The view from Harry's perch on 20th Street, through huge arched windows overlooking Union Station, the old Civil Courts Building, the Arch and the rest of downtown, is one of the St. Louis' quintessential picture-postcard dining experiences, and the food has always been a fitting complement to the scenery. But a couple of recent changes, both interior and exterior, have elevated Harry's to an even higher plane.
On the outside, a bit of light dressing has transformed the formerly too-dim evening cityscape into a nightly illumination ceremony, starting with the rich colorization of the Greek-temple replica atop the Civil Courts Building and culminating with the finally realized lighting of the Arch; other downtown buildings provide at least the illusion that the sidewalks don't totally roll up after dark. In addition, last year Harry's roughly tripled the size of its outdoor deck, so as the weather warms up, there's plenty of outdoor space from which to watch the show.
But the true test of a "destination" restaurant is its food, and we were enticed to return to Harry's not for the world-class view out the windows but because we'd heard that some changes in the kitchen had resulted in some equally world-class scenes on the plate. Chef Bruce Piatek has been calling the shots for a little over six months, and he's obviously having fun, scenting with saffron, garnishing with sevruga caviar and foie gras, constructing fresh pastas such as ravioli of rabbit and generally not fearing to boldly go where not many locally have gone before. And on the back end of the meal is now a full-time pastry chef, Craig Radcliffe, to make sure the complete experience is nothing short of da bombe.
With its high ceilings, bold wall tones, vibrant Max R. Scharf paintings and generally electric vibe, there isn't a lot of subtlety in the immediate atmosphere at Harry's, but there certainly is in some of Piatek's flavor combinations. Vanilla bean in the beurre blanc that comes under the scallop appetizer? Well, when you remember that a gentle touch of vanilla is one of those surprising complements to lobster, you can see where the inspiration might have come from. In this case, it's ever so delicate, with more aroma than flavor, finishing after an initial hint of saffron. The sauce gets caught up less in the three large, pan-seared scallops than it does in their coating of polenta, which is browned on the edges to provide an additional toasty flavor.
And the nightly specials! There were several on each of our visits, so we divided our order both times between on- and off-menu items. The first time it was a smoked sturgeon served with saffron gnocchi and garnished with a dollop of masago, the bright-orange roe of flying fish that is probably best known as a sushi ingredient. The smokehouse aroma of the fish arrived even before the black triangular plate made it to the table, tempered just slightly by the distinctive perfume of saffron. Despite the dominance of the smoky smell, the relatively bold flavor of the fish stood up well to smoking, and the airy, puffy gnocchi provided a neutral base for both their saffron sauce and the fish. Fine caviar probably would have been lost against these flavors, so the addition of the less expensive orange stuff was a good artistic decision, still providing the mouth pops and extra salty-fish taste without wasting a delicacy.
Our second off-menu entrée was a rack of lamb cut into seven overlapping chops, served atop rabbit ravioli and sautéed chard. The lamb itself was basically left to its own devices, juicy and succulent and trimmed such that only a crispy-edged oval of pinkish meat was left at the end of each long rib bone. In addition to the chunks of rabbit meat inside the tricolored rectangular ravioli, though, was a clever mixture of cheeses -- Gorgonzola, Asiago and mozzarella -- that added complexity to the flavor combinations. The chard, a relatively neutral player, served as another indication that Piatek pays attention to the oft-ignored vegetables that round out a plate.
Our entrées from the regular menu were lobster ravioli and the chef's linguine with Gulf shrimp, the latter certainly not as elaborate as much of the rest of our meal but still laden with fresh flavors -- mushroom, tomato and a pervasive cooked-in garlic taste -- to complement the six large Gulf shrimp. The lobster ravioli, however, again showcased Piatek's virtuosity: six burnt-umber triangles with tangible amounts of lobster meat in each, floating in a rich lobster sauce with just a hint of brandy at the finish and topped with matching dollops of crème fraîche and sevruga caviar. "You can taste it even before it's in your mouth," was my wife's eloquent summary of the way the aromatics of the dish hit you well before you dug in.
The signature Harry's crab-cake appetizer is still on the menu and still worth its reputation: two irregular domes of crab and andouille sausage, with a spicy, hammy flavor added by the andouille and a condensed, concentrated taste of roasted red pepper from the coulis served underneath. So, too, are Harry's flatbreads, thin-crust pizzas topped with a choice of duck confit and goat cheese or a boneless take-off on Buffalo wings. Our favorite appetizer, though, was the seared duck foie gras, which echoed one traditional preparation by substituting a mango chutney for the apples found in a recipe indigenous to Normandy. It risked overkill with two more sources of sweetness, a sweet-potato purée and little splotches of a port-wine reduction underneath. But I loved all those simultaneous flavors, especially because the searing on the foie gras was heavier than might have been expected; I could, however, see where some might prefer this particular luxury item with only a single supporting flavor.
After all of that, the same old tiramisu and "death by chocolate" that populates too many local dessert menus would have been a bit of a letdown, but Radcliffe's tray certainly wasn't. The carrot cake was still a carrot cake, but it was huge, perfectly moist and laced with nuts. The delicate apple tart combined both sweet and tart flavors and was perfectly paired with a highly scented globe of cinnamon ice cream. More elaborate were the fresh berries in an almond tuile -- plump, fresh blueberries, raspberries and blackberries (although oddly, at this point in the California growing season, no strawberries); the real surprise was an almost ethereal honey mousse sitting in the middle. Obviously not squirrelly about mousse, Radcliffe also featured one, this time of chocolate and Bailey's Irish Cream liqueur, inside of his bombe, a semisphere encased in what at first appeared to be a hard shell of chocolate but turned out to have a much softer texture, more like what you'd find in a box of chocolate-covered candies.
The place was jumping on both of our visits, including large parties each night, but our servers easily kept pace, providing detailed descriptions of the regular items and specials (and, in a nice touch that should be universal, noting the price up front for all off-menu items). On each evening we managed to put our servers to a stress test, shattering a glass one night and discovering a wayward duck bone in our flatbread on the other. In the first case, we were whisked into the bar for just a minute while a swarm of servers descended on and remade our table; in the other, the host made noises about how he would have to punish the kitchen and promptly offered a complimentary glass of wine as a curative.
Speaking of wine, the list is fairly extensive (as is a secondary list of hard liquors and cocktails) and provides an opportunity to spend a lot or a little, but, given the level of the food, I would have liked to see a little more attention paid to the by-the-glass selections, focusing more on smaller wineries and offering, for example, something specifically appropriate for the foie gras.
Harry's has been high on the list for places to take out-of-towners to show them St. Louis' best face since opening about nine years ago. But even if you don't have guests, you really should head down there for some of the most innovative cooking in town, spiced with a dose of civic pride. (And don't worry if there's a meat-and-potatoes type in your party. The elaborate choices are balanced by steaks, pork chops, smoked ribs, fish and even liver and onions.) Try to time your reservation with the sunset for the fullest effect.