Back in Session

Dec 23, 1998 at 4:00 am
After all they've been through, you can't blame the staff at the St. Louis Steakhouse for being just a tad edgy if things aren't going perfectly.

To review, the St. Louis Steakhouse is the restaurant that moved into the space occupied for many years by the St. Louis location of the Ruth's Chris chain of very-high-end steak joints. This location is in the lower level of a fully occupied 90-year-old building called Court Square that was renovated a little more than a decade ago by one Sam Glazer, a.k.a. Mr. Coffee, a Cleveland businessman who was led to believe that the city of St. Louis actually cared about its historic structures.

Then, of course, came a period when the primary development strategy downtown turned toward new legal-system edifices and the ever-popular parking lots, and Glazer saw his building slated to fall to the bulldozer so the city could build a nifty new jail that would make it the envy of Seattle, Minneapolis, Boston, Cleveland, Baltimore and other rejuvenating metropolises. Luckily, however, poor ol' Sam was anything but, and because he had no fear of being blackballed at the St. Louis Country Club, he actually stood up to the city and held it to the promises its officials had made when Glazer originally decided to invest in Court Square.

Somewhere along the line, the uncertainty about the location caused Ruth's Chris to bail, so Glazer decided to run his own restaurant (complete with many of the original Ruth's Chris staff), and thus, a little more than a month ago, was born the St. Louis Steakhouse.

We arrived at the steakhouse about 7:40 on a recent weekend night. Because our reservations weren't until 8 p.m., we fully expected to wait a bit and weren't at all annoyed to be shuttled into the bar area. About 10 minutes later, though, it became apparent that the up-front staff had developed a slight case of the yips; the very nice bartender had already offered to comp our cocktails and at least three staff members had wandered by to apologize for keeping us waiting.

A little observation revealed that the steakhouse had yet to master the art of the midevening turn, with at least two large tables who'd started early lingering beyond their projected departure and two late-dining replacement parties substituting free drinks and appetizers in the bar area for a punctual honoring of their reservations.

We were seated not more than a few minutes beyond our appointed time, and our dining experiences were relatively flawless. The food at the St. Louis Steakhouse is, much like its predecessor, pretty basic stuff, with the focus on very large portions of meat (and some seafood) supplemented by equally hefty orders of side dishes, primarily a la carte, although there are five entrees bundled with salad and potato as "five-star selections" for $16.95 to $23.95.

As samples of the meat, we tried a la carte entrees of a thick-cut filet ($23.95) and a veal chop ($26.50), which both arrived in sizzling clarified butter. The filet comprised two ovals of the loin, each more than an inch thick. The knife glided through the meat without touching even a hint of sinew or fat, although it was also exceptionally moist, with a darkened surface and the perfect note of pinkish-red inside for a medium-rare order. The 14 ounces of veal chop included one small pocket of untrimmed fat, but this did not detract at all from the succulence of the meat. Our chosen sides were a nuclear-mutant sweet potato ($3.50) flavored with cinnamon butter and more than a dozen al dente, brilliant-green stalks of asparagus ($6.50) served with a mini-tureen of velvety smooth hollandaise.

We'd started out with appetizers of barbecued shrimp ($7.50) and blackened tuna ($7.50). The former featured five large shrimp, but in a sauce much more like spiced garlic butter than barbecue. The tuna, though, was perfectly executed, even to the degree that the waitress had ensured that we wouldn't be surprised by the rareness of the interior of the five progressively larger cross-sections of sashimi-grade tuna, with some fire provided by the blackening of the crusty peppered exterior and additional spice from the accompanying Japanese-style dressing. Julienned carrot and celery, along with pickled ginger, came on the side.

The wine list is extensive and features everything from moderately priced ($15-$30) bottles to several selections priced upward of $100.

Desserts are made on the premises, and we went with a good pecan pie ($4.50) and an exceptional fruit tart ($4.75) that combined a rich custard base layer with blackberries that were amplified by Chambord berry liqueur.

The restaurant space itself does a nice job of camouflaging the fact that it's a windowless (except for the two-story loft space in the bar that reaches to street level) basement, and despite a full house, the diamond-patterned carpet and painting-covered walls kept the sound to an acceptable volume. Although we were impressed by the bending over backward the staff performed in apparently succeeding to calm any aggrieved parties, their over-the-top attention also drew us right into the middle of the fray when we would have been blissfully ignorant otherwise. The various levels of management and service should probably make a little better effort to establish who is responsible for what, such that unhappy patrons become relatively inapparent to everyone else in the restaurant.

Nonetheless, it's difficult to fault someone for making extraordinary efforts toward customer satisfaction, and our own meal and service were excellent, albeit a touch pricey. The menu notes that the St. Louis Steakhouse serves as a monument to the "pride and perseverance of this great city," and given what it's gone through to get this far, I'd bet that it will be a downtown fixture for many years to come.

101 S. 11th St. (Downtown)
Hours: 5-10:30 p.m. Sun.-Fri.; 5-11 p.m. Sat.
Entrees: $18.95-$39.