Dream a Little Dream

Jimmy's Cafe on the Park isn't what our reviewer thought it was, but she's happy nonetheless

Jimmy's Cafe on the Park

706 DeMun Avenue, Clayton

Flash-fried spinach $5.75
Pear salad $5.75
Tenderloin Anthony $19.25
Oatmeal-crusted chicken $15.75

314-725-8585. Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Monday, 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. Tue.-Fri. (till midnight Fri.), 11:30 a.m.-midnight Saturday, 2-9 p.m. Sun.

If I'd had my druthers when I was looking to move to St. Louis, about a year ago, I would have taken up residence on North or South Rosebury, either of the Siamese-twin avenues that bridge the St. Louis-Clayton border, conjoined where they intersect with Skinker Boulevard but forked by the time they terminate a block west at DeMun Avenue. The way I pictured life on those tree-lined streets, daybreak would be greeted with a ritual cup of coffee at Kaldi's, on the corner of DeMun and Northwood; Duke (the dog I didn't yet own, who nonetheless was an integral piece of the dreamed-up pastiche) would frolic on the rolling grounds of Concordia Seminary; I'd do a daily run around Forest Park; and my neighborhood nosh spot would be Jimmy's Cafe on the Park.

I liked Jimmy's humble, weathered red awning. On the basis of the few times I'd passed by the dark but welcoming place, I conjured an image of Jimmy's as the sort of spot where one could order a burger and a beer at the bar at three o'clock in the afternoon, and even if the kitchen was technically closed until dinner, somebody would find a way to make it happen, then keep me company while I ate. Jimmy's would be my kitchen away from home.

I never got an apartment on Rosebury, and it wasn't until recently that I finally made it to Jimmy's. Although my assumptions about the place were as off-track as the rest of my DeMun daydream, I'm glad I finally went in. It's a bit too pricey and gussied-up to suit as a regular hang, but the food at this nine-year-old establishment is deliciously dependable. With but two decent-size spaces to work with -- the original café room and, immediately to the north, a five-month-old bistro room that used to be an art gallery -- Jimmy Kristo has fashioned something of a megarestaurant, offering so many dining options, even the management has trouble keeping it all straight.

Here goes: There is one lunch menu for both rooms; the bistro's dinner menu is only served in the bistro, but the café's dinner menu can be ordered in either room; early-evening dinner specials, available only in the café on weeknights until 6:30 p.m., pair downsized portions of café entrées with a soup or salad for $13.95; from 10:30 p.m. until midnight on weekends, the bistro makes available a ten-item late-night array of appetizers (bruschetta, hummus, etc.) and slightly heftier fare (chicken pizza) from both dinner menus, plus good, got-the-munchies selections such as house-made potato chips, plus desserts (which aren't printed on any menu); and then there's Sunday brunch, which you can eat anywhere, and off just one menu.

The aesthetics of the two rooms couldn't be more different. The café is St. Louis' answer to Sardi's, the Times Square warhorse that has served as Broadway's unofficial clubhouse for 82 years, famous for its countless framed caricatures of Great White Way stars. (Any Muppets Take Manhattan fans? Remember the scene in which Kermit replaces Liza Minnelli's caricature with his own, then sits at a table directly beneath it as a way to drum up interest in his new musical?) At Jimmy's, some 700 cartoonish pencil renderings of regulars and local celebs grace the hunter-green walls. A somber-hued carpet and white tablecloths round out the café's distinctly country-club feel (which isn't to say the place looks dour -- it doesn't). The bistro facsimiles a New York feel, too -- but it's a downtown, Sex and the City vibe, replete with purple-velvet love seats, a red-granite bar top and a dramatic open-air fire pit smack-dab in the middle of the room.

Among Jimmy's panoply of menus, there's little overlap between the biggest two, the café dinner and the bistro dinner. The bistro more heavily favors appetizers and salads, with just three entrées (chicken rosemary, jambalaya and meatloaf). But again, anything available in the café is also available in the bistro -- though to repeat, the reverse is not true. And it is on the café menu that the kitchen's self-assurance is best displayed.

The café menu kicks off with safe bets. Appetizers include tuna tartare, bruschetta, crab cake and tomato bisque. All are handled confidently. Though a departure from the definitive, it's nice to partake of a bisque that's chunky, as this one is with its diced tomatoes; simple pink purées get so boring. Jimmy's signature starter, the flash-fried spinach, continues to wow newcomers and regulars alike with its funky, disintegrate-in-your-mouth, astronaut-ice-cream texture. Caesar salad is classically tossed, save for the deployment of an anchovy-garlic dressing to do the flavor work of actual anchovies (which is still more anchovy recognition than is offered by too many caesars these days). Pear salad bears a glaze that tastes of cranberry sauce and serves as an object lesson on how to render a salad sweet but not sugary. (Are you listening, Wild Flower?) Only the house "cafe salad," composed of dark greens, red onions, grape tomatoes and a roasted-red-pepper vinaigrette, falls flat; it tasted somewhat pedestrian.

Though the café room has that bit of old-mannishness to it, Jimmy's Cafe is not a steakhouse. Despite this, the runaway hit among the entrées is the red meat. There's tenderloin Anthony (eight ounces of grilled beef topped with Gorgonzola, Brie and grilled shrimp), pepper steak and nearly always one other cut on the rotating list of specials. A request for medium-rare brings to the table a piece of meat cooked just right -- with a core of pure pinkness. Seafoods -- cedar-plank salmon, mango shrimp, seafood linguine -- are righteous, accented with ingredients such as Granny Smith apples, walnuts, pancetta vinaigrette, bacon and scallions. Like the meats, these are blessedly undercooked -- all the better to bring out flavor. But as with the salad course, here the least rousing item is one of the house specialties: Oatmeal-crusted chicken possesses little pizzazz beyond its fun-sounding name.

A formidable dessert tray proves irresistible -- even if, once again, as with the appetizers, safe bets rule. Of course there's crême brûlée, and of course it is a vanilla-spiked treat; of course there's a lava-centered chocolate cake topped with vanilla ice cream, and of course it elicits sighs of satisfaction. Cheesecake receives a surprising maple-walnut infusion, and the croissant-derived bread pudding is done up with raspberries, chocolate and a Grand Marnier English cream. The sole misstep here is the white-chocolate-mousse espresso cake, which isn't soft enough, causing the layers to separate disappointingly.

With the new bistro, Jimmy's Cafe is bringing in a younger, hipper clientele. It's a smart business move, one that works toward ensuring a steady influx of customers for years to come. Jimmy's may not be the casual and leisurely joint of my dreams, but that doesn't mean it's not a great restaurant to have around.

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