I grew up in the suburbs and live in the city, so I've seen both sides now (cue Judy Collins). I've come to believe that the "county sucks, city is great" (and vice versa) attitude is more divisive than any race or sports issue St. Louis faces. And it spills over into cultural offerings, including food.
First observation: The suburbs -- in my mind, anyplace twenty minutes any direction from my house -- are magnets for prepackaged "theme" restaurants, fitting comfortably into the never-ending array of big-box chain stores and strip malls. No sooner do you pass a Macaroni Grill or Olive Garden than a Joe's Crab Shack pops up, leading you to an Outback Steakhouse or yet another O'Charley's and Applebee's.
Second observation: Some chain restaurants are actually good. When I express this view to friends, most just stare at me, waiting for the punch line. Or they burst into self-righteous rage, usually opening with "Are you crazy?"
Call me crazy, but how many restaurants, indie or chain, would state in print that "only three frozen items are purchased, and packaged mixes are not used in our kitchens"?
Don't get me wrong, I steer clear of most chains. I don't believe in waiting two hours at the Cheesecake Factory when better options abound just up the street. Part of the adventure of dining is seeking out local flavors, unusual concepts and the just-plain quirky. But I've also learned from personal experience that parochial attitudes and preconceptions often coat the palate. Separate the two and you may be pleasantly surprised.
One such surprise is Yia Yia's Euro Cafe -- the moniker, Greek for "grandmother," is pronounced ya-ya's -- open since 1998 in the far-West County suburb of Chesterfield. It's run by the Kansas City-based PB&J Restaurant Group, which operates 35 restaurants -- including five Yia Yia's -- in four states.
Like a lot of upscale chains, Yia Yia's doesn't look like it was cut from a standard mold once you get inside. The thick-beamed ceiling, stone columns and mosaic tile floor make for a rustic, lodgy feel. The rest of the interior is smartly decorated in warm earth tones, with fabric-padded walls and amber blown-glass chandeliers. The wine "cellar," a glassed-in room unto itself, is front and center of the hostess station. The wood-fired oven is in full view of the bar and dining area, as is the bustling kitchen. There's an outdoor patio that offers a view of -- well, not much besides an empty lot and Olive Boulevard.
Themed restaurants are a dime a dozen, but running such a place that consistently produces interesting, high-quality meals is another thing entirely. Chefs at each Yia Yia's are free to experiment to take advantage of local meat and produce, and the Mediterranean-inspired menu changes several times a year. And, yes, according to the company's Web site, the restaurants make use of only three frozen items and no packaged mixes.
Appetizers are taken just as seriously. The calamari, lightly floured and deep-fried, arrived with two tasty aïolis in small cruets -- a gazpacho and a lime basil -- for dipping. How does one make polenta interesting? Make it creamy enough for spreading and surround it with a rich, sweet and savory sauce of pulled roasted duck and fleshy crimini mushrooms. Pomegranate and maple-glazed barbecued chicken skewers with tabbouleh also sounded interesting. For the truly gluttonous, there's a tower of three appetizers served on a tiered rack for $22.95. (Appetizers, individually priced, range from $7.75 to $11.25.)
Yia Yia's big oak-fired Renato oven cranks out several dinner-size pizzas and piadini (Italian flatbread, like pita without the pocket) suitable for late-night noshing, such as prosciutto pizza with asparagus, fontina, white truffle oil and thyme, and fennel sausage piadini with red peppers, onion, tomato and herb pesto ($10.25 each).
A portion of the menu is devoted to greens and sandwiches and is dominated by salads -- just one sandwich -- topped with unusual vinaigrettes, including lemon-feta and toasted almond, and a variety of animal proteins: beef, salmon, chicken, soft-shell crab. Given that all entrées come with a choice of soup or salad, we didn't stray to this section, but it's worth noting that the spinach and caesar salads that came with our main courses didn't disappoint. Those in the mood for a soup should consider the tomato soup with smoked chicken, a rich vegetable broth filled with smoky flavor.
Although many chains adopt a pasta-is-pasta approach, Yia Yia's pastas have two things in their favor: They're good, and you can order them in half-sizes. Linguine with grilled shrimp arrived bathed in a rich sauce of sweet vermouth and sage, with spinach and dried tomatoes. The soft whole cloves of roasted garlic sprinkled throughout were sweet enough to spread on thick slices of fresh crusty bread from the bread plate. Risotto with sweet corn and a pear-tomato broth was topped with a small mound of Dungeness crab meat, making for a succulent combination of flavors.
The other main dishes were just as good. Hawaiian wahoo was offered as a special on one visit ($22.95). A member of the mackerel family also known as ono, the wahoo's oily flesh stood up well to a pan searing and the slightly acidic reduction that complimented its mild flavor. I'm a sucker for wood-roasted chicken, and Yia Yia's is superb: half a crisp-skinned bird surrounded by thick slices of "fire roasted" zucchini, yellow squash and fingerling potatoes, then drenched in a lemon-parsley sauce ($15.95).
A large selection of house-made desserts reflect the season. A wedge of ripe mango sat next to four small rounds of intensely flavored sorbets: coconut, forest berry, passion fruit and a mélange of banana and mango. The surprisingly mild key-lime tart paired well with its whipped-cream topping and surrounding raspberry coulis. The signature chocolate soufflé, though, takes twenty minutes to prepare -- unless you're a chocolate freak, the fresh blueberry crisp is a better investment.
Service is another component of a successful restaurant that often gets short shrift. Servers here were knowledgeable about both food and wine and well-versed enough to describe dishes in a professional manner and to suggest wines. The wine list is big, with many available by the glass. (If you order a glass, the server brings the bottle and allows you to taste what you're about to get -- a nice touch.) Specialty and mixed drinks are also offered, though like some of the wines, they tend to be pretty pricey.
City dwellers may quibble that the PB&J Group operates its restaurants solely in high-income areas (that would include the Central West End operation), but restaurants are businesses. Yia Yia's may not be worth the trek for urbanites, but if you have an open palate and mind, it rates a try.