Is Lucas Park Grille still hip, a hot spot, the place to see and be seen downtown? Was it ever? I don't know. Frankly, I don't care. But I can tell you a meal there on Saturday night is as close to dinner theater as I ever wish to be, a hundred little scenes of the human need to blow off steam and maybe get lucky and how easily this need can be frustrated.
A bride-to-be, resplendent in white, wearing a tiara and waving a magic wand, hops up on a table and does a little jig. A dozen or so young women, giggling, stumble outside to wait for their ride; a half-hour later they're still waiting, one of them talking frantically into her cell phone. Now and again, a middle-aged man with a bottle of beer wanders a lazy circle around the main room, stopping each time to stare at the women waiting outside.
I could go on. To summarize: Lucas Park Grille is a spectacle. Remove all the people and it would still be a spectacle, a soaring, dramatically underlit space with flat-screen TV sets and fireplaces, a semi-open kitchen and even a small market. (The market is open only during the daytime. At night it's closed off behind a sort of cage, an unfortunate design feature: Is this where bad diners are sent?)
With so many distractions, I was shocked to find myself thinking about the food on my plate as often as I did.
McGowan Brothers Development, better known for its many downtown loft properties, opened Lucas Park Grille in the heart of the Washington Avenue loft district two and a half years ago. When my predecessor, Rose Martelli, reviewed the restaurant in January 2005, she was impressed by the décor "sumptuous and sleek," she described it, and it seems to have held up well but not by executive chef Kevin Willmann's food.
"If patrons are expected to...pay high-end prices, the fare has to live up to the table it's served upon," Martelli wrote.
The prices remain high-end. Dinner for two with drinks and a tip will likely cost you about $100, even if you split an appetizer and dessert. But since last year the head chef has been Jason Bayle, a 34-year-old veteran of several area kitchens, including Harvest, the Crossing and, most recently, An American Place. Willmann has moved on to Erato in Edwardsville.
I learned of this change only when, on a whim, I looked up Lucas Park Grille's current menu on the restaurant's Web site. But it was the menu itself that grabbed my attention. Bayle was pairing seared foie gras with toasted marshmallows an unlikely, intriguing couple. And he was serving what the Web site described as a "Kobe beef ribeye" steak.
This was reason enough to visit. To simplify, Kobe beef or wagyu, as the cattle are called in Japan has such incredible marbling that the best cuts can command hundreds of dollars per pound. Only wagyu from Japan's Hyogo Prefecture is considered true Kobe beef; wagyu raised domestically is sometimes referred to as American Kobe beef. You don't often encounter either at St. Louis restaurants.
Still, I approached Lucas Park Grille warily. Foie gras with toasted marshmallows and Kobe beef could be culinary revelations, but they could just as easily be bait for diners who enjoy conspicuous consumption.
I made my first visit on a quiet weekday evening. A trial run: I sat at the bar and ordered the pork entrée, a grilled pork steak and a homemade "pig in a blanket" with braised red cabbage and a vegetable tart. The thin pork steak had been overcooked, but the "pig in a blanket" a small, plump sausage partly wrapped in a flaky pastry shell was cute and tasty, with a strong flavor of fennel. But the standout was the vegetable tart, with very thinly sliced carrots and onions layered in a pastry crust, the vegetables just tender enough to fuse together without being mushy, just sweet enough to contrast the savory pork and the vinegary cabbage.
That dish is no longer on the menu, but it was enough to compel me to return and try the foie gras, the Kobe beef rib eye and another surprise a roasted saddle of venison in a juniper poivrade thickened with raisins. The lean, juicy meat had a deeply savory smack (the sauce is three days in the making, Bayle told me, and the bones for the sauce are marinated for four days beforehand), and a side of Brussels sprouts roasted with pancetta lent the entrée the crisp, bittersweet edge of the woods in winter. Seared ahi tuna was also lovely, with brilliant, dark pink flesh and a clean, sweet flavor. The tuna comes with a sauce of preserved lemon, garlic and herbs, but this was so unobtrusive, or the pieces of tuna so large, that I didn't notice it.
I wish Bayle had shown that light touch with the cornmeal-encrusted halibut dish I tried. The halibut was served with mushrooms, truffled gnocchi, cipollini onions glazed with balsamic vinegar, pine nuts and a green-apple vinaigrette. The individual elements were just OK the gnocchi were mushy, and the halibut, while succulent, was too salty but nothing worked in concert.
And then there was the Kobe beef. The printed menu revealed that this is, in fact, American wagyu beef, which was fine, considering the extravagant price of the Japanese product. As it is, the rib eye at Lucas Park Grille costs $40. It is ten ounces, served off the bone. I ordered it on the rare side of medium rare.
(I have since found at least one wagyu aficionado online who recommends that, no matter what your usual preferences, you must order wagyu very rare.)
Was this the most tender steak I have ever eaten? Not especially. But it was pretty tender. And the flavor was incredibly complex, sometimes nutty, sometimes mineral, sometimes, well, other. A pleasant rosemary-zinfandel jus gave the dish a solid backbone, and the sides, a potato-celery root gratin and caramelized baby carrots, were nicely understated.
Is it worth $40? That's harder to say. I tend to prefer a chewy bistro-style steak, the kind you can find at Atlas or Franco for roughly $20. I don't know that the wagyu rib eye was twice as good as one of those. But steak aficionados shouldn't hesitate to give it a try.
While I'm at it, if you like foie gras, I recommend Bayle's take: a generous slab of seared foie gras with a handful of toasted marshmallows (smaller than standard size, but larger than breakfast-cereal size) and blood-orange wedges. It's a riff on the Southern classic ambrosia fruit salad. It's a playful study in softness, too: the soft and supple liver, the soft and pulpy orange, the soft and chewy marshmallow. And it tastes great on a piece of toast.
Even if you don't like foie gras, you'll have to admit that it leaps off the menu compared to the other workhorse appetizers: mussels, escargot in puff pastry, chicken turnovers. I tried the crab cakes, which were decent, heavy with Dungeness crab, but served with a ho-hum tartar sauce.
Bayle tells me he wants to serve food that conveys a sense of joy, that a restaurant serving very good food "doesn't need a quiet, slow-jazz kind of feel." He certainly has chosen the proper venue. It has its drawbacks, however. Service is a crapshoot, sometimes scatter-brained and always stretched thin as the bar crowd grows. And as electric as the atmosphere can be, there's something distressing about looking up from the dessert menu to find yourself eye-to-cheek with somebody's wiggling ass.
This was a friend of the lovely bride-to-be dressed all in white, with tiara and wand. She and her bachelorette party were taking over the area where we sat, with at least two dozen young women (and even a few men), all of them dressed in white.
In my dreams, each of them orders the rib eye, rare, and eats it with her bare hands.
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