -- and that's before imbibing one of the stiff drinks the bartenders pour.

Ensconced, eventually, at our table, we were able to notice how the sleek metal décor transitions from bar to dining room: A cement floor painted gray, tables lacquered a purplish hue, galvanized ducts, halogen lights and chrome-and-black chairs come together to form an interior that some will find innovative and pleasurable, others cool and aloof. Lining the walls (a mixture of exposed brick and plum-colored paint) are for-sale black-and-white photographs of St. Louis' finest architectural beauties, from the parabolic arches of Priory Chapel to the spanning geometric cable lines of the Clark Bridge.

The substance of style: Chefs Tom Balk and Andy 
Huang pursue the perfect balance at 609.
Jennifer Silverberg
The substance of style: Chefs Tom Balk and Andy Huang pursue the perfect balance at 609.

Location Info

Map

609 Lounge & Restaurant

609 Eastgate Ave.
University City, MO 63130

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Delmar/ The Loop

Silk Road Chinese Restaurant

510 N. Euclid Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63108-1604

Category: Restaurant > Asian

Region: St. Louis - Central West End

Hunan Star

13239 Manchester Road
Des Peres, MO 63131

Category: Restaurant > Chinese

Region: Des Peres

Details

Steamed Thai mussels $6
Organic salad $5
Green tea-dusted Mahi-Mahi $17
Drunken seafood noodle bowl $17
Crème brûlée sampler $7

314-721-9168. Hours: lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 5-10 p.m. Fri. & Sat.

609 Eastgate Avenue, University City

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So designed is this space that one half expects the menu to arrive as a set of blueprints. Close, actually -- it comes attached to a stainless-steel clipboard. Steve Yu, who used to own Silk Road in the Central West End and still operates Hunan Star on Manchester Road, and the much younger Bernie Lee, an interior-design graduate who worked at Hunan Star, paired up and hired an outside design firm to redo the first floor of the two-story brick building, once home to Pratzel's Bakery. Along with Lee, Yu recruited Andy Huang from Hunan Star to handle the bulk of the Asian cooking; Tom Balk, most recently of the Dining Room at Neiman Marcus, serves as executive chef. Pastry chef Ashley Kaplan creates the desserts.

This quintet makes for an interesting melding of tastes and styles, challenging the palate while expanding culinary horizons. In an age when you can choose from 1,500 drawer pulls at Home Depot, it's not surprising to encounter restaurants that attempt to offer something for every palate (sometimes on the same plate!). This can be a good thing, I think. But as with fusion jazz, while some notes meld, creating truly synergetic interactions, others may be too strong in their own right to stand next to one another, let alone start a conversation. (Think of the last office party you attended.)

As you're perusing your clipboard, wondering whether the French-influenced honey- and coriander-glazed duck breast will pair well with a soba noodle cake and Szechuan shiitake sauce, your server will bring out an amuse-bouche. Our little fillip of excitement this night was a tiny spoonful of white truffle mashed potato, a tasty trifle one dining companion remembered from Balk's days at Neiman Marcus. We were of a mind to keep it simple with the appetizers, beginning with a big bowl of perfectly steamed Thai mussels. But these were lusciously complex, as it turned out, steeped in a delightful broth incorporating galangal (a ginger-like rhizome) and kaffir lime leaves. An appetizer of seared sea scallops wasn't such a resounding success; the single seared scallop was tasty in a parsnip purée surrounded by a caramelized onion broth, but at $9 it seemed chintzy. The size of the portion didn't stop us from going ahead and ordering a variation on the same dish as an entrée, however: three plump scallops perched atop a bed of butternut squash risotto and surrounded by a basil beurre blanc. Delicious, though again, priced a bit out of line at $21 (the most expensive dish on the menu). A better seafood value was the "drunken" seafood noodle bowl, which contained three scallops, along with a plenitude of shrimp, fresh mussels and scored squid, served over a mound of wheat noodles mixed with mushrooms and laced with red and green peppers and whole red chiles. Price: $17.

When we settled on Szechuan-style tuna, a special of the evening, our server didn't ask how we wanted it cooked, so we didn't say, figuring we'd see what the kitchen figures patrons like. It was disappointing to see the tuna steak emerge somewhat overcooked. But everything else about the dish was just fine, including the bed of sticky rice that supported the two thick pieces of fish.

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