Dinner at JaBoni's Bistro begins in the parking lot. No drive-through, no outdoor seating, but it's in the parking lot where JaBoni's allure first starts to take hold. You're welcomed by a friendly, formidably sized greeter/parking-lot watchdog who'll keep an eye on your car (this isn't the most scenic stretch of Manchester) and show you to the front door, which looks more like a side entrance and can be hard to pinpoint. If you're lucky enough to arrive during a slow stretch, your waiter may meet you outside as well, tossing off a casual "You must be my late-night eaters" as he escorts you inside. When was the last time you had service so startlingly personal -- before you even got to the table?
In fact, for a moment, screw the table. Going to JaBoni's and not eating at all would be a worthwhile excursion. Co-owners Jann Brigulio and Bonnie Stevens (now you get the name) know how to attract a following without food, or a cushy locale: They've been running the lesbian bar Attitudes down the street for fifteen years, and staying in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, downtrodden though it may be, was what they wanted. Through looks alone, their seductive two-month-old restaurant actualizes every fantasy you might harbor involving debonair prewar Continental boozy romance. The dining room is all deep reds and high-gloss mahogany, smart white tablecloths contrasting with unfinished ceiling beams, flattering chandeliers and eternally hip vintage European posters. The twinkling mirror-backed bar just may be the best-looking one in the whole city (sorry, King Louie's). Housing only about a dozen tables, JaBoni's manages to give diners elbow room and an intimate feel all at once. The lone banquette, tucked away in a corner behind the far end of the bar, is so secreted you could have sex there -- but, as the house has dubbed that booth for its remote locale, "Fahgettaboutit."
It's hard to keep one's mind focused on food with décor this heady; settling in at the bar for the evening might not be a bad move. There's also a tiny upstairs lounge that stays open till 1:30 a.m. with piped-in music and dancing. Done up black-and-white and mod, with two striking mannequin lamps that command attention like few other lighting fixtures, it is less enchanting but still a nice choice for drinks and hushed tête-à-têtes.
Of course, ambiance equals looks plus service, and JaBoni's is not just a pretty face. Although a parking-lot hello may not come with every meal, the staff is terrifically personable and adept at helping to orchestrate a well-chosen meal by recommending dishes or pairing wines as you go along. And with business not yet at its swiftest, being served personally by the chef or proffered a handshake by one of JaBoni's co-owners is not uncommon.
So hear this: Before everybody starts going to JaBoni's and the place gets too busy to properly exude its relaxed charms, all of you -- everybody -- should go there, right now.
Executive chef Ramon Cuffie has done his hometown a favor by returning to his geographic roots. (After working for ten years at Bar Italia, he went on to hone his craft in Seattle, D.C., London and Avignon, France). Cuffie does his food a favor, too, by staying out of the way and letting the inherent flavors do most of the work. Even the menu doesn't see fit to brag: Refreshingly understated, it avoids the trap of overdescriptive three-line hyperbole so common at high-end establishments. Here we get "lobster and leek salad, served with baby red greens with a mimosa vinaigrette." (Why don't those other froufrou menus ever come out and say "served with," as if it's such a tacky phrase?)
Appetizers, presented as first- and second-course options, exhibit strong affinities for Cuffie's French and Italian influences. The foie gras bathed in verjus is delightful, sized just right so as not to render the main course obsolete. Verjus, the unfermented juice of unripe grapes, isn't often seen stateside, but it does a swell job here, its gentle acidity tartly offsetting the rich depth of the foie gras. Chopped raw rump of beef is surprisingly delicate and sweet, its textures balanced with flatbread and given further intensity with a dollop of nutty crème fraîche. The rest of the starters lean toward seafood. Tuna can be ordered two different ways -- as grilled slices atop puréed cannellini beans or in a classically prepared carpaccio. Both are quite good. There's also a cured salmon smartly paired with polenta and a heaping bowl of mussels in a finely tuned tomato broth.
Entrées and sides highlight Cuffie's French training. Lingcod comes with haricots verts; the spinach accompanying a sautéed breast of chicken is sauced with Sauternes; the Australian beef tenderloin's sauce is béarnaise. Here and there Cuffie gets daring, especially when he manipulates traditional dessert techniques for main courses. The aforementioned green beans are prepared with sabayon, the French version of zabaglione. And one potato dish is submitted to European candymaking methods -- something akin to spuds marzipan, without the overwhelming sugariness. The gambles succeed. Meats, meanwhile, are treated respectfully. Duck breast, for example, is treated to a pan-seared crust, with plenty of pink left inside. A double pork chop, thick as a novel, was a tad dry but well matched with a pear-apple chutney. Colorado lamb shank doesn't mess around -- it's an impressive helping of braised rareness, with a stock infused with foie gras just in case red meat alone isn't enough for you. And here's a welcome change of pace: Seven of the eleven entrées are priced under $20, making JaBoni's one of St. Louis' hottest deals in fine dining.
The wine list encompasses two dozen bottles, with prices ranging from $20 to $40. At the lower end, the 2001 Campo de Borja Borsao is a delicious, fruity Spanish red; at the other extreme, the Château La Fleur St. George Pomerol ranks as a bit of a splurge at $40, but it's also a 2000 vintage, widely thought to be one of Bordeaux's best ever. There's also a small "special selection" of high-priced wines for those whose budgets know no bounds.
Pastry chefs Marcia Sindel and Carly Issitt, owners of the local Italian pastry shop La Dolce Via (which supplies JaBoni's desserts), know their role is not to put the final strain on your waistband, which is to say: Their creations don't club you over the head. A lemon tart avoids jarring acidity thanks to a vanilla-bean-infused crust. Black-bottom pie, a sort of pudding parfait in a pastry shell, tastes homemade. Only the Sachertorte, a heavy chocolate German cake, falters -- the layers aren't moist enough, and the fudge and caramel that alternate in between are too firm, resulting in a rather crumbly, unsatisfying finish.
It has been a while since St. Louis saw a white-hot restaurant upstart -- the buzz on Liluma, for one, seemed to evaporate the moment that Central West End establishment opened its doors late last year -- and longer still since one managed to attract the young and old alike. Given its retro chic, its reasonable prices and its commitment to food with integrity and flair, JaBoni's looks like a winner on all counts.