Lofty Aspirations

Lucas Park Grille might be downtown's hottest new spot -- but not because of the food

I found myself doing a lot of looking under things at Lucas Park Grille, the restaurant/bar/lounge/market that, within a mere three months and a massive, 10,500-square-foot space, has already bogarted the role of flagship swank-spot along downtown's Washington Avenue.

At dinner one night I found myself looking under the tablecloth (standard white linen) for a peek at the tabletop beneath it, and I nearly gasped: brand new, gleaming and gorgeous. It was heartbreaking to find such a handsome piece of mahogany veiled from view, but at least the rest of the scene -- and yes, this place is a scene -- made for some swell visual stimuli. Lucas Park Grille's monochromatic décor -- all ambers, leather tones and russets -- feels simultaneously sumptuous and sleek. Some interior designer must've had a field day whipping this baby together, seamlessly incorporating a panoply of disparate dining-out elements under one lofty ceiling: the freestanding rectangular bar that anchors the main room; the casual, bar-high four-tops in the lodgelike lounge area up front (stocked with board games and coffee-table books); the gourmet takeout deli off to the side, its cases of meats, cheeses and salads serving as a natural border to the open-air kitchen; the more finely appointed tables in the back room, including a quartet of banquettes that stand in that room's center. The whole shebang, the first restaurant venture of downtown loft specialists McGowan Brothers Development, resembles the multilevel, seductively dim-lit splendor of Eleven Eleven Mississippi, except Lucas Park Grille ekes over the top with not one but three fireplaces.

But what I found under that tablecloth -- gobs of money spent on fine furniture, only to cover it up -- troubled me, too. (Likewise, an entire wall of the place has been upholstered in leather, though it's hard to notice or appreciate it with lighting so faint.) The McGowan brothers envisioned an all-purpose establishment offering three meals a day and late-night libations to all comers -- neighborhood residents, trendy bar-hoppers, fine diners and lunch-meeting businessfolk alike. Given their area of expertise, I can see why they'd outdo themselves with dazzling décor, and no doubt the look of the place alone will be enough to lure in the boozehounds for a few months. But the owners haven't made the same kind of investment in the kitchen. Kevin Willmann's résumé includes stints at Great Restaurants Group's Blue Water Grill, Remy's and Big Sky Café, but Lucas Park Grille is the 27-year-old's first executive-chef job. If patrons are expected to stay for dinner and pay high-end prices, the fare has to live up to the table it's served upon.

Getting by on its good looks: Lucas Park Grille's food 
could use some fine-tuning.
Jennifer Silverberg
Getting by on its good looks: Lucas Park Grille's food could use some fine-tuning.

Location Info

Map

Lucas Park Grille

1234 Washington Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63103

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: St. Louis - Washington Avenue

Details

Lobster martini $14
Tenderloin medallions $21
Yellowfin tuna $24
Sarsaparilla float $6

314-241-7770. Restaurant hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon-Sun. (Call for market and bar hours.)

1234 Washington Avenue

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When my entrée of tenderloin medallions stuffed with Maytag blue cheese arrived, I found myself looking for them underneath a tangled heap of fried wispiness dubbed "leek hay." The medallions were huge and prepared a delightful medium as ordered, which only made the silly haystack atop them all the more buzzkilling. Cuts of meat that run more than $20 should come with something a little more sophisticated than green-bean-casserole topping. Anything green, now that I mention it, would have been nice. This plate had nothing green on it.

Pointless and unbalanced flavor pairings plague a number of Willmann's dishes. I can't recall slices of carpaccio quite as soft as they were in a beautifully presented appetizer here, yet I wound up turning in my plate early, as beef that fragile proved no match for the harsh, sour "tamarind caper oil and lemon powder" that accompanied it. Caramelized, fennel-braised salmon and pan-seared wild striped bass rested upon luscious beds of salty-good toasted orzo and rich, creamy risotto, respectively, but both pieces of fish were mushy.

A small plate of flash-fried calamari was hardly flash-fried (the breadcrumb coating was icky-soft and crumbled apart at first touch). Even worse, the squid were tossed with rings of pepperoncini, which appeared to outnumber the calamari rings three to one. Maybe it seemed that way because pepperoncini's so overwhelming, but that's just the point: How can the subtler taste of calamari keep up? I was eager to sample the lobster martini and was heartened as could be when I saw how much plush claw meat it contained. But the lobster had been soaked in a questionable mixture of clarified butter and too-literal dry vermouth, trumping all traces of crustacean. Likewise, when you wrap smoked shrimp in bacon and wet them in an all-consuming molasses barbecue sauce, you're left with great shrimp texture -- but no shrimp taste. And when you encrust a lovely yellowfin tuna steak with peppercorns, sear it just right, but then pour on a tangy barbecue sauce, you obliterate the tuna. (Besides, who's in the mood for barbecue when they choose to order fish?) Seafood doesn't stand a fighting chance at Lucas Park Grille.

I went looking for the meaning of life -- or at least a few Périgord truffles -- under the prime, 21-day-dry-aged strip steak, as I would do whenever finding myself face to face with a hunk of meat carrying a $50 price tag. I loved the tasty side of horseradish- and parsnip-tempered mashed potatoes (a rare example of fine flavor calibration). I didn't like that the steak came slathered in a house steak sauce. If a steak's worth $50, why cover it up? No one at our table could detect a $42 difference between this dish and a just-as-tasty $8 appetizer of grilled marinated steak -- our favorite starter -- similarly enrobed and plated with house-smoked mushrooms.

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