"Baby steps," as Bill Murray's Bob might say. "Baby steps."
I sampled this duo of Thumper at Wm. Shakespeare's Gastropub, which opened not quite three months ago at Washington and North Grand boulevards, in the heart of Grand Center. Bunny No. 1 was a pâté of rabbit, two thick slices served with shortbread cookies. The pâté was excellent, the meat's mild flavor rounded out by bacon, a bevy of warming spices and even a touch of plum. The cookies were sweet, of course, but it was a gentle sweetness, in line with the pâté's comforting winter flavors.
Bunny II was a generous serving of Peter Cottontail, one leg and half of the saddle fried to a crisp milk-chocolate brown and topped with a mustard sauce. This presents a perfect opportunity to introduce the hesitant to rabbit: The dish looks and — to a certain extent — tastes like fried chicken. That's a polite way of saying that frying doesn't showcase rabbit at its best. The meat was on the dry side (though not inedibly so) and between the frying oils and the strong mustard sauce, its unobtrusive flavor was downright silent. That said, this was a satisfying dish on a cold January night, especially when paired with a pint of Newcastle ale.
Wm. Shakespeare's Gastropub is the latest venture from restaurateur Eddie Neill (Café Provençal, the Dubliner). If you don't yet know what a gastropub is, it's neither a snail nor the scientific term for beer bloat. Wm. Shakespeare's helpfully provides a pamphlet along with your menu to explain the practice, now roughly two decades old, of serving pub fare with special focus on the quality of the food.
As I wrote when I reviewed Newstead Tower Public House last year, ("Grub Street," January 24, 2008), it's silly that we have to use such an unlovely term to separate the good pub fare from the bad. But if that's the price we must pay to enjoy an excellent rabbit pâté, then so be it.
Wm. Shakespeare's — Wm. is ye olde abbreviation for William; I would shorten it to Shakespeare's were it not for the iconic Mizzou pizza joint — certainly offers the dark wood fixtures and dim lighting of an authentic pub. And in the tradition of true British pubs, individual packets of potato chips are sold from a display rack at the bar. But the restaurant's size and the view of Grand Center from its large windows gives it a much more open and airy feel than you would find in the average public house.
The décor includes illustrations of the Bard himself, but the Shakespeare angle otherwise seems merely a nod to Grand Center's theaters. Which is too bad, because this recovering English major can think up all sorts of Shakespeare-themed gastropub dishes. Othello and Desdemona's Black & White Pudding Platter, anyone?
The menu is short and changes frequently, but it emphasizes straightforward preparations of good cuts of meats, often from such local producers as Hinkebein Hills Farm pork and Prairie Grass Farms lamb. I strongly recommend starting your meal with the charcuterie platter, which the menu preciously describes as a "hand-crafted ode to the farmyard and its critters." Its specific components vary from day to day, but if the selection on my visit is representative, it's generally very good.
Arranged around the plate were the rabbit pâté (which I'd ordered by itself on a previous visit), pork rillettes, a pork and chicken pâté with green peppercorns, white pudding, and a "sandwich" of ground lamb between pieces of lamb tongue. The menu also mentioned a mousse of duck and chicken livers wrapped in bacon; unfortunately, this was absent from the plate.
The lamb was the standout. The ground meat conveyed lamb's distinctive, ever-so-gamy flavor, while the tongue had a richer taste — beefier. The white pudding was imbued with an earthy porkitude; its texture was lovely, soft and supple. I liked both the rillettes and the pâté with green peppercorns, but with so many similar textures and flavors sharing the same plate, their distinctive qualities were muddled. I would have welcomed a cured forcemeat or two for the variety.
Lamb was a highlight of the entrées, too. The dish was a simple mixed grill: a chop, a loin and a sausage in a puddle of sauce rich with their own juices. The chop and the loin were a gorgeous medium-rare and full-flavored, while the sausage added a note of spice to keep the palate interested. Here, I suppose, is the essence of the gastropub: a quality ingredient, minimally fussed with, but prepared with care.
Likewise, a pan-seared flat-iron steak needed nothing more than a touch of butter and salt. It was remarkably tender, considering the cut. The thick, hand-formed hamburger on a house-made English muffin needed nothing at all — though a touch of Stilton cheese certainly didn't hurt.
A grilled pork loin came with a more assertive "Butcher's Wife" sauce of mustard and white wine with a piquant note of capers. The sauce helped mask the fact that the loin had been cooked somewhere between medium-well and well done. I'd feared as much when our server had failed to ask my temperature preference, still a common and lamentable practice in these parts. With a cut of pork of this quality, you should err on the side of medium.
Each entrée I tried came with a medley of vegetables and either roasted potatoes or a mash of beans; French fries accompanied the burger. Not one of these side dishes was remarkable, and their interchangeability suggested that the kitchen considered them an afterthought.
Along those same lines, the beer selection proved a disappointment. Though several pub standards are available on draft, including Guinness, Newcastle and Boddingtons, there was little I couldn't find in many other bars. This is especially striking, given the resurgence of interest in "real ale" in Great Britain, where the gastropub movement was born. On the other hand, there are more wines here than you might expect to find at a pub.
I happened to visit when most of Grand Center's venues were dark, which makes it difficult to judge the service. On both occasions, one of them a Saturday evening, I was one of few tables occupied. Which worried me: I hope Wm. Shakespeare's isn't pigeonholed as a pre-theater spot. There is much to appeal to a general audience here, but I can't help but wonder how long lamb tongue and rabbit will last on the menu if that's the only audience.
Yes, 2009 is the year of the ox. But that's no excuse for St. Louis diners to remain stubborn and dull.
Prove me wrong.