A crystal-embellished bottle of liqueur, kept in a locked case behind a half-moon, mirror-backed bar, is gonna get noticed. When we saw it during a round of pre-dinner cocktails at Xanadu, all other threads of conversation stopped short. The bottle bore no label, but the case's pedestal read "Louis XIII," which didn't ring a bell with any of us -- but the potion's amber-bordering-on-mahogany hue, coupled with the fact that there were a couple Maker's Mark and Crown Royal fans in our party, led us to guess that it was a whiskey.
We asked the bartender what she knew about the cryptic liquid. What she knew was that it cost $125 a shot, and when we hypothesized that it was whiskey, she agreed, though she couldn't answer any of our follow-up questions. (It must be a single-malt, yes? A Kentucky bourbon?) A few minutes later, after it appeared she'd conferred with the management, she informed us it was actually a $135-per-shot Cognac. Days later, after doing a little research, I learned a whole lot more: that it's produced by Rémy-Martin; that it's a Grande Champagne Cognac, meaning that every last one of the grapes used in its distillation was harvested from the Cognac region in western France; and that it retails for about $1,600 a bottle.
We later got a chance to talk brandy with the management one-on-one, when the lag between our soup/salad course and our entrées stretched close to an hour. Our very friendly waitress informed the owners of the situation, and they came over to give apologies -- which we readily accepted, as one of us had gone off-menu to order a time-intensive, sixteen-ounce cut of strip steak (though it still arrived a tad too brown-over-pink on the inside to qualify as "medium," as requested) -- and offered to make amends with a round of drinks on the house.
We happily ordered off the stunning martini list, three whole pages of classic and contemporary tipples, and started asking more questions about Louis XIII. We asked how often it's been called out from under its cover (once or twice, when a fat cat has ordered a round) and if the owners had ever sampled it themselves (once, when one of said fat cats bought a taste for the house). A few minutes later, our martinis arrived, and a few minutes after that, co-owner Tom Krakover reappeared with four cordial glasses, each about a third filled with Louis XIII, gratis.
The Cognac was fruity, tawny, smoky, spicy and just a bit bracing. Whether it tasted like $135-a-shot Cognac should, I can't say, though I can say I won't be ponying up $135 of my own moolah for it any time soon. But it was definitely the highlight of our meal, and a story we'll always have to rehash with one another, to whip out at parties and to bowl over any booze snobs we might ever encounter from here until time immemorial.
That, wrapped up in a cordial glass, is what seven-month-old Xanadu is. It is a fairy-tale experience as much as it's an actual restaurant. It is a bragging right. It's as much not about the food as it is about the food (which is, barring a couple unctuous missteps, solidly and satisfyingly prepared). It is exactly what the restaurant's taglines -- printed on the menus and the cocktail napkins -- say it is: "Where dreams do come true! Elegant dining -- The way it used to be...."
For Krakover and his two co-owners, wife Karin Krakover and partner Randy Waldman, the way elegant dining used to be can be summed up in the memories of bygone St. Louis restaurants Al Baker's and Coal Hole; the owners consciously modeled Xanadu -- if not in specific carpet patterns, flatware designs and menu items, then certainly in general aura -- after these two long-gone dining destinations. The latter was operated by Waldman's parents back in the day, while the former -- where the Krakovers were loyal, near-daily regulars -- closed down when Al and his wife retired in 1993.
That was right around the time when food was just starting to become the big, hot, trendy, sexy thing it is today. Xanadu, though, is retro -- not in an arch, hip way, but in a completely frank and purposeful way.
To a gal like me, born in the '70s, a lot of it feels stuck in the '80s (not just because it shares its name with the Olivia Newton-John train wreck; clearly, the owners were going for the Citizen Kane/Kubla Khan associations). Its two rooms -- the bar area up front with café-style tables, and the more lushly appointed dining area in the back, lined with C-shape banquettes -- are decked out with dark colors, maroon walls and black napkins, conveying a sense of solemn lucre, or passé luxe. Nightly live entertainment often means a man playing an electronic keyboard and crooning lots of Billy Joel in velvety vocal tones. A portion of the front room is sectioned off by a parapet of glass bricks lit from within by undulating neon colors.
The menu -- designed by the owners, with input from a chef they poached from the Frontenac Hilton -- conveys more of the same. Veal Marsala, veal piccata, steak Diane, filet of sole Oscar: These are foods that were in back when shoulder pads were too, and, once upon a time, they embodied going out to eat at a "fancy restaurant." Most chefs born after the baby boom would now consider them punch lines.
Chicken Xanadu (the very notion of naming a house chicken dish is old-school, like chicken à la King) means a pair of chicken cutlets ladled with a mushroom-and-white-wine sauce, served with half a lemon tied up in cheesecloth for spritzing. Xanadu's is done just fine, but this is a recipe more likely to be found on the back of a Lipton soup box than in other, more au courant eateries. Same goes for a stuffed-mushroom appetizer, a quartet of button 'shrooms drowned in white-wine sauce and melted butter. Butter drenching also occurs in the shrimp and scallops Coquille St. Jacques, in which the seafood is topped with breadcrumbs and browned in the broiler. Anything soaked in butter is not bad, but it's also rather blunt and one-dimensional.
That seems to be exactly what the folks at Xanadu are aiming for. There's scant mention of herbs or spices, intricate cooking techniques like caramelization or searing, or clever, inspired ingredients tweaking a dish's flavor. (A rare but commendable example of true culinary grandeur is that the steaks are prime, the highest USDA grade of beef, though they are wet- rather than dry-aged.) There are lots of cream sauces, lots of port-wine demi-glazes, lots of white wine and lemon and mushrooms and sherry. For Xanadu's base clientele -- which, let's be frank, is older -- that seems to work just fine. On the night of our Louis XIII coup, our foursome felt like teenagers going out for a pre-prom dinner.
Xanadu's salads are pretty good, from a hearts of palm -- a nifty combo of soft Bibb lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, sweet peppers, crumbled blue cheese and delicious, salty hearts of palm -- to two seafood-studded salads available at lunch: the Crab Louie, which substitutes pieces of real blue-crab meat for tuna in what is essentially a salade niçoise; and the Neptune salad, more blue crab tossed with whole scallops, hard-cooked egg and tomatoes.
A lobster bisque, not as thick as a standard bisque and bearing a much darker orange color, looks and tastes halfway to tomato soup, while an off-menu New England clam chowder, also a bit on the thin side, resembled ranch dressing but carried a powerful clam flavor (I suspect clam juice was used as an ingredient, as there wasn't a relatively large amount of clam meat in there). Another throwback is the turtle soup, a porridge-like concoction with bits of turtle meat like ground beef and a little flask of sherry on the side to thin out the broth. When about half the flask is used, it brightens up the soup nicely; use the whole thing, and you could get a little tipsy.
In retrospect, I was irritated that a bartender wouldn't be naturally curious about a $1,600 bottle of booze kept within her reach. Then again, that falls right in line with a place where appearance is placed at a premium, where the look and cost of a bottle might matter more than what's actually in it. The waitstaff at Xanadu -- like the food, pleasant but hardly topnotch or majestic -- wears tuxedo uniforms. Penguin suits and pricey entrees can only camouflage so much. Perhaps it's easy for Xanadu's customers to pretend otherwise. In that case, Xanadu is a restaurant where fantasies do come true.