Jazzed Up

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If the recent Hollywood invasion of our town continues, perhaps the next plot will be distinctly film noir. In that case, I'd have to recommend that the advance crew scout out the Delmar Restaurant and Lounge, a singular interior at the western edge of the long strip of retail, office, residential, theatrical and dining gems that make up one of St. Louis' most vibrant neighborhoods, the University City Loop.

Perhaps the owners simply hired the guy who was having dinner at the bar in a trench coat and beret, nursing a glass of wine in one hand while holding a literary magazine in the other. Wherever he came from, he fit in perfectly atop one of the deep-red lounge stools (could they even be Naugahyde?) that provided the main color motif for the latest incarnation of what has been a very popular space for restaurants. The most famous of these was Painted Plates, for which chef Greg Perez received national notoriety before repackaging, downscaling and extending its hours a couple of years or so ago into the Grateful Grill, a tie-dyed homage to his favorite rock group. Perez is gone now, with Jerry Garcia replaced in the restaurant by Dizzy Gillespie both aurally and visually, but the prices are still quite affordable, the grill/late-hours bar dichotomy is still intact, and the food is innovative but thoroughly approachable.

There are only seven regular entrees, but these are supplemented by a half-dozen gourmet pizzas and three pasta meals. Additional specials appear on a marker board behind the bar, which should also be examined for beers and wines of the day. The regular printed wine list is of moderate length and mainly in the $15-$30 range, although a couple of high-end selections are also available, and there seems to be an affinity for the darker, spicier wines based on the syrah/shiraz grape.

We started with two appetizers that were also available in full entree portions: crawfish andouille cakes ($5.95/$11.95) and roasted-vegetable cakes ($3.95/ $9.95). Of these, the full-bodied texture of crawfish tails and the spice of the Cajun sausage -- complemented by a moderately spicy corn relish -- was much more intensely flavored, but the veggie cakes were rewarding in a different manner, the roasting concentrating the earthy flavors of carrot, zucchini and red and green pepper and a curry mayonnaise providing a mildly pungent dressing.

A similar divergence of approaches was apparent in our entrees. The hoisin-glazed salmon ($11.95) featured a variety of bursting salty, sweet and nutty flavors, most notably a peanut glaze on the underlying noodles but also the sweet-soy flavor of the hoisin, which coated but did not overwhelm the salmon filet and enhanced the moistness of the fish. The sauteed chicken breast ($10.95) reflected a much subtler approach, with the dominant flavor coming from the sun-dried tomatoes mixed into Neufchatel cheese as a stuffing. A crispy coating made it look at first something more like a breaded pork chop, and the whole thing was served atop a studied messiness of chopped vegetables that reminded me of the top of my desk. The accompanying potatoes were described as "garlic mashers," but there wasn't a whole lot of garlic flavor to them.

The three desserts offered are all made on the premises, and we finished up by sharing a massive hunk of espresso pound cake ($3.95) -- actually more of a layer cake -- that featured a hard chocolate top followed by alternating layers of espresso-soaked dense cake and an airy, slightly sweet cream cheese.

Service throughout the meal was knowledgeable and prompt. So next time you're casting for a moderately priced, interesting meal with memorable atmosphere, the Delmar might just be the perfect fit for the role.

6235 Delmar (U. City Loop)
Entrees: $9.95 -$13.95
Hours: 5 p.m.-3 a.m. daily

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