To all of you who may have been thus far avoiding Z, the new restaurant that has taken over the old Hot Locust space, because you're dubious about the serving of fine food in a restaurant owned by a rock band: You're missing some incredible meals.
Ah, but isn't it ironic? I've been there, and I missed some incredible meals, too. Don't get me wrong -- the preparation was superlative, including a duck dish so succulent that it still makes my mouth water more than a week later. It's just that, in the attempt to set an atmosphere with projected lava lamps and other tricks, the interior designer behind Z forgot the fundamental element behind any great food presentation: being able to see the food.
First, though, a little background. After Hot Locust (and the club in back called the Side Door) fizzled, some of the fine gentlemen from the popular local band Dr. Zhivegas -- namely Frank Murial and Paul Chickey -- decided to lease the place. Luckily, it appears this isn't simply a case of "Hey, kids, let's put on a show ... and open a restaurant out front." Murial and Chickey knew a drummer from the old days named Eric Brenner, who just happened also to have an impressive pedigree as a chef: training at the well-regarded hospitality program at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park (while tom-tomming at night for bands like Villanova Junction and Great Big Everything) and subsequent gigs at the St. Louis Country Club, the Racquet Club and Truffles. Heck, he even got certified through the American Culinary Foundation.
Meanwhile, the Zhivegas boys brought in James Clary, a Springfield, Mo., restaurateur, as a consultant; local real-estate mogul Pete Rothschild also has a hand in the management mix.
Those familiar with the old Hot Locust space will notice that although there may not be enough light, there's certainly a lot more white: white molded-plastic chairs and white table coverings; a white curtain sectioning off the front-window table from the rest of the dining room (a table that, conversely, may even be too well lit -- in bright sunshine during daylight hours and with a fluorescent floor fixture at night); triplet white TV monitors behind the white bar (the monitors cheekily displaying Logan's Run during one of our meals, and the bar ornamented with orange-gold portholes); and the new dominant feature in the more-than-20-foot-high 19th-century warehouse space, a white postmodern pulpit, from the top of which, later in the evenings, a DJ spins tunes to match the mood of the crowd.
In other words, atmosphere is a big deal here, and this atmosphere generates a level of energy you won't find in any other local restaurant. The constant motion of the projected images is a minor distraction; more important, though, the music isn't. Don't stay away from Z if you're worried that the sound element -- jazz on one of our visits, worldbeat on another -- is going to interfere with the enjoyment of your meal. That particular sense, at least, is well integrated into the overall experience.
And if Brenner never quite assumed stardom as a musician, he certainly has the chops to do so in the kitchen. The printed menu, with only three regular entrées (beef filet, roasted chicken and barbecued salmon), may not look all that adventurous, but the point is to decide on the best of the day on the very same day it's cooked. On one visit, this meant an appetizer of duck confit, a preserved preparation, with firm and moist slices of breast taking on a concentrated flavor, accented by a bacony taste from the crispy skin edges. These were placed on three demilunes of fluffy blueberry pancake for a fruity touch, which was further enhanced by an ethereal tang from a citrus sauce.
Brenner apparently has an affinity for fish, and the short-regular-menu approach allows him to riff on the freshest of the day, which ranged from ahi tuna to black bass to a fairly obscure species called escolar. His ahi, not unexpectedly, was distinctively Asian in influence, five chunky slices with a delicate sweet soy glaze, served (as requested) medium rare, adorned with sautéed snow peas, sprouts and a bed of mixed greens. The lack of excess saucing allowed the firm, pure tuna to be the star of the dish, and the only minor flaw was a side of sticky rice that was supposed to emulate sushi rice but came off too far to the sticky side of a sticky/fluffy trade-off.
The escolar, a Gulf fish that has a bit of a bad rap for being oily and sometimes difficult to digest, received a presentation similar that of a giant bacon-wrapped scallop, with the bacon in this case transcended into prosciutto. The prosciutto's saltiness might have intruded on a milder fish, but in this case the flavors balanced out, with bursts of concentrated flavor from olive-sized specialty tomatoes and a relish effect from pickled vegetables.
Among dishes on the regular menu, the "barbecue" element of the salmon was actually a maple-chipotle glaze, resulting in prominent resiny sweetness and tip-of-the-tongue spiciness battling it out to a satisfying draw. The beef filet, served sliced, had a side sauce of onion and garlic reduced to a jammy consistency, with a stuffed tomato, three stalks of asparagus and a potato gratinée building it up into a basically straightforward but impeccably prepared dish.
Especially given the recent devastating news about the privatization of Fio's La Fourchette, it was good to see that Brennen is also a disciple of the soufflé, with a choice of the day offered as one of the standing desserts. The raspberry version we tried was fabulous, but even it paled in comparison to Brenner's exquisite variation on the overexposed crème brèlée. Rather than the traditional ramekin, the custard in this case was served naked on a plate, with the elegant extra touch of a layer of dried cherries underneath and a couple of fresh raspberries for ornamentation. Z also makes ice creams and sorbets in its kitchen, augmenting a cappuccino version of the former by serving it in an edible coffee cup fabricated out of dark bittersweet Godiva chocolate.
Eighteen red wines, 10 white and five sparkling are available, generally in the $15-$45 range, with maybe 10 of them also available by the glass. Service, once the meal got rolling, was prompt and, more important, knowledgeable, with the staff able to explain the intricacies of odd fish and elaborate saucings. One problem, though, came up when we ate at Z before a Blues game -- we'd clearly noted when reserving that we wanted to eat in time to get to the game, but when we showed up at the announced commencement of dinner service at 5 p.m., the kitchen wasn't cranking yet, and we didn't get started with our meal till almost 5:30. Given Z's relative proximity to both Grand Center and the downtown sports venues, this needs to be corrected quickly.
But most important: Let there be light! After wondering whether it was just me who was dim on an initial visit, I paid close attention to the lighting on a return visit, and, sure enough, the place went into near-blackout mode, on purpose, just a little bit into our meal. Thus, although the tastes and textures are spectacular, diners at Z are missing out on the pink-maroon translucence of a perfect ahi tuna, or the bright red of a beet emulsion, or the subtle variations in green in a fresh mesclun mixture. Rethink the lighting, guys. Everyone needs to see what a great job you're doing.