Sky's the Limit

Tim Mallett's Big Sky Cafe offers a spread of great food

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Big Sky Cafe

47 S. Old Orchard Ave., Webster Groves

Roasted-beet, spinach and goat-cheese salad $4.50
Potato-and-lobster bisque $4.95
Seafood-and-crab cakes $7.95
Cajun-grilled beef fillet $8.95
Herb-roasted Idaho trout $13.95
Zinfandel-braised pot roast $14.95
Fresh fruit sorbet of the day $3.95
Chocolate-cherry brownie $4.95

314-962-5757. Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 5:30-11 p.m. Fri., 5 p.m.-midnight Sat., 4:30-9:30 p.m. Sun.

It's almost invariably fun to visit one of Tim Mallett's restaurants because, as much as any restaurateur in town, Tim Mallett "gets it." He gets that atmosphere is important. He gets the dividing line between the local dining community's desire for freshness in menu options and its aversion to stuff that's just a little too weird.

Perhaps most important, though, Mallett gets the importance of treating foodservice as a career, even a lifestyle, as opposed to merely a waystation for folks who are trying to get a "real job." Over the many years that I've been going to Blue Water Grill (all the way back to its Hampton days), Remy's and Big Sky Cafe;, I've invariably seen familiar faces, oftentimes having bounced from one restaurant to another to maintain their own sense of "freshness." On his Web page and through his newsletter, I've frequently seen Mallett providing centerstage to the folks who keep it running for him.

Thus, when word circulated that Big Sky was undergoing an expansion, it provided the perfect excuse to revisit and see if Mallett's ability to bring out the best in his people was still working at a somewhat magical level. And even with additional seating, the now-bigger Sky was packed for both a Monday-night "small plates" tasting extravaganza and for a primetime weekend excursion, and the food was as great as ever.

The stated theme at Big Sky is "revitalized American favorites," further elaborated as "traditional comfort foods that have been updated in taste, health and presentation." After eating there, I'm wondering whether this evocation of modernized meat loaf, re-energized mashed potatoes and dolled-up brownies doesn't sell short the extensive and inventive menu that executive chef John Wiltse has constructed.

Sure, the zinfandel-braised pot roast that somehow, despite the 95-degrees-at-7 o'clock weather, didn't come off as heavy and winter-friendly, fit the stated "updated comfort food" goal to a T. The zinfandel gave the gravy a deep hue, but perhaps because Wiltse had minimized the use of thickening agents, it still came off with a soft touch, and the lightly cooked baby carrots and wild mushrooms that came alongside with new potatoes added a pronounced earthy bite.

But what about many of the dishes that we waded through for our "Amazing Graze" on a Monday night? What utterly perfect mom spoils her children with "comfort foods" such as grilled eggplant and prosciutto (Marcella Hazan?) or roasted-beet salad with spinach and goat cheese (Alice Waters?). No, this kind of stuff goes way beyond comfort, and, even better, you can try three, even four of them at a time when you eat tapas-style (which Big Sky deconstructs and retranslates as an acronym: Taste a Pair and Share) on Mondays.

The only potential negative with this approach is that your palate might have problems keeping up with the required acrobatics among spicy (Cajun-grilled fillet of beef, with a pooled dab of spicy butter on top) and tangy-sweet (the beets were flavored, in addition to the goat cheese, with apricot vinegar and toasted pumpkinseed oil); firm (four pan-roasted scallops with bacon, grapes and tart-grape-juice verjus butter sauce) and mushy (the eggplant and prosciutto, stuffed with four cheeses, shrimp and spinach); bitter (endive, with pear and walnut in a salad) and neutral (a purée of potato, enlivened by an orange oil slick and large chunks of lobster-claw meat). You almost feel like you're in training for some sort of culinary decathlon by the time you're finished, but virtually everyone is rewarded with the gold.

A weekend visit allowed us to pursue a more traditional pace, and the results were just as pleasing. The "small plates" this time became simple appetizers, and the seafood-and-crab cake, topped by a grilled jumbo shrimp, took the coastal specialty and injected a subtle smoky flavor into the cake itself -- thick, fluffy and laced with the primary seafood ingredients, with only a small amount of filler -- which was echoed and enhanced by adding smoked tomato to the tartar sauce.

Besides the pot roast, our entrée for that visit was herb-roasted Idaho trout served with a goat-cheese butter -- reasonably light on the herbs, and with the goat cheese serving as something of a supercharger for the butter, adding a creamy richness and just a hint of finish.

On the Monday-night visit, we'd chowed down so much on the small plates that we couldn't face dessert, but on the return visit, we indulged in a chocolate-cherry brownie that arrived in an unexpectedly round shape and telegraphed both flavors, supplemented by a scoop of vanilla and fresh strawberries. The sorbet of the evening was a peach with honey, and it leaned toward delicate, rather than the pronounced, concentrated peach flavor I was anticipating.

The expansion resulted in more space in virtually every part of the restaurant -- more dining room, more patio, more bar and even more kitchen. On one visit, we sat in an alcove that we were told had been added, decorated with a framed magazine article, some professional-looking artwork and some that looked like someone was proud of their kids' work. It was a pleasant and not overly crowded space, but I noted two problems: First, the overhead spots had an orange tint, which gave the otherwise wonderfully presented dishes an unnatural hue. Second, what was probably the air-handling system was putting out a hum like a shorted subwoofer, resulting in a distraction that could be best described as off-white noise.

Overall, though, Big Sky has been, and remains, like all of Mallett's restaurants, a space that gives your eyes almost as much to do as your mouth. A mural of brightly colored broken tiles forms giant eating utensils on one wall; the other walls are lined with painted diagonal checks below the chair rails. Giant grapes hang here, harvest-themed sconces there, and even the outside of the front door is decorated with graffiti on columns noting various attributes (for example, no lunch, but dinner seven nights) of the restaurant.

And, again, everyone from the host's station to the table seemed to be genuinely happy to be working there. We did experience the dreaded can't-get-the-check syndrome on one visit, but it was apparent that this was because our waiter was working at least four, if not five, tables, including one large one, and up until that point he'd managed to balance us all without arousing any notice.

Next time you're looking to expand your culinary horizons, remember that Big Sky is certainly comfortable, but there's a lot more to it than that. And within the next several weeks, watch for a fourth Mallett restaurant, Ellie Forcella's, with a casual-Italian motif, to open almost right across the street from Big Sky, in the space that was most recently J.P. Field's. Lisa, the renowned Slay chef who actually hung around all these years while her brother David ran off to Hollywood, is putting together the menu -- another example of great talent that Mallett has cultivated and kept around for a long time.

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