The Four Seasons has already made an impression on the city skyline thanks to the large strip of electronic lights that brackets the building's exterior. While this suggests a garish, Las Vegas-esque approach to match the casino next-door, the hotel's interior features an elegant, less-is-more aesthetic. The ground floor entrance leads to a hushed hall of stone and glass along a narrow pool of water. It reminded me of a modern-art museum.
Take the elevator to the eighth floor. The hotel's lobby is to your left. Cielo is to your right, somewhat hidden behind partitions. The view of the Arch dominates both spaces. Outside the lobby is a large deck with a decorative fountain that looks like a swimming pool and seating for a few dozen diners.
(The deck also has a working hot tub. Is it disconcerting to look up from your house-made pappardelle with veal cheek to see someone's butt cheek emerging from the water? A tad.)
The restaurant itself has an airy, cosmopolitan feel, sophisticated but not stuffy, with high ceilings and enough splashes of color here and there to keep things interesting. There is seating for about 80, both banquettes and freestanding tables, and nearly all of the tables afford you a good view through the windows.
When Cielo is running smoothly, the dining experience is also several steps above the usual St. Louis restaurant. From the opening selection of sparkling, bottled or tap water to the dish of two small house-made candies that concludes your meal, Cielo offers many of the bells and whistles of fine dining that seem to be fading from fashion in today's more casual high-end restaurant scene.
Those bells and whistles come with a price: Cielo is expensive, with several entrées priced above $30. The selection of wines by the glass is very good, in terms of range and quality, but the average cost is roughly $14. The list of wines by the bottle, weighted toward Italian selections, contains at least one $500 entry.
Does the food live up to its price tag? Generally, yes. The pappardelle with veal cheek, broccoli rabe and lupini beans is fantastic, intensely flavored and perfectly seasoned. I loved the contrast between the tender, full-flavored meat, the bitter greens and the al dente, slightly sweet beans. The pappardelle is served in an unapologetically classic brown sauce, a forceful smack of veal demi-glace. My only complaint was the scarcity of meat. Considering the cost ($18 for a "small" serving), a bit more would have been welcome.
(Portions are restrained. The veal cheek notwithstanding, I approve, given the quality of ingredients, but if you like to measure your meal's worth by its weight, consider yourself warned.)
Executive chef Karen Hoffman's menu is Italian in the contemporary Italian-Italian, not Italian-American, mode. Antipasto selections include a plate of cured meats (mortadella, soppressata and bresaola) or a simple dish of extra-virgin olive oil, buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto. The bruschetta is wonderfully rustic: The toasted bread arrives unadorned; on the side is a dish of cannellini beans blended with tomato, garlic and pancetta.
I usually don't single out salads for praise — frankly, few are deserving — but a salad of tender Chioggia beets and arugula in a citrus vinaigrette, topped with shavings of ricotta salata, is superb.
The pasta menu is brief but intriguing; I had a difficult time choosing the pappardelle over the oxtail ravioli in brown butter sauce. In comparison, the selection of entrées is a letdown. The four seafood and six meat and poultry dishes run the usual gamut: scallops, striped bass, salmon; pork chop, two steaks, lamb chop, roasted chicken, veal.
The grilled Berkshire pork chop was a lovely cut, and the kitchen cooked it perfectly: The thick chop was tender all the way through without being undercooked. (I requested it medium.) Slices of crisp, mellow-sweet Bosc pear were an inspired pairing, and wilted chicory added a welcome bitter note.
Salmon (labeled as "organic" on the menu, though, to my understanding, the USDA doesn't classify salmon as such) is served atop polenta and sautéed mushrooms and topped with pickled tomatoes and small pieces of the cured Italian ham speck. Any of those accompanying ingredients could have overwhelmed the fish, yet each provided exactly the right contrast to highlight the salmon's natural flavor. Our server didn't ask a temperature preference for the salmon, but the kitchen nailed it: the flesh barely opaque. Likewise, the striped bass was balanced between the sweetness of figs and saba (or sapa), a syrup derived from grape must, and the bitterness of grilled escarole.
Oddly, for an ostensibly Italian restaurant, veal saltimbocca was a clumsy misfire. The dish is served as a vertical stack of sautéed veal cutlets and fingerling potatoes topped by a single piece of pancetta and a couple of sage leaves. I liked the sauce, a tart, nutty blend of brown butter, lemon and capers. But with so much veal and, especially, potato, the dish hardly — as its name suggests — jumped into my mouth.
There is a selection of side dishes, including excellent house-made potato chips dusted with truffle oil and Parmesan cheese. Desserts, from pastry chef Christopher Jordan, are very good and reasonably priced. The cranberry-pistachio semifreddo offers a lighter take on the sort of unexpected flavor combinations you'd expect from a gourmet ice cream shop, while an apple tart with cinnamon gelato and a web of spun sugar is a delicious, visually appealing twist on plain old apple pie.
Service on our first visit was a mixed bag: Our head server had a knack for standing around the floor looking confused, and then disappearing when we needed something. On our second visit, our server was polished and professional. Overall, Cielo benefits from being part of an established corporation that knows how to run a high-end restaurant.
That corporate identity has a downside, of course. As good as the food at Cielo is, there is nothing extraordinarily compelling about it. The menu takes few chances — and in most cities, veal cheek and oxtail wouldn't be chances. And if you keep yourself from looking out the window, you could be a tourist in a restaurant in any other town but your own.
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