Eh ~scape

The Central West End's newest upscale eatery has Ian looking for the exit door.

A restaurant critic's resolutions for 2008:

1) I won't always clean my plate, even when I dislike something, just because that's the way I was raised.

2) I will stop criticizing crab cakes. This is St. Louis, not Baltimore. They don't know any better.

3) I will be a better person: kinder, more generous, more forgiving.

I should have waited until after I visited ~scape before I drew up this list. The three-month-old restaurant in the Central West End's redeveloped Maryland Plaza certainly helped with my first resolution. The other two? Not so much.

The oddly monikered eatery comes to us from native son Larry Levy. He founded Levy Restaurants in Chicago in 1978; the restaurant Spiaggia is likely his best-known property there. The company, now part of the Compass Group food-service management firm, owns restaurants in several states (three at Walt Disney World in Florida) and operates high-end concessions at numerous sports venues, including the luxury suites at the Edward Jones Dome.

(The corporate influence is pervasive: At ~scape, the comment card directs you to a 1-800 number to provide your feedback, and an ad for Levy Restaurants gift certificates is brought out with your check: Buy a $100 certificate for someone, and Levy Restaurants will give you a $25 certificate.)

Levy Restaurants has invested in St. Louis in a big way. ~scape occupies three sizable floors: the main dining room on the first floor; a private dining area and glassed-in wine cellar in the basement; a show kitchen for private parties on the upper floor. In addition, the company has opened Crêpes: Etc., a much more casual eatery, next door.

At first glance the main dining room looks like the sort of high-end restaurant ~scape aspires to be. It seats more than 100, easy, in booths and banquettes and at freestanding tables. The large windows overlook Maryland Plaza's fountain. The most striking design feature is a mock chandelier made of glass baubles dangling above the center of the room. Yet the partially mirrored ceiling and dull carpet give the place the chintzy feel of a hotel restaurant, while the music from an XM satellite radio station, with a DJ's occasional patter, is shopping-mall-restaurant tacky.

The servers bear all the hallmarks of intensive corporate drilling. On two visits the same server offered us a verbatim opening spiel. Even before we had a chance to order wine, he offered us a point-by-point description of "his" favorite appetizers. (Curiously, at a nearby table that was seated after we were, his favorite appetizers were different.) My wife had barely finished ordering a decaf when he asked: "Would you care for a decaf cappuccino from our crêperie next door?"

Not that ~scape needs to upsell. On that particular night, my wife and I each ordered one drink, one coffee and one entrée with soup or salad; we split an appetizer and dessert. Our bill (before tip) was $120.

Given that price and Levy Restaurants' history of success, you'd expect excellent food, at the very least. Yet the dishes I had at ~scape ranged from passable to, without exaggeration, one of the worst things I've ever eaten.

Let's start with the crab cake that scotched my New Year's resolution. For $11.95, you get a single, decent-size specimen. This is topped with "crispy" shallots and sits on a bed of roasted corn and squiggles of roasted red pepper aioli. Though the crab cake was properly seared, the interior was too creamy, almost to the point of being mushy. The shallots were soggy, the kernels of roasted corn off-puttingly chewy.

Shrimp and grits were rendered inedible by a too-salty barbecue sauce. (This, our server informed us, was made with St. Louis' very own Amber Bock beer! Which engenders as much pride as being told your flashlight is powered by batteries from St. Louis' very own Energizer!)

Olives stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese and then flash-fried were a modest success, though the sort of thing I'd much rather eat at a slightly upscale sports bar than at a seriously upscale restaurant. Of all the starters, the most representative of my experience at ~scape was the French onion soup. The soup itself was pleasant, flavorful but without much depth. (Think of the difference between onions that are merely sautéed and those that are caramelized.) Yet the dish was memorable for its presentation, the soup served inside a hollowed-out onion, a triumph of style over substance.

The one entrée I can recommend is the slow-roasted, double-cut pork chop. According to the menu, this is Kurobuta pork (what the Japanese call the Berkshire breed of pork). The meat had an excellent, rich flavor, though it wasn't as luscious as the reputation of Kurobuta pork might lead you to believe. A fig "chutney" — really just a few roughly chopped figs — imparted a subtle sweetness.

The ten-ounce grilled filet mignon was strikingly bland, even for that overrated cut of beef. It certainly didn't measure up to its whopping $37.95 price tag, especially given its pedestrian accompaniments, sautéed mushrooms and mashed Yukon Gold potatoes. I'd ordered the filet in part to test ~scape's most expensive item, but also because the menu mentioned a marrow gratinée, which seemed to be entirely missing from my filet.

Pan-roasted red snapper with a tomato-caper salsa and a celery-root purée was a workmanlike dish, a decent piece of fish somewhat dressed up but not especially noteworthy. A couple of bites in, any charm was gone.

And then there was the short rib ravioli. There were five of them — only five for $18.95, though this turned out to be a blessing in disguise — each an identical disc maybe three inches in diameter, as if formed with a mold. They resembled nothing so much as grossly enlarged human nipples. The short rib meat inside each was chopped very fine and seasoned so that it tasted like...Manwich.

Yes, that Manwich. The canned meat product.

There were some sage leaves scattered over the plate, and two shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano that had been slightly heated, like the cheese in a grilled-cheese sandwich when you turn it for the first time, but mainly this dish was grossly enlarged Manwich nipples.

The only dessert I tried was the chocolate pâté, a rather straightforward presentation of Venezuelan chocolate, caramel sauce with Grand Marnier and insipid, out-of-season strawberries. I might have tried more, but several of the desserts are meant to be shared with — I don't know — everyone you've ever met: Five ice-cream cones filled with gelato or a slice of six-layer carrot cake bigger than a prime rib.

The wine list features bottles priced from the low $20s to $500. Few of the affordable selections stand out, and the brief by-the-glass selection is shameful. Supermarket favorite Blackstone merlot for $9!

There are plenty of bad restaurants. Relatively speaking, ~scape is better than a lot of them. But I can't remember a restaurant being this out of whack when you apply the cost-benefit analysis: Greatly overpriced dishes proffered as if we St. Louisans should get down on our knees and thank the great big Chicago restaurant conglomerate for deigning to come here. My favorite touch: Only two beers are on tap, Bud Light and Amber Bock. Because, of course, we St. Louisans wouldn't want to drink anything else.

That, my friends, ~sucks.

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