One of the latest entries is the Wild Horse Grill, which spruces up its yet-another-strip-mall location with an interior rich in wood, opening into a main dining area with a huge stone fireplace and massive exposed log beams that could have you believing you're at a lodge somewhere in the middle of the Great Plains as opposed to a floodplain.
The folks who wrangled up this concept are front man Ron Gordon, whom I fondly remember from a cute, eclectic vegetarian deli in Creve Coeur called the NoBull Café (which, along with Simon Kohn's and Pumpernickle's of Tel Aviv, made for one of the best noshing concentrations in the entire metropolitan area), and Tim O'Connor, a veteran of the nearby Forest Hills Country Club, in the kitchen. Other management types include Jim Valenta, who used to own a bunch of local Popeye's locations, and advertising exec Alan Epstein.
With such a cross-section of folks-in-charge, you could see how they'd end up with a menu that sprawls all over the map, ranging from upscale pizzas and onion rings to Asian-influenced appetizers to straightforward steaks and chops to seafood stews and chowders. Add to this the fact that the place holds upwards of 150 people, and you're placing a pretty tall order for your kitchen to pull it all off to everyone's satisfaction.
Our experiences: One meal pretty close to dazzling and one pretty disappointing (at least until we got around to the signature cobbler for dessert).
The excellent meal was drawn in part from nightly specials of a freshly made, fresh-ingredients spring-roll appetizer with a spicy mustard dip and what turned out to be, because I was the one who ordered it, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Sea Bass. The sizable chunk of fish had a kaleidoscope both over and under it: a base and striped topping of smooth artichoke-and-feta sauce, dappled on the lower layer with the dark purple-black of kalamata-olive coulis and the deep red of tomato coulis, with a yellow-stringed bed of spaghetti squash and a crown of slivers of citrus peel rounding out both the palate and the palette. Despite all this activity, the succulent fish wasn't overwhelmed, and none of the variety of flavors competed with the others.
The on-menu complement to these choices was an appetizer of smoked duck "Wellington style" (four tiny puffettes of pastry filled with duck boasting a rich smoky flavor, offset by molten Boursin cheese, all of it served on a bed of fried spinach). A variety of steaks and chops are available with a choice of sauces, including basil and saffron cream (our selection to go with an 8-ounce grilled fillet), a port-wine veal demiglace, sherry-lobster cream and maître d'hotel butter. The sauce was vaguely sweet and richly aromatic, and the meat was cooked perfectly, with a simple but very fresh collection of squash, carrots and green beans on the side.
On our other visit, we started out well enough with appetizers of brown mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat and topped with grated cheese and Mornay sauce, and blue-crab cakes nicely complemented by a sweet and gently spicy corn relish, but the entrées fell short, probably because of this piece of information from our waiter: "Oh, good -- you want the pheasant. Not too many people order that."
A good half-hour after our appetizers, the waiter came back for the second or third time, promising that the chef wanted to make sure that the game bird, pan-roasted and served with a Calvados cream sauce, was "perfect." The breast portion was, but the darker meat parts, especially the wing, were stringy and poorly flavored, and the apple flavor of the sauce was just barely tangible. Our other entrée, pork medallions encrusted with Yukon Gold potatoes and served with honey-Dijon and port-wine demiglace, arrived barely lukewarm because of the delay, the "encrusting" having softened into an amorphous, wilted mass.
As noted, though, that meal was retrieved somewhat by a signature dessert of concentrated berry "cobbler" on which the fluffy, cakey topping had almost a soufflé consistency. The illusion of soufflé was furthered by a whiskey-augmented sweet-cream sauce.
The part of the service that was in the control of the server was excellent on both of our visits, although potential diners should be aware of the policy of no reservations except for parties of eight or more. The wine list features about 25 reds and 20 whites, ranging from under $20 to about $65, with about 10 each available by the glass, topping out with a Domaine Drouhin pinot noir at 15 bucks.
My guess is that the four amigos driving the Wild Horse Grill will end up simplifying things just a bit, possibly leaning either more toward the popular or the gourmet pole in working out the menu or trying to continue to do both well but with fewer overall choices so as not to make the kitchen folks crazy. That would seem to me to be simple horse sense.
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