When money's tight, going out for dinner is almost always anchored to an event: "it's a special occasion"; "there's a little extra money on this week's paycheck"; "there's an insatiable craving for Chinese/pizza/bar food."
But sometimes the event itself is merely handing over the reins to the kitchen and seeing what they come up with.
Both Lafayette Fire Company No. 1 and the Stable offer dishes that are subject to the whim of the chef. Much like your childhood dinner table, you don't get a say in what the entrée turns out to be -- and there's no take-backsies and or whining, so shut up and eat.
The Contenders Lafayette Fire Company No. 1 Lafayette Fire Company is a hive of lively, organized chaos: Brick walls provide the backdrop for old-fashioned firehouse equipment - hatchets here, fire helmets there, a curiously placed wooden trauma board (right by the, uh, front door). Though restaurant tchotchkes are easy targets for mockery, it's got way more character than, say, T.G.I. Firemen.
Named for a St. Louis firefighter who created meals based on whatever he could scrape together in the firehouse kitchen, the eponymous dish known as "Schuckmann Supper Club" changes every day, consistent only in its secretive nature. (According to our waitress, customers are sometimes interested this mystery meal but then chicken out when they're told the only say they've got is in the choice of salad dressing.) We're picturing a burly fireman-type chef piling mashed potatoes on a plate by the shovelful, then topping it with a two-pound meat loaf.
So what arrives is surprising. The waitress calls it "chicken pasta primavera," and that's as good a description as any. The chicken is nicely seasoned and slightly but attractively charred. The zucchini and yellow squash are cut thick enough to retain texture and stand up to the not-overwhelming red sauce that begs to be sopped up by wedges of bread. It'd be a nice dish to order anywhere; that we didn't technically order it makes it all the more impressive.
The Stable Dark and enveloping, the Stable finds its muse in the brewing process: farm tools and beer-making equipment dominate the cavernous yet cozy space. The Cherokee Street saloon offers a couple of its own beers on tap, as well as dozens from around the world, and distills its own rum (under the label 85 Lashes). Unlike the menu at Lafayette Fire Company, which is dominated by bar-food staples, the Stable offers stuff like butternut squash ravioli. The mystery meal here is called, simply, "Plate of Food." The menu says only that the chef's selection changes by the minute, is good, and there are no refunds.
This evening's PoF brings an alliterative palette of P foods: pulled pork over roasted pineapple with a side of potato salad. (Charmingly, we catch a curious chef peeking around the corner to gauge our reaction.) The best-known pork-and-pineapple combination is probably tacos al pastor (another P!), but here the combination lacks the signature sunny zip. The pork seems dry and past its prime. The potato salad, however, doesn't disappoint: What too often is a mayo bomb actually comes out light, and the portion is generous to boot.
The Winner On this particular night, Lafayette Fire Company proves the better place to take a culinary shot in the dark. But tomorrow, who knows?
Lafayette Fire Company No. 1 1801 Park Avenue; 314-621-5001
The Stable 1821 Cherokee Street, 314-771-8500