The entrées at Cardwell's in Clayton remind us of Thanksgiving plates laden with tidbits from eight different platters, crocks and casserole dishes. Take chef Joe Hovland's grilled pecan-wood-smoked jumbo shrimp. The shellfish, charred by smoldering coals, are parked like a row of pink apostrophes along the rim of the plate. Three haricots verts (slender French-style green beans) arc around the shrimp, and a potato gratin flanks the other side. Between them lies a mound of grilled corn cut off the cob. Next sits a dainty ramekin of chile-lime mayonnaise -- a playful tartar-sauce redux. A cheddar-pecan wafer, which resembles a coarse potato chip, lends a jot of tangerine color. To avoid a muddled finish, Hovland wisely sticks to simple, complementary flavors. The smokiness of the grilled corn, for instance, echoes that of the shrimp.
Hovland, who has an irrepressible enthusiasm for his craft, characterizes Cardwell's cuisine as "New American whimsical." He delights in preparing fish and shellfish, and he jokes about pestering the folks at Bob's Seafood when their airbill arrives every morning. One day in June, he discovered that the price of rock lobster and halibut had dropped, so he decided to offer them on the same plate, concocting a special of halibut in a lobster chowder. Fish is often over- or undersalted, but our snowy filet was deftly seasoned and handsomely seared. The chowder consisted of lobster meat, tarragon, thyme, corn, haricots verts and sliced fingerling potatoes (elongated, knobby tubers that resemble fresh gingerroot) in a lobster-reduction sauce. We also sampled seafood from the appetizer menu. We've enjoyed crab cakes at several restaurants lately, and Hovland's were among our favorite. An accompanying sweet mustard-dill sauce packed a bit of spicy heat and highlighted the sweetness of the moist lump crabmeat.
To get a sense of the kitchen's range, we also tried a chicken dish and a plate of pasta. The "herb rubbed, pan roasted free range chicken" was a plump half-chicken arranged on a swell of garlicky Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. The glistening chicken was soft and fleshy, but its skin was almost springy instead of papery and crisp. The tottering plate was heaped with haricots verts, truffled artichokes and slim baby carrots. Hovland says he likes to keep a filled pasta on the menu, and this summer it's a portobello-mushroom tortelloni, round parcels as big as throw pillows. A hillock of sautéed spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and red bell peppers in the center of the bowl keeps the tender pasta from becoming monotonous.
Hovland makes imaginative use of imported and domestic artisanal cheeses. A spare Arkansas tomato salad with greens and handcrafted Nauvoo blue cheese was so satisfying that my dining partner asked me to reconstruct the salad at home the next day with Cabrales, a Spanish blue cheese we had on hand. Hovland also crumbles the Nauvoo blue over rafts of French bread in his roasted five-onion soup, which is perhaps the best onion soup in town (it's rivaled by the vegetarian version dished up at Cardwell's at the Plaza). And how about this nifty trick: Hovland plates carpaccio with a tiny edible Asiago-cheese basket. To make it, he warms the finely grated cheese in a skillet to form a lacy circle. Then he molds the disc around an upturned shot glass, letting the overlapping edges form a ruffled lip. When the basket cools, he bundles fennel and arugula inside it so that it looks something like a miniature taco salad.
We'd rather not be subjected to yet another molten-chocolate cake like the "lava cake" on Cardwell's dessert menu, but at least the tiramisu -- an even more odious dessert cliché -- has been transformed into a respectable cheesecake. Cardwell's other sweets, such as a pebbly macadamia-and-white-chocolate soufflé cake, are unique and sophisticated. The soufflé cake is prettily finished with a dollop of whipped cream, a ribbon of caramel, a dusting of cocoa powder and a nosegay of peppermint leaves. A weekend special, mischievously called "Maui kapowee," was a tropical banana ice cream studded with chocolate chunks and halved macadamia nuts. We'd encourage the restaurant to add a sumptuous house-made ice cream like this one to its summer dessert menu.
A few front-of-the-house details seemed out of keeping with the restaurant's elegant image. Trays piled high with soiled napkins were left in view of diners, and a battered cigarette machine stands in a conspicuous spot. The tables in the dining rooms inexplicably sport vinyl coverings, which can't be kept as clean as freshly starched linen. More important, vinyl covers belong in a sticky barbecue joint or picnic pavilion, not a swank bistro like Cardwell's.
Service can be too offhanded at times, with the waitstaff using such gauche expressions as "Are you still working on that?" One of our servers -- though he was so sweet I could barely resist pinching his cheeks -- was in need of further training. He told us, for example, that a classic tiramisu was offered for dessert, failing to explain that Cardwell's confection is a cheesecake rather than a traditional Italian-style trifle. He also couldn't answer questions about the wine list, but, to his credit, he asked for assistance instead of leaving us guessing. Co-owner Pedro Beltranena, with flawless comportment, stepped in to recommend a crisp, peachy pinot grigio. The staff here is so happy that the line cooks in the open kitchen burst into song near the close of service one evening. Obviously Chef Hovland's exuberance is rubbing off on them.