It was a strange building for a record store, looking much more like the setting for a Rocky Mountain high, but with the renovations that have taken place, it's a great atmosphere for a restaurant, with everything playing slightly larger than life. A huge fireplace sits in one corner next to an oversized, stylized painting of waiters; walls are half hunter green, half rich-wood paneling; and the ceilings continue the clubby resort look by soaring to a peak with exposed beams. The downstairs bar to the right of the entry has a couple of TVs going, usually with sports, but the noise level didn't intrude, and the old classical-and-jazz section on the mezzanine is now a second dining area.
The menu can best be described as eclectic, bouncing around from Greece to Thailand to the good ol' U.S.A. to the south of France for its influences. The same can be said for the wine list, which numbers close to 100 bottles and, although mean prices settle around $30, isn't afraid to display a fair number of $75-plus choices.
The food strives for some outstanding touches; for our meal, it didn't quite reach Nirvana but still provided some excellent results. Fresh Asiago-cheese bread was an excellent opening, and the good start was furthered by an appetizer of spinach pie ($6.95), an extra-large version of the classic Greek dish spanakopita. Rather than the more common approach of smaller pieces of chopped spinach leaves, this one went with sauteed hunks, and the triangular wedge of layers of phyllo dough itself was probably twice as large as I would have expected, with the whole thing liberally coated with sprinkles of feta cheese and then served alongside a small-salad-size portion of raw spinach leaves. Despite the Baby Huey proportions, it retained the necessary flaky, delicate texture without becoming waterlogged from the cooked spinach interior.
Our other appetizer was a baker's dozen chicken wings described as "Geoff's Thai" ($7.95), served over a bed of mixed greens with julienned carrots. Although the wings themselves were plump and well-prepared, and again the portion size was very large, I couldn't discern any element that really made this "Thai" -- no raging-hot Thai mini-chiles, no peanut, not even what would admittedly be a very daring approach of using the ubiquitous Thai fish-sauce condiment as a barbecue base.
The French-provincial specialty called cassoulet is rarely seen in local restaurants, so with J.P. Field's offering it as an off-the-menu choice ($17.95), we had to hit it with our best shot. The standard preparation of white beans, sausage and duck was further enhanced by a fan of sliced breast and a leg quarter from a plump Long Island duck, along with lightly cooked, brightly colored snow peas, sliced carrot and asparagus. It was a very good preparation of a difficult dish, with the only real soft spot a bit of inconsistency in the flavoring of the bean portion. The topmost beans were bland, as if the mixture hadn't steeped long enough with the meat and spices, but once I dug in a bit deeper, the flavoring became much bolder and earthier.
We also tried the vegetable-selection entree ($9.95), another very large plate that ranged from a crispy risotto cake, spinach, red and green bell peppers, snow peas, carrots, onion and a nearly whole cap of roasted portabella mushroom that did a pretty fair job of impersonating a hunk of beef. You could see the care with which this dish was prepared in that all of the vegetables were only briefly shown steam or a flame, and thus achieved an excellent balance between cooked and raw in terms of flavor and texture.
Desserts are all prepared in house, and especially given the volume of our earlier courses, we chose to split our sweet, in this case a mocha-cappuccino creme brulee, with the added ingredients providing an unusual but not unexpected deep-tan tint to the custard. For this preparation, J.P. Field's served it in a dish of a wider-than-normal diameter of about 4 inches, with a very thin depth of custard topped off by a razor-thin but hard crust that gave the whole thing a flavor much like English toffee.
The service from our waitress was exemplary; however, if the gentleman regularly roaming the dining room looking like a supervisor was in fact a manager or owner, he should pass a mirror before every future circuit and keep in mind that "scowl" is not generally free-associated with "hospitality."
This notwithstanding, we were smiling when we left, humming any number of songs from the '70s -- maybe from the memories of our youth, and maybe because that's what is playing on three-quarters of the radio stations in St. Louis in 1999.
GRAPEVINE: Congrats to Chuck Dressel and crew at Mount Pleasant Winery for grabbing some ink about the winery and the Augusta appellation in the current issue of the very classy couple-years-old food magazine Saveur. And speaking of wine, Bryan Carr's Grenache just opened its doors next to The Cheese Place in Clayton and, fitting of the retail selection of its partner/neighbor and the fact that it's named after a grape, is boasting that it offers "one of the finest wine lists in St. Louis." Dinner every day but the lard's day, 7443 Forsyth Blvd., 727-6883.
34 S. Old Orchard Ave., Webster Groves
Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri. till 11 p.m.; Sat. noon-10 p.m.; Sun. 4-8 p.m.
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