"Joe Buck just walked by."
My wife turned, but she was too late. The fair-haired broadcaster and scion of St. Louis royalty was gone. Had I hallucinated him? (Again?) I did the math mentally: Just the day before, Buck had covered the Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit. Had he returned to St. Louis for only a couple of days before Sunday's games? Did he have the weekend off? He couldn't possibly be in town for the Rams game...
Frankly, I would have been deeply disappointed if I hadn't spotted at least one celebrity at F15teen, the three-month-old restaurant and lounge from Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds and business partner Mark Winfield. The handsome old brick building glows with class. Kudos to Edmonds and Winfield for avoiding the sure thing of a Busch Stadium-centric site and endeavoring to bridge the Washington Avenue loft district and the Locust Street business district. You enter into a lobby that could belong to a boutique hotel as well as a restaurant. To your immediate left, a staircase leads past a trickling fountain to the upstairs lounge. In front of you is a curving white wall inset with windows that afford a view into the large kitchen. Follow the curve around to the left into a large lounge area filled with sleek furnishings and beautiful people.
To the right is the dining room. This is surprisingly small, seating about 60, but optical illusions — the high pressed-tin ceiling and a freestanding banquette that separates the room from a small bar — make it seem like part of a much larger area. The décor is muted but warm: umber walls; banquettes with chocolate seats and cranberry backs; a few old bronze oxygen tanks, an inexplicable design element that, for some reason, feels exactly right. (Unless you've just watched Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, that is.)
I saw no sports memorabilia. If you don't know who Jim Edmonds is or that F15teen refers to his uniform number, you might not even make a Cardinals connection. Really, the only misstep is the design of the banquette tables, which are so long that you and your dining companion might have to stretch to touch hands at the center.
Of course, if you're like me, you'll be too busy looking for Cardinals players and other celebrities to worry about the dimensions of your table. While I didn't see Edmonds or any of his teammates, it turned out that it was indeed Joe Buck I'd seen. He and a friend — not Tim McCarver, sadly — were seated near the dining room's front windows, perfectly positioned for diners and servers to notice him and whisper to one another, "Hey! That's Joe Buck!"
With so much to occupy your attention, you might think your meal at F15teen incidental. And since the restaurant is, in essence, a steak house, your expectations might be for, well, the expected. Meat and potatoes. If you judge F15teen on its steaks alone, you won't be disappointed. The ten-ounce dry-aged strip was one of the best steaks I've had in recent memory: well trimmed, perfectly grilled and properly rested, with a welcome mineral tang to the beefy flavor. The strip steak had some chew to it, especially when compared to the eight-ounce filet. On the other hand, the filet wasn't as flavorful. Unless tenderness is your first consideration in choosing steak, I'd upgrade to the strip.
Steak comes with your choice of two of five house-made sauces. (You can order all five, if you desire.) Of these, my favorites were the rich purée of roasted garlic and the black-pepper purée; the latter balances the bite of pepper with the savory, slightly sweet flavor of hoisin sauce or something similar. The blue-cheese fondue is quite pungent, best in very small doses. The house steak sauce is a more puckering version of your basic A.1., while the sweet-sour sauce leaned too heavily on a pineapple sweetness.
The steaks were excellent, but I was even more impressed by the attention lavished on the rest of the menu by executive chef Timothy McLaughlin, who has headed the kitchen at the late Red Moon and Faust's at the Adam's Mark. Here you won't find the usual steak-house suspects: shrimp cocktail, an iceberg wedge and creamed spinach. Instead you might begin with crisp, spicy chorizo dumplings or a refreshingly simple salad of mixed greens, sliced green apple and lardons. The roasted-onion soup provides an unexpected touch of class: The rich broth is poured tableside over a tangle of onions and a Parmesan tuile.
Another unexpected touch: Your meal begins with an amuse-bouche. On my first visit, this was a bite of beef tenderloin seasoned with black pepper and blue cheese and served with microgreens and a beet sauce. My notes for this meal read, "Even the amuse is meat!" I thought the amuse was a little joke on the kitchen's part, reassuring skeptical diners that while the restaurant looks like a trendy New American spot, it's still a steak house at heart.
On a later visit, however, the amuse was a lovely cod croquette the size of a gumball. It was served atop rice pudding seasoned with chives; on one side was a mango-strawberry sauce, on the other crushed nuts. This wouldn't have seemed out of place on any New American menu, and it was a perfect first bite for the meal to come.
Of the non-steak entrées I tried, roasted cod with mushrooms in a Gruyère broth stood out for its elegant balancing act. The mushrooms gave the mild fish a depth of flavor and the Gruyère added a piquant note, but neither overwhelmed the natural flavor of the cod. A ten-ounce, bone-in pork chop grilled to a juicy medium, offered the same meaty satisfaction as the steaks. No surprise, then, that it's listed among the steaks.
In true steak-house style, sides are offered à la carte. Our server told us the kitchen wants to make dishes healthy, when possible, so the "creamy corn" is kernels of corn served in puréed corn. No cream, no butter. The dish was tasty, if not luxuriously so. I couldn't say the same for the mac & cheese. Best were the mashed potatoes. Should the kitchen claim these were made without butter or cream, don't believe them.
The wine list offers a wide selection, though you have to read carefully to find bargains. The by-the-glass list, though small, highlights a specific wine (a Côtes du Rhone when I was there) with detailed information on the grower and vineyard.
Desserts might be the product of mad genius. And I didn't even try the chocolate shake with Cocoa Puffs. A brownie topped with molten fudge and vanilla ice cream, served with a shot of hot chocolate spiked with Baileys on the side, was a wonderfully over-the-top indulgence. But the masterpiece is the trio of house-made ice-cream sandwiches: oatmeal cookies with pumpkin ice cream, chocolate-chunk cookies with gooey-butter-cake ice cream and ginger snaps with caramel ice cream. These aren't bite-size, either. Each is a whole damn ice-cream sandwich. And you get three. The ice cream and cookies are delicious, the pairings brilliant, especially the pumpkin-oatmeal.
Reservations are a must. And you might want to stop by sooner rather than later. Once baseball returns, even Joe Buck might have to wait for a table.
Have a suggestion for a restaurant the Riverfront Times should review?