by Cheryl Baehr
Stur Restaurant & Lounge (4 Club Centre Court, Suite A, Edwardsville, Illinois; 618-307-9613) Hours: 4-9 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sat. (Closed Sun. and Mon.)
Angie Schmitt was a woman with a dream -- to create an upscale restaurant and lounge that would have a chef-driven, farm-to-table menu and a topnotch mixology program. A veteran of the auto-dealership industry, Schmitt knew that her former career didn't exactly prepare her for the food and beverage world, so she had the wherewithal to ask for help. And she called in some big guns.
Brian Duffy and Brian Van Flandern, Schmitt's restaurant consultants, boast impressive resumes. Duffy is a celebrity chef, best known for his regular appearances on Spike TV's show Bar Rescue where he doles out advice to struggling restaurants. Van Flandern worked for none other than Thomas Keller as the head mixologist at the celebrated Per Se in New York City.
So after my visits to the resulting establishment, Stur Restaurant & Lounge in Edwardsville, Illinois, I found myself struggling with one question: How could it all have gone so wrong?
The restaurant is in the strip-mall space that formerly housed Neruda. "Stur" is actually meant to be the acronym S.T.U.R., for "sexy tantalizing unique restaurant" (this is perhaps the first sign of trouble). Stur bills itself as a sophisticated restaurant and lounge, but it feels like an office-building lobby. A large, sleek, shiny bar separates the dining room from the lounge. On the bar side, the space is open like a wedding-reception dance floor. A few squat black leather chairs and metal tables dot the area. The dining side is decorated with neutral-colored tables, chairs and banquettes. The area has a pretty weird color scheme -- some walls were grayish green while others were vibrant jade. There was a mustard accent wall and another painted shiny cobalt blue. Instead of contemporary and upscale, the space had a dated, '90s feel to it.
Van Flandern kept up his end of the bargain by creating signature cocktails that are easily drinkable. The restaurant's signature drink, "Creating a Stur," blends vodka, Moscato d'Asti, cucumber juice, lime and simple syrup for a concoction that tastes like punch at an upscale day spa. The "Sturred Manhattan" adds a dash of Fireball to the traditional drink. The nose is reminiscent of a shot at a 3 a.m. bar, but the drink is surprisingly balanced. The "Black Cherry Stur-Sling" -- a mix of bourbon, black cherry soda, lime and simple syrup -- tastes like the Jack Daniel's Downhome Punch I used to drink in high school (sorry, Mom).
The food, however, is another story. One wants to blame Duffy because he's an easy, celebrity target, but the problems were less in concept and more in execution. Of the restaurant's appetizer offerings, I enjoyed two dishes. A goat-cheese tart baked into a buttery crust was delicate and fluffy like quiche, and it paired splendidly with the accompanying mixed-berry compote. The Vietnamese lemongrass chicken wings were plump and coated with a sweet and spicy soy, ginger and lemongrass glaze. Toasted sesame seeds sprinkled on top added some crunch. However, the side of sweet-chile "dipper" was unnecessary; its gluey texture detracted from an otherwise tasty dish.
Other plates were less successful. A teensy portion of beef carpaccio was bland. Maple pork "tasters," a cutesy name for sliders, may have worked -- I enjoyed the fresh ciabatta bread, spicy Asian slaw and sweet maple glaze -- but the meat tasted old, like it was cooked a week ago and reheated.
Some of the entrées suffered the same fate. The Tuscan roasted chicken, allegedly a signature dish, had an off taste and was so overcooked that it was stringy. It was supposed to be served with a pan gravy -- there was no sauce on the plate -- and was instead accompanied by some mashed potatoes in desperate need of salt. The trout did not taste fresh either, though this was mitigated by the brown butter, lemon-white-wine sauce and some Marcona almonds. The bacon on the side of bourbon-infused green beans also tasted old.
The orecchiette pasta was the best of the entrées I tried at Stur. Roasted chicken, sausage, kale, peas and tomatoes were tossed in a flavorful garlic-butter chicken broth. The honey-soy-roasted salmon, however, was almost inedible. The poor fish was so overcooked it was like cat food. The reduced soy sauce was a salt lick on a plate, and the bed of rice pilaf the salmon sat atop was chewy in some places and crunchy in others.
The sandwiches did not fare better. The jalapeño-marinated strip loin had no taste and was well-done and gristly. There was no sauce or cheese to speak of -- just some dressed greens and crusty bread. The fried green tomato BLT was fair, though the cornmeal-dusted green tomatoes were greasy. The generous bacon, herbed mayo and toasted Pugliese bread helped it along some.
Stur's dessert menu -- or lack thereof -- is evidence that the restaurant is still working out some kinks. On a weekday night, the restaurant offered nothing (though our server told us, at length, about things they had in the past). For the weekend, the restaurant brought in some unremarkable cheesecake.
Unfortunately for Schmitt, bringing in a dream team was not enough to turn a successful auto-industry pro into a dynamite restaurateur. She'll have to tinker under the hood some more if she hopes to save Stur from being a lemon.