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Pestalozzi Place is a diamond in the rough

You know it as soon as you enter Pestalozzi Place, the moment you thrust open the double doors and pass into the den-size slice of bar that serves as this wee corner restaurant's front room. You know it because of those doors, actually, those heavy wooden portals that bear neither window nor sign. If there was such thing as late-night TV infomercials that promised to reveal the shrouded secrets of restaurateuring success for only $299.99, the course materials would state straight-up that an eatery's point of entry must sport some kind of sign. So you know Pestalozzi Place is going against the grain. You know this restaurant wasn't commissioned by a corporation, assembled by a committee or constructed according to marketing research. You can tell just by looking at it that it's a do-it-yourself kind of restaurant.

And is it ever. So much so that co-owner David Lawrence lists his duties as "manager, owner, I do dishes too." Lawrence and partner (personally and professionally) Steven Graef live about a mile from their six-month-old restaurant, which is situated at the sedate intersection of Pestalozzi Street and Virginia Avenue, three blocks east of the cosmopolitan bustle of South Grand but a million miles away in atmosphere. They scouted close-to-home locations by bicycle. The storefront they settled on last served as a cabinetmaker's shop, and came pockmarked with boarded-up windows and holes in the flooring, and without any kitchen whatsoever. Lawrence and Graef spent four months laboring through a gut rehab, toiling as their own general contractors in order to save money (and, for better or worse, sweat every decision themselves).

As a result, Pestalozzi Place exudes not the sleek seduction of a professionally designed chefateria, but rather the sort of cheery, folksy remodeling job that brings to mind the collegial can-do spirit of Trading Spaces. This, too, is something you know from just a few glances: the walls, simply painted an upbeat avocado; the salvaged, shabby-chic windows that accent the wall separating bar from dining room; and the granite-finished tabletops and potted ficus found within. (Some of the windows came from the owners' house, others Graef found long ago in an alley. The granite was rescued from a throwaway pile at a local marble company, the ficus from a friend's back porch.)

You know this is somebody's baby (if not somebody's home away from home) by the way you're seated: eagerly and enthusiastically, and probably by Lawrence or Graef. The two previously owned and operated a takeout and catering business in O'Fallon called Dinner to Go; one of the reasons they chose to shut down and open this place was a desire to run a more neighborhoody, sit-down establishment, one nearby residents could walk to, one that built upon the surprising success of other Tower Grove East enterprises like Tanner B's and Van Goghz Martini Bar. You know from looking at the menu Lawrence created — a desktop-publishing job on colored copier paper that lists remarkably value-priced (OK, out-and-out cheap) dishes that adhere to no particular cuisine or concept. This could be loosely dubbed a New American bistro, and if the door did have a sign, the tagline would read "good food," or something similar that got across the aim: to turn neighbors into regulars.

So far that's happened, but the kitchen now needs to improve upon what remains a work-in-progress. Too many menu offerings at Pestalozzi Place yield flawed, unbalanced products, passionately conceived but awkwardly executed. Still, what the food lacks in refinement, it often makes up for in cuteness. (The aforementioned wallet-friendly pricing doesn't hurt either.)

You should know that it's probably best to choose a soup or salad as a first course. Five of the appetizers — three modest cheese plates incorporating Stilton, Manchego or Morbier, plus two hors d'oeuvre-style preparations of "hot smoked salmon" and "brochette" — rely upon French bread that's touted as "fresh" but turns out to be stiff, dull and unappetizing. The cheese plates, straightforward assemblages of cheese, fresh fruit, that French bread and, in the case of the Manchego plate, sliced ham, would suit better as a suave dessert or as an accompaniment to a bottle of wine at the bar. The salmon is served cold, accompanied by a dollop of horseradish cream and a garnish of capers. Though smoked (hot or otherwise), the fish looked more like leftovers than lox. The brochette too appeared to be a misnomer. Brochette is French for skewer; this was cannellini beans and mushrooms spooned atop rounds of that lackluster bread — a humdrum bruschetta. Another appetizer, butternut-squash ravioli with a mole-inspired sauce, was too stingy on the ravioli (four small ones) and too generous with the mole, which ran roughshod over the delicate filling.

The three signature salads fare far better: fun, sweet and unfussy, each one comprising a friendly trifecta of fruit, cheese and nuts plated atop simple greens: sliced pears with dried cherries, sugared pecans and Fontina; apples with Gorgonzola and toasted walnuts; sun-dried tomatoes with chèvre and toasted pumpkin seeds. Dressings — a cherry balsamic is recommended for the pear salad, a Champagne vinaigrette for the apple — are nicely conceived but slightly over the top in their sweetness. Roasted tomato soup was light and substantive all at once, prepared with just the right amount of resonant spice.

Among the entrées, the red meat preparations stand out. Lamb medallions in a port cherry sauce (at $17, the most expensive item on the menu) struck a memorable note of savory sophistication, while a short rib osso buco, though it bore no resemblance to a true osso buco's bone-in veal shank, tasted like the best pot roast ever made, matched nicely by a mushroom polenta. Baked sole rolled in bread crumbs and topped with tomato-caper sauce was nicely done but lacked pizzazz. The two salmon entrées — one poached, one grilled — were overcooked nearly to the point of inedibility.

On two separate visits, flustered service provided unwanted interference. The first time around, a glass of wine ordered didn't come till we'd put down our silverware, while a side dish of Swiss chard never appeared at all. A second visit proved markedly rushed when entrées were brought to the table only five minutes after the appetizers touched down; our server appeared not to notice that we were still eating our starters.

You know just by looking at the wine list that Lawrence is serious about wine as well as food. It reflects an earnest effort to supply good value and encourage adventurousness. Prices in the teens and twenties predominate, with a few topping out in the thirties. Among the globe-trotting highlights: a viognier and a Vouvray, two tempranillos and an old-vine zinfandel. Intrepid after-dinner drinkers might want to try the zinfandel port or an ice wine from New Zealand.

Next time I'm out and about on South Grand, I plan to check in on Pestalozzi Place. I suspect I'll see evidence of progress; I know I'll find an absence of pretension. <

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