by Cheryl Baehr
Whitebox Eatery (176 Carondelet Plaza, Clayton; 314-862-2802) 7:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Correction: This article initially spelled Whitebox incorrectly as two words.
Since August, I haven't been able to make it through the store without ramming my shopping cart into an end-cap filled with holiday wrapping paper. Or gift bags. Or bows and ribbons and tissue paper and baubles meant to make even the least crafty individual look like the Martha Stewart of gift-wrapping. It's easy for the amount of money and effort spent on wrapping packages to exceed the value of the contents. This may seem wasteful, but the upside is that impressive packaging makes the actual substance of the gift seem more impressive.
I was reminded of this phenomenon when I dined at Whitebox Eatery, the breakfast and lunch spot that opened this past September in Clayton's Crescent development next to the Ritz-Carlton. The fast-casual daytime eatery is the brainchild of Modesto Tapas co-owner Brendan Marsden, Oceano's former executive chef Jon Hoffman, and Jamie Hardesty, who previously worked for (Marsden's brother's food truck) Vincent Van Doughnut. The idea was to put an upscale twist on quick-service breakfast and lunch food -- even grab-and-go items -- by making as much as possible in house, featuring local, seasonal ingredients, and taking creative liberties with otherwise standard daytime fare.
Marsden and company have transformed the former Stratton's Café storefront into a sleek, contemporary space that looks like a trendy hotel restaurant. True to its name, the restaurant is outfitted in white: modern white light fixtures, white minimalist chairs and a shiny white counter that runs the length of the restaurant. Dark wood speckled with blond accents makes the floor and tables look like they were fashioned from exotic timber. It's a bright, clean, lovely space, staffed by a hospitable crew who goes above and beyond what is expected from a fast-casual establishment (refilling drinks, handing out complementary pastries). It's a well-wrapped package.
The food, however, was hit or miss. From the descriptions on the menu boards, I expected to be dazzled. Brioche French toast promised toasted pecans and roasted pears, but it appeared thin and lackluster, with only minimal accouterments. An omelet, filled with roasted mushrooms and tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and a barely noticeable touch of pesto was flavorful but overcooked. I was most disappointed with the "Eggs-in-a-Box." This cross between a "Toad-in-the-Hole" and eggs Benedict sounded spectacular: two eggs baked into a thick slice of housemade bread topped with griddled ham, arugula and Parmesan fondue. I anticipated a warm, oozing breakfast platter. Instead, the eggs were hard-cooked and topped with only a small trickle of the cheese sauce. The soft, griddled bread and ham were the highlights of the plate. Conceptually, this is a great dish, but it needs some tweaks in execution.
My favorite dish at Whitebox Eatery was the granola pancakes. The cakes were thin -- somewhere between a traditional hotcake and a crêpe -- and were griddled golden brown with crispy edges. A generous sprinkling of cinnamon-flavored granola topped the cakes, along with fresh berries and vanilla-scented whipped cream. The accompanying maple syrup was barely necessary for this breakfast feast.
The breakfast salad seemed curious at first glance but was a surprise hit. Peppery arugula served as a base for roasted potatoes, bacon, fried onions and feta cheese. The runny yolks of two poached eggs mingled with the creamy, tarragon-laden dressing to form an impromptu hollandaise-like sauce.
Whitebox Eatery's chipotle chicken salad was overwrought with heat yet flavorless. The pickled onion garnish somewhat mitigated the blandness, but it was not enough to make the dish a success. Crisp butter lettuce, sliced avocado and toasted ciabatta were nice touches, but without better seasoning, the dish failed to impress.
Overall, I enjoyed the smoked-salmon tartine. The hot-smoked salmon was closer to a mayonnaise-based salad than the as-advertised spread, and I could not discern anything fried about the allegedly fried capers. However, the subtle smoke on the fish, paired with sweet caramelized onions, tart capers, arugula and herbed aioli on a fresh-baked English muffin made for a successful dish.
Vincent Van Doughnut uses Whitebox Eatery's kitchen as its commissary and leaves behind some of its delicious wares. I had the chocolate and salted caramel glazed doughnut, a perfectly balanced mix of sweet and savory. Additionally, pastry chef Hardesty's handiwork was consistently the highlight of every dish (granola, English muffins), and her flaky, cheese-filled breakfast pastry is reason enough to stop by White Box Eatery.
Whitebox Eatery is a fair breakfast and lunch destination, yet it's wrapped up and packaged so beautifully that it elevates its so-so food, giving diners an overall feeling of satisfaction. It's fitting that a place named after a to-go container has nailed that aspect of its operation.