Someone's in the Kitchen with Cardwell: Bill Cardwell takes his classic American bistro act on the road — to Lake St. Louis

BC's Kitchen

11 Meadows Circle Drive #400, Lake St. Louis; 636-542-9090.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.

BC's Kitchen
Beef short ribs...$17.75
Pork chop...$21.75

BC's Kitchen is a rarity among the area's better restaurants: You can see it from the highway, as squat and obvious as a Flying J or Cracker Barrel. It emerges from the undeveloped land along Highway 40 west of the Missouri River like some kind of retail mushroom, part of a sprawling new shopping center, one of those outdoor, high-end malls meant to evoke the charms of strolling through a small town's business center, bright but soulless, like a set on a Hollywood back lot for a movie about alien pod beings disguised as chirpy Yankee Candle Company sales assistants trying to entrap blindly shopping American consumers and eat our brains.

(Studio heads interested in reading my treatment for It Came from Bath & Body Works, wherein the alien pod beings are defeated by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who engineers an economic collapse to devastate the retail sector, thus starving the evil pod creatures of their consumer brain food, can contact me at the e-mail address below.)

But once you enter BC's Kitchen, any George Romero-inspired daydreams of Lake St. Louis as Hellmouth quickly dissipate: The restaurant looks as if it's been lifted from the hippest, most thoroughly gentrified neighborhood in St. Louis — exposed ductwork, warm-tone wooden fixtures and a freestanding brick wall, all of it arranged around a gleaming open kitchen. Only the large windows, looking out on nothing but a parking lot, remind you that these aren't the suburbs, but the exurbs, a 45-minute drive from St. Louis proper.

Regular readers of this column know that I don't often venture this far west, but the BC of BC's Kitchen is Bill Cardwell, the well-known local chef and restaurateur behind the original Cardwell's in Clayton (which he sold more than a decade ago) and Cardwell's at the Plaza (which he still owns) in Frontenac. His executive chef and business partner in this new venture is John Kennealy, formerly of the Noonday Club downtown.

At BC's Kitchen, the menu draws from the seasonal fare that fans of Cardwell's namesake restaurants will find familiar, as well as more casual dishes that might appeal more to the general exurb population than to serious gourmands: chips and guacamole, nachos, crab dip.

Yet even these "pedestrian" dishes receive the kitchen's utmost attention. The guacamole is prepared to order and garnished with thin radish slices and lime wedges. The dip is neither too smooth nor too chunky, and though it has been seasoned, its color retains a natural freshness — look closely and you can see it shading from medium to pale green to yellow, just as, within an avocado, the fruit lightens from the rind toward the pit. The crab dip is rich with chunks of tender meat; its flavor is both sweet and tangy. And while the French onion soup might not look much different from the French onion soups available at countless restaurants, with its cap of melted Emmenthaler and Parmesan cheese oozing over the side of its crock, its broth possesses a depth of flavor — beefy, with an edge of malty sweetness — that surpasses paler versions.

Cardwell fans will be happy to know that the chef hasn't lost his touch with a burger: "Bill's Meister Burger" (also available at Cardwell's at the Plaza) is one of the best in town, the thick, juicy patty topped with cheddar and blue cheeses, applewood-smoked bacon and, its signature touch, a spicy-sweet tomato relish exactly 37.6 times better than ordinary ketchup.

Dinner entrées tread the well-worn New American bistro path: beef short ribs, roasted chicken, pork chops as thick as one of Fred Flintstone's dinosaur steaks. The short ribs, served off the bone in a thick, rich tomato-based gravy, are a generous portion in and of themselves, but they occupy only a quarter of the plate. They share space with mashed sweet potatoes, sautéed Brussels sprouts and green beans — not to mention the hearty handful of fried onions tossed on top of everything else.

The short ribs are representative of the entrées as a whole: familiar, yes, much closer to comfort food than cutting-edge cuisine, but prepared perfectly, and utterly satisfying. The short ribs were spoon-tender, and their sauce had just enough subtle spicing to round out the beefy flavor rather than overwhelm it with bluntness. The green beans were an attractive green, with just the right amount of snap remaining, and the fried onions managed to be crisp and (as long as I ate them one at a time) light.

The pork chop might not be stegosaurus-size, but it's quite large, so I was impressed that it arrived still tender and, at the center, a light pink. The plate highlighted autumn, the pork topped with chopped apple and sauced with applejack brandy; the sides were Brussels sprouts, butternut squash and — the highlight of the dish — a decadently cheesy white-cheddar gratin.

St. Louis-cut pork ribs are a standout. The meat, from the Duroc breed of pigs, has a lovely flavor that can stand up to the smoky, tangy housemade barbecue sauce. These came with "Bill's Mom's Mac & Cheese," which — sorry, Bill's Mom — needed more cheese flavor. The menu mentioned an accompanying slaw, but this was absent from the plate; it hardly mattered, as the slab of ribs was more than one diner, with help, could finish.

There is lighter dinner fare: large salads; a chicken stir-fry; and very good ravioli with chicken, spinach and cheese. The expansive menu also includes sandwiches, pizzas from a hearth-fired oven and a rotating nightly special. The dessert menu doesn't brim with creativity, but the dessert I tried, carrot cake with butter-pecan ice cream, was delicious and, in keeping with the entrées, more than enough for two.

Though the bottles are housed in an attractive shelving unit that separates the main dining room from the bar, the wine list doesn't vary much from the standard template, with many varietals represented but no depth to speak of. That said, a few wines are available by the quartino, which offers more for your buck than by-the-glass menus. Service is very good. Indeed, from the front of house to the kitchen, BC's Kitchen is a very well-oiled machine. You might not guess it's only a few months old.

In the end, how you feel about BC's Kitchen might depend on how far you have to drive to get there. If you live in or near the city, as I do, you might not be willing to drive 90 minutes round-trip (give or take) for a meal much like you can get at several much closer restaurants. On the other hand, if you live in or near Lake St. Louis, BC's Kitchen is a welcome change from the big-box chain mentality seemingly inseparable from exurbs — at least until the economy improves and the alien pod beings can regroup to finish us off once and for all.

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