by Cheryl Baehr
612 Kitchen & Cocktails (612 West Woodbine Avenue, Kirkwood; 314-965-2003) Kitchen Hours: 4-11 p.m. Wed.-Thurs., 4 p.m.-midnight Fri. 11 a.m.-midnight Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun. Cocktail Hours: 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Wed.-Fri., 11-1 a.m. Sat-Sun. (Closed Mon. and Tues.)
Graham's Grill & Bayou Bar was Kirkwood's favorite watering hole -- a place to grab a cold one, catch a game on the big screen and buy a shot of Jaegermeister for your long-lost high school buddy. This was Kirkwood before the trendy development of Station Plaza and the conversion of the old cinema into fancy loft apartments. It was an institution -- and it still is. Only now, the property is called 612 Kitchen & Cocktails.
The restaurant is owned by Devin and Alison Graham, son and daughter of Graham's Grill owners Dan and Pat. When the elders decided to close after a seventeen-year run, Alison coaxed her brother into partnering with her to take over the business. The new generation of Grahams wanted to continue their parents' legacy, but they also wanted to put their own stamp on the place. After some research into food and beverage trends, they rebranded as a 1920s craft-cocktail bar and restaurant.
Quite a bit of work went into renovating the old space, though some mementos remain, like the signature brick façade and black-shingled roof. The Bud Light sign that hung over the front door has been replaced with a polished placard that reads "612," but the awning on the building's east side still refers to Graham's Grill. Inside, the wall between the bar and dining room came down, and a retro marquee-style sign adorns the wall, but the wooden trellis in the dining room remains, along with the familiar exposed brick, tables and chairs, and the room's anchor: a huge wooden bar. Despite the facelift (and the old-timey vests and bow ties the servers wear), they haven't quite captured the speakeasy vibe. It still feels like a comfortable neighborhood bar.
The cocktails, aside from their 1920s-inspired names, do not reflect the vintage trend either. There are no sazeracs or Manhattans on the short list; instead it is comprised of fruit-forward drinks that would be more appropriate beachside in the Caymans. They're tasty: The "Great Gatsby" mixes cucumber- and basil-infused rum with lemonade and blueberry puree. The "Coco Chanel" is a blend of strawberry vodka, lemon juice, pink champagne, strawberries and mint. The most austere offering -- and that is a stretch -- is the "Scarface." Tequila, tomato water, triple sec and lavender-infused sour combine to make an interesting twist on the margarita.
612 wants its food menu to be seen as gastropub fare, though it reads more like comfort food (funny that it seems to be the only new restaurant in town to resist this trendy moniker, even though it hits that target closer than others). The restaurant is at its best when it sticks to classic bar food, like the sausage-stuffed mushrooms, battered and fried so that the excellent herbed cream cheese filling oozes out with each bite. The better-than-average toasted ravioli is hand-breaded and overstuffed with beef. The side of marinara, however, was over-reduced, making it more like a tomato paste.
The smoked-salmon appetizer arrived nothing like I expected. I'm used to the cold, cured variety, while 612's was hot-smoked, cooked and served in large meaty flakes. The flavor of sweet wood permeated the fish, which is served on a mild horseradish-slathered garlic crostini and garnished with some capers and chopped onions. It was a pleasant surprise.
The lettuce wraps, however, failed to impress. Some bland over-butter-sauteed zucchini and yellow squash served as the stuffing for the iceberg lettuce leaf. And though we opted to add smoked chicken, the small shreds of meat added little to the dish. The only flavor came from a side of "oriental barbecue glaze," and overall, it was uninteresting.
Entrees at 612 Kitchen & Cocktails were mixed. Of the three different tacos I tried, none were special: The smoked chicken with barbecue sauce and the pulled pork with mango mustard underwhelmed. The fish taco was the biggest offender, though. At first glance, the tortilla looked like it was covered in diced white onion. Upon closer inspection, I realized that was the fish, minced into tiny flakes. It tasted OK, but the look and texture were so off-putting I couldn't eat it.
I'm of two minds about the "Gourmet Burger." The quarter-inch-thick layer of sugary tomato jam overwhelmed the ground beef, which was mushy in texture. However, if it had been presented on the menu as a "meatloaf sandwich" I would have been perfectly content. The pulled pork also suffered from texture issues: The small bits of meat were so overwhelmed by thick, sweet barbecue sauce I could have been eating a chopped-up tennis shoe and not known the difference.
The same sauce that overwhelmed the pulled pork worked well with the smoked half chicken, because the ratio was appropriate. The smoker's sweet wood aromatics infused the juicy meat, and the caramelized barbecue sauce clung to the skin like a glaze. And though I would have preferred fries to potato chips on the fish and chips, the beer-battered whitefish was crisp and delicate, served with a side of chunky tartar sauce.
Bread pudding is the only dessert offering, and I appreciate that the restaurant chooses to do one thing well rather than to have a laundry list of mediocre sweets. The soft, sticky pudding, covered in maple cream sauce, tasted like a cinnamon roll straight out of the oven.
The Grahams admit that they feel pulled in two different directions: wanting to honor their parents' legacy while charting a new course. Regardless of the theme, just like Mom and Dad's place, 612 Kitchen & Cocktails is at its best when it embraces its roots as a neighborhood hangout.