Wiping the Plate Clean

Our intrepid reviewer calls for the last check and leaves some generous tips

I've been living the glamorous life of a restaurant critic, which is the same thing as the life of Riley, for exactly one year now. Not only have I eaten the free lunches my father always told me there's no such thing as, I've been able to disregard the sensibilities of thousands of readers twice a month (an enviable position, in spite of the occasional food poisoning). My ongoing mission has taken me to restaurants, cookshops and lunch counters of every description all over the city. Accompanied by my excellent posse of intrepid accomplices, I've supped on fabulous delicacies and sipped sumptuous wines. I've experienced poignant encounters with things like alligator, chicken feet, eels, cockles, sea urchins and -- the big kahuna of scary foods -- slingers. I've engendered the enmity of some restaurateurs, whereas others have erected shrines in my honor. I've even learned a thing or two.

Even so, the time has come to hand in my dinner pail. I'm stepping down, calling it quits, throwing in the towel. My editor thinks some of you might be interested in knowing why I've decided to bail out of the world's greatest job. Naturally, hardly any of my reasons are good ones -- a couple are downright bogus -- but here is a cross-section of 'em, in no particular order:

1. My cover has been blown. Among other security breaches, a photograph of me recently appeared on the cover of a local magazine. My editor says the picture doesn't look like me (I was wearing a fairly goofy wig, and I'm none too photogenic in the first place), but word on the street is that this photograph is already posted in the kitchens of several restaurants. Sadly, you can't be an effective restaurant critic if everybody knows who you are; the whole point is that you surreptitiously slither in, masquerade as a civilian and keep a straight face when the waiter spills clam chowder down your new Betsey Johnson bustier. Former New York Times food writer Ruth Reichl (now editor of Gourmet magazine) is famous for wearing disguises and flinging around credit cards bearing fake names in the line of duty, but I'm too vain to put on a fat suit just to go out for a pizza.

2. Food writing eats into my free time. My picture was on the cover of the aforementioned zine because in my other life I am a guitar player in a loud rock band. Rock-stardom is time-consuming, and although it is nowhere near as glamorous as restaurant-criticking, it is, I must admit, slightly more fun. Amusing though it is to think up just the right adjective to describe a botched foie gras, it just can't compare to shrieking around onstage with a Les Paul and afterward being asked to autograph a teenage girl's tushie in indelible marker. Sure, I could do both, but the fact is, I'm lazy.

3. OK, OK. The real reason I'm leaving is that, although there may be an infinite number of ways to describe a hollandaise, I think I've just about covered the subject to my own satisfaction. Meanwhile, I've got novels to not finish.

But before I go, I'm going to answer the question everybody's been asking me for the past year: "Where should I go for dinner?'

"Where should I go for lunch?" is easy: Nachomama's, of course. It's the best restaurant in St. Louis. I reveal no secrets when I assert that owner John St. Eve still whips up the best guacamole outside of Austin (his enchilada sauce is magical, too). Or Bar Italia, which is the best restaurant in St. Louis -- especially this time of year, when you can fritter away an entire afternoon over a latte on their excellent patio. Besides, most other places inexplicably pull closed their shutters at 2 o'clock. This renders them useless for serious gourmands, who by definition don't even roll out of bed until noon.

"Where can I go for a romantic date for cheap?" is easy, too: your house (boil a cow until it is reduced to the consistency of maple syrup, lob it into a pan of sautéed shallots and red wine or something, and serve it up with a couple of bloody tournedos). If romance is on your mind, money shouldn't be. Expecting love to bloom for under 50 bucks a head is expecting too much. Do you really want to have to spit a lump of gristle into your napkin at a time like this? Go on, take her to Balaban's and ply her with shimmering oysters and beef Wellington. Balaban's, the CWE's venerable miracle of delicious dependability, is the best restaurant in St. Louis.

