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River Run 

Whalen's on the Wharf sets its ambitions high and fulfills them admirably

Our travels this week take us to Grafton, a picturesque river town about 20 minutes north of Alton, directly up the Great River Road. In stark contrast to the gross neglect the fine "leaders" of the city of St. Louis have shown to the primary riverfront space in the region, this drive will remind you of the glory of rivers in general and of the mighty Mississippi specifically.

Our destination is Whalen's at the Wharf, which sits right on Main Street, maybe 100 yards from the river, with its main dining room, on the second floor, providing a fine view from virtually every table (although the window seats are the best, and in warmer weather they even set up tables out on the second-floor porch). The space was a bed-and-breakfast until a couple of years ago, when it was converted and subsequently opened as a restaurant in April 2000.

The proprietor is one Aaron Whalen, who previously worked at the Ruebel Hotel, also in Grafton, as well as on the Missouri side, including at Cicero's in University City. In addition to giving his name to the restaurant, he has also imparted it to a signature dish called steak Whalen, a filet mignon in a truffled Madeira cream sauce.

As those ingredients indicate, Whalen and his restaurant are shooting for the higher end, with both practices and prices that reflect that goal. The menu copy boasts of big things, such as participation in a buyers' co-op to obtain prime beef, and little things, such as preparation of a diverse selection of salad dressings all by hand.

In total, the place succeeds in its upscale ambitions while retaining a casual river-retreat ambiance, although there was one particular instance of corner-cutting that we encountered about which I'm going to crab.

Both in making reservations and while reading the menu, diners are advised to adopt the slower pace of river-town life and "please allow one and a half hours," at least, for their meals. That's hardly a draggy pace, though, and our courses all came out quite promptly, with the only service oddity a withholding of the bread with sweetened butter until after the appetizer course.

The dinner menu -- which, we were told, was recently revamped -- is relatively compact, with about a half-dozen appetizers and eight entrées, plus three full-meal pastas. On the beef side, Whalen's complements its emphasis on prime beef with an eclectic choice of saucings, including ancho-chile butter and crawfish remoulade.

We tested the beef by ordering the steak Whalen and found it not only an outstanding, perfectly prepared cut but also a fair value ($20.95 for an 8-ounce prime fillet) compared with prices we've seen at St. Louis-area steakhouses. My preference would have dictated more subtlety in the application of the sauce, which in this case was (with apologies to the annual Grafton tradition), well, flooded over the steak and plate, but it was a good complement to the meat, with the sweetness of the Madeira the dominant but not an overwhelming flavor.

As for the pastas, the ancho-chile carbonara was a pointed, in-your-face blending of cultural influences, with the common denominator being pronounced flavors -- Southwestern U.S. heat from the chiles, Cajun spice and fire from andouille sausage, pesto as a moderator, a sizeable but mellowed dose of garlic, and medium-sized shrimp and fettuccine as flavor collectors. The flavors were certainly bold and the spicy fire tangible, but none of the individual elements crossed into the range of overpowering any of the others.

In the "so close but yet so far" category came the snapper Duncan, poached in champagne and butter, then topped with an unusual but interesting duo of crab and roasted, honeyed pecans and finished with lemon-garlic butter. The sizable fillet of snapper was excellent, and the nuts and sauce provided interesting counterpoints to the mild flavor of the fish, but the crab -- well, I can't believe that it was crab. I suspect it was krab, or crabstick, or whatever you'd like to call that processed substitute that really should never show up when the word "crab" is printed on the menu, especially for someone who used to work down the street from Bob's Seafood in the Loop, the premier true-crabmeat source in all of St. Louis.

Both the steak and the crab came with nicely crisp combinations of green beans, wax beans and carrots.

Appetizers we sampled included a simple but wonderful variation on steak fries that used sweet potatoes and an unusual tangy catsup with extra kick and an exotic, subtly clovelike finish. The "trio" on the smoked-salmon trio refers to sauces of honey citrus, horseradish crème fraîche and sun-dried-tomato oil that came with several very thin slices of cold-smoked salmon, offering a choice of sweet-tart, smoothly fiery and earthily fruity ways of enhancing the standard treatment of smoked salmon with capers and onions on flat bread.

Meals also come with salads or a choice of Irish potato or minestrone soup or a thick steak chili. The potato soup reminded me of German potato salad with its bacony overtones and slight sweetness.

A very good carrot-cake dessert was made even better by the clever frosting decoration, consisting of carrot-shaped frosting tipped with parsley for its greens.

The wine list at Whalen's isn't terribly deep, but it's certainly broad, covering not just the expected Chardonnay (four), cabernet (two) and pinot noir (two) but also vouvray, moscato d'Asti and even an Illinois wine made from the chambourcin grape.

Our servers were all fairly young, and although they were attentive and prompt throughout the meal, they could probably use a few more minutes in the kitchen before dinner hours mastering their knowledge of preparation and ingredients.

If you're from Missouri, don't forget the alternative of taking the Golden Eagle Ferry/Brussels Ferry combination to complement your Great River Road scenic drive. And if you're from the Illinois side, be glad to have places like Grafton and restaurants like Whalen's, where you can have a very good meal while enjoying the spectacle and heritage of the river.

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