Cut to the Chase 

Eau Bistro is better -- and edgier -- than ever

Eau Bistro's new chef de cuisine, David Gilbert, thinks the sensory element of St. Louis dining is missing in action. He wants to change that and challenge diners to expand their culinary comfort zones. As his press release states, "After we're certain that we've covered all the basics -- texture, sight, aroma, taste and sizzle -- we give very close attention to the emotional aspects of the food, such as humor, surprise and delight." When a chef says that, I'm hooked!

First, a little background on Eau Bistro: The place opened at the Chase Park Plaza in September 2000, filling the old Hunt Room space with a contemporary yet relaxed feel by including such touches as large, inverted-tripod light fixtures covered with parchment paper. Along with its trendy cousin, Café Eau, the bistro was a refreshing change of pace from the stodginess of the hotel's Tenderloin Room, the Victorian-style restaurant that has been a mainstay for prom dates and anniversary-celebrating couples since the 1950s.

The Kansas City-based PB&J restaurant group, which also brought us Yia Yia's Euro Café in Chesterfield, operated the café and bistro for the Chase and brought in Yia Yia's chef Rob Uyemura. Back then Uyemura steered the menu toward pan-Asian and fusion cuisine, along with basic American fare. Two years later the Chase took control of both operations and hired chef Vito Racanelli (yes, of the pizza family). While Racanelli's kitchen produced high-quality meals, the menu lacked panache.

Even though Eau Bistro and Café Eau had different personalities, the fact that the bistro menu was also available in the café (and at lower prices) caused confusion. What the bistro lacked was a true identity. But ten months ago, something extraordinary happened at Eau Bistro -- David Gilbert arrived on the scene, bringing with him his full-blown sensory-experience dining philosophy.

Since coming to St. Louis to head both Eaus, the 27-year-old Gilbert has completely reworked the café and bistro operations while keeping the menus separate (no more ordering from the bistro menu while lounging on the café's patio). The café offers lighter tapas-style fare, while the bistro's mission is to delight diners with a carnival of culinary extremes.

At the bistro Gilbert introduced a chef's table with a blind-tasting (meaning that, after giving Gilbert a few basics like food allergies, your menu is developed on the spot) eight-course meal ($85, or $125 with paired wines) and a five-course tasting menu ($65, or $95 with paired wines). In his words, the bistro menu "really [pushes] cutting-edge, fine-dining cuisine" with such touches as a hot lava rock placed atop a bowl of dried spices at the table for the sole purpose of exciting our olfactory sense with pungent aromas to complement, say, a duck or lamb dish.

The visual element of Gilbert's approach is executed with such tableside props as a French-press coffeemaker used to "brew" the coffee bean-lamb au jus that the server pours over the rack of lamb.

And then there's this, the most unusual experience of all: diners misting their mouths with little spray bottles of fruit essence in lieu of the expected sorbet intermezzo course.

"Not being from St. Louis," Gilbert explains, "I want to [offer] what's happening on the coasts so people can eat healthy but also have that interactive experience with the waiter and the food." As an example, he mentions the west coast's raw-food movement, the philosophy of using local, seasonal ingredients prepared in an entirely new fashion, like that Binaca-style intermezzo served during the multicourse tasting menus. The little atomizers are filled with the concentrated nectar of various fruit purées that have been infused with cardamom or lemongrass and strained through cheesecloth for a couple of days. A few quick sprays in the mouth, followed by a long sniff of the accompanying vanilla bean, and you've refreshed your palate without eating a thing.

Bizarre, even "edgy," but that's the level of creativity that Gilbert brings to Eau Bistro.

Since Gilbert's menu change, bistro prices have increased by 12 to 15 percent, reflecting not only the cost of procuring seasonal ingredients -- like a hard-to-find Dover sole that's been out of the water for only two days, or the French wild asparagus and chanterelle mushrooms that accompany the fresh Chesapeake Bay soft-shell crab -- but also the labor needed to produce such innovative cuisine. Diners may experience sticker-shock when seeing entrée prices approaching $40, or a crab-cake appetizer commanding $14 for a single cake.

But that thick cake was pure crab: no onions, no peppers and a ton of fresh, jumbo lump crabmeat. Gilbert explains that for every three pounds of crabmeat used, just one handful of fine breadcrumbs is added to bind it all together. A bit of mild Meyer lemon (a hybrid lemon-orange) zest grated by the server at the table complements the side of seared watermelon as well as the pomegranate-infused molasses striping the plate. That alone would be fine and dandy, but Gilbert goes a bit further -- almost approaching absurdity -- by placing the cake in a little pool of watermelon foam. Puréed raw melon and candied ginger drip through cheesecloth for a day and are blended just before serving.

And that coffee-lamb au jus served with the lamb rack? When the accompanying dollop of unsweetened Chantilly cream melts into the sauce, the flavor is irresistible. The lamb rack is dusted with a finely ground mixture of cinnamon, cumin and organic Mexican coffee before being seared and finished in the oven.

"We use a light-roast coffee so when we sear the lamb the crushed bean doesn't become bitter," explains Gilbert. Mild yellow beets, tightly wound grilled asparagus (think of those smoke snakes you played with on the Fourth of July) and a fluffy bed of garlic mashed potatoes elevate this succulent dish to the "heavenly" category.

Die-hard meat 'n' tater lovers won't find the old steak, potato and herb butter combo on the menu anymore, but they will delight in the dry-aged New York strip, potato rosti (think really good hash browns) and Missouri wax beans.

And, true to its name, Eau Bistro specializes in fresh seafood. Sturgeon is a rarity on St. Louis menus, so it was a treat to find a wood-grilled version here. A bolstering of bacon-citrus vinaigrette complemented the light smokiness of the fish, while the exquisitely creamy Peruvian purple mashed potatoes and a slim stalk of broccolini added visual contrast. The hazelnut-crusted soft-shell crab, supplemented with extra crabmeat, was nearly eaten in one bite before we noticed the beautiful assortment of Dutch white and baby French asparagus, chanterelle mushrooms and roasted eggplant surrounding the delicious whole crab.

Slices of morel mushrooms (from Oregon), which are like no other mushrooms on earth, added a woodsy punch to four goat-cheese and organic vegetable-stuffed raviolis. Along with the addictive morels were wood-fired yellow beets, white asparagus, pine nuts and fava beans. Sure, there were a lot of flavors competing for my attention, but the combination melded beautifully, as if every ingredient was specially chosen to complement the others.

Eau Bistro boasts a 300-plus-label wine list and some of the highest wine-by-the-glass prices around: twelve whites from $7 to $12.25 and thirteen reds from $8 to $15.25 (a 2001 Franciscan "Oakville Estate" cabernet sauvignon).

Gilbert recently hired a pastry chef who should start producing all of the bistro's desserts in a week or two. In the meantime, stick to the house-made apple tarte tatin or the big, warm-from-the-oven chocolate-chip cookies. A scoop of ice cream or sorbet is worth sampling as well, and both are made in-house.

I know people who stopped going to Eau Bistro a couple of years back because, while they thought the food was quite good, they didn't feel it was very exciting. With the arrival of Gilbert's avant-garde approach, formerly jaded diners may push aside their plain grilled salmon and wasabi-sauced something-or-other and make a return visit to Eau Bistro.

As Gilbert says, "We see the food created at Eau Bistro as larger than the food itself. We seek to be different."

And he's one of the few who can back up those words.

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