Chili Reception: Is Joe's Chili Bowl upstaged by Citygarden's excellence?

Slideshow: Inside Joe's Chili Bowl

Joe's "Chili Mac Suprema" with cheese, onions, special sauce and sour cream. Slideshow: Inside Joe's Chili Bowl
Joe's "Chili Mac Suprema" with cheese, onions, special sauce and sour cream. Slideshow: Inside Joe's Chili Bowl
The Terrace View should be one of the jewels of downtown, a restaurant as distinctive as any in St. Louis. Were it nothing but a gift shop, the building at the northeast corner of funky, fantastic Citygarden would be striking. Designed by Studio|Dunham Architects, it's a space both modern and timeless, sleek and soulful: a steel-and-glass box extending out from a stone base, with a dramatic bronze relief by Fernand Léger affixed to the exterior façade and Niki de Saint Phalle's playful Adam & Eve positioned smack-dab in the center of the dining room. It demands a unique tenant.

The restaurant opened in August 2009 under the guidance of Jim Fiala, the restaurateur behind the successful and acclaimed rustic Italian restaurant Acero in Maplewood, the French-inflected Crossing in Clayton and the casual bistro Liluma in the Central West End. This seemed a smart choice on the part of the Gateway Foundation, which oversees Citygarden. Not only is Fiala an excellent chef in his own right, he has proven himself adept at cultivating talented young chefs to oversee the day-to-day operations at his establishments.

Yet the Terrace View never caught fire — neither under its initial format of smart but accessible American bistro fare with Mediterranean touches drawn from Fiala's other ventures, nor with a later menu derived almost entirely from Acero's. With his lease up at the end of 2011, Fiala decided not to continue. The problem, he told me at the time, was one that has bedeviled many downtown restaurateurs: Lunch business was fine, but the dinner trade was almost nonexistent.

The space sat empty for only a few months, however. It reopened in April of this year as Joe's Chili Bowl at the Terrace View. The new restaurant is a partnership between Kim Tucci and Joe Fresta — the founders of the Pasta House Co. — and the Patel family, which operates several local franchises, including Dunkin' Donuts, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Baskin-Robbins. As its name suggests, the relaunched Terrace View is a chili parlor, serving several versions of its namesake dish, along with burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches.

The building itself has not changed, outside or in-. This is a good thing in the macro sense — you wouldn't want to swap its spare elegance for the clutter of bric-a-brac you might normally associate with a chili parlor — but by the same token, it puts a burden on Joe's Chili Bowl: If you're going to serve a bowl of chili here, it had best be a helluva bowl of chili.

The restaurant's name notwithstanding, you can order Joe's basic beef chili in either a cup or a bowl. You can have it served to you atop macaroni or on a hot dog, as part of a traditional St. Louis slinger or ladled over tamales. Even if you order the chili by itself, you can have it topped with sour cream, chopped onions, shredded cheddar cheese or any combination thereof. You might as well pile 'em all on, because the chili's too-thick tomato base is very mild — so mild, in fact, that I might have been relying on sense memories of a thousand bowls of chili past to trick myself into believing this was actually chili.

I fared better with the tamales (I use the plural here, but you can order one or two), which are stuffed with seasoned ground beef and topped with chili and a "special sauce" that tastes for all the world like supermarket-standard red salsa. The chili wasn't any more palate-piquing, but the tamale's masa exterior was moist and sweet, and the ground-beef stuffing and salsa gave the dish a depth of flavor.

Besides beef chili, there are also chicken and vegetable varieties. The former would more accurately be called a white-bean stew with chicken. Whatever you call it — and I'm no chili purist, I just prefer to be able to taste what I'm eating — it's much better than Joe's standard chili, with a richer base of flavor and a definite spike of heat.

The rest of the menu goes through the motions. There's a burger, a decently plump patty that tastes mostly of the grill, the beef cooked until the moo is but a distant echo. Fries add an extra two bucks to your tab. They are thin and crisp but have the telltale blandness of food-service spuds. An order of cheese fries shellacs said spuds in a tangy cheese (or is it "cheese"?) sauce. As for the chili-cheese fries, the less said, the better.

The hot dogs are all-beef Nathan's wieners, and they're good. You can order a basic dog, a dog with cheddar, with chili or with cheddar and chili. The "Downtown Dog" is a Chicago-style hot dog lacking only the proper attribution. The "Arch Dog" brings a dog with sautéed onion and green bell pepper on greasy garlic-cheese bread, presumably because the Gateway Arch is made from garlic-cheese bread.

Under most circumstances I wouldn't write a review of a so-so chili parlor. (Though asking a chili parlor, any chili parlor, to serve tasty chili doesn't seem unreasonable.) This isn't just any chili parlor, however. It's a chili parlor inside a gorgeous building amid one of the city's most singular and loveliest attractions. Joe's Chili Bowl at the Terrace View isn't lacking in its execution. It's lacking in imagination.