Bar Les Frères, the new venture from restaurateur Zoë Robinson Pidgeon and chef Ny Vongsaly (I Fratellini, Bobo Noodle House), occupies a former shoe-repair shop along Wydown Boulevard in Clayton. You will repeat this fact to yourself in amazement and disbelief upon your arrival there and during every visit thereafter. This was a shoe-repair shop? This is a restaurant? The tiny dining room looks like the secret club room of an Edwardian manor, the refuge of the lost, mad uncle the Crawleys will discover in the sixth season of Downton Abbey. The walls are the bottomless red of a femme fatale's kiss. Deer antlers, sixteen pairs of them, loom above the bar. Framed paintings crowd the other walls. These are facsimiles of classical portraits, mostly, but scattered among them are a few contemporary doodles — humorous send-ups of the portrait as art.
Once you stop gaping, you can't help but smile.
Did I mention Bar Les Frères is tiny? The restaurant seats two dozen, plus four (yes, four) at the bar, and you will be cozy with your date, your fellow diners and the nattily besuited servers maneuvering the narrow open spaces. Also, Bar Les Frères doesn't take reservations. You might have to wait for a seat at the bar to wait for a table. (I did.) The host offered to bring me a drink while I waited, one of many quietly classy touches from the excellent staff.
In my case, once I gained a seat at the bar, I stayed there to eat. It's a gorgeous piece of furniture — zinc-topped, vintage stemware displayed on glass shelves — and the bartender mixes a bracing negroni. The wine list, unsurprisingly, features a small selection of mostly French reds and whites. The by-the-glass options are pricey, and I was disappointed that each of the reds I tried arrived at my table at room temperature.
Slideshow: Inside Bar Les Frères in Clayton
As the name suggests, Les Frères' cuisine is French. Unapologetically old-school French, in fact: lobster bisque, steak au poivre, trout amandine. To open such an establishment in 2013 flies into the headwinds of all that is trendy in the restaurant world. (The no- reservations policy is très au courant, though.) I dig the contrarian spirit.
Does it work on the plate? The lobster bisque is unimpeachable. Unlike 98.2 percent of all lobster bisques (just a rough approximation), it brims with actual meat, and its flavor speaks of lobster with a whisper of sherry's sweetness. The Gruyère soufflé, another starter, offers an equally sublime and simple pleasure. Spoon through its browned and scorching skin to get at the thick custard within. Gruyère's salty, nutty essence is delicious as a spread or licked directly off the spoon.
The entrées fall somewhere between bistro fare and haute cuisine — not exactly casual but not overly refined. The steak au poivre features a decidedly upscale cut: filet mignon. This proves a smart decision, because the black-pepper crust adds a distinct, if blunt, edge to a cut that, while butter tender, lacks flavor. In contrast, the natural flavor of the meat carries a lamb special, two twin-boned chops lightly accented by a red-wine reduction with currants.
Sensible side dishes accompany both entrées. Each comes with decadently creamy, cheesy scalloped potatoes. The steak au poivre features garlicky haricots verts with a terrific al dente snap, while the lamb special offers asparagus. Owing to a too-casual approach with the overall plating, however, the steak sits in a puddle of a demi-glace and cognac reduction too thin to be called a proper sauce, which runs beneath both the potatoes and the green beans, undercutting their flavors.
Chef Vongsaly wisely doesn't fuss with duck confit, plating the luscious, flavorful leg and thigh atop a gently sweet parsnip purée.
My favorite dish at Bar Les Frères also happens to be the most rustic: two Toulouse sausages (one of the classic fresh pork sausages of France, often part of a traditional cassoulet) served with a potato pancake and braised cabbage. If you asked me to issue a blanket criticism of almost every restaurant in St. Louis, I'd say they are too shy with their seasonings. These sausages prove the necessity of a bold hand. The kitchen has salted them aggressively — right up to the precipice of being too salty. Yet on that precipice is a perfect blend of pork fat and salt and spices. The flavors pop.
I ordered the sausages on my first visit to Bar Les Frères because the dish ventured, if only slightly, outside St. Louis' French comfort zone. There will always be an audience in this town for excellent renditions of classic French dishes. (Don't believe me? Try to book a prime table at Brasserie by Niche.) Yet what if those can't-miss classics — lobster bisque, duck confit — were made to serve as a gateway to lesser-known dishes, an approach to French cuisine as idiosyncratic as Bar Les Frères' décor? The restaurant already looks and feels like a private club, or to play on the name, a brotherhood of like-minded gastronauts.
Give each member his or her own pair of honorary antlers to hang above the bar.
Slideshow: Inside Bar Les Frères in Clayton