Little Wonder 

Chef Kevin Willmann makes impressively more with less at Erato.

Executive chef Kevin Willmann emerged from the Erato kitchen, a slightly dazed expression on his young, bearded face. It was after nine on Saturday night, and the dining room was packed — though now, finally, most patrons seemed to be finishing dessert or lingering over a glass of wine. Willmann's hands were free, but in his mind, I imagined, they were still plating and saucing and garnishing.

We were seated just outside the kitchen, so Willmann stopped by our table first. "I understand some dishes arrived late," he said.

We tried to forestall his apology. Yes, there were problems — the sort of problems that, as a restaurant critic, I would have to note later — but right now, sated by our second excellent meal at Erato in three nights, we had no desire to mention them.

Willmann, though, wanted to explain. "We have a two-man kitchen and we got slammed tonight." He suggested we peek into the kitchen as we leave. "Imagine the smallest bedroom you've ever seen."

The kitchen is small. You could fit a bed in there, maybe a dresser against one wall. Not much else. Willmann has headed larger kitchens at Lucas Park Grille and Mosaic, but in this confined space he's turning out his best work, lovely, interesting dishes well worth the drive to Edwardsville, Illinois.

Erato is the second destination of my "summer vacation" among the restaurants of the Metro East. I arrived there for the first time by way of the Twilight Zone.

As I merged onto the exit ramp from I-55 to I-255, my fianceé cried out in alarm: A mother duck and her two ducklings were about to waddle directly into our path. My first thought involved a pinot noir reduction. Fortunately (for the ducks), sentiment prevailed. I slowed to maybe five miles per hour and started blowing the horn. While this might not be the course of action recommended by highway-safety experts (just ask the guy in the car behind me), it did send the ducks scurrying from the highway.

For our first course at Erato that evening, we ordered a selection of four cheeses. These were served with slices of toast and a single, small piece of airy bread in the shape of — cue the eerie music — a duck.

It was delicious, like a croissant in taste and texture, and especially good with a dab of smoky Rambol Forest, a spreadable processed cheese from France that will shatter any snobbish pretensions you have against spreadable processed cheeses.

Erato is really two venues in one. You enter via the wine bar, a long, high-ceilinged and (for a bar) brightly lit space. The bar provides the restaurant with an extensive wine list — though given that list's breadth and the menu's focus on small dishes, the brief, straightforward by-the-glass selection was a letdown. The dining room is located at the rear of the building, on the other side of a small lounge area. It seats between 40 and 50 and is very dark, so much so that the shadow of my (admittedly large) head made it difficult to read the menu.

That menu features a dozen or so "smaller plates," and during the times I visited, only three "larger plates." This imbalance isn't a problem. The smaller plates — soups, salads, breads and modest portions of more substantial fare — are much more exciting than the traditional entrées. The temptation to build a meal out of several courses of smaller plates, rather than choosing one or two to start before an entrée, is difficult to resist.

This was the path we chose on my first visit. We began with the aforementioned cheese plate and a serving of two soups: tomato with garlic cream and corn with fennel cream. (If we wished, our waiter informed us, we could order two servings of the same soup.) Both were excellent, so thick that I could stand bread upright in them. The tomato soup had a wonderfully strong garlic flavor, but I preferred the more subtle pairing of the sweet corn with the licoricey zest of fennel.

Our salad course showcased both the bounty of spring and Willmann's experimental bent. A salad of plump, juicy strawberries and greens with blue cheese, pistachios and a delicate Champagne-honey vinaigrette was so lush and flavorful that my fianceé happily ordered it again on a subsequent visit. The salad I chose arrived in two separate dishes. In a glass bowl was a simple fruit salad: grapes, strawberries and diced melon. In a sort-of stemless martini glass were hunks of crab and lobster, topped with watermelon foam. The waiter emptied the second glass into the first. The result wasn't so much a revelation of flavor — each layer was a shade of sweetness, a nice palate cleanser after the cheese and soups — as of texture, from the breeze of foam through the tender meat to the crisp fruit.

Marinated tuna, a "smaller plate," was my favorite dish at Erato. It was also the most visually striking. You get six plump cubes of raw tuna arranged in a row, a toothpick stuck in each; next to that, a golden streak of truffle mustard; in one corner, a jumble of diced purple potatoes. The dominant flavor of the tuna's marinade seemed to be sesame oil, but it was the fresh, sweet flavor of the tuna itself, sparked by the truffle mustard, that carried this dish.

Nearly as good was another smaller plate: cornmeal-encrusted halibut cheeks. The cheeks were dense and buttery sweet, like excellent crab meat, their flavor brightened by a citrus beurre blanc. The fish was served atop a mash of Yukon gold and sweet potatoes, which was fine by itself but didn't add much to the dish as a whole.

It was the halibut cheeks that began the service troubles that plagued our second visit. We ordered them, along with bruschetta topped with excellent fresh mozzarella cheese, to start. The bruschetta arrived promptly, but we waited at least twenty minutes for the cheeks.

We'd intended to try the larger plates this time around. Our choices were two steaks, a filet and a dry-aged strip, and grilled sea bass. The sea bass wasn't available, though. (This was one of several dishes unavailable over my visits, which I note only because the menu appears to be printed new each day, and we were seated at prime dining time — between 7:30 and 8 p.m. — on both visits.)

I went with the dry-aged strip, medium rare. Instead of an entrée, my fianceé opted for the strawberry salad and one of the smaller plates: seared scallops seasoned with purple mustard seed and smoked paprika. Her dinner arrived very shortly after the halibut, and maybe ten minutes before the steak.

The steak was worth the wait — as tender and deeply flavored as one you might pay $20 more for at a fancy steak house. And my fianceé raved about her scallops. "The true treasure of the sea," she exclaimed, taunting me with a forkful. I briefly considered risking my life to see whether she was right.

Willmann visited our table as we finished our main course, then went from party to party, saying hello, accepting compliments. It wasn't hard to understand why his kitchen had been overwhelmed. This is excellent food, prepared with exceptional attention to detail and a certain flair. Consider chocolate cake filled with gooey chocolate fudge — nothing new here — but served with homemade basil ice cream. A perfect pairing of sweet and savory, bright and mellow. We'd enjoyed this on our first visit, and at the end of our second our waitress surprised us with a complimentary serving.

This was to compensate for the delayed courses, I suppose, though I'd like to think it's karmic payback for saving those ducks' lives. Soups (two)$7

Tuna$8

Fruit salad with crab and lobster$10

Strip steak$29

Chocolate cake$7 Erato

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