Coeur Project 

The hunt for authentic ethnic fare leads to a Creve Coeur strip mall

Jean-François Lyotard, late French dude-of-many-theories, argued that modern societies maintain the illusion of order through "grand narratives" -- sweeping myths invented to legitimize beliefs, practices and existences. "Someday we will be emancipated" is an example. Another is "They hate us because of our freedoms."

Still another is an orthodoxy cherished by many of us St. Louis urbanites: City culture is superior to the culture of the county. Our city lives are more profound, more enlightened, more sexy when we tell ourselves that the county is populated by the shallow Mich Light-drinking spawn of white flight, that an existence without close proximity to crack houses, hookers and breweries is one-dimensional and that the defining architectural feature of the suburbs, the strip mall, is depravity itself.

So one brilliant summer day on the South Side, Stingray and I experimentally shook the rarefied dust of Tower Grove Park off our Chuck Taylors and pointed the jalopy west. Our purpose was to examine the culinary offerings in a single Creve Coeur strip mall.

The real estate in question was the Plaza Shops on North New Ballas Road, a small shopping center with Disneyish mansards and a burbling fountain. It comprises an almost urban degree of quirk and miscellany; we found and ate at five different ethnic restaurants there. Furthermore, in the sense that it contains not a single national chain (not counting the Christian Science Reading Room), the Plaza Shops is arguably more authentic than South Grand.

Starving after our 25-minute drive, we crashed through the doors of Oishi Sushi. Stingray, whose contempt for all things strip mall is no secret, observed with some surprise that the chic avocado-green paint job and sleek appointments were a polished departure from her mental picture of a strip-mall sushi joint. All I know is, I came away from Oishi Sushi with an urge to paint my kitchen avocado green.

Non-sushi lunch entrées included a bowl of miso soup and a tiny, tasty iceberg salad. The kitchen was miserly with the soup, but it was the right temperature and had that indefinable health-giving quality. The salmon teriyaki was no soaring flight of imagination -- teriyaki is always safe -- but it was beautifully glazed and tasted like it looked.

Of the raw nigiri, we sampled hamachi (yellowtail) and maguro (tuna), both of which fell easily within acceptable parameters, freshness-wise. The sake (salmon), bundled with an indispensable sliver of onion, was also pleasant. (Know and tell: Salmon sushi is cured or smoked, never raw).

The chef complied without incident with our off-the-menu request for an avocado roll, which was perfectly decent. My only complaint was with the St. Louis roll (tuna, radish, avocado, smelt eggs). It's the same complaint I have with all complicated nori maki; it tastes great, but let's face it: It's too big for the human piehole. Because the structural integrity of a slice of maki is fatally compromised by any attempt to bite it in half, there's no way to eat the thing without looking like a chump. This can be embarrassing when a lady swinging a red Chanel bag brushes past your table, assumes you are deaf and presents you as a glamour "don't" to her sushi-novice friend. Score one for the county.

Next up was Chinese takeout at Zang Chi. Staffed by a phalanx of surly women at a phone bank, Zang Chi is a bleak Bizarro World outpost where the grasp of hygiene appears to be incomplete. One phone operator was snipping the stems off snow peas with a pair of scissors right there at the counter, I spied what looked like a tray of rat poison in a corner and let's just say I couldn't bring myself to sit on any of the chairs. This place makes the green room at the Creepy Crawl look like the lobby at the Ritz. I sampled with some trepidation a half-order of fried rice, found it -- mercifully -- unremarkable and retired it forthwith.

Next: Taste of Europe. Don't let the cheesy cardboard gyro in the window fool you; this is no mere pita stand. I loved this Eastern European deli enough to wish it were on South Grand. The place is heavy on the Polish sausage, and there are also pickled things with Slavonic labels, fridges of weird beverages, cases of German salami and tongue loaf.

Stingray's green salad with fresh herbs was delicious, even with the ranch dressing. Like everything here, it came with a chocolate candy. Much as I wanted to see some Polish Hot Dog Addiction action ("You try it once & you can never say 'no' to it"), I ordered a crab-salad sandwich at the last second. I had a sneaking suspicion that it was made with faux crab, but the salad, with its tomato-cilantro dressing, was delicate and unusual. Of course, I'd give a vigorous endorsement to this sandwich if only for the quality of the bread, which was exactly the sort of fresh, crusty baguette they should have given us down the strip at Cuisine d'Art.

You want to smell coffee brewing and pastries puffing when you saunter into an establishment claiming to be "just like a sidewalk café in Paris." After all, 6,000 Starbucks can't be wrong. Yet when Stingray and I wafted along for dinner at Cuisine d'Art (poetry, or Franglish malapropism, you decide), we felt as if we were huffing nose-hits of industrial dishrag. Combined with shrill overhead lighting and food about which I would not write home, this sour, humid stench numbed the mind, fouled the appetite and made us yearn for the metropolis. Had we finally found our featureless suburban purgatory?

Maybe. The restaurant section sort of melts into a knickknack shop. I noticed on my stroll to the "salles de bain" that its merchandise appeared to consist of sentimental tchotchkes of the wicker/needlepoint/silk-flower variety. I say "appeared" because knickknacks -- like blues bands in Soulard, only with more dried eucalyptus -- register in my brain as a single prosaic blur. Ditto the food. Though it may well have been fresh once, at some point our dinner had acquired the uniform properties of food that has been prefabricated, frozen and reheated.

The menu is mostly variations on one dish: stuffed chicken breast. Curiously, all of them (and a salmon dish as well) come sauced with the same "dill velouté." Most of the life had been sucked out of my spinach-stuffed version. A Kievish preparation in which a fillet was wrapped around a dollop of creamed spinach and dipped in breadcrumbs, it tasted exactly like the entrée at the last big wedding you went to. The dill sauce was flavorless, and there were nuts in all the side dishes. At seventeen bucks, this trite dish was absurdly overpriced, perhaps Cuisine d'Art's only similarity to any Parisian café.

There were nuts in the chicken salad, too, but in this case, I am happy to report, the results exceeded my expectations. In fact, if it were the end of the world and all that was left to eat was an obsequious chicken salad sandwich on a croissant, I wouldn't mind if it were this one. (Although I should say, as an opponent of overkill, that making sandwiches of croissants is a questionable practice; fat-wise, you'd be better off with a Belgian waffle sandwiched between a couple of Pop-Tarts. Seriously.)

There were real tarts up the strip at the Creve Coeur branch of Pratzel's Bakery; somehow this place had the comfy, musty feel of an ancient neighborhood shop. We picked up a couple of puck-sized sweeties, which were something like cakes if cakes were something like sugar cookies. One was filled with gooey apricot, the other with cinnamony apple; they reminded me pleasantly of something I'd eaten as a kid. It wasn't quite a Proustian moment, but it was enough to startle me into remembering that I'd grown up out here myself. Score another one for the suburbs.

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