Not Your Ordinary Joe

Joseph's of Kirkwood is every bit the equal of its downtown counterpart

Joseph's Italian Cafe

451 S. Kirkwood Rd., 314-909-0456

Hours: lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon-Fri; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Mon-Sat. Pastas: $10-$16; entrées: $14-$22.

It's all right there in black and white: Joseph's in Kirkwood is one very fine restaurant.

Nonetheless, our visit to this, the younger of the two restaurants of the same name, was tinged with a bit of melancholy. Our article about the downtown location, published soon after its opening six years ago, was one of the very first reviews we did for the RFT, and it energized us with regard not just to a potential renaissance in downtown restaurants but also to its progressive, dramatically monochromatic Eurostyle-modern decor.

And even these many years later, we can still remember the remarkable fillet of beef with Gorgonzola cheese, which we continue to recommend to any who will listen as one of the finest beef dishes in town.

First, the good news. The Kirkwood location of Joseph's is every bit as sophisticated as the downtown one, with perhaps even more emphasis on only black and gray (except in the food) and the added attraction of a tucked-away loft balcony. The fillet is still on the menu, and it was even better than we remembered it.

The bad news, however, is that the downtown location (despite what it says on a prominent sandwich board in front of the place and despite overflow crowds at lunch) is no longer open for dinner. We followed up with a phone call to owner Joseph Consolo III after eating two dinners in Kirkwood; he says it was basically an issue of concentrating on the strengths of each restaurant while making sure that he didn't stretch himself too thin.

The Sixth Street location is one of the hottest tables in town for lunch; almost daily, a line of prospective diners snakes out the door by 12:15 p.m. Consolo tells us that although the dinner business was acceptable, eliminating the bar downtown (which became possible when he ceased serving dinner) allowed him to add six tables and in turn do an incremental 24 covers a day. In addition, the change made it possible for him to focus on just one restaurant at dinnertime; he chose the Kirkwood location because of generally more reliable traffic, coupled with the tie-in to Jo-Jo's, the jazz club he operates next door.

And we have to hand it to him -- the two evenings we spent in the Kirkwood spot were sparklers, featuring impeccable ingredients, thoughtful but not outrageous blends of flavors and great service. Moreover, the black-and-white environment served to spotlight the presentations, which were meticulous and elaborate but avoided the excesses of some "stacking" approaches.

The appetizers we sampled included a marvelous vegetable salad in which grilling concentrated and intensified the fresh garden flavors of asparagus, yellow and green zucchini, portobello mushroom and, especially, red bell pepper, which, in addition to the grilled slices, was the primary element of an accompanying sauce and provided a delicate perfume to the dish. Wedges of potato-and-chive pancake added additional flavors and textures, with ultrafresh baby salad greens at the base and a piquant balsamic vinaigrette as an accent.

And although we luxuriated in other appetizers -- crab cakes Napoleon, a variation enhanced with a zingy tomato emulsion and a roasted-red-pepper vinaigrette; and a stuffed portobello mushroom combining the bite of Gorgonzola cheese with the fluffiness of ricotta, augmented with sun-dried tomato, we were truly impressed with the pancetta gnocchi. Joseph's version manages to retain the dumplinglike pasta's ability to soak up the smoky, garlicky broth with an airy texture, and additional flavoring from caramelized onions and roasted tomatoes provides an excellent interplay of flavors.

That fillet we're so fond of is at least an inch thick, perfectly marbled and trimmed. It's topped with a bubbling mass of Gorgonzola over a base of mashed potatoes, which are themselves augmented with Gorgonzola, along with fontina and Parmesan. Four stalks of asparagus complete the dish, and a shrubbery of rosemary serves as a garnish. Maybe it's our inner cheese lover, or maybe it's as simple as the mild tang that the Gorgonzola adds to the meat, but this is certainly one of our favorite beef preparations of all time.

On the pasta front, we tried the seafood linguine, which was to the tutto mare that appears on many local menus as Sophia Loren is to Roseanne. Six large shrimp and four mussels ringed the linguine, which was sauced delicately (as opposed to the inundation favored in other preparations) with a tomato-and-garlic broth, with more texture and flavor coming from calamari, baby shrimp, black olives and capers. In addition, the pasta portion, although ample, wasn't overwhelming, allowing the ingredients to take on increased emphasis.

The chicken saltimbocca, as its name translates, almost does try to jump into your mouth. The pounded breast of chicken wrapped around prosciutto and mozzarella and flavored with sage would be fine on its own, but it's enhanced by a powerfully earthy wild-mushroom risotto. And a nightly special of blackened snapper proved that Joseph's can handle fish with aplomb as well. The "blackening" was more of a subtly hot herb coating -- appropriate, given the mild flavor of the fish -- complemented by bay shrimp and black olives.

Special mention must be made of the various tomatoes used in many of the dishes, including a special beefsteak salad that we had when we popped into the downtown location for lunch. Although it takes extra effort to find fully flavored tomatoes, especially early in the summer (and this is even more difficult in the off-season), the many different kinds we had at Joseph's were deep red and intensely flavored. We learned later that, at least for this time of the year, they come from a grower near Naples, Fla.

The signature dessert at Joseph's is a delicate lattice of fine-gauge cookie around vanilla ice cream with an assortment of berries and a rich chocolate sauce -- a large final course but not as heavy as I might have expected. Although tiramisu has become the Britney Spears of local dessert menus, the alternating layers of soft cake and mascarpone cheese at Joseph's were perfectly done, and a Granny Smith crisp brought out the best features of that tart apple.

If I had one quibble with Joseph's, it would be that there aren't enough moderately priced wines, with the vast majority of the list's offerings costing more than $30. We also momentarily found ourselves drawn into the should-they-or-shouldn't-they cell-phone debate on one of our dinner visits, but when we noticed that the hostess of our previous visit sat down at the table in question for dinner, we divined that the ringing phone and voice belonged to Consolo the elder, and we all know how hard it is to ask your dad to do anything. (Mr. Consolo, an executive with the May Co., was also spotted during our other Kirkwood visit and on our lunch visit downtown, so we do have to give him credit for his obvious devotion to his family.)

A dinner-jacketed pianist entertains regularly from the entryway, and even the classy flora follow the black-and-white scheme, featuring white roses and what appeared to be white ginger. Also be sure to observe the elaborate techno-framing on the black-and-white photos that line the outer wall.

We can only hope that the influx of loft-dwellers and other upscale residents into downtown, coupled with the rash of new hotels and the promise of a new convention-center hotel, will lure Joe Consolo III to rethink the dinner option downtown. Meanwhile, however, he's fashioned a jewel in his Kirkwood location.

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