Cardwell's on the Plaza, featuring some of the city's most inspired cooking, is the one place in Plaza Frontenac where debt and energy are devoted to the sustenance of the internal self

Sep 15, 1999 at 4:00 am
There are few destinations more repellent than a shopping mall. It's depressing enough watching other consumers devote so much debt and energy to shoring up their external selves, but when you realize you're right alongside them, buying baggy cargo pants at the Gap, spirits really sag.

Yet, as malls go, Plaza Frontenac is more tolerable than most. When my squeamish city-dwelling compatriots revile the place as a magnet for Range Rovers and Polo shirts, they succumb to reverse elitism. At Frontenac you can always find a parking space, its small scale does not addle the wits, and there is a weird, almost reverent hush inside. Also, there's entertainment in the shape of blue-eyed, uniformed prep-school girls who stare at you and then dart off in a swish of plaid, laughing maniacally. I won't call it civilized, but it comes close.

It would come even closer if it were filled with nothing but restaurants like Cardwell's on the Plaza.

Take the pork chops: This pair of inch-thick worthies, grilled and finished with apple liqueur and a smattering of warm "late summer" apples, had my accomplice Banjo Bob in raptures. A delicately infused herbal scent expertly manipulated the meat's natural affinity for the apples. With a cheesy potato gratin and a handful of crisp vegetables, this was comfort food in gourmet hyperdrive.

Opened in 1994 as a satellite of the Clayton enterprise of the same name, Cardwell's at Frontenac was jettisoned from the mothership two years ago; now it's an entirely separate entity run by Bill Cardwell and brilliant chef Dave Owens. A trendy, upscale bistro with a vegetarian slant (Owens also writes a vegetarian cooking column for the Post-Dispatch), Cardwell's on the Plaza continues to offer some of the city's most inspired cooking.

If you enter by the parking-lot door, you'll hardly notice you're in a mall. The interior space, airy with light woods, is deceptively large, but assorted decorating schemes and a prominent bar studded with well-dressed patrons divide the room into more intimate groupings. For closer encounters, there are four or five individual dining nooks; on one visit we scored the Mark McGwire room. This cozy private niche, just big enough for a four-top, is ideally suited to plotting subterfuges, breaking up with girlfriends and reviewing restaurants. On the wall, one of those garish sports lithographs features our city's lone celebrity, with a brass plaque declaring that the great man himself once dined at this very table. "He must have had this chair," smirked my friend Sticks. "It's kind of sunken-in."

By the time of our last visit, the southern half of the dining room had undergone the makeover I would have recommended if anyone had asked me. Tasteful white linen had replaced the fussy-floral vinyl tablecloths, and the high-backed chairs, previously swathed in a grim, greasy satin, now sported bright new covers. These two alterations were startlingly effective; the room suddenly looked chic and pulled-together, like you'd expect from a place that charges 9 bucks for a cheeseburger.

Doubtless Cardwell's burgers are gold-plated, but we skipped ours once we realized that, for about the same price, we could worship a plate of fried calamari, the holiest junk food ever. Ours were glowing, robust specimens: Salty, spicy, crunchy and impossibly tender, they arrived with an addictive chile-lime mayo. Alas — no tentacles, but I'm the only one who missed them.

And what of the goat-cheese torte, you ask? Finally, cheesecake isn't just for breakfast anymore. Warm, tangy and miraculous, our wedge of savory pie had the ethereal texture of chiffon. It was so light it hovered over a bed of field greens tossed with a delicious orange-scented vinaigrette. Sadly, throngs of strong red onions detracted from the pleasure of finding a handful of roasted vegetables nestled among the greens, and Sticks barely managed to stifle a cry for more potatoes (we found but one tiny specimen). Still, there was no denying that the green beans, crispy and righteous, made up for this oversight.

Both of the soups we tried were excellent. Pesto and a sprinkling of nutty basmati rice breathed new life into a light potage of green lentils. The shiny red gazpacho, festooned with tortilla strips, scallions and a dollop of sour cream, was fresh to the point of effervescence. Feather-light, it proved to be the wiser antecedent to a heavy meal.

Enter the Mediterranean sampler. I am a big fan of tapas platters, especially when the flavors of their various constituents are so harmoniously balanced. This dish was so fun to play with that I ordered it on two separate occasions. Surrounding a whole roasted head of garlic were mounds of large-pearl couscous salad, a couple of minty dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), a tomatoey eggplant salad and baked black olives. Thick planks of delightful toasted olive bread were ideal for scooping up these treasures.

Nothing ever dissuades me from baby back ribs. Cardwells' were smoked, grilled, then served with a refined barbecue sauce on the side. I've eaten ribs that were more succulent — our slab was a smidge dry — but the spirited deftness of exotic seasonings kept the intrigue at a high level. A side dish of rich baked macaroni and cheddar was the irresistible sort of thing into which everyone kept sneaking their forks (naturally, we all caught the same cold 24 hours later).

Of the dozen dishes we tried over the course of a couple of visits, there were only two I wouldn't order again — a portobello stuffed with a spinach-and-cheese mixture, and the green salad. There wasn't anything really wrong with either of them; they just lacked the exuberance of other offerings. The mushroom dish was inoffensively bland, and the salad, topped with the alfalfa sprouts I keep wishing would go out of style, exhibited some grassy health-food overtones that anyone but me could probably tolerate.

About the menu: It was only slightly easier to read than an issue of Raygun. Sure, I'm nitpicking, but that's only because the food here deserves better. Cardwell's byzantine bill of fare requires that the diner, though she be faint from hunger, be of sound enough mind to decipher tiny coded symbols: "V" for "vegan," a flower for "ovo-lacto," a star for "available after 5 p.m." and a distracting little squiggle that turned out to be purely decorative. Sorting out the various headings — "Savories," "Odd Things" — was also an irritating business. I never figured out why gazpacho wasn't in the appetizer section, or why pan-seared scallops weren't under "Grills, Roasts, and Sautés." It was vexing. Call me lazy, but having to study a menu puts me off my feed. Please, just lead me to my dinner in its natural order. I will follow meekly.

It wasn't until our last visit that we were clever enough to save room for dessert. Our waiter (who, incidentally, could write the book on professional table service) brought us a confection so provocative, so moving, so epiphanous that it reduced us to faint, prurient moans for 10 whole minutes. He identified this little wedge of nirvana as Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate Pie. The experience was so intoxicating that my recollections are a blur, but I can tell you this: If you took the coolest thing that ever happened to you — like when you got a pony for Christmas — and turned it into food, it would taste like Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate Pie.

Cardwell's is the one place in Plaza Frontenac where debt and energy are devoted to the sustenance of the internal self. Seems that even in the land of the Range Rover, there is hope. The end.

CARDWELL'S ON THE PLAZA, Plaza Frontenac, 997-8885. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11-p.m. Fri.-Sat. (no service between 4 and 5 p.m. on Sat.), 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun. Entrees: $8.25-$21.50.