"Sure are a lot of bar-and-grills around here," my dad noted during a visit from Kansas City a few years back. Coming from a man who'd owned and operated such establishments himself, the comment reflected envy, not disdain. He was right, of course; St. Louis boasts more bar-and-grills and corner taverns than four-way stop signs. The difference, I told him, is that not one of them could hold a beer mug to the last establishment he and his brother owned.
The Twin City Tavern hugged the Missouri state line just west of Kansas City's famed Westport district; walk across the two-lane road to use the ATM and you're in Kansas. It was his dream place, a spot where he could finally put the accent on the "grill" and dish out his homemade chili, signature sandwiches, spaghetti with my Italian mother's sauce, thick burgers, steaks and even fresh salads. His claim to fame was his Friday-night shrimp boil. He had shrimp brought up from Louisiana each week and boiled them in big stockpots roiling with cheap white wine and Boulevard Pale Ale, along with new potatoes and corn on the cob. The beer-and-wine boil was typical; most folks never knew the difference, but he loved that kind of little detail. He enjoyed expressing himself through the food and its presentation, even if it was being served up in a corner joint.
I get the sense Tom Gullickson feels the same way, even if he isn't flipping burgers and boiling shrimp in the tiny kitchen at Griffins Farmer's Market Café in Soulard. For six years Gullickson ran McMurphy's Grill at St. Patrick's Center. After that he bought into Nadine's but recently sold his interest. Griffins owner Robert Howe brought in Gullickson about two months ago, giving him free rein to create an atmosphere and tweak the menu of the year-old operation, which is located in a 100-year-old building that has housed a restaurant and bar since just after Prohibition.
I ate at Griffins when it opened. It wasn't bad -- kind of a "not bad for what it is" type of place, but that's not atypical for a casual Soulard restaurant. And that's the challenge for Gullickson: How do you successfully blend restaurant fare beyond burgers and fries into what's mostly a bar? Gullickson says he envisions more café and less grill. "I like the word café," he says. "This summer, when we have the tables out front, we'll feel like a café."
He says his goal is to change the quality of the food and test the market based on what customers say they want. Enter Rene Cruz, known simply as Chef Rene. Gullickson hired the young cook from Nadine's because he liked his pastas and sauces and because he considers Cruz, whose résumé includes graduation from the Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Minneapolis and five years as a corporate trainer, "one of the best soup makers." Together the duo has revamped the menu twice since Mardi Gras, indicating that things are still being tinkered with. (Note to Dad: They dropped the spiced boiled shrimp!) A few recent visits suggest that some nurturing still needs to take place.
In keeping with Soulard's New Orleans "Cre-jun" theme -- i.e., the blending of Cajun and Creole -- Cruz's entrées center on sauces and spices. A basic puttanesca pasta -- one of the simplest, most rustic dishes imaginable -- is braced, as expected, with red and green bell peppers, capers, onions and olives. But mix all that in a very light, subtly spiced cream sauce and you've got something to linger over. The three decorative strands of dry noodles poked into the dish as an accent exhibit a flair beyond bar-and-grill -- it's something Dad might have done if he didn't think his patrons would have laughed out loud.
Chicken wings and strips are workaday bar-and-grill appetizers. Herbed tomato bruschetta, spinach-artichoke dip and Creole catfish fingers, not so common. A choice of three quesadillas round out the list of starters, including one stuffed with tomatoes, mushrooms and Monterey Jack cheese on top of that flavorful spinach-artichoke dip (the other two quesadillas: chicken and cheese). And true to Gullickson's claim, Cruz's soups are worth slurping. Typically, you can select from three special soups of the day, plus the daily vegetarian chili. On one visit I tried the Cuban lentil -- chunks of beef simmered in a rich broth of lentils and spices, brightened by the fresh taste of cilantro. Paired with one of Griffins' salads, a bowl of the Cuban soup would make for a good lunch.
Griffins is a tomato's throw away from Soulard Market, so it's fitting that Cruz expanded the salad selection from Cobb and Caesar to include spinach and Greek. Come summer, he says, there'll be an even greater variety of fresh fruits and salads. Meantime, he's tweaked the dressings, infusing them with Asian, Italian and Mediterranean influences (you might request some extra pineapple-feta ranch to dip your bread in). But a wedge salad special -- that thick hunk of iceberg that's showing up on more and more local menus -- suffered from heavy-handed drenching of bleu cheese. And what's with the boxed croutons on the dinner salad?
On to the twelve sandwiches and six entrées that form the meat of the menu. The grill is well represented, with burgers, patty melts, club and hot-roast-beef sandwiches; all come with potato chips (or for an extra buck-fifty, fries). New café-ish offerings include a portobello mushroom sandwich and several wraps. The buffalo burger, though, is a misnomer. The menu describes a half-pound burger with bleu cheese but makes no mention that "buffalo" means the hot sauce used on chicken wings. It's like when people tell you they love jazz and they mean Kenny G.
The entrée list is small, because Gullickson and Cruz want to emphasize nightly specials. One evening's offering was a superb blackened catfish, spicy and juicy, served over a bed of roasted julienned yellow and red peppers and a side of roasted potatoes. Another night it was a mediocre country-fried chicken -- a boneless breast coated with a plain tempura-like batter, fried and drenched with white cream gravy. A sautéed medley of fresh zucchini, red and yellow peppers, squash, onions and mushrooms and a side of mashed potatoes rounded out the dish. The batter, unfortunately, was nothing like the Andy's Seasoning blend used to coat the birds who give their lives for the far superior Thursday-night fried chicken special. We were anticipating the same succulent crunch we've come to expect every Thursday, not some namby-pamby wannabe.
Still another special, jambalaya, proved disappointing as well. All the expected staples -- rice, tomatoes, celery -- were present, flavored with plenty of thyme, bay leaf and parsley. We paid an extra $2 a pop to add andouille sausage and chicken -- after all, what's jambalaya without meat? Sadly, this jambalaya wasn't much, with or without meat. The secret to a topnotch jambalaya is a good long simmering, which gives the ingredients time to mellow. Cruz's version didn't approach that kind of melt-in-your-mouth melding; worse yet, the sausage and too-dry slices of grilled chicken were merely arrayed on top. Equally perplexing was a beef stroganoff, which sported a flavorful cream sauce but was served atop linguine rather than the egg noodles advertised on the menu.
Dessert brought a bright ending to one visit, in the form of Cruz's superb bread pudding, which incorporated sliced apples and peaches in a buttery rum sauce.
Brunch, a holdover from the days when Obie's occupied these same digs, remains a big draw on weekends. But there's nothing terribly brunchy about the menu, which contains mostly breakfast items including big fluffy omelets, pancakes (the banana ones are terrific) and eggs Benedict. Pricing is à la carte, and there's no buffet line -- a plus in my book. Another plus: tasty bloody marys. Not so pleasurable were the dry biscuits and insipid coffee -- where's the French roast?
For all the changes, proposed and otherwise, Griffins retains the look and feel of a neighborhood bar: warm, worn wood floors, brick walls, a long, copper-topped bar and a few patrons straggling in for their first beer of the day. It's like Dad always said: You can take the grill out of the bar, but you can never take the bar out of a grill.