When we first heard that there was a new, rather upscale restaurant in "downtown" Alton called Aaron's, we pictured another alternative in the quaint 19th-century business district a couple of blocks from the Alton Belle casino.
Silly us. Even a Missourian should have been able to figure out that an address on Ninth Street is at least nine full blocks from the main drag. But we were further befuddled to find at the appointed address a new office building adorned with a broker's name. We finally deduced that the restaurant was in back, facing Piasa Street.
Once we were inside, though, the surprises started to tilt back toward the positive. The entry space felt like a fairly nice yuppie sports/news bar, and the dining area, which turned out to have a sleek modern design, was burrowed into the back of the office building.
And then there was the menu. Despite the eclectic rotation of Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Johnny Cash playing on the sound system, we kept thinking, "If we had ever been here before, we would probably know just what to do. Don't you?" In other words, it was like déjà vu. In other words, it was like déjà vu.
It was only about a year ago that we'd very much enjoyed a place called Whalen's on the Wharf, located about 20 miles north in the riverfront hamlet of Grafton and owned by one Aaron Whalen. Aaron's in Alton. Whalen's on the Wharf. Duh.
With the move closer to a population center and away from the scenic view, expectations have probably changed in the minds of potential diners. This isn't a quaint little destination restaurant where diners enter in a happy state of mind after a lovely day on the River Road. Here, a bunch of folks in dresses and suits are filing in after work and expecting delivery on the promise of "fine dining."
Whalen has implemented several upgrades to achieve this transition. The menu, which retains signature items such as the steak Whalen, has been expanded, but prices have remained steady; the wine list is significantly longer, including about 20 unfortified wines and eight ports by the glass. The list also contains more than 100 different full bottles, including a "reserve" section featuring numerous big names (a 1997 Dominus comes to mind) and $100-plus price tags in several cases. The overall seating capacity has been increased from around 30 to about 100.
Most notable, though, are the changes in atmosphere and service. With only the traffic on U.S. 67 to gaze upon outside, the primary view has been turned inward; a raised platform of several tables, partially surrounded by wood shutters, is the center of the dining room. Where the service in Grafton was tentative and somewhat unfamiliar with the nuances of the menu, the staff in Alton was sharp, attentive and well-informed. (An extra bit of class: Fine print at the bottom of the menu requests that cell phones be set to vibrate. This mainly served to prove that no one reads the fine print, but it was a nice touch nonetheless.)
And the food remains, by and large, very good, although a couple of our pet peeves regarding ingredients have carried over from the one location to the next. First, the good stuff: Whalen still buys prime beef and does great things with it. Instead of the Madeira-and-truffle-sauced fillet of steak Whalen, this time we tried the ribeye, sauced with a brown-sugar-and-bourbon mixture and topped with a generous portion of caramelized onions. The onions and sauce combined for a smooth, mellow sweetness, and the marbling on the ribeye was excellent. There was some fattiness, but it was limited to the edges and imparted a bit of moistness; the firm red meat was solid across the middle. Lamb, too, was well prepared: A mustard-encrusted rack was served as seven separated quarter-inch slices, grilled individually and accompanied by a rosemary-butter sauce.
Of the two fish entrées we tried -- tuna and halibut -- the tuna was the better, although both were flawed. The halibut, served with a cool pineapple-and-red-pepper relish, looked like a big slice of pie; it had a nice, dense texture but had probably spent about a minute too long in the pan. The tuna, on the other hand, was perfectly cooked, still a bit pink inside as requested. The description of black-sesame encrusting -- wasabi, soy-sesame oil and something called "cherriyaki" -- sounded fantastic, with possibilities of nutty, hot, salty and fruity as accent flavors. But the only flavor I picked up was sesame. The entrée would have been better had the flavors been more balanced.
In all cases, presentation was meticulous but not over the top. Entrées are served with a choice of salad or soup, and most come with sides of "smashed" (mashed with the skins left on) potatoes and a daily vegetable, which in one case was gently sweet, not overcooked baby carrots. We also noted that Whalen has taken to stating explicitly that the "crab" he uses in his snapper dish is "surimi crab," a.k.a. fake crab. Yes, we applauded the truth in advertising, but it still baffles us that anyone would use that stuff instead of the real thing, even the pasteurized, canned lump crabmeat that's available throughout the year. Then again, it baffles us that local restaurants put Provel cheese on beef tenderloin.
As the "cherriyaki" indicates, Whalen likes whimsy in his creations, and it showed up most prominently in an appetizer called "smoked-salmon lollipops." Three slices of cold-smoked salmon were rolled into a tulip shape around a mixture of cream cheese flavored with shallots, capers and dill; then the puttylike mixture was used as a foundation into which a slender breadstick was stuck. Adjacent to the inverted lollipops were three leaves of red lettuce, topped with aioli, horseradish and slices of sun-dried tomato. You couldn't help but giggle at this one. We also tried the tempura shrimp, but this dish fell short; the tempura was airy but bland, and the fairly small shrimp numbered too few (five) to warrant the $8.95 charge.
Reappearing from the Grafton menu is another signature item, an appetizer of sweet-potato steak fries with a house-spiced catsup, although the catsup this time seemed more hot-spicy than aromatic-spicy.
Desserts are still an afterthought, with just two offered: a rich but ordinary triple-chocolate cake and a "crème brulée" cheesecake -- tasty but probably better as one or the other.
There's much to be said for Aaron Whalen's new venture, and although we never had to wait for a table, the sizable crowds we encountered suggest that he's struck a chord, especially with the professional community in downtown Alton. Whalen's, by the way, is only hibernating; it's scheduled to open again for the warmer months starting in May.