Eat Drink Man Woman

Taking some time to let 1999's dinners digest

What did you have for dinner two nights ago? I don't remember, either. Unremarkable restaurants are as thick as clotted cream around here. Judging by the feedback I get, I conclude that this is because they are dumbly supported by a dining public who believes that as long as they haven't been poisoned, they've eaten well. Some folks go to surprisingly vociferous lengths in their impassioned defense of boring food. So it is not without a gnawing sense of futility that I submit my thoughts on The Year in Restaurants.

The unforgettable meal is what every rational restaurateur seeks to deliver. Thus, I reason, the year's dining highlights should pop, unaided, right into my head. To this end I have performed an experiment. I've hidden my notes, lit an unscented candle, seated myself cross-legged on the floor and closed my eyes. What fond food memories will wash over me?

I determine that since I started keeping track, I've consumed roughly 70 dinners in as many restaurants. Of those, I can recall in detail maybe 10. Some of the 10 were noteworthy repasts (Cardwell's on the Plaza, Chez Leon), but I remember the rest only because they were such cheesers (a boiled-pig's-foot incident comes to mind). This leaves 60 second-rate, utterly forgettable meals. Sixty!

It isn't surprising, by the way, that I ate so many of these second-raters on the Hill; I lost count of the endlessly cloned dishes of bland cannelloni hurled at me by stoners in crusty tuxedos (if you must dine on the Hill, go to Charlie Gitto's and get the tenderloin Siciliano). Or that Romo's, possibly the worst restaurant ever, is now -- mercifully -- closed. Or even, perhaps, that at Tony's I was served the sandiest mussels on record and that a delusional assistant waiter actually argued with me over when to serve the cognac.

But I digress. What follows is the stream-of-consciousness result of my gastrocentric saunter down memory lane. I've listed exemplary dishes that captivated me in one way or another, but in almost every case they spring to mind because the dining experiences of which they were a part left a pretty good taste in my mouth. Despite a preponderance of the unexceptional, St. Louis is home to some glittering gems. To wit:

· Snails broiled in butter and blue cheese at Sadie Thompson's. These were so enchanting that my girlfriend, until then a fervent mollusk-o-phobe, instantly morphed into a voracious snailhead. She would subsequently order escargots whenever she saw them (that is, if I was buying), but none would match the flirty delicacy of chef Erv Janko's exquisite dish.

· Chicken-fried steak at Lisa's Diner in Granite City, Ill. It was bigger than my head. I stand by my assessment that Lisa's weird white gravy is like unto library paste, but the stuff is elemental to this quintessential diner experience and should appeal on many levels to any student of the genre.

· Duck confît at Grenache. I have since been informed by an actual French guy that this was nothing like the dish as it exists in his native land. No matter; it still rates as one of most palatable substances I've encountered all year. I look forward to sampling the work of chef Justin Keimon, who recently replaced Bryan Carr at the stove.

· T-bone steak at our city's only Serbian tavern, the Shenandoah Bar and Grill. Just like Pop used to cook out in the backyard.

· Bruschetta at Bar Italia. So simple, so perfect: bread piled high with chopped tomatoes at their absolute seasonal peak, kissed with Parmesan and teased by the broiler. The grooviest appetizer, period. Bar Italia has long been on my A-list, and it's even better now that it's moved to roomier quarters a block west of its old storefront.

· Banana tart at the Seven Gables Inn. This unpretentious yet thoroughly toothsome confection of caramelized banana, custard and caramel sauce capped off a nearly flawless dinner. David Slay's been in the house since September.

· Spinach salad at King Louie's. Last spring I was so addicted to this salad's peerless roasted-garlic vinaigrette that I never minded the half-hour wait for a table. Let's hope that some recent inconsistencies in the kitchen have been resolved.

· Cinnamon ice cream with caramel sauce at Zoë Pan Asia Café. At first this sounded really awful, but the server twisted my arm ("You don't want mango sorbet -- there's no fat in it!") until I relented. I am a convert. It's a different, exotic delight; I washed it down with a chocolate-dipped macaroon.

-- Jill Posey-Smith

First, the happy part of Happy New Year: For the fourth or fifth year in a row, a year-end reflection on the state of restaurants in the St. Louis area results in many, many more positives than negatives. As has been the pattern for several years now, a flurry of promising new places opened near year-end, so we don't have much to say in detail quite yet, but we're excited about the early returns. My colleague Jill Posey-Smith has already pronounced Chez Leon as way-cool, and I was duly impressed by the new Bond's of Chesterfield. Several more newcomers are on the schedule for the next few weeks.

And with the expanded restaurant coverage that accompanied the recent changes here at the RFT, I also had the opportunity to revisit many old favorites, with uniformly comforting results. I reaffirmed my opinion that Fio's is the best restaurant in St. Louis, with Fio Antognini's consistently innovative cuisine and the fabulous unlimited-seconds policy. But I also got back to Tony's, Balaban's and Annie Gunn's, and I'd stack any of these up against the best restaurants in just about any city in America.

Several of the highlights of the year involved musical dining-room chairs, with Dierdorf & Hart's shifting its downtown location from Union Station to the living postcard view that faces the Old Post Office and the Arch; Tim Mallett's Blue Water Grill finally outgrowing the old converted Dairy Queen on Hampton and moving out to much larger quarters in Kirkwood; and, in a nice piece of symmetry, David Slay -- who had originally transformed that same Dairy Queen into his La Veranda some 15 years ago -- returning to St. Louis to run the dining room at the Seven Gables Inn.

If you live out in the 'burbs, your horizons were greatly expanded this year with continued growth in Clayton (Eddie's Steak and Chop, Grenache and Shiitake topping the list), but also very significant additions further out west, including Manee Thai, Yia-Yia's, Crazy Fish and Bond's.

And that gives me the opportunity to hop back on my soapbox and provide a parable to folks like Mayor Harmon, Larry Williams, Jack Danforth, Tom Reeves and whoever else shares my passionate desire for a vibrant downtown. A couple of weeks ago, the No. 1 college basketball team in the country came to town to play our beloved Billikens at the Kiel Center. Because of a national-television audience, the starting time for the game was pushed up to 6 p.m. As is typical for Billikens' games, the streets around the downtown Y, St. Louis Public Library, the Plaza Square Apartments and the rest of the area several blocks north of Market were lined with fans' cars.

When the game was over, several dozen came out to find parking tickets as a thank-you for having driven in from their homes in the suburbs and having spent their money at a downtown venue.

Now perhaps, just perhaps, a gentler solution for this and any other event on an evening or weekend would be to print up tickets that say something like "Thank you for coming to the newly vibrant downtown St. Louis! We'd like to remind you that our parking meters are in force until 7 p.m. So next time, please invest a quarter for convenient street parking. And after the game, why not stay downtown for a while and explore the exciting nightlife of the Washington Avenue Loft District, Laclede's Landing, Union Station or any of the many other fine downtown restaurants and bars listed below? Meanwhile, thanks again for visiting us!"

On the other hand, you could simply continue to anger a bunch of people who already have tendencies toward a negative view of downtown. Your call.

Downtown and suburbia alike, however, I send my traditional greeting to all the owners, chefs, kitchen staff, waiters and waitresses, and bus help who daily and nightly bust their butts to give St. Louis great food and great service. I'm always going to call you on it if I witness you slacking off. But at the same time I know how hard you work, and I'm proud to live here, to benefit from your dedication and to tell your stories to a local populace that loves eating out as much as I do. Happy holidays!

-- Joe Bonwich

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