French Toast 

Under new ownership, Malmaison still turns out some of St. Louis' best French food

Maybe a brief parlay with a French teacher is in order.

I found myself musing over this as I took another bite of one of the finest lamb chops I've had in a very long time, potent enough with the distinct flavor of lamb but not to the point of gaminess, resistant when bitten into but easy to glide through with tooth or knife. The cote d'agneau at Malmaison includes one double-rib chop still on the bone and four or five more of the meat only, served over skinned small carrots that retain their green-spiked punk hairdos, fluffed potatoes and simple haricots verts (green string beans), all served with just a drizzling of a meat-juice reduction.

Yet over at the adjoining table, a waiter was explaining the menu to a party of eight; his pronunciation was astounding even for an inhabitant of a city that has institutionally butchered the names of its French founders whose names now grace our towns, streets and rivers. First he noted that the two prix-fixe menus were the "menu day café" and the "menu day Malmaison" when in fact the "day" should sound much more like "duh" (d'oh!) -- a fairly common mispronunciation that was repeated by another waiter on our second visit. However, when the "veau" came out as "vous" and the lamb chops were renamed for Nixon's first vice president, I started to wonder whether there was a line to be crossed when appealing to Francophile tastes but ignoring the French tongue.

For those to whom none of this sound and fury matters, the good news is that Malmaison under Eddie Neill -- the proprietor of Café Provençal and Eddie's Steak & Chop and part of Chez Leon -- is generally as good as, and in some ways even better than, Malmaison under longtime owners Gilbert and Simone Andujar, who had operated the charming country retreat in St. Albans from 1988 until their retirement earlier this year. The best change is the introduction of the two prix-fixe menus, one (the menu de café, $30) described as "less formal"; more accurately, I think, the menu de Malmaison ($40) costs more simply because the entrées it contains cost more. In each case, it's a three-course mix-and-match situation in which you can have appetizer-entrée-dessert or appetizer-soup-entrée or even a fine authentic French approach of appetizer-entrée-salad -- or you can order purely à la carte, or you can take the prix-fixe and tack on an additional course à la carte. With the prix-fixe, though, especially the cheaper one, it's now possible, much more so than before, to get out of Malmaison for under 100 bucks with a frugal wine selection.

Our visits included one graze for each of us through both menus. When we tried the menu de Malmaison, the entrées were the superlative lamb and an equally succulent beef fillet, each served with a complement of green beans, potatoes and carrot. As starting points, we chose escargots and foie gras (which required a $5 upcharge on the prix-fixe). The half-dozen snails were served shell-less on the classic plate with recessed cells to hold clarified butter with a strong but not overpowering garlic flavoring. The foie gras, we were informed, had not come from the renowned Hudson Valley but was on that day directly from France; it was airy in texture but dense in flavor, served with a compote of berries that had a minimum of added sweetening, resulting in an edge to the flavor not unlike framboise or other eaux de vie.

The foie gras appeared to be somewhat pinkish on the interior, but it was difficult to discern the color accurately because we were seated for this meal in the glassed-in-porch side of the restaurant, which has a distinctly different atmosphere than the barn-loft side. The porch side is low-ceilinged and dim; sit here for the effect of a romantic, secretive, candlelit evening. It's so dim on this side that you could probably be naked, at least from the waist down, and no one would notice.

Sit on the barn-loft side, though, if you enjoy a roaring fire, soaring ceilings and a higher level of visibility that allows you to savor the log-and-caulk construction and exposed rafters of the original 19th-century structure. The tables on this side are topped by white linens with fresh flowers and pewter serving plates engraved with an image of the building.

This is where we were seated on our second visit, when "less formal" translated into truit aux amandes (trout with almonds) and joue de veau (veal cheek, a cut that indeed comes from around the jaw). The latter was another silk-purse type of preparation -- like beef daube and onglet -- that Neill should get credit for popularizing and promoting locally. In this case, the meat looks for all the world like large chunks of a stew cut, but the texture is just slightly different, a bit like a cross between muscle-based meat and an organ meat such as sweetbreads. The slow cooking makes it rich, rich, rich, both in terms of the meat flavor itself and the concentration of the reserved juices.

The trout, although not as exotic, was also quite enjoyable, with four half-fillets stacked perpendicularly atop wild rice, with carrots and green beans on the side, and topped in turn with a moderate amount of toasted, thinly sliced almonds.

For this meal, we started with several slices of cured salmon, surrounded like a clock face by either three capers or three cubes of red pepper every two hours, on top of a potato pancake with a horseradish cream and, finally, a tiny dribble of balsamic reduction at the base. Our other appetizer was gnocchi comme ma mère: several tiny pillows of potato dumpling with a gentle smoky flavor accented by the earthy flavor of wild mushrooms and truffled olive.

On the more expensive menu, one alternative to desserts is a cheese plate, and the selection at Malmaison, although not particularly daring, is certainly a good primer on the big names in French cheeses. Our selection (and, of course, we took them all) included Port-Salut, Morbier, Roquefort, Boursin and a chévre, all sliced freshly from rounds or wedges at the table. The famous St. Albans basket -- a cookie latticework containing fruits and ice cream made famous by the Andujars -- is still offered, although we went with other dessert choices, including a dense chocolate-Cabernet tart in an almond crust over raspberry coulis and basic but excellent versions of crème caramel and chocolate mousse.

As might be expected, the wine list is mainly French with a significant list of Californians, with a special supplement of "sommelier's limited selections" that includes 10 superpremium California reds and six single-vineyard 1999 Williams & Selyem pinots noirs. (For whatever reason, the zooty Italian and French wines are on the main list, including, among others, a '97 Tignanello for $255, an '81 La Mission Haut Brion for $200 and an '83 Latour for $425.) The total list comprises some 70 whites, 95 reds and 10 sparkling, but I would have liked to see a bit larger selection in the $30-and-under range. Although several excellent ports are offered after dinner, there's no Banyuls, which would be ideal with the tremendous chocolate content of the chocolate-Cabernet tart.

Ahh, but back to the whole pronunciation issue. Aside from this, our service was exemplary, and it was apparent that Eddie is paying very close attention to his newest restaurant; he was cruising the dining room throughout both of our visits. And in fairness, I have to admit that my own conversational French is atrocious; I once opened a social gathering of the St. Louis University French honor society by introducing my next-door neighbor as my car. Nonetheless, Malmaison is decorated with accolades from Gourmet magazine, Distinguished Restaurants of North America and others, and I wonder how such outsiders might react nowadays to this, still a shining beacon of French cooking in St. Louis area, when the waiter offers them a nice "bouffe" or "crown of Agnew." If nothing else, Monsieur Neill, call my old pal Paul Azzara at the Alliance Française and have him spend an hour or two with the staff to exorcise the malapropisms from Malmaison.

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