Thursday, May 6, 2010

Brick House & The Crossing

In the past few weeks, I have had some notable dining experiences - but because I had to squeeze them in between my day job and nightly commitments, I haven't had time to share them until now. Here goes!

First, I visited Houlihan's restaurant/pub in the Chesterfield (MO) Mall. Because my job makes me keep odd hours, I happened to dine there right at the point where the day shift changes over to the night shift, so I felt kind of rushed when it came to paying my check. The food was all right. I had some type of burger about which I can't remember anything particularly bad or good. The menu offered an interesting selection of side dishes, so I went for a Greek-themed pasta salad that was supposed to have feta cheese on it, but which tasted remarkably like cold pasta in salad dressing.

During the course of my meal I ordered two beers on tap. The first was Blue Moon, an always-reliable Belgian-style ale that I make a point of ordering whenever I see it. The other was a leap into the unknowable unknown: Sam Adams' Summer Ale, a seasonal brew that I reckon tastes different every year. I sure hope it tastes different next year. I almost gagged on my first sip, then ordered a glass of water to clear my palate (because I didn't want to rule out the possibility that Blue Moon didn't mix well with it), tried it again, and spat most of my second mouthful back into the glass. It was that bad. The beer had a nose redolent of dirty dishwater. By this point in the meal, I needed to expedite tipping my server before he left the building, so I didn't make a case out of it. But the name "Sam Adams' Summer Brew" is now deeply etched in the "never, ever, ever again" lobe of my brain.

Another evening, I decided to try the Brick House, next to the IHOP on the corner of Boone's Crossing and Chesterfield Airport Road. This yuppie watering-hole opened its doors recently on the site of a defunct Joe's Crab Shack. Having been to that Shack in its day, I couldn't help but be struck by the contrast between the two places. Gone are the rubber sharks, scuba suits, and other ocean-related gimmicks that dangled from Joe's rafters. Gone are the tabletops with photos and colorful gewgaws pressed under glass. Gone is the cozily tacky family atmosphere. They gutted the place and redecorated so thoroughly that, if I wasn't assured otherwise, I would think they had torn Joe's down and built a new joint in its place.

They of the Brick House have created a spacious atmosphere with a high ceiling from which nothing is suspended but some flat-screen TVs silently tuned to sports channels, an almost blank brick back-wall, trendily streamlined tables, chairs, and booths, a couple of lounging areas where sofas and easy chairs are clustered together, a large bar, and an even larger covered patio which (at this time of year) seems to do better business than the indoors part of the restaurant. The effect is austere and professional, yet at the same time laid-back and casual. Loud rock'n'roll plays on the PA system. The waitresses wear really snug denim cutoffs and low-cut zipper-blouse thingies that draw attention to their busts. They're REALLY nice-looking young ladies, and awfully chatty too. While I was waiting for my order, three or four different waitresses came over and volunteered to make conversation, including one who slid into the booth opposite me. General observation: They aim to please at this place! Another observation: Married guys had better bring their wives with them, or face the consequences of being caught with a Brick House receipt in their pockets.

One of the waitresses told me that the Brick House is where people from a certain nearby industry go to get drunk on Friday night, or to celebrate being laid off, depending on the economy. It's that kind of place. It's also the kind of place where a man can have a tall glass of beer with his dinner. And what a dinner! The menu (full of racily suggestive items) included three sizes of burger: XL, XXL, and XXXL. I ordered a "Black and Bleu Burger" in the smallest size, XL. What arrived at my table was 6-inch hoagie bun with a deliciously seasoned beef patty shaped and sized to fit it. I've never had the like before. It was magnificent and, together with the adult beverages and the waitresses' full-court-press, made the Brick House the type of place I would recommend for, say, lunch after a circuit pastors' conference...

