I don't dress up for Halloween. I haven't since grad school, when I paired a cheap business suit with a cheap alien mask from Target and called myself an intergalactic insurance adjuster. The idea impressed no one at the party I attended (but confused quite a few), and when the party ended with some guy being thrown through a glass window during a fight about an open marriage, I took it as a sign to leave costumes to the kids.
This year, once the trick-or-treaters in my neighborhood had called it a night, I went to Molly's in Soulard for dinner. Surely, after a meal and a few drinks, I could pretend I wasn't such a Halloween killjoy.
Wrong. We were seated next to the window, where we could watch the parade of costumes headed to bars and parties: Snoopy, an iPod, an endearingly cheap cardboard-box robot, Peter Pan and Captain Hook, a cowboy riding an inflatable horse and, yes, a sexy nurse. Molly's staff wore costumes, too. One server was (I suppose) Bob Marley as a zombie. Ours, in an inspired bit of make-do, had dressed in the chef's monogrammed white coat.
As a restaurant critic always looking for a nifty theme for his reviews, I find this fitting. Those who live or hang out in Soulard might be surprised by the transformation Molly's has undergone. Or, rather, the transformation its former next-door neighbor Norton's has undergone. When that restaurant closed in May of this year, Molly's took over the space and reopened it in late August as a bistro. (Molly's bar remains where it always has been, in a building separated from the bistro by a spacious patio.)
Neither the neighborhood joint Norton's was, nor the nightspot Molly's bar is, the bistro is outfitted like a drawing room in New Orleans' French Quarter, an inviting space with handsome wood fixtures, large mirrors, some walls painted and booths upholstered in the bottomless red of a femme fatale's lipstick. Only the music — a classic-rock satellite station on one visit, including all seventeen minutes (and five seconds) of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"; on another visit, vaguely porny techno-funk — might remind you that you're smack-dab in the center of the St. Louis party neighborhood.
Molly's menu was overseen by Eric Brenner, best known locally for his Central West End bistro Moxy. Brenner has also been a restaurant consultant on such diverse projects as the burger menu offered by Sub Zero Vodka Bar and the high-end Clayton restaurant Araka. For Molly's Brenner has devised a selection of classic bistro fare, spiked here and there with a Creole accent.
As at Moxy, the best dishes at Molly's are thoughtful but unpretentious — simply put: good food. Duck breast is served in light, sweet apricot-bourbon sauce that rounds out but doesn't overwhelm the duck's rich natural flavor. But the appeal here is the breast itself: the seared skin and the exactly right proportion of luscious to blushing, ever-so-gamy meat. Pair it with simple sides of green beans and roasted new potatoes and you have an utterly satisfying meal.
Likewise, a Berkshire pork chop from Newman Farm in Myrtle (just this side of the Arkansas border, southwest of Poplar Bluff) is given an apple-brandy demiglace. This imbues the meat with a breezy autumnal sweetness, yet you'll be forgiven if all you notice is the giant piece of pig on your plate. Cooked just a shade past medium, the meat has the full flavor of red meat with the unmistakable salty funk of pig. Served with peppery braised mustard greens and a hash of butternut squash — the former a welcome contrast to the pork, the latter amplifying its sweetness — this is the menu's most fully considered entrée.
Because this is a bistro, there is steak — both filet mignon and a more budget-friendly hanger steak. In general I find the "lesser" cuts more flavorful than filet mignon, so I ordered the hanger, medium-rare. The steak is served already sliced and topped with a poached egg, a small ramekin of béarnaise sauce on the side. There's a reason steak and eggs are a classic pair: The egg's golden yolk acts as a penny-luxury sauce, rendering a béarnaise unnecessary. Here, though, the presentation lapsed from unfussy to artless: The slices of steak were piled haphazardly in the center of the plate atop underseasoned potato cakes, and the outer white of the poached egg hadn't been trimmed but had draped itself tendril-like over the meat.
I was wary of the "Citrus Salmon" a companion ordered: Not because of the citrus flavors, but the salmon's horseradish crust. This, however, was much milder than I'd expected — just sharp enough to give a little character to the fish, while an orange-butter sauce added a little tang. Still, I preferred a more straightforward seafood dish of lobster, shrimp and mussels tossed with roasted red peppers in lemon-pepper pappardelle.
The Creole influence is more overt among the appetizers, which include a fried-oyster po' boy, as well as seared scallops served with red beans and rice. Though tomato season has passed us, I'm a sucker for fried green tomatoes, which are served here with barbecued shrimp and dressed with rémoulade. The tomatoes are excellent, the crisp breadcrumb batter yielding the brightly flavored fruit, and the shrimp's barbecue seasoning gives the dish a definite but not overpowering heat. But on my visit the shrimp themselves were curled into chewy, overcooked commas. "Étouffée Lasagna" is more lasagna than étouffée, with its tomato-cream sauce, three cheeses and noodles a stronger influence than the tender crawfish or andouille sausage. That said, as a variation on lasagna, it was enjoyable, blessed with a light texture and the buttery sweetness of crawfish.
The dessert list is standard issue — emboldened by the success of the smoking ban, I think I will try to have crème brûlèe outlawed — but our server sold us on "Bananas Foster Beignets": two ethereal doughnuts topped with the New Orleans-born dessert of bananas in rum sauce. Wines are from California and France predominantly, with most bottles in the $20-to-$50 range. A few Bordeaux and Burgundies push the $70 envelope. The draft beer list is very brief.
The staff was prompt in delivering food and drinks, though it was sometimes difficult to flag down a server when needed. As their Halloween costumes might have suggested, the group is friendly, with a definite sense of humor. Indeed, the restaurant has stepped into the role of neighborhood bistro so easily that, were it not for the coincidence of the Halloween holiday, I might never have suspected Molly's was ever anything else. The costume might need a little stitching here and there, but it definitely fits.