Off the Rack

If The Tuxedo Room's food and service don't improve, it'll be curtains.

Jan 3, 2007 at 4:00 am
A committed foodie doesn't care about a restaurant's location. We will travel to any gaudy suburban mall or down any ill-lit side street to try that new chef's adventurous tasting menu or that bowl of goulash, supposedly better than Mom's. Given the time and money — and a personal assistant to help us score those impossible reservations — we'll plan an entire vacation around one meal at Napa Valley's the French Laundry or Chicago's Alinea.

For restaurateurs, though, location is still the primary concern. A lack of foot or vehicle traffic often dooms a new restaurant before its doors open. Even that "hole-in-the-wall" joint you traverse town to visit is probably in its regular customers' backyard.

If The Tuxedo Room fails, it likely won't be on account of its location. The ten-week-old restaurant sits on a prime piece of real estate: in Grand Center, right across the street from the Fabulous Fox Theatre.

Partners Brett Cervantes and Reginald Dickson clearly want the Tuxedo Room to be the dining destination before and after shows at the Fox. Caricatures of Broadway stars past and present (and, um, Nelly) line its walls. The décor in general harkens back to that era when Broadway was an epicenter of glamour — and jazzy, illicit, after-hours fun — rather than just another corporate branding machine. There is live music, performed on a piano wedged into the hallway between the bar and the dining room. There is a woman whose sole job seems to be wandering the restaurant wearing a showgirl outfit, complete with garters, red stockings and a top hat.

Executive chef Anton Keller was born and trained in Switzerland, and his menu fits well with the Tuxedo Room's old-school motif: classic Continental cuisine with a few modern twists. One such twist is a tuna tartare appetizer, three fat discs of chopped, center-cut ahi tuna topped with tobiko (flying fish roe), made bright-green with wasabi and served in a martini glass. Wasabi was the dominant, but not overpowering, flavor. Overall, it was a very good dish: a bright, clean and slightly spicy palate cleanser.

Unfortunately, the tuna tartare wasn't indicative of most other dishes' quality. Another appetizer, grilled slices of portabella mushroom in a balsamic-vinegar reduction, hit one blunt, tannic note, while an appetizer of prosciutto di Parma and grilled asparagus drizzled with truffle oil lacked any harmony between its components. The prosciutto had a wonderfully luscious texture, but both the asparagus and the truffle oil overwhelmed its delicate flavor.

The soup and salad course — "Act II," as the menu calls it — includes an excellent salad with leaves of Belgian endive acting as cups to hold arugula, candied walnuts and dried cranberries. The leaves were topped with chèvre and a Champagne vinegar.

The Tuxedo Room's "house" soup is a purée of butternut squash. Its grayish-orange hue was unappealing, its taste flat. It lacked the sweetness of roasted butternut squash or the warm spice of one of its usual accompaniments, like nutmeg. But the reason I pushed my bowl away after only a few spoonfuls was the mealy texture. It needed more cream — a lot more. As it was, it wasn't much better than baby food. The lobster bisque was suitably creamy but had a strange, tinny aftertaste, something like chicken stock.

Between "Act II" and "Act III" (the entrées), the menu mentions a sorbet "Intermezzo." Also listed is an amuse of the "chef's tapas" before "Act I." If the Tuxedo Room really does serve either of these, I never saw them at my own or another table. I didn't mind, but it seems silly to include these on the menu without actually having them.

The menu itself was difficult to read. The print was smeared and slanted. (I guess the restaurant needs a new ink cartridge for its printer.) I mention this not to be petty, but because it suggests the sloppiness and the lack of finesse I found common during my sojourns to the Tuxedo Room.

I admire a chef willing to combine pork with pork, so I was eager to try the grilled pork chop stuffed with apple, Fontina and prosciutto. This came in a roasted portabella cream sauce, with a side dish of ratatouille. It was flawed from conception. The thin sauce had spilled across the plate and mixed with the inky ratatouille — simply an ugly presentation. The pork chop was well-done, an unwelcome throwback to classic cuisine. The stuffing was utterly unremarkable — not fruity, not cheesy, not porky. The ratatouille was heavily flavored with black olives, which aren't part of the traditional recipe for ratatouille; now, I see why.

The "curry-dusted" chicken tasted curry-dredged. This was supposedly served with a smoked-tomato relish, but I couldn't taste anything besides curry. Four diver scallops wrapped in pancetta were tantalizingly large, but my shellfish correspondent said they were incredibly salty — not simply seawater salty, but as though they had been brined. Roasted shrimp over linguini in a "lobster asparagus cream sauce" was satisfying in a simplistic way, heavy and buttery.

To my surprise, I actually liked the crab-cake entrée. This included two decently sized cakes of good jumbo lump crabmeat, breaded and fried. The "spicy mango lime aioli" atop the crab cakes was irrelevant (and not particularly spicy), and I wish there hadn't been corn kernels mixed in with the crabmeat, but all in all this was a success. The six-ounce "Tux Cut" filet was also a success, tender and juicy — though this dish was so straightforward I struggle to remember anything more about it.

The wine list includes a few affordable bottles — especially from Australia and South America — but many selections fall into the splurge category. This isn't too surprising, considering that the Tuxedo Room also houses a paid-membership cigar room.

I don't like to mention service unless it's exemplary. Time cures most problems in new restaurants, and St. Louis has few restaurants where the service is meant to be a part of the show. But when bad service impacts my experience as often and as negatively as it did at the Tuxedo Room, I have to comment.

When my fiancée and I arrived before our friends, we were told "to belly up to the bar" while we waited — even though the dining room was almost empty and there were clearly no seats available at the bar. A busser was offended when she realized one of my dining companions wasn't going to finish a good, but large, salad: "What's the matter? You didn't like it?" Coffee was poured from the dregs of a carafe, then not replaced when a fresh pot was ready mere moments later. Upon leaving one night, the valet — a welcome necessity in Grand Center when both the Fox and Sheldon Concert Hall host events — pointed to where he had parked my car and handed me my keys.

I might not have minded had the food been memorable. But the Tuxedo Room seems less interested in being a great restaurant than in exploiting a great location, riding the kitschy trappings of Broadway "glamour" — the costumes, the caricatures, a water tank in which floats a bottle of "bubbling" Champagne — rather than focusing on the fastidious attention to detail in the kitchen and on the floor that can make a diner feel glamorous, if only for a few hours.

As such, the Tuxedo Room made little impression on me. I didn't laugh. I didn't cry. If nothing else, though, it was better than Cats.

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