Pomme, the new Clayton restaurant by chef and restaurateur Bryan Carr, is the kind of place you could hang out in for a few hours, as long as your wallet held up. Depending on the season, it would be a comfortable and satisfying but pricey few hours.
The lanky Carr has paid his dues over the years, working in Northern California and at the St. Louis Club. After shuttering his two-year-old namesake restaurant, Bryan's, a few years back, he did short stints at the now-defunct Grenache and then at SqWires, helping open those restaurants but never staying long.
Kind of makes you wonder whether Carr has been typecast as hard to get along with -- the Sean Penn of chefs -- or whether he's just meant to be his own boss. Chefs have strong egos, of course, but two visits to Pomme and several memorable meals at Bryan's convinced us that the latter is true.
Carr's take-charge style and candor demystify what chefs do. Chefs are often described in artistic terms, particularly when they paint and stripe their little round canvases of food with sauce. Sometimes architectural terms are employed.
Presentation is important, of course. Diners expect something unusual and visually pleasing when they go out and drop a C-note for dinner. But in the end, what chefs do is, well, cook. All the pretty presentation and saucy stripes are meaningless if the food itself is poorly prepared. At Pomme, Carr hits the mark by combining focused cooking with beautifully presented dishes that skip the pretentious razzle-dazzle. He's a talented innovator in a city of ever-changing bistro-concept restaurants.
The dining room at Pomme is also a perfect combination of simplicity and distinction. The small space, holding perhaps fifteen tables, once housed Eddie Neill's Steak & Chop and Neill's Café Provençal. Exposed-brick walls, high-gloss wood floors, stained-glass hanging light fixtures and the sounds of early Miles Davis and John Coltrane set an inviting and comfortable scene. Even the thick washcloths in the unisex restroom show an understanding of comforting details. The large painting of an apple in the center of the dining room wall reminds you what pomme means in French.
But all is not French at Pomme. A ricotta gnocchi appetizer in brown butter with pine nuts, lemon and sage shows an Italian flair. German spaetzle noodles serve as a bed for off-the-bone lamb shanks or a serving of rich, slow-simmered, braised beef short ribs, sopping up the lively red-wine-based sauces (garlic and mint for the lamb, tomato and olive for the beef). A country-French connection is evident in the roasted-duck confit and the broiled salmon glazed with a mustard-and-chive sauce, served with wild mushrooms.
Given the level of detail paid to the preparation, perhaps the phrase "haute cuisine" applies here, but that's too haughty a term for such elegant simplicity. More descriptive and accurate, given the myriad of influences, is "global new American," coined by food critic William Grimes.
Food-presentation and plate-arrangement skills are practiced with restraint but elicit appreciation from diners. The staff elevates the status of lowly side dishes by placing them smack-dab in the middle of the plate, focusing the diner's attention as if to say, "Hey, it ain't all about the meat."
There's a certain harmony to presenting the main dish around a short, round molded centerpiece of lentils, potato au gratin, carrot flan or any of the other accompaniments. A beautifully executed example is the wild striped bass -- a bright-orange whipped-carrot flan sits in the middle of the plate in a puddle of an understated, saffron-infused jus surrounded by four chunks of fresh fish. Beneath each piece of fish rest three splayed snow peas, their color contrasting with the orange of the carrot flan. It was worth taking a few moments just to regard the gorgeous presentation, then taste a superlative piece of fresh fish.
Pomme has a convivial atmosphere that encourages conversation between tables. One table of regulars, five wine aficionados, spent the evening tasting the wines they had brought in, discussing food and even offering our table tastes of a stupendous 1995 cabernet and a rare 1981 Hungarian Tokay dessert wine -- the latter an excellent match for the chocolate-caramel mousse cake and the assortment of house-made pear and cassias sorbets. Other desserts include a light lemon and raspberry cake, housemade ice creams and a hazelnut meringue cake glazed in chocolate and coffee creams with fresh pears nestled among the layers.
The wine list is compact but contains several nice surprises, including French chardonnays and red Rhônes. A 2000 Cristom pinot noir from Oregon ($36) provided a perfect match to entrées of grilled filet mignon, short ribs, bass and boneless chicken thighs. The consensus on the salad was that its dressing was too salty, mimicking an anchovy-based Mayfair-type dressing.
With warm light streaming down from the stained-glass Prairie-style lights and bouncing off the brick walls, it's easy to get absorbed in the glow of table chat. During the winter, however, the glow is pieced by sharp cold each time someone enters the front door. Like most Clayton establishments, Pomme does not have a protected entrance to keep drafts at bay. Be advised: Don't wear skirts while dining at Pomme in the winter.
The appetizers are creative but drew mixed reactions. The crisp potato cake with apples, onions, arugula and goat cheese was simple, with good bursts of flavor. The mussels in white wine and garlic disappeared instantly; nothing overcooked or rubbery here. But the seared tuna on corn pancakes, served with a tomato-and-cucumber relish, didn't measure up to the anticipation of several dining companions, even though the small slices of tuna were delectable and rare in the middle.
Russian buckwheat blini look to be easy-to-make pancakes but are actually complicated and time-consuming. Served with smoked salmon and a sour-cream-and-parsley sauce exploding with pungent lemon juice and dill, they're worth the wait at Pomme.
Service on both visits was sharp, attentive and pleasant. With such a small operation, Carr can spend the time educating his staff. Prices are steep at Pomme, with many entrées breaking the $20 level -- something St. Louis will see more of in the future.
But if diners are presented with fresh ingredients, an inviting environment, well-orchestrated service and creative meals, those premium prices almost seem like an investment in a memorable dining adventure. After all, Bryan Carr is in charge.