Fun With Figaro 

This new eatery proves that "casual dining" can still be inventive and chic

Mike Johnson's new venture, Restaurant Figaro in downtown Clayton, is all about fun. From the covered sidewalk dining area that flows into the bar to the festive back dining room, from the muted tones of the sponge-painted walls to the soft amber hues of the interior lighting, from the numerous European reproduction liquor posters hung every few inches to the flooring that transitions from faux marbleized paint to light-colored wood planks, Figaro bespeaks the eclecticism that defines the Trendy New Restaurant.

Many of those trendy eateries are in Clayton, a city with which Johnson seems enamored. Clayton restaurants often move around, as if some restaurant god is working a giant thumb puzzle; one place opens here while another one moves over there while still another heads west. Johnson opened his first establishment, Café Mira, in the space that Zoë's once occupied before Zoë Houk moved to the Central West End. After transforming the little space into a highly successful restaurant, Johnson sold it and moved a block east to open the popular tapas bar and restaurant BARcelona, once home to Eddie Neill's Café Provençal, until Neill moved it one block west (and opened another one in Kirkwood).

Just when you think you've got the thumb puzzle figured out, Johnson opens Restaurant Figaro in yet another spot made popular by another restaurant-gone-west: Crazy Fish.

With Figaro, though, Johnson has created a space much different from Crazy Fish, carrying on the feeling and ambiance of the equally fun-and-casual BARcelona. Fun and casual is all well and good and certainly has its place, especially in Clayton, where meal prices can often deflate the fun of dining out. But, hell, even T.G.I. Friday's can be fun and casual (with enough beer).

Figaro has two things going for it. The first is a moderately priced, imaginative menu. It is decidedly Mediterranean-influenced -- meaning pastas, risotto and flavors associated with Italy, the southeastern French region of Provence, Spain and, just across the Strait of Gibraltar, the distinctive spices of Morocco.

The second is that Johnson and his crew know how to cook. They know how to work unusual flavors into delightful combinations: pomegranate and mint, cardamom and red cabbage, mascarpone and polenta. There's a tuna marinated in the Moroccan spice mixture of sesame seeds, thyme and sumac known as zahtar (sometimes spelled za'atar). There's lamb tagine, a Moroccan stew bursting with beautifully melded flavors. There's a Flammekueche-Alsatian pizza, more like a French-German tart, loaded with bacon, onions and cheese. Then there's a selection of sandwiches, panini, omelets and frittatas to satisfy any craving at nearly any time of day or night -- well, at least up until 11 p.m., seven nights a week.

At 10 p.m. you can saunter in, as I did one Sunday when I had an unrelenting craving for lamb tagine, take a seat at the bar or, weather permitting, outside, with a calming view of a very dead Meramec Avenue. The back dining room is open but may be equally comatose. Best to be up front with the other revelers. Unlike a lot of places that may serve a limited menu after 9 p.m., Figaro supplies the whole shebang.

The lamb wasn't a true tagine, which is to say it didn't come in the requisite earthenware cooking pot, but otherwise it was authentic. (It's also one of several menu items that are rendered in quotation marks, as in "tagine" -- as if to say, with honesty: "an approximation of the real McCoy.") Bite-size chunks of braised lamb shoulder sat stewing in a dark reduction pungent with spices, honey, raisins and a few dried apricots. The sweet and savory dish was tied together with a delicious mound of couscous in the middle and paired with a side of perfectly prepared haricots verts. Suddenly, going out at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night in St. Louis made sense.

Johnson's other entrées show equal care. The massive double pork chop, nearly two inches thick, was grilled to succulent doneness and topped with an apricot jus, the ends of the two rib bones burnt and perfect for gnawing. A side of caramelized-onion mashed potatoes and watercress rounded out the substantial plate. More unusual was a "minute" of salmon, one of the five seafood dishes listed on the menu (and another dish that employs quotation marks). This odd-looking, great-tasting dish comprised two thinnish slices of salmon fillet layered over a big mound of fresh spinach, tomatoes and pine nuts and then baked for about a minute.

The pastas, too, are a good place to menu-hunt, if the mushroom-and-ricotta cannelloni is any indication. Plump stuffed pasta tubes topped with a creamy leek sauce made for a richly satisfying meal. Other pastas certainly sound tempting -- like a spicy Sicilian dish of a papardelle topped with shrimp, tomatoes, currants and pine nuts.

Figaro's yogurt-marinated broiled chicken kebobs were a big hit during the recent Clayton Art Fair. At the restaurant, they make a nice appetizer: two skewers of chicken chunks set in a puréed pomegranate-mint sauce. But here they were overdone. Better was the house-smoked salmon sliced thin and dotted with caraway seeds and a mustard crème fraîche. The basket of house-made breads comes with a cruet of deliciously salty olive paste, in keeping with the Mediterranean theme. If you want butter, you need to request it.

Pastry chef Katherine Kennealy (or K.K.) raises the bar. A tureen of chocolate brownie banana mousse was nearly unbeatable when topped with an espresso-caramel sauce. What stopped it was a torte of white chocolate and pistachios. Beautifully served in a massive bowl and topped with a honey-orange caramel sauce, the dessert melded into a lush combination of flavors.

Figaro's wine list is broken into cutesy categories: "The Italian Job," "Flowers and Minerals," "Big Boys," etc. Overall, it's a good selection, though it's puzzling to see categories that offer ten bottles per and only one wine by the glass. Another quibble, common in most casual restaurants, is the difference between vintages listed on the wine list and what actually arrives at your table -- with no explanation from the server.

With its moderate prices, airy atmosphere and seven-days-a-week schedule, Restaurant Figaro fills a void in the Clayton restaurant scene. But keep your eyes open. You never know when Johnson may pack up and move one block over.

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