1998: The Year in Dining

Mark down 1998 as the year that Jim Fiala came back to town.
In a year of many positive changes on the local restaurant scene, the opening of Fiala's new Clayton restaurant, The Crossing, was a watershed event. My first visit there reminded me of similar "blown-away" experiences during the early days of places like Harvest and Cardwell's and even way back when Fio and Lisa Antognini first taught us how to speak nouvelle those many years ago in a pre-Galleria Westroads Mall dining room that then looked more like a set piece from Miami Vice.

Along with partner Cary McDowell, Fiala drew upon the pair's culinary-academy training and experience at nationally renowned places like Chicago's Spiaggia and New York's Daniel to develop a "crossing" of twists on French and Italian themes, supplemented by a Charlie Trotteresque adoration of vegetables. The result is a truly unique and innovative style for St. Louis, and we should all be hopeful that Fiala's youthful wanderlust has worn off and that he's come back to stay.

The French side of the French/Italian intersection at The Crossing was just one of many instances where French influences came roaring back into St. Louis dining choices this year. Le Petit Paris and the Thai French Cafe brought the style of the chef-dominated, densely tabled small restaurants of the side streets of Paris to the South Grand and University City Loop neighborhoods, respectively, and Bonaparte's reminded Main Street St. Charles of its French and Spanish heritage. Meanwhile, a second location in Kirkwood for Cafe Provencal continued the strong popularity of the hearty country style of French cuisine, and a return visit to the now 10-year-old Malmaison reaffirmed that it is still among the best special-occasion restaurants in the area.

Other countries heard from included a newfound variety of Eastern European influences, including the casual, welcome-to-my-home styles of Bosnian cooking found at Miris Dunja and the similar crossroads cuisine of Cafe Istanbul. On the high end of the scale, the scope and grandeur of the palatial dining room of the new West County Russian restaurant Zhivago was coupled with a sprawling menu encompassing many of the styles formerly blended into the overall Soviet sphere.

One of the more curious episodes this year involved Beaux Coo, which seemed to have everything going for it -- a central location in the restaurant mecca of Clayton, cooking and management from the same folks who have such a runaway hit at Harvest. Yet Beaux Coo's almost immediate flameout -- caused, in my opinion, by perhaps a bit too much hype coupled with not enough attention to the basics of service -- was a case study in the fickle winds that govern restaurant success.

We also said goodbye to a number of old friends, including the wonderful U. City hole-in-the-wall grill Ken Barry's, Agusti's on the Hill and the original home of fruits, nuts and flakes, the Sunshine Inn, where many of us had eaten ever since we were little sprouts. Sunshine's loss was mitigated somewhat by its replacement by Babalu, a fun, quirky toast to Caribbean island cuisine brought to us by some of the folks originally from Cafe Campagnard. Downtown, the Ruth's Chris corporate people finally got fed up with the idiocy of the city's growth-through-jails policy and pulled up steaks, but Court Square building owner Sam Glazer put his money where our mouths are by taking over the restaurant himself and renaming it the St. Louis Steakhouse, getting it open just in time for the late-year holiday dining-out rush. And Pam and Dean Flacco bid us a sudden adios when they realized that they'd never achieve their dream of a mini-empire of Flaco's Tacos that didn't require 80-hour weeks on their part just to survive.

Trattoria Marcella made more room for itself and promptly filled it all up with seemingly insatiable fans, and Zoe Houk split Clayton to go back to her roots in the city, this time choosing a highly visible corner in the Central West End and a pan-Asian style for her menu. Cafe Mira serves vino now, along with some very inventive dishes, in Zoe's old spot in Clayton. And long-time Richard Perry chef Gregory Mosberger began splitting time from his successful catering gig with cooking in the outbuilding of the DeMenil Mansion.

The coming year holds a lot of interesting promise, but I worry about the sheer number of new projects that seem to be finally coming to fruition, all at about the same time, and the effect this will have on existing restaurants and neighborhoods. Between the new convention-center hotel, the rehab of the Fur Exchange building across from the Adam's Mark Hotel, and the Cupples Station hotel, downtown is getting poised for an explosion of new hotel rooms, although we aren't likely to see the full effect until 2000 and beyond. Meanwhile, someone has finally realized that the Robert E. Lee had become a deteriorating eyesore, and with luck we'll see a quality restaurant back on the river sometime soon.

The Washington Avenue district needs to transform nightlife into 24-hour life, and more than anything, downtown needs an injection of jobs from outside the legal and insurance industries -- creative and/or Internet-related jobs that provide the "coolness" necessary to attract and retain the kind of younger workers who are helping drive downtown revitalization in Seattle, Minneapolis and Boston. Farther west, the long-anticipated renovation of the Continental Building in Midtown should help recent risk-takers like the Firehouse recoup their investments, and the return to life of the Chase holds tremendous potential for the already strong Central West End.

But can all of these projects succeed simultaneously? The Metropolis-belonging, city- and region-loving side of me says yes, but the longtime observer of torn-down landmarks, parking-fine-driven fiefdoms and civic dithering reserves the right to be skeptical.

Luckily, there's always a new restaurant to try in the meantime. And if you're looking for one, here's my traditional list of the Top 5 new restaurants I visited in 1998:

Babalu's, 8 1/2 S. Euclid, 367-7833. Bright colors and a lighthearted atmosphere mix well with a serious approach to the cooking of the Caribbean islands.

Cafe Mira, 12 N. Meramec, 721-7801. Enough people seeing and being seen to fill an entire Jerry Berger column, but they're also there for well-executed rewarding risks like the orange-and-chile-glazed breast of duck and sea bass with potato-fennel puree.

The Crossing, 7823 Forsyth, 721-7375. From the piquant blue-cheese-souffle amuse-gueule all the way through to a finale of lemon-ginger creme brulee, each successive course is artfully and meticulously prepared and always offers the unexpected. This place certainly aspires to a national reputation.

Pueblo Solis, 5127 Hampton, 351-9000. A small, family-run spot that takes Mexican up a notch with thoughtful preparations like a filet of beef elegantly presented in stripes of mole sauce. The basics are very good here, and the out-of- the-ordinary stuff is even better.

Zhivago's, 15480 Clayton Rd., 394-5758. The lowly beet and cabbage are elevated to royalty in this Russian palace, and the rest of the vast menu includes everything from elegantly sliced rare tenderloin of beef to hearty lamb and densely flavored smoked sturgeon.

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