Fish Story 

The new R.L. Steamers has quite a tale to tell

Our little R.L. Steamers is suddenly all grown up.

And, as is often the case when a youngster matures, there's reason to be proud, but there can also be a twinge of sadness. The original Steamers was in Dogtown, a relative shoestring operation that took an old neighborhood bar and storefront and transformed them into a moderately priced fresh-seafood restaurant with more than a little eclectic whimsy in the décor. The new version is out in Chesterfield, still decidedly whimsical in atmosphere but much more properly scrubbed.

Nonetheless, precious few restaurants locally fall into the seafood category, and both the expansion of capacity enabled by the move -- the new Steamers now seats around 100 -- and the tight focus on fish allow for economies of scale that should end up introducing St. Louisans to fresher selections and a wider variety. In addition, Steamers now features a small retail store as you walk into the restaurant (the store opened Aug. 7, after we'd visited for our dinners), so there's the additional opportunity to try to fix new stuff at home.

If you're one of those people who prefer their fish simple, as in a fillet with a white-wine sauce or prepared à la meunière, with maybe some basic potatoes and vegetables on the side, Steamers probably isn't for you. This is fish with considerable fancy, like tropical salsas or North African-style preserved lemons or Oriental noodles or even (gasp!) a red-wine sauce to counterpoint a particularly full-bodied and meaty variety, the monkfish.

As is especially appropriate for a fresh-seafood place, the menu is determined and printed every day, rotating to accommodate what's best that day and what's fitting for the season. The appetizer list generally comprises eight to 10 items, including a couple of soups, and the entrées include a dozen fish creations, plus two meat dishes for dyed-in-the-wool carnivores and one pure vegetarian choice.

Given the eclectic mix-and-match approach, the key is whether new chef Justin Keimon, formerly of Grenache, is good at picking out unlikely partners. Judging from what we saw, he's doing just fine.

A couple of the original Steamers signature items -- an "oyster nachos" appetizer and a shellfish algarve entree -- are to be found at the new place. The nachos, described more elaborately as crispy fried oysters on Jack-cheese tortillas topped with chipotle and avocado cream and served with sweet corn-jalapeno relish -- are a wonderful little cross-cultural marriage, four plump fried oysters arranged on triangular tortilla chips laid out like the sails of a windmill, with smoky heat from the chipotle cream and sweet and vegetable-based heat from the relish. The algarve, a bouillabaisse-like stew named for a coastal region in Portugal, featured two medium to large shrimp, six mussels and two clams in their shells, two shelled oysters and one scallop, all atop a moderate serving of linguini sauced with a simple olive oil, garlic and red pepper mixture that picked up the essential flavors of the shellfish.

One of the more intriguing items on the menu was a sashimi variation that included three richly translucent, raw-steak-textured slices of tuna. Instead of plain soy, however, we got a dipping sauce sweetened, thickened and flavored with ginger; the expected orange color of the accompanying tiny fish roe was transformed to green with wasabi, the traditional horseradish condiment, which added a fiery afterburn to the salty crunch of the caviar.

We were also quite taken with the aforementioned monkfish, which long ago cast off its "poor man's lobster" role of impersonating or augmenting the more expensive crustacean by virture of its dense texture. The pan-roasting approach here reminded me more of a preparation one might give to catfish, but the flavor of the monkfish was much purer than could be achieved with the lowly freshwater catfish, and the density was a perfect foil for the hearty red-wine-and-mushroom sauce, with simply prepared fresh asparagus and julienned carrots rounding out the vegetable side and rice to soak up the sauce and any remaining fish morsels.

A stuffed rainbow trout was distinguished by the addition of bite-sized chunks of lobster to the crab filling, along with tangible hints of tarragon. For fans of blackening, the featured fish at Steamers on one of our visits was the marlin, another meaty fish whose firm texture and full body was able to support a significant pepper-and-herb rub plus a topping of smoky alligator sausage. I found it a powerful dish, difficult to figure out a good wine pairing for, something appropriate when you're in the mood for intense flavors but certainly also something of an acquired taste.

As with the menu, the wine list has expanded significantly along with the move, with about 75 bottles now available ranging from $14 to in excess of $200 (including some with bizarre price points like $117.50 and $201.75). We found a couple of bugs that still needed to be worked out here -- a Daniel Gehrs Pinot Noir was listed as coming from Oregon, when in fact it was the product of Santa Barbara County, Calif., and the computer rang it out at 18 bucks less than what it was priced on the wine list, leading to a grateful smile from our waiter when we informed him that we'd actually been under-charged.

Speaking of the service, on both visits it was quick, friendly and exceptionally well informed as to the nature of some of the more elaborate dishes and ingredients. Desserts, which come from the outside, range from lighter choices like blueberry crumb pie and a ricotta tart to denser and more filling cakes.

Do be sure to pay attention to the surroundings, which obviously cost some big bucks and reinforce the maritime theme in both flagrant (a full-wall mural of an Asian woman in a diving mask) and subtle (porthole windows across the top of the front façade and waves in both the laminate under the bar and the pressed glass on top of some of the room dividers). There are also several umbrella-ed tables set up out front that in a year or so will have an ideal view of all of the excess traffic coming off the Page Avenue extension and trying to escape onto Olive by snaking up Hog Hollow.

Meanwhile, we found the inside tables packed solid on both of our visits (one on a weeknight, the other on a weekend), so reservations are probably a good idea, especially if you're coming from a distance.

By the way, the last time we drove by, the original location in Dogtown was still yet to be re-rented. It's already proved itself as quite the springboard for restaurant success, and we can't help but thinking that the new Highlands at Forest Park offices on the old Arena site are going to create some significant additional lunch demand. Any takers?

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