THE INN CROWD 

The Seven Gables Inn welcomes chef David Slay back to his hometown

At Seven Gables Inn, a shot of Booker's costs 15 bucks. The bar is crowded with tailored, pink-faced captains of industry demonstrating how to cut loose after work, Clayton-style. And the food, at least in theory, is exceptional.

Yet within the Seven Gables kitchen I suspect there smolder two conflicting schools of thought. Depending on the dish, one is liable to encounter either celestial choirs singing songs of balanced harmony or miserable, cacophonous odes to banality. I base this hypothesis on two visits made within a week's time. It is possible, given that the eminent David Slay has been installed as executive chef since September and that all examples of cacophonous odes manifested themselves during the first visit, that this situation is not the norm. After all, I look back on the second dinner with loving thoughts and urges to commission commemorative symphonic works.

Be that as it may, my first encounter with Seven Gables commenced inauspiciously and plunged southward from there.

My deputy for the evening was my old chum Rotten, who counts among her flaws a fetish for impaired British automobiles. She chauffeured us in a persnickety Jag that her mechanic had allowed out on a weekend furlough. Right off the bat something went wrong with the inconspiculator, and we were on the verge of succumbing to gas fumes when we pulled up at what would have been a very nice valet stand, had there been a valet anywhere near it. The minutes ticked by. We waited, we watched. No valet. A menacing queue of Beemers began inching toward us from behind. The fumes ate away at our manly appetites.

I popped inside to let them know we had, in theory, arrived, while Rotten nosed around for a parking space. When I returned, she had finally cornered the truant car-parker. The boy had apparently run out of those numbered tickets that valets traditionally give you in exchange for your car. Her senses dulled by hunger, Rotten tossed him the keys anyway, calling over her shoulder, "You do work here, right?" I optimistically pointed out that even if the kid were a thieving impostor, the toxic miasma inside the car would likely kill him before he got too far.

Our dinner would teeter melodramatically on this same precipice of disaster. Straight away the Posey-Smith spirits were dealt a crushing blow by a miserly ration of Cabernet. The climate was arctic. When the bread turned out to be a dense cheese bun so greasy that a napkin had to be deployed after every bite, I positively drooped.

We were temporarily cheered by the arrival of the first course, a Caesar salad that deviated from the norm only in its very tart dressing. Rotten's shrimp appetizer, on the other hand, was cause for alarm. Not that it was technically awful or anything; the seared shellfish were swell -- plump, fragrant and not overcooked the way shrimp nearly always are. The snag was that they sat on a puff of potato puree that had been infested with pesto. Still rattled by the lurid specter of those viridescent tubers, I summon two-and-a-half thoughts: (1) With this dish, the mashed-potato craze sinks officially into mannerist decline; apparently no sacred culinary tradition is safe from these insufferable trendoid infusions of basil paste. (2) Pink and green may be a boffo color scheme (especially on preppies and Sex Pistols albums), but texturally the juxtaposition of shrimp and potatoes is a bust.

Solace would have to wait until my return the following week, when the aforementioned celestial choirs turned out in spades. Until then, I had to contend with the steak au poivre, a dish I yearned to love but with which everything had gone wrong. Though ordered medium-rare, our giant hunk of beef was nearly raw (I even brought home a piece to check against the chart in the Larousse Gastronomique) and so chewy that it sneered at both the medieval-looking steak knife and the Posey-Smith mandibles. Compounding this indignity were an inedible sauce that tasted chiefly of Wyler's beef-bouillon cubes and a side of disappointingly starchy potato gratin. You understand why I was cranky when the waiter informed me that they were out of lemon tart. I had to eat a bizarre "napoleon" instead: loosely stacked phyllo, soupy custard and a few berries. This was one of those dishes that makes you feel like a chump; at the slightest pressure of the fork, all the custard squeezes out the other side, and you end up using both hands and hoping that nobody notices you're a guileless philistine.

If I had known then what I know now, I would have ordered the banana tart instead. Several days later, when I returned with Bobbo, Sherri and Woofer (this time in a '67 Caddy with no heat -- it's always something), this handsome, well-bred confection revealed itself as the pinnacle of the banana-tart-maker's art. It came fully loaded: graham-cracker husk, luminous caramel sauce, a pouf of satiny custard and caramelized bananas gleaming like doubloons. This was the sort of dessert that evokes involuntary gurgles of contentment with eyes reverently closed. I was fortunate to inherit the treasure from Woofer, who was too stuffed on salmon and onion soup to finish it.

I was jealous of Woofer's onion soup and had sneaked more than was polite. My own first course, a green salad of slightly wilted field greens, a couple of cherry tomatoes, olive oil and not much else, was no match for the sumptuous overkill of the classic preparation: caramelized onions, cheesy crouton and voluptuous broth.

I would be amply assuaged by the rack of lamb in a delicately perfumed au jus. Delivered medium-rare as ordered, it left me sanguine that the unfortunate raw-steak episode of the week before had been a freak accident. An unusual side of gnocchi spiked with corn, sun-dried tomato and scallion was a welcome reprieve from the torpid potatoes you often find languishing next to lamb chops.

Sherri made a couple of cool selections. Her appetizer was deep-fried spinach, a weird dish I haven't seen since Llewelyn's changed hands. Papery, lemony and sprinkled with Parmesan, it was a little greasier than I like in a giant bowl of fried fronds, but it was not without a certain junk-food éclat. An excellent application for this stuff would be to share it with a couple other people and wash it down with a lot of dark beer. Don't take it on alone.

To my amazement, Sherri followed up the spinach with calf's liver. My own eye never even registers liver on menus; I skip right on down to the duck. Even as childhood memories of liver in the school cafeteria sent up warning flares, I took a reluctant taste. I would love to report that I instantly morphed into a liver-lover, but the truth is that I still have no plans to compose epic paeans to organ meat. Still, it was the closest thing to edible as I could have imagined; simply presented with a brown sauce, a piping of mashed potatoes (white), carrots and asparagus, it was conceptually sound. Sherri, who apparently eats liver all the time, was extremely fond of it. It is this remarkable capacity to consume offal that makes her such an invaluable accomplice.

Yet the weirdest thing on the table was Bobbo's extravagantly titled "bouillabaisse" -- shrimp, mussels, salmon and white fish in a tomato broth with fried fettuccine. As is often the case with seafood stews, its ingredients were moody; the fish was a little mushy, the mussels a tad rubbery, the shrimp on the edge of mealy. The fried noodles were flat-out strange, but they added some crispy interest. I know of no culinary precedent for this arrangement (in "real" bouillabaisse, fish and soup are served separately, and fettuccine does not figure in at all), and it would be apt to describe this dish as a deranged seafood pasta.

But the salmon! Woofer pronounced it the best he's ever had. Although he scarcely flits around town sampling salmon on every corner, there was merit in his remark. An expertly cooked fillet with a barely sweet, garnet-colored sauce of Madeira and blood orange, I have often dreamed of it since, and vividly.

But what aspect of this dinner has not made an appearance in my nocturnal subconscious? Tastefully clubby, with forest-green walls, festive poinsettias and a cheery hum, the smallish room was scaled perfectly for a friendly, upscale confab. Our waiter was affable and efficient. Food presentation was artful without being conspicuous. By the time it was all over, we had polished off a dozen different dishes, leaving not so much as a crumb.

SEVEN GABLES INN, 26 N. Meramec Ave., 863-8400. Hours: breakfast 7-10 a.m., lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m., dinner 5-10 p.m. Entrees: $12-$21.

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