Il Fait Beau

Jun 30, 1999 at 4:00 am
Eddie Neill doesn't need a weatherman to tell him which way the wind blows.
Having very successfully introduced St. Louis to the joys (and values) of the rustic cooking of France's Provence region, Neill recently took advantage of the full-sail economy and a prime Clayton location to move several rungs up the price ladder with Eddie's Steak & Chop, a classic French restaurant behind a clubby steakhouse facade that was erected, no doubt, to make it easier to attract the sharks and other carnivores who by day ply their trades in Clayton's business and legal communities.

If you were or are a big Cafe Provençal fan, calme-toi. The spinoff space of the original Cafe Provençal, a few doors down in Clayton, remains open, as does the second location that Neill opened a couple of years ago in Kirkwood.

Meanwhile, however, if you're dining on the higher end of a budget (you'll probably cross the $100 mark for a full meal for two including drinks) and harbor lusty appetites -- especially for top-quality beef -- Eddie's rearranges the homegrown red, white and blue from the flags of places like Morton's, Dierdorf & Hart's, St. Louis Steakhouse and the like into the cherished tricouleur that signifies his favorite cuisine. The local cardiology community is probably cringing at the renewed craving for red meat, but perhaps they will be reassured by the French accent at Eddie's; after all, the famous red-wine medical studies were prompted by the Gallic paradox of a rich diet accompanied by relatively low incidence of related health difficulties.

And Eddie's stuff is certainly rich, although chef Paul Hayes (formerly of the Charcoal House and the Ritz-Carlton, a perfect background for developing a steak menu with French overtones) manages to navigate many of the classic elements without pushing the diner to the bloat stage. Nor has Hayes tried to cutesify his creations with froufrou adornments or towering layers. The recurring motif is wild mushrooms -- as ragout, in sauces or grilled on their own -- and when Hayes does introduce variants into standard dishes, they're subtle and welcome, such as when he takes mashed potatoes all the way to a puree and then dresses them up with hunks of sweet potato.

Foie gras has been enjoying something of a resurgence lately, and the appetizer version at Eddie's ($9) is nothing short of a masterpiece, although the approach may be an acquired taste for some. Foie gras served with apple is not new, but Neill and his kitchen staff have pushed the envelope almost to the point where postage is due by melding a Brittany-based apple-pastry tart with a thick, gently seared slice of the delicate goose liver and then saucing it with currants and brandy. The bite of the liquor was jarring at first but mellowed quickly, and despite the many competing powerful flavors, I despaired while finishing the last bite that Eddie's had not adopted Fio's wonderful tradition of unlimited seconds.

Other appetizers, the selection of which changed from one of our visits to the next, were not as challenging but resulted in equal rewards. The tuna carpaccio ($7) was another don't-miss choice, sashimi-grade tuna that was herb-rubbed and introduced only in passing to a very hot flame -- yielding a thin, seared coat -- then sliced razor-thin and served with capers and black olives. Duck páte ($6) was a quintessential preparation of the rustic French staple, two slices of a finely textured páte with hunks of duck randomly interspersed, served with three hardened slices of herbed bread as a base, accompanied by raisins, capers, cornichons and coarse mustard and a tiny serving of mesclun greens.

If you or someone in your party is not a meat-eater, don't automatically pass up Eddie's, because it offers both a fresh fish of the day ($17; trout was popular when we were there) and a vegetable selection, usually paired with a pasta. We stayed strictly among the farm animals, though, sampling two steaks, the veal chop and the rack of lamb with almost exclusively superior results.

Eddie's offers the classic French but hard-to-find-in-America cut called a hanger steak in the steak-frites combination (sliced steak and crispy french fries), and the cut, called onglet in France, has a full-bodied texture something like a cross between a London broil and a flank steak. It was served on this evening with a ragout of crimini, shiitake and oyster mushrooms and would have been perfect except for a tad too much salt on the fries. The strip steak ($23), however, was perfect, a full-pound cut with some fat left on for juiciness but finely marbled in between and featuring a paper-thin broiled crust, with a whole portobello cap and a large serving of the puree of two potatoes at its side.

Among the nonbeef items, the at-least-a-full-inch-thick veal chop ($24) was again an ideal cut of meat, complemented this time by beets, kohlrabi and the ubiquitous ragout of mushrooms. For the rack of lamb ($23), mushrooms insinuated themselves into the dish, chopped into a sage sauce. Although the three double chops were another hefty portion and the sauce left a lingering, herby aftertaste, one of the three chops came out much less cooked than the other two.

Desserts ($6) are made in-house, and they're as special as the rest of the meal. The mocha creme caramel somehow managed to be rich and light simultaneously, bursting in the mouth with a flavor like a sweetened cafe au lait. The chocolat croquant, however, was the real showstopper, a heavy mousse with halved cherries mixed in and a crispy base that gives it its name (croquer meaning "crunch" rather than serving as a cognate for the English slang "to croak" and setting up the possibility of "croak by chocolate").

The wine list isn't massive, but, befitting Neill's partnership with local wine superstar Leon Bierbaum (who was working as maitre d' during one of our visits, as a precursor to the opening of his and Neill's Chez Leon in August), it's meticulously thought-out, ranging in price from about 20 bucks up to $175, with special selections like a 1996 Beaux Freres pinot noir at $75. The menu also promotes a list of eight aperitifs.

As for the space, as noted, it's very clubby, seating about 50 among dark-wood paneling, with horsey pictures lining one wall and various sizes of bottles -- Champagne on one shelf, Chateauneuf du Pape on another -- adding atmosphere. Neill has tried with some success to tame the dreaded Clayton Restaurant Disease (hyperdecibelia) with the installation of maroon acoustic tiles on the ceiling, and the deep-colored theme continues on other painted surfaces, although with the new price structure, Eddie might want to consider paying a little more attention to vacuuming around the radiators.

On both of our visits, we were waited upon by young and friendly but very intense women, and each deserves special commendation not just for excellent service but for thorough knowledge of every ingredient and preparation.

It's a steakhouse. It's a French restaurant. Whichever way your tastes lead you, Eddie Neill has placed the two genres back-to-back and nailed them both.

EDDIE'S STEAK & CHOP. 40 N. Central (Clayton), 725-1661. Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Entrees: $15-$25