Medium Well

With some extra attention to precision, the new Carmine's Steak House could become the purveyor of some of the best meals in town

Oct 18, 2000 at 4:00 am
Now, I would have thought that with a location in something called the American Zinc Building, a signature restaurant in the French-bistro style with an authentic zinc bar would be the perfect approach. But the obviously considerable amount of money invested to transform the former office building into a restaurant and part of a hotel wasn't mine. It came from the venerable Charles Drury, savior of the fabulous architecture of both the American Zinc and the International Fur Exchange buildings, who used it to expand his partnership with the Lombardo family, which already runs very good restaurants at the Drury Inns at Union Station and the airport and which has fed thousands of St. Louisans since 1934.

Moreover, I would have thought that downtown was already saturated with high-end steakhouses, so the choice to add another one with Carmine's, Mike and Tony Lombardo's stab at girding St. Louisans with loins of beef, meant that perfection in execution was practically a necessity. There are already several fine steakhouses within walking distance of the new Drury Plaza Hotel at Fourth and Market streets, so Carmine's was facing some fierce competition the day it opened its doors.

My early line on Carmine's: top-quality meat and a bona fide big-city atmosphere but enough flaws to preclude my recommending that you dash right down to see the new jewel of downtown rehab and, in the process, drop more than 100 bucks on dinner for two.

Carmine's takes up almost all of the first floor of the southernmost of the three buildings that were combined to form the new hotel. On the north end is the Fur Exchange Building, a 1920s-vintage structure that Mr. Drury rescued even as wreckers had begun working to reduce it to St. Louis' favorite form of progress, the parking lot. Next over is a brick monument to white bread called the Thomas Jefferson Building, to which Drury applied enough makeup and camouflage that it merely disappears between its two much more attractive siblings. Finally comes the four-story, stainless-steel-clad American Zinc Building.

Once you've been seated, scan the room, from Fourth Street to the back of the space. Aside from a partitioned-off section at the northeastern corner of the room, nothing breaks it up -- not even a single support column. Drury and the Lombardos took this miracle of engineering -- more than 50 feet of unbroken space, made possible with something called Vierendeel trusses -- and created an open, modern atmosphere but tempered the coolness of the design with a giant original mural that is dominated by a Renaissance Italian street scene but also includes snippets from several other eras and techniques. Large ficus trees are the main treatment for the floor-to-ceiling windows that wrap three walls, and unusual postmodern three-dimensional still-lifes, appearing something like bowls of broccoli ice cream, top pedestals at different points in the room.

Speaking of being seated, one of the stumbles we encountered happened right about that time; the maitre d' led us through a half-filled dining room right up to a half-set table and then proceeded to have it set around us after we were seated.

The appetizer list is fairly short, most notably including a thoughtful combination of a portobello mushroom flavored with balsamic vinegar topped with sautéed spinach and a spike-coiffed scallion, all over a sizable serving of fluffy risotto. Carmine's also features Lombardo's signature toasted ravioli, made-in-house half-moons of pasta, stuffed generously for a flavor and a texture more like those of an elegant turnover than what you might expect from the generic variety that appears on dozens of menus around town. Oysters Rockefeller included a half-dozen specimens that were suitably plump, with a rich spinach topping that could have come out of the kitchen just a tad hotter.

Again at the appetizer course, we hit one of those rough spots, this time with pronunciation. A tournedo of beef is an elegant dish, ideal for a French variation on a basic steakhouse theme and, in singular form, an interesting appetizer alternative. But you don't pronounce it as our waiter did if you're not in Kansas anymore. A different staffer later displayed a similar lack of command of the restaurant's offerings in garbling zabaglione.

As noted, the meat at Carmine's is absolutely top-drawer. Our samples included a 10-ounce filet mignon, a 20-ounce on-bone ribeye, a 16-ounce Provimi veal chop and New Zealand rack of lamb, separated into four double-boned chops. Our steaks -- cut on the premises from 21-day-aged prime beef -- came simply prepared, with seared exteriors, cooked precisely to order and topped with Carmine's steak butter, a basic garlic butter that let the meat speak primarily for itself. The veal chop, also on bone, was similarly simple, mostly juicy, with bits of tomato and onion on the skin for flavoring.

Side dishes continued the straightforward theme, although here again was a slip-up -- of the fresh green beans flavored with onion that constituted the daily vegetable offering, about half were of the proper garden-fresh, lightly cooked bright-green color and crisp texture; the others had crossed over into large-batch, overcooked Never-Never Land. On the other hand, a mix of garden vegetables on another visit was both hot and still crisp, and the coarsely mashed garlic potatoes and the twice-cooked potato were both exemplary.

For those who don't wish to indulge in large slabs of meat, the menu also includes salmon, scampi and lobster, as well as chicken Gorgonzola and chicken saltimbocca. The wine list includes several dozen bottles of both red and white and a smattering of sparklings; in contrast to the relatively high entrée prices, most bottles are in the $20-$40 range.

Our desserts were fabulous, especially a rich bread pudding with cream Chantilly and essence of lemon and an in-houseproduced quartet of ultraripe strawberries encased in chocolate.

In short, it was a generally very good to excellent meal, but with prices touching the high end of the St. Louis scale, I would have expected much more pampering and a lot fewer mistakes. Every lover of St. Louis' unique architectural treasures should eat at Carmine's at least once, but if the restaurant expects to build a steady local repeat clientele, it needs to execute with much greater precision.