I had long been intrigued by the radio advertisements for Jim Fiala's fine-dining restaurants around St. Louis. Currently there are four of them, including Acero in Maplewood (which I used to drive past every day) and The Crossing in Clayton. The general theme seems to be a fusion of Italian and French cuisine with American comfort-food cooking in a setting that encourages you to pause and enjoy the pace of a multi-course meal accompanied by wine. Or maybe I'm making that up. I don't know. My Restaurant-dot-com gift certificate for The Crossing had almost come to its one-year expiration date when I finally found room in my busy schedule to do lunch in Clayton. Obviously my life is different from most people's, because the one-block radius surrounding The Crossing bears witness to being the place to do lunch in the financial district. There are a lot of places to choose from. But The Crossing has kept is doors open for a dozen years now, and it was doing plenty of business the day I lunched there.

The Crossing seems to have adapted the space left by a previous restaurant, the type that has booths surrounded by quaint woodwork details. Again, the space has been opened up, with any hint of a "suspended ceiling" removed and walls and ceiling painted in a few strong colors, a bar at one end, and an enormous rack of wine bottles forming the partition between two halves of the dining room. The menu is a one-sided card listing a modest selection of choices for each course. I went with a Romaine salad, blue mussels linguine, and (for dessert) something called Vanilla Buttermilk Panna Cotta.

Everything was interesting to look at, felt good in the mouth, and tasted terrific. The salad was a blend of romaine lettuce, onions, tomatoes, crisp bacon, and bleu cheese, all diced to a uniform size (something like a quarter-inch to a side) and tossed with a light dressing, then shaped into a mound in the center of a plate. The lady at the next table, who was served the same salad at the same time as I, complained: "This looks like a child's portion," prompting the waitress to send for more. I didn't find any fault with the size of the salad, especially given that a main course would soon follow, but listening to that lady complain became a theme that threaded through my meal: now I knew what it was like to dine among powerful people who are used to having their way!

The main course was a delicious, buttery linguine alfredo, cooked to a turn and tossed with pieces of grilled squash and "blue" mussels, which were actually orange. I said "delicious," right? The right flavors exploded in my mouth in the right proportion at the right time. I would recommend this dish to anyone who doesn't have a shellfish allergy or seafood phobia. I thank God that I have neither! The good, crusty bread served at the start of the meal came in handy as I sopped up the sauce left after I had hoovered up every last speck of noodle, mussel, and squash. And dessert filled in the last corner with a wobbly confection similar to flan, only with a creamier texture (sort of like cottage cheese that has been blended with Jello) and a more pronounced vanilla flavor. It was artistically presented on a long rectangular plate drizzled with chocolate syrup (which I didn't touch) and dots of some kind of red syrup (ditto), a fan of strawberry slices on top and two or three whole raspberries nearby. The berries made a great accompaniment to the panna cotta.

Since then, my most notable dining experience has been a visit to the newly-opened Babbo's Spaghetteria in Chesterfield. This is a sister to the Del Pietro family's flagship restaurant Sugo's in Frontenac. My dinner at Babbo's centered on the eponymous pizza--a "Neapolitan-style" thin-crust pizza, apparently distinguished from "St. Louis-style" by the use of real mozzarella. But I am more excited by the appetizer I ordered.

Eggplant parmigiano is another dish I always order when I see it offered, at least until I know how a given restaurant cooks it. Usually, however, I am disappointed. One place gives you a crispy disk of breading with no discernable trace of eggplant in it. Another gives you a soggy mess covered in marinara sauce. Babbo's does something unexpected but highly effective with their eggplant dish. First, they cover the plate with whole, cooked tomatoes that have been seasoned and crushed down to form a bed under the eggplant. This, in turn, has not been fully breaded, but only sprinkled with flour and toasted. The eggplant is sliced cross-wise, into round slices with the black peel still on, and with three such slices to a serving it's really big enough to be a main course. And the texture is just right: some crispiness, some tenderness, the flesh of the eggplant still firm, and all the flavors in balance. It's not what I would call a traditional eggplant parmigian'--not the way Mom made it when I was a kid--but in its innovative approach to the dish, Babbo's succeeds where many others have failed. Best of luck to them!

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