When I was getting ready to move here three years ago, I really pissed off a number of my fellow New Yorkers, who could not comprehend why I would vote myself off the island of Manhattan for a second-tier Midwestern city. "What do they have in St. Louis? What are you going to do there? We have the best restaurants, we have the opera, we have the ballet--." Usually I'd cut them off right there and say, "Yes, but when was the last time you went to the opera or the ballet? All we do is go to bars and movies like everybody else in America."
I did go out to restaurants a lot -- usually I was either on assignment for a food story or wolfing down tuna on toast and a chocolate egg cream at the Utopia coffee shop at 72nd and Amsterdam. Because like many New Yorkers, I never kept food in the house. Those meals that fell in between -- nice dinners out with friends -- were exercises in self-inflicted financial undoing. Somehow you'd always wind up owing $35 toward the check, even though you'd only ordered penne vodka and a glass of merlot. Once I paid $18 at some boîte in SoHo for a steamed artichoke. This was during New York's late-'90s gastronomical boom, when every week produced a new toque of the town -- and yet, such prices merely opened doors at dime-a-dozen trendoid bistros; they didn't gain you entrée into status-laden name restaurants that could boast celebrity chefs, two or three stars from the New York Times, a beef-cheek ravioli said to make grown men cry or, at the very least, a recent mention in SundayStyles or on Page Six.
Still, it wasn't until this winter that I came up with a real good retort for my nagging New York ex-pals. Because what we now have in St. Louis is three-month-old Red Moon, a red-hot, French-Asian smash of a restaurant. And what I am going to do is go eat and drink there as often as I can.
And I can; though Red Moon bleeds coolness out its crimson-tinged décor, it's possible to walk in tonight and land a table, or call and book one for this weekend. It helps that Red Moon (mimicking recent downtown restaurant trends) calls home a vast ground-floor loft space, one that unfolds in a railroad-style succession of soaring rooms fringed by cozy nooks and crannies, done up all Dali-esque: nonsensical whatnots painted directly onto the gold-orange-yellow speckled concrete walls, swaths of red-blue-mossy velvet draped across tall windows, chandeliers every which way. It also helps that all but three of Red Moon's fifteen main-course options cost less than $20 (unheard-of in high-end dining today, even in St. Louis) and that, while cocktails do run $8 a pop, sixteen of the wine list's 60-plus bottles and half-bottles are priced under $30.
A fashion-forward, accessible, affordable restaurant with elbow room to spare? Park Avenue is burning.
French-born, French-trained executive chef Marc Felix -- whose résumé spans from the Naked City to the Gateway City, with time spent at the Plaza Hotel there and the Adam's Mark Hotel here -- is rockin' Red Moon's open-air kitchen (meant to augment the slightly circusy atmosphere, but too far removed from the action to really join in on the excitement). The waitstaff might meticulously recite at the start of each meal that Red Moon's fare is considered "contemporary Asian cuisine with a French flair," and while Asian keywords (hoisin, galangal, cucumber raita, bamboo shoots, bok choy) do run amok on the menu, accented here and there with a "crème fraîche" or a "Dijon dressing," ultimately Felix's culinary conceptions resemble Asian dishes only loosely and prove too eclectic to categorize.
The offbeat amusement begins with the bread basket, which is not a bread basket. It is a coiled contraption lined with newspaper that holds rectangular stalks of lavash, set down alongside a saucer of a luscious eggplant purée oozing whole chunks of eggplant and whole cloves of marinated garlic: delish. (At lunch, a spicy peanut sauce substitutes for the eggplant dip.) From there, orders arrive in fits and flurries; another element of the servers' opening spiel is that the kitchen isn't equipped with heat lamps, so food's delivered "market style" -- i.e., as soon as it's plated. Mostly (but not always) appetizers, soups and salads will come before entrées, but items within the same course rarely make it to the table simultaneously. Share and share alike is a Red Moon maxim, and easily done with such magnanimous portions. Get a load of the wok-fried whole (yes, whole) red snapper, about a foot long, presented on a humongo platter, its skin delightfully crisped and its meat splendidly offset by a soy-ginger glaze tweaked with splashes of lemon juice, lime juice and fish sauce and a mango-pineapple salsa. Or the pork osso buco, which just might tip over your four-top à la The Flintstones -- an otherworldly, outsize feast of braised, tender-at-the-bone shank glazed with a heavenly, pure tamarind reduction.
Like its clientele, Red Moon's food is some of the best-looking in the city, artfully presented. Felix's take on lettuce cups renders a much-appreciated makeover upon that most annoying faux-Asian food. Handsome, subtly flavored and tidy "chicken nems" (think chicken-stuffed egg roll) take the place of the usual messy, icky-sweet chicken filling, while iceberg gets booted in favor of soft, mature-tasting, lilypad-looking Bibb leaves. For kicks, there's a handful of mint and cilantro stems to bundle up as well. Ahi tuna tartare, accompanied by pickled cucumber and a smidgen of wasabi, is clean and well-balanced, while a serving of braised baby back ribs, rubbed with ginger, chili powder, cayenne pepper, lime zest, fleur de sel and Szechuan pepper and barely coated with a Thai ginger glaze, unfurls from the bone with the gentlest nudge. Coconut shrimp look and taste like Samoa Girl Scout cookies (yum!). The Thai spiced mussels, flavored with galangal and leeks, are just the slightest bit al dente. The house-named crab cake, mayo-less but moist, will have crab cake fans begging for more. What I'm saying: Virtually everything here is refined yet fun; virtually everything here is an exclamation point. (A misstep or two: The calamari in the "crunchy calamari salad" are not crunchy, soaked as they are by the tart and much more interesting soy-lime dressing, and prove the dish's downfall. And the seafood pad Thai lacks character. But that about covers it.)
Red Moon's wine list is curated by a bona fide sommelier, Timothy Oliver Lee, another big-city something rarely seen around these parts. Grouped under clever adjectives like "aromatic," "spicy" and "jammy," Lee's list fires on all cylinders, encompassing the up-to-the-minute (a quartet of California and Oregon pinot noirs, ranging from $32 to $98, for Sideways wannabes), the thrifty-chic (an amiable Jacob's Creek grenache-shiraz blend for $24), the classic (Veuve Cliquot, anyone?) and plenty of fine-everyday-drinking choices. On weekends Lee works the floor, sniffing out fellow wine enthusiasts and talking shop with them.
Red Moon adds yet another name to St. Louis' impressive, steadily growing roster of inventive new restaurants, those on par with marquee names nationwide, those whose chefs and owners delight in their own distinctive, personal, headstrong visions -- spots like An American Place, Mirasol, Iron Barley. Red Moon is the party animal of the group, the one who makes sure everyone's having a good time. Best of all, in St. Louis, everyone's invited to the party.