I know just how the evening would unfold. I'd pull into the parking lot, eye an empty space, then notice that the entire front of the lot is reserved for valet. I'd head to the self-park toward the back, only to find it full. But hell, I'm about to eat at one of St. Louis' hoity-toitiest establishments, one that recently reopened under new ownership after a three-year dormancy. With a pedigree that dates back to the 1890s, this joint's the crème de la county, the Tony's of old-money suburbia. So I'll swing around to the front, hand the valet my keys and say buh-bye to three bucks. But I'll still have to ward off the temptation to park my heap (with the front bumper missing) in a designated valet spot and dare someone to correct me as I saunter to the entrance. Isn't avarice how the rich got rich?
I'll step inside to be greeted by no fewer than three hosts and/or hostesses, all of them clad in the chicest black, nary a single fold of flesh or visible pore. As I ponder whether these comely specimens might have been rented by the hour from a downtown modeling agency, they'll smile Stepfordishly and gesture me toward the coat check. As with the valet, I may choose not to partake of this amenity, especially if the long banquettes that border the main dining area aren't too crowded to pile my jacket there. Either way, a brief interlude of confusion will ensue as the host contingent settles on where to seat me and who will lead me there.
The new Busch's Grove, you see, is replete with seating options: the original structure's bar and dining room, whose glossy-wood embellishments and gilded mirrors give a staid nod to the former establishment's country-club aesthetic; a sleek, narrow "club room" that abuts an additional (and new) bar and lounge; a sushi bar near the front foyer. I'll most likely find myself in the brightly lighted main dining room, where I'll look around to see if I'm in the presence of any local celebs. (A few visits back, I spotted Terry Crouppen Esq. and had to fight the urge to ask him whether he's really friends with William Shatner, who stars in his local TV ads.) Only then will I sit back and take in the room itself, a rococo space that teeters on the precipice of overdesign. According to one of the waiters (who, like all of them, remembers my face from previous visits and gives me an affable hello), every detail's got meaning: The shards of black marble dangling from the ceiling on fishing line may look like an upside-down rock garden, but they're meant to convey the stars at night notice the tiny spotlights rigged to glimmer off them as they ever-so-slightly sway on high! To my eye it still looks like an upside-down rock garden, but it's impressive to hear that it took two workers a week to hand-set the rocks while lying on scaffolding Michelangelo-style. The thatched branches that cover the stretches of ceiling around the perimeter are intended to evoke the old Busch's Grove's courtyard. Similarly, the four private dining rooms off this main space are decked out with screens and raw wood, harking back to Busch's outdoor cabanas of yore.
Now the menu, jacketed in weighty embossed vinyl, will be placed before me, landing with a gentle thud that brings to mind the sound a Mercedes door makes when you close it. Drinks are listed on the first page, headed by an assortment of decidedly untraditional martinis, some of which are made with blue-collar liqueurs like Apple Pucker (how amusing!), others with top-shelf ingredients like fresh white peach purée (how decadent!). There are classic cocktails, like Manhattans and sidecars, a half-dozen sakes to pair with the sushi and raw bar items and, highlighted amid all this, the Grove Executive Pour: a four-ounce (as in a double shot) serving of the spirit of your choice, priced at $14. No one ever said the good life came cheap.
As I do on every visit, I'll search for the inevitable weak spots, the missteps, but I won't find many. Yellowfin tuna nigiri possessed the softness of the proverbial baby's butt cheeks and rested upon its bed of rice like a downy duvet upon a mattress. Unagi (freshwater eel) was a savory delight. Shrimp cocktail, featuring crustaceans big enough to masquerade as prawns, carried clean, pure flavor that paired pleasantly with the old-school cocktail sauce. A grilled portobello mushroom starter was nice and light, its roasted peppers and balsamic dressing adding a touch of much-welcomed intensity. Creamy doesn't begin to describe the medallions of goat cheese atop the pistachio-crusted goat cheese salad, which were given some candy-flavored roasted beets to play with and some simple frisée and greens to underscore them. French onion soup contained all the classic elements, including a ton of sweet onion slices that prevented the soup from becoming boring toward the bottom and a melted Gruyère covering that wasn't unduly unwieldy. (OK, there's one glaring boner: the Crispy Lobster Oriental, a "specialty" starter for two or more that's basically lobster meat that's extracted, cut up and deep-fried tempura style, then rearranged in the shell and served. I'd never consign a lobster to such a fate, let alone plunk down $45 for the privilege.)
Busch's Grove is an unabashed chops-and-seafood operation: lobster bisque, raw oysters, sushi rolls, Atlantic swordfish, ahi tuna, filet mignon, a double-cut pork chop, a bone-in rib eye. The menu also offers a roasted half-chicken. There are no pasta dishes to be found, nor vegetarian options beyond the salads and a couple of appetizers and à la carte sides.
My stab at beef a 22-ounce prime rib eye "cowboy steak" was, to put it succinctly, all giddy-up. Each of the four seafood entrées are offered in the chef's preparation or "simply grilled"; the latter, one assumes, for the trophy wives. Being single and gluttonous, I went for Norwegian salmon plated atop toasted almond couscous. The wild-caught fish was everything it could be flaky, juicy, lip-smacking, delicious the couscous was of the Israeli variety, with grains the size of tapioca beads. Pan-seared Chilean sea bass imparted a flavorful essence and a terrific texture, though its balsamic reduction tinted with the accompanying roasted beets proved a little too sweet for the rest of the dish. Some cooked spinach might have better bonded the disparate flavors. (For the record, there are serious environmental and political implications to Chilean sea bass the succulent species previously known as Patagonian toothfish is fast becoming endangered owing to overfishing, and the majority served in restaurants today are caught by pirate fishermen. I suppose I let my Marie Antoinette disposition that night get the best of me.)
I may encounter a subpar dish here and there, to be sure. But I can relax in the assurance that the gaffe will be handled suavely. A friend ordered a two-pound broiled Maine lobster one night that arrived soggy and virtually raw. She told the waiter; a manager swiftly arrived with an apology, a promise to investigate and an offer of her choice of entrée on the house. That attentiveness went a long way toward erasing our memory of the mishap, just as smoothly as the $46 charge vanished from our bill. I'll add, though, that I don't believe our waiter checked in during the entrée course. In fact, aside from one or two ultraprofessional waiters, the service at Busch's Grove is far from rarefied. The staff tends to come across unpolished, and sometimes markedly casual.
I'll be sure to finish my dinner at Busch's Grove with a dessert, more than likely the warm truffle cookie sundae, an oversize, underbaked chocolate cookie capped with chocolate ice cream and a warm caramel sauce. (So simple, yet so luscious why hasn't anyone thought of this dessert before?) And after I've settled my bill in the dining room, chances are I'll sashay over to that lounge, which features live music every night, along with an expanded menu of "martinis." There I'll amuse myself by bumming smokes off rich older men and gently swirling my martini glass, at the bottom of which resides a nugget of dry ice that causes the cocktail to bubble and smoke like witch's brew. And there I'll tarry until the witching hour, when I'll head home, drift off to sleep and dream about doing it all over again tomorrow.