Cardinal Rule

Feb 17, 1999 at 4:00 am
A handful of restaurant spaces are definitively St. Louis, solely on the basis of their views -- the revolving perspective from the Top of the Riverfront, for example, or the window tables at Faust's, or the striking downtown overview from Harry's.

Perhaps the ultimate in picture-postcard dining, however, is in the high-ceilinged, glass-walled room that overlooks Kiener Plaza, through to the Old Court House and beyond to the Arch. The view's almost breathtaking enough to make an old preservationist forget the rabid stupidity that caused the Gateway One building housing it to be built in the first place. Almost.

Anyway, we can't blame first occupant Julius Hunter, or subsequent tenants the Galati family of Dominic's fame, or, now, our old football heroes Jim Hart and Dan Dierdorf for the events that led up to the creation of this magical dining environment. We can praise Dierdorf & Hart's, however, for complementing the view with excellent food and service; our recent trip downtown for a birthday dinner was one of the nicest special-occasion meals we've ever had in St. Louis.

For those of you who don't remember the halcyon days when our local football franchise was at least better than the one we have now, Hart was the quarterback and Dierdorf a lineman during the 1970s for the football version of the St. Louis Cardinals; the team fight song was a takeoff on Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; and we actually went to the playoffs once. The Cardinals played in Busch Stadium, and just to the north, on Market, were three beautiful and well-occupied buildings -- Buder, International and Title Guaranty -- that the Wise Men Who Run Things in the city deemed less important than a so-called half mall, and thus those buildings came down and Gateway One rose.

As many sports folks do, Dierdorf and Hart parlayed their celebrity into a restaurant, with an initial location (still there) at West Port Plaza and a subsequent one in Union Station. That second location recently rushed about 11 blocks down Market to Gateway One, and we blocked out a weekend evening to go check it out.

The primary shtick for the many years Dierdorf & Hart's has been in business is a visual presentation of prime beef and other meats and seafoods in training-table-size portions. The shtick remains the same: Our "table captain" brought us a display comprising 8-, 12- and 16-ounce beef tenderloins; 12-, 18- and 26-ounce strip steaks; a 30-ounce porterhouse; chop selections that included 14 ounces of veal, two 8-ounce servings of pork and two 8-ounce servings of lamb; and, finally, a large and a small lobster tail. Several fresh fish selections were also offered but not displayed.

The entree prices are pretty steep (though in line with other high-end steakhouses); the appetizers are a bit more reasonable, with a huge plate of more than a dozen sauteed mushroom caps in a browned-butter sauce coming in at just $3.75 and a very competent preparation of escargots in a classic porcelain six-seater setting us back $6.75. At the top end of the appetizer scale was a special offering of smoked fish ($10.25), although this easily could have served two and fulfilled my constant craving for good smoked seafood. The plate included four rollovers of cold-smoked salmon, four smoked mussels and four smoked scallops, all room-temperature and immaculate, served with condiments of capers and chopped red onion, along with a fresh lemon and tartar sauce, all designed to be placed atop one of the accompanying thin lavosh crackers.

From among the steaks we sampled the 12-ounce fillet, plain-broiled ($29), and the 18-ounce strip, topped with a sauteed medley of vegetables ($29.20). The fillet had a bit of a crispy skin on it on all sides, a perfect searing-in of all the juices and just a hint of herbal finish. The top side of the strip picked up the flavors of leek, red bell pepper, broccoli, squash and onion from its topping and had more resistance in its texture, as it should be with that cut. We also tried the salmon ($19.95), a fillet cut of the part toward the tail, and this was also very well-prepared, with just the right level of moistness and absolutely no fishiness.

Of the side dishes, the D&H potato chips deserve special mention, crisply browned to a relatively dark but not burned stage, concentrating the potato taste and ending it with a rich, roasty flavor.

You walk by a large wine rack on the way into the front room, and, as it should in a steakhouse, the wine list leans more heavily toward reds, with about 50 domestics and 25 imports, as well as another couple dozen whites. Most are in the $25-$50 range, although a few special selections break the $100 mark. More interesting, though, is the text that accompanies the wine list, which provides a history of California's Sonoma Valley and its various microclimates, along with brief explanations of several of the varietals on the list.

We finished up with an elegantblueberry-walnut pie garnished with three small scoops of intensely rich vanilla ice cream, a great way to linger over the view of the Old Court House and contemplate the merits of the recent proposal to light the Arch at night. Because we had alerted the restaurant ahead of time that we were celebrating a birthday, a waiter discreetly snapped a Polaroid at the end of our meal and presented us with a tasteful "thanks for spending your special evening with us" greeting card as we left. And with a hockey game in town that night and some sort of dance contest going on at the convention center, the little girl who turned 10 that day got a glimpse of downtown as quite the happenin' place, with lots of traffic of both the automobile and pedestrian variety and some pretty nice cityscape views.

TIDBITS: Now open in the old Dierdorf & Hart's space in Union Station is Bacchus Brewing, a soon-to-be-working microbrewery (it takes a few weeks to brew good beer) run by the folks behind European Caffe in University City. While the malt and hops ferment, the restaurant part is already open. Also downtown, the venerable old Pit of the 7th Olive space (in a basement at 7th and Olive, of course) has a sign out heralding the arrival of Sen, a new Thai restaurant.

701 Market (downtown)

Hours: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., 4:30-11 p.m. Sat., 4:30-10 p.m. Sun.

Entrees: $15.25-$32.50