Walnut Grill 1386 Clarkson-Clayton Shopping Center, Ellisville; 636-220-1717 Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m Sun. 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Let us, briefly, consider the description of Walnut Grill's "Thai Pork Mac n Cheese": "pulled pork, four cheese alfredo, asparagus relish, smoked gouda, sweet chili sauce."
Huh? It was hard for me to say whether I felt hungry or horrified. This confusion returned more than once as I paged through Walnut Grill's gargantuan, wide-ranging menu. The owner of the Pittsburgh-based boutique chain once described his restaurant's philosophy this way: "You've got a carload of four people that want to go out to dinner; there's something on our menu that will probably appeal to everyone in that car."
The result, however, is a restaurant without an identity where the kitchen succeeds about as often as it fails. It's a shotgun approach to cooking -- spray the area, and you're bound to hit something eventually.
Occupying the former Chevy's space on the corner of Clarkson and Clayton, Walnut Grill has an enormous lounge area, filled with high-top tables, modern-print booths and a bar that could comfortably seat an army. The dining side is a nondescript mix of tables and banquettes that could have been lifted from an office building. One nice touch is the artwork -- Walnut Grill's walls are lined with works from local art students, and interested buyers can purchase them from the restaurant.
Walnut Grill's table-of-contents-worthy menu begins with a full page of appetizers, many of which were enjoyable. The "Sweet Chili Boneless Wings" were crisp, coated in a sticky-sweet glaze, and reminded me of hot-braised chicken. The accompanying blue-cheese dipping sauce -- while deliciously chunky -- was unnecessary. The "Zucchini Planks" were equally satisfying. The thin strips of squash were battered, fried and sprinkled with grated Parmesan cheese. A side of subtly sweet marinara was an ideal complement. In addition to its already humongous menu, I received a list of chef's specials that included a mushroom-bruschetta appetizer. Griddled bread spread with creamy goat cheese served as a decadent base for the sautéed mushrooms. This tasty snack is worthy of a permanent spot on the menu.
I eyed the "Chicken n' Fries" flatbread with the same skepticism as the pork mac & cheese, but was pleasantly surprised. Sweet and tangy barbecue sauce served as a base for grilled chicken, chunks of candied bacon, cheddar, mozzarella and provolone cheeses. I thought the french fries sprinkled on top would be gimmicky, but they worked surprisingly well, providing a salty crunch to this fun little dish.
Things began falling apart with the lackluster chicken and Brie quesadilla, which needed additional sweetness to cut through the rich cheese. The scant drizzle of raspberry sauce proved insufficient. I'm not sure why the dish was served with sour cream and salsa. The former offered nothing extra. The latter clashed.
Walnut Grill's turkey club would have been better without the dry turkey meat. The star of the dish was the candied bacon -- a pleasant mix of sweet and salty that paired well with the honey aioli and cranberry relish. The greens, tomato, pepper jack and provolone cheese, however, seemed thrown on.
The Parmesan-crusted chicken, served over a wonderfully soft gnocchi, is some of the best-cooked poultry I have had in recent memory. This dish would have been a real standout had it not been drowned in a mix of tomato-basil cream sauce and cold, diced tomatoes. The effect of the mismatched temperatures was off-putting. I appreciated its flavor, however, compared to the wild mushroom chicken -- this cream sauce badly needed seasoning. The biggest failure was the "Salmon Balsamico," an overcooked, dry piece of fish served with a balsamic sauce so over-reduced it tasted burnt.
Walnut Grill's crab cakes were possibly the simplest thing on the menu and, because of that, by far and away the best. The restaurant uses little filler -- just a generous portion of jumbo lump meat, a little onion and a very few breadcrumbs for binding. Creamy dijonnaise sauce brightened the plate.
Things quickly went back to overwrought once we came to dessert. I was underwhelmed by the "Caramelized Walnut Ball" dessert. I anticipated a fried, walnut-coated ball of ice cream, but instead received a rock of vanilla coated in pulverized walnuts and topped with chocolate and caramel sauces. (I guess that's what they meant by "caramelized"?) It was a first -- I've never had to eat ice cream with a knife and fork before.
For a nightcap, I tried the "Smoked Old Fashion" -- Walnut Grill smokes the liquor over wood chips. It's aggressive on the nose but surprisingly subdued on the palate. Maple syrup eliminated the bite. Purists may scoff, but it was pleasantly quaffable.
Here's the thing -- the "Thai Pork Mac n Cheese" turned out to be pretty good. Would I have preferred the pork served as a simple sandwich? Absolutely. Walnut Grill may have the capability to please everyone, but it fares best when it leaves the kitchen sink where it is.