Damn. My cell phone was at home, charging. I didn't need to make a call, didn't need to take a photo. I needed light, and barring an unexpected nuclear detonation, the faint glow of my phone's screen was the best I could hope for.
I was trying to order dinner at the Bleeding Deacon. This is a bar, so by definition it's dark, but I'd chosen a table in a Bermuda Triangle that sucked away whatever ambient light was spilling from behind the bar, from inside the kitchen, even from the killer jukebox — Jay-Z, Morrissey, the Beatles' White Album and Whitesnake, and that was only a single page of selections — to my immediate left. A tea light did sit on my table, but the flame was guttering: I had to hold the menu so close to the fire that I swore I could see smoke curling from the corner of the page.
So this is the point where I rant about how dimly lighted restaurants are these days, and how we're all going to go blind trying to read our menus, right? Well, no. As I said, the Bleeding Deacon is a bar. I expect dim, I expect smoky, I expect loud. No, what was so remarkable was that I was in a bar, and I wanted to read the menu rather than just skim its contents for whichever grease bomb would best forestall a hangover.
Make no mistake: The Bleeding Deacon isn't a gastropub, nor does it pretend to be. It opened in December in a nondescript building on Chippewa Street, just west of Gravois Avenue, between a private residence and a sex shop. The look is like south-city cool, a punkier version of the Royale. A vintage Vince Schoemehl campaign poster adorns the wall inside the front door; bicentennial Missouri license plates hang above the bar.
As a bar, the Bleeding Deacon is a winner. The music is good, the vibe friendly, the beer selection above average. Only a few beers are available on draft — Guinness, a couple of Schlafly brews and, of course, PBR — but the bottled selection includes brews for penny-pinching south-side hipsters and Beer Advocate subscribers alike. Smoking is permitted, and the space is arranged in such a way that a non-smoking section would be pointless. I wasn't bothered by cigarette smoke on my visits, but on neither occasion was it crowded.
To oversee the kitchen, owners Mike McLaughlin and Todd Pruett hired Jaxon Noon, whose recent résumé includes loft-district spots Mosaic and the misbegotten Red. Noon's menu is brief, with what seems to be a standard array of starters, sandwiches and comfort food. Yet every dish I tried featured an interesting twist or, at the very least, an attention to detail that elevated it above what we normally consider "bar food."
Take something as straightforward as chips and salsa. Here the salsa is a chunky blend of roasted corn, black beans and chopped scallion, red pepper and...sweet potato? If sweet-potato salsa isn't unusual enough for you, it's garnished with flash-fried collard greens. I don't know that the combination is "ingenious," as the menu claims, but in both body and flavor, it's surprisingly and refreshingly light, a very good appetizer.
Buttered French-cut green beans are available both as an appetizer and as a side dish. These won me over even before I tried them, as they contain my two favorite foodstuffs: butter and bacon. Also, there are some green beans involved. I sampled the green beans as a side to the "Savory Meatloaf Supper," one of three dinner entrées. Speaking as someone who is, at best, indifferent to meatloaf, this dish is flat-out awesome. A "secret" blend of ingredients, the meatloaf is incredibly tender and flavorful. Topping it is a thick bourbon ketchup that's made in-house; its sweet, tangy flavor is the perfect foil to the rich meat.
The Bleeding Deacon rightfully takes pride in its house-made condiments. When the server brought us malt vinegar to accompany our order of fish and chips, he put two clear glass bottles on the table. One was standard, premade malt vinegar. The other had been made in-house from Strongbow cider. It was fantastic, sweet and tannic. Would anyone, including yours truly, have noticed had the server set down only a bottle of plain ol' brand-name malt vinegar? Probably not. But the kitchen makes its own anyway.
Cider notwithstanding, the fish and chips are excellent. The fish is coated in a "black-and-tan" batter, a reference to the combination of Guinness and Bass ale with which it was spiked. To be honest, I didn't notice anything distinctive about its flavor, but it was crisp and not greasy, and the fish within was a lovely, just-beginning-to-flake tender. Fried capers were sprinkled over the fish, a small touch that added flavor and crunch. Along with the vinegar, the dish was accompanied by a pungent house-made rémoulade.
The menu refers to sandwiches as "hand-held victuals," which is in part tongue-in-cheek, in part testament to how seriously the kitchen takes its food — though I doubt you can hold an entire burger in your hand without making a mess. The thick patty of Black Angus beef is topped with sliced cherry tomato, greens and a mound of crisp fried onions.
Call it a sandwich or a "hand-held victual," the "Hot Salame" sandwich is a winner: The rich flavor of Volpi sopressata is deepened by smoked mozzarella cheese and then given quite a kick by Dijon mustard. The sandwich, served with sprouts and grilled red peppers between two large slices of rye bread, is so fully flavored — and generously, though not overwhelmingly, portioned — that it might as well be billed as an entrée.
I suppose the best compliment I could give the Bleeding Deacon would be to stop calling it a bar. Something about the word — in this context, at least — strikes me as backhanded. As in: "The Bleeding Deacon has really good food. For a bar."
Really, though, the fault lies with us. When we expect a bar to serve subpar food, then we're never disappointed when a bar serves us subpar food. The Bleeding Deacon isn't meant to be an exception. But it will be, until the lights start going off above our heads.