"Where should I go for a burger?" Also easy: Blueberry Hill, the best restaurant in St. Louis. I worked there for 13 years, and I must have eaten thousands of those Big 7-Ounce Burgers, but even as I write this the thought of biting into one gives me a warm, fuzzy glow. The Berry also has a secret weapon: Ida Dale, the Loop's empress of home cooking, whose success with unpretentious stuff like pork chops, green beans and mashed potatoes has been kept secret for too long.

The answers to all the other questions are easy, too: Chez Leon, Truffles, Racanelli's, Fio's, the Courtesy, Hot Locust, Riddle's, the Black Thorn. They're the best restaurant in St. Louis.

But "where should I go for dinner?" is another story. Dinner is among the deepest of deeply personal issues. Dinner = desire, the root of all suffering. No two people have the same desires when it comes to dinner. Emotions run high in the blue umbra of dusk. The lush perils of possibility are endless. Possibly you want the best restaurant in St. Louis, but it is a mythical place. Its parameters can change at the drop of a hat. Sometimes it's your birthday, sometimes you're a vegetarian, sometimes your boss is buying, sometimes the chef has PMS, sometimes the dishwasher quit, sometimes the maitre d' just won the lottery -- each new variable affects the outcome. You never know what can happen. That's the beauty of it. Dinner is edible drama.

So where should you go for dinner? Beats me.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

I don't know where you should go for dinner, but I'm going to Grenache. They'd just opened as an appendage to Clayton's Cheese Place when I first visited a year ago, and I remember being as captivated by their undulating uptown interior as I was by the subtle, Mediterranean-infused menu. Since then, chef Justin Keimon has replaced Bryan Carr at the stove, and the results are stellar.

The thrust hasn't changed, but the execution has gotten tighter and more refined. Keimon tints each dish with a sunny, azure-sky feel unparalleled elsewhere in the city. Meticulously conceived, exactingly prepared and exquisitely presented, the food here is exotic in the best sense of the word -- it neither lapses into the vulgar nether regions of the cloning innovative nor overtly dredges ethnic cuisines for tired goodie puns. I am often accused of being outré, but trust me: Grenache is superb.

I give my highest marks to all 11 dishes I sampled on a recent visit, but a few were nothing less than perfect. An appetizer of sautéed snails, presented in a pastry cup, were the garlicky pinnacle of their species. Just as enticing, and possibly even more fragrant, was a plate of mussels steamed in herb-infused white wine. And naturally I could not resist the siren call of a salad of mesclun greens topped with harissa oil (a sort of Tunisian hot sauce) and three tiny crab cakes. Yum.

No vegetarian could hope for more than Grenache's quartet of baby eggplant. Roasted and stuffed with couscous, squash and pecorino, they sat bolt upright like a tiny Stonehenge on a bed of spinach. Bright semicircles of lissome red- and yellow-pepper coulis surrounded the vegetables. Rarely is a meatless dish so entertaining or so flavorful.

More substantial -- but no less tactful -- the beef filet with a blue-cheese-and-mushroom sauce durn near left me speechless. The meat was gorgeous, sure, but the sauce was a revelation -- barely perfumed with the tangy cheese, it was almost esoteric in its subtlety. An elegant potato gratin elevated the dish beyond mere meat and potatoes.

Yet, enlightening though they were, the aforementioned delicacies did not prepare me for the peerless experience of the shellfish linguine. Handfuls of prawns, lobster, cockles (yes, cockles) and fresh peas were tossed with perfectly cooked pasta in a saffron sauce that can only be described as transcendent. Unlike many concoctions that contain shellfish in such abundance, it was sumptuous without being tawdry. The dish was a triumph.

Only one flaw marred the evening: the longish lull between the first and second courses. One of my accomplices remarked that she found the portions a bit skimpy, but I'm not having any of that. Although there's no denying that no gargantuan platters of food were heaped before us, I applaud any chef who knows the difference between good livin' and gross excess. For once I was able to enjoy my dessert, an indescribable, soufflé-like chocolate pecan cake with a gooey middle. Grenache is the best restaurant in St. Louis.

GRENACHE, 7443 Forsyth, 727-6833. Hours: lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner, from 6 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and from 5:30 p.m. Sat. Entrees: $14.95-$25.95.

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