Meaty in St. Louis

Mihalis Chophouse and Onyx Bar

Mihalis Chophouse and Onyx Bar
1603 McCausland Avenue; 314-333-3301. Hours: 5-11 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 5 p.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Sun

Bouillabaisse $7.95
Mihalis Harvested Salad $10.95
Tellicherry beef tenderloin $23.95
Rack of lamb $29.95

The first time I visited Mihalis Chophouse and Onyx Bar, I almost tripped on an extension cord. We'd parked on the street, and approaching the three-month-old restaurant's façade from the sidewalk, this particular set of French doors seemed like the entrance: An inviting glow spilled forth, giving this placid Dogtown stretch of McCausland a welcome spark, and the doorway appeared to open onto a direct path to the bar (which is always rather inviting unto itself).

It wasn't until my heel caught on that cord that I realized I was walking right through the jazz combo's setup. (At least the band was on a break.)

After our party was seated in the main dining room in back — a room separated from the split-level bar/lounge action up front by a few quick turns and a short hallway — I got a better feel for the place. The proper front door opens onto the adjacent parking lot, which on weekends comes equipped with free valet service. There's usually a hostess waiting to hang up your coat once you get inside. Still, something about the layout rubbed me the wrong way. Those French doors to the sidewalk would have made for a grander entrance.

As soon as we were seated, I resolved to request a booth on my next visit. Each of the handful of discreetly designed booths that flank the northern wall seat up to four people and possess the old-fashioned intimacy of train cars. (I did, indeed, manage to get seated in one. They are seductive, a little fun, and they make you feel like a VIP. The only drawback is that you can't see your server coming until he pops out and surprises you.) But the booths might be the only unique feature about the space. Though the building has obviously undergone a pricey renovation, the overall effect is unfocused: expensive chic, with few memorable design details. An example is the countless French doors that line the perimeter, to the point where they look excessive and a little silly (who wants to look out at a parking lot?). Same goes for the enormous, ceiling-high mirror positioned between the doors to the restrooms.

Just as the bar in the front room really does feature a counter fashioned from amber-toned honey onyx, Mihalis' chophouse aspect comes through on the menu. The first page lists steakhouse classics like shrimp cocktail and a "chilled seafood for two" platter (served in a gigantic martini glass, I'm told); soups include French onion and bouillabaisse; and salads include the requisite Caesar. The second page is divided into straightforward "steaks and chops" (rib eye, New York strip, rack of lamb, lamb chops...); hearty, old-school side dishes like baked potato, asparagus and pilaf; and the "specialties," an assortment of entrée alternatives, including an ample selection of seafood dishes and a free-range chicken breast.

The soups were stellar renditions of traditional steakhouse fare. The French onion carried a pungent sweetness, almost as if a shot of brown sugar had been added while the broth had been simmering, and featured your standard soggy crouton and your fun-if-frustrating cap of glommy cheese. Bouillabaisse bore a broth that was pleasant but a little viscous (akin to canned tomato soup), and plenty of fish and shellfish, especially the sweet and tender clams and mussels, which gave up their shells with a gentle pull of the fork. I also tried an off-menu potato-leek soup whose too-heavy cream base brought on a case of palate doldrums, offset, in turn, by a sprinkling of fried leeks and chervil and a dollop of crab meat in the bowl's center.

Main dishes were a little uneven — some were inspired, while others fell prey to those dreaded palate doldrums. Rack of lamb was terrific, rosy and tender inside, redolent of garlic, rosemary, cardamom and, playing off the lamb's sweetness, currants. But lamb osso buco, a selection from the "specialties" list, was an unmitigated disaster. It was impossible to extract even one decent mouthful; one bite was dry and tough, the next riddled with fat, the one after that so brittle it practically splintered apart in my mouth.

On one visit our server talked up the grilled salmon as if it were one of the wonders of the world, insisting that no restaurant in St. Louis does salmon like Mihalis does salmon. I will say this: It was a fine fillet, and it came perfectly grilled to the requested medium. But its smoked-salmon horseradish crust was in no way extraordinary; I wasn't able to detect any actual smoked salmon in the breading, just a lot of dried horseradish tinged with the fragrant essence of lox.

Mihalis serves prime beef exclusively, hand-cut to your size specifications. Looking back at my notes, I see that's about all I singled out about the steaks — that and the prices, which ranged from $24.95 for an eight-ounce filet to $32.95 for the New York strip. Each steak came topped with a trace of melted butter and a pinch of microgreens, nice touches. But we were tempted to send back one of the three steaks ordered on our first visit, which was ordered medium but arrived closer to rare.

Of all the beef preparations, the Tellicherry tenderloin was the clear standout. Tellicherries are not cherries but peppercorns from India that are considered some of the world's finest. But mixed with pink peppercorns to encrust a tenderloin that's finished off with a Cognac-amplified Madeira sauce, they may as well be maraschinos, so sweet is the meat rendered. Still, this dish was by far Mihalis' most interesting entrée, the pepper's searing flavor cutting through the sweetness on every bite.

The best salad on the menu also makes use of beef tenderloin. The Mihalis Harvested Salad beds slices of tenderloin (grilled to order) upon simple field greens and delicious roasted beets, drizzled with a wild mushroom vinaigrette. A winner in every respect.

At this chophouse, the chops come with your choice of side dish. (Whoever came up with the steak-joint scam of making diners pay for their side dishes à la carte ought to be drawn, quartered and dry-aged.) A sweet potato, served in its jacket, was creamy and dreamy, almost as if it had been puréed. You could practically taste the iron and other nutritious elements steaming out of the vibrant sautéed spinach. The flash-fried spinach, on the other hand, was as ridiculous as that gimmicky preparation can possibly be. Deployed as a crisp, wafer-thin garnish, fried spinach can work. But a whole bowl of it is like eating cornflakes, without any milk. Asparagus was somewhat of another downer. The tops were fine, but too much pale, stringy bottom had been left on the stalks, rendering them as inedible as a splintered Popsicle stick.

The desserts at Mihalis reminded me of my not-so-auspicious entrance: a little awkward. Mocha brûlée, served in a cute cappuccino cup, looked and sounded good but was brought down a peg by a consistency reminiscent of cake frosting. "Chocolate spanakopita" is good, though not as good as the one they make at Momos in U. City, much as a "cinnamon fritter" would be welcomed by anyone who considers finishing off a pricey meal with what amounts to a state-fair funnel cake.

Which in turn brings us to the Eternal Steakhouse Conundrum: whether a hit-or-miss meal is worth the surefire financial outlay. I'll say this for Mihalis: The seductive environs (request a booth!), along with the amber-hued lighting, guarantee that you'll have fun and look good — even if your wallet takes a hit.

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