Back from a long weekend in Chicago, where the streets outside our River North hotel teemed with tourists and traffic, the hum of Michigan Avenue like an electrical current shooting straight up your spine — where even the trendy restaurants on otherwise quiet streets saw a steady procession of taxis dropping off the buzzing and the buzzed well past bedtime — I couldn't help but think that the view promised in the name the Terrace View is pretty lame.
This isn't the restaurant's fault. The location should be a slam-dunk — not merely in the heart of downtown, but inside Citygarden, the new sculpture park that is second only to Brendan Ryan's mustache as the funkiest thing to appear in St. Louis this year. Smartly, the restaurant's design doesn't try to compete with Citygarden's fantastic creations. The structure, designed by local architect Philip Durham, is a strikingly minimalist box, with floor-to-ceiling glass bracketed in black metal. Aside from a large, colorful sculpture of entwined bodies in the middle of the single dining room, the interior is devoid of décor.
Instead your eyes are drawn relentlessly outward. At lunch, when the restaurant seems busiest, you have a sense of what the view could be: Office workers, jurors and tourists pack the tables and the park. Conversations range from politics to trials to business to — at my table, at least — a sandwich with serrano ham and manchego cheese, salty, porky, creamy, with just enough of a funk to keep you interested.
At dinner, though, when the menu expands in size and ambition, there's nothing to see except the white lights twinkling in Citygarden's trees. Pretty, yes, but hardly enough to distract you from the utterly deserted sidewalks and streets. The restaurant's valet paces for a while and then comes inside to warm up. The energy has dissipated, and you might feel as if you're the one on display, a restaurant diorama in the Museum of Once-Vibrant Cities.
Better to focus on the food, then. To operate the Terrace View, park officials tabbed Jim Fiala, well known to St. Louis for his restaurants the Crossing, Liluma and Acero. These restaurants run the gamut from fine dining to bistro dishes to rustic Italian fare, and Fiala brings a touch of each to the Terrace View. Literally, in some cases: There is the roasted-beet salad from the Crossing, the burger from Liluma, gnudi with guanciale (cured pork jowl) from Acero.
In general, the menu focuses on Mediterranean flavors, with an emphasis on ingredients from local sources. The dinner menu is divided into three groups. The first offers salads as well as a soup and a crudo (raw fish) of the day, the second pastas and appetizers, the third entrées. The staff urges you to order however you would like, and to facilitate this, entrées are available as half- or full-size portions, while some appetizers (pastas, mostly) can be doubled to entrée size.
The most distinctive dish might be the "50-Mile Salad." The preparation changes based on availability, but the concept is consistent: a salad prepared from ingredients obtained within a 50-mile radius of the restaurant. On my visit pumpkin was the centerpiece, the salad combining cubes of lightly roasted pumpkin with shaved fennel, ricotta cheese and pepitas (spicy toasted pumpkin seeds) in a clove, ginger and cinnamon vinaigrette. The pumpkin had a firm texture and a light, sweet flavor — for comparison, lighter and less sweet than roasted butternut squash — that was nicely accented by the peppery seeds and autumnal fennel.
Butternut squash — that autumn standard — stars in the soup of the day. Here the squash's pure sweet flavor is cut with enough stock to give the soup a welcome earthy backbone. In this and other dishes, it was the simplicity of the approach that appealed to me. Same with two patties of ground, seasoned lamb, each about the size and shape of your thumb; served with a mint-flecked yogurt sauce, these offer the pleasure of a really good gyro, in the guise of a quick snack. The gnudi dish brings ricotta dumplings in a brightly flavored pesto, with small pieces of guanicale to provide salt and a touch of savor. Cheese lovers might devour the dumplings whole, but I enjoyed them spread on a slice of bread. Only one of the more basic dishes disappointed, a fritto misto of shrimp, mushrooms and zucchini. The breading was too thick, the truffle aioli not flavored strongly enough to provide zip.
More composed dishes are hit or miss. Striped bass poached in the oven and served in a light tomato broth scented with saffron is as tender as softened butter, the fish's mild sweetness drawn out by the briny kick of Kalamata olives. On the other hand, the equally mellow flavor of grilled rainbow trout, served over Swiss chard mixed with diced pancetta, is lost in a pungent Dijon mustard-shiitake sauce. Lamb neck, a special, is a piece of braised meat served over a parsnip purée in a balsamic-orange reduction. The queasy need not worry: There is no neck bone here, only tender and very flavorful meat, its gaminess matched by the puckering balsamic vinegar and softened by the parsnip's sweetness. I would have liked a touch of pepper or a hint of heat to make everything pop, but in all this was exactly the sort of dish I'd like to see more of at the Terrace View: out of the ordinary in its conception, yet still comforting in its appeal.
For those who want a more traditional meal, a fourth section of the menu features beef and lamb steaks, as well as veal and pork chops. Admirably, these are grass-fed and organic — and, therefore, expensive. I opted for the New York strip, medium rare, from Rain Crow Ranch in Doniphan, Missouri (available at retail as American Grass-Fed Beef). The exterior needed a darker char, but the interior was perfect, with that exquisite mineral flavor unique to grass-fed meat.
Desserts are variations on the usual suspects: bread pudding, panna cotta, a chocolate torte. The torte is served with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt, accessorizing the luscious chocolate with an even more indulgent texture and the slightest spike of flavor. The wine list is predominantly Italian, with a few French bottles, ranging from the low $20s to more than $100. The by-the-glass selection is perfunctory, and my red wine was brought to the table at or maybe even slightly above room temperature.
Servers knew the menu very well and were more than happy to make recommendations. One evening, when I ate dinner at the bar, the bartender kept up a friendly, but not overbearing, conversation. At one point she showed me the stack of comment cards patrons had left. Almost all of them were perplexed by the smaller portions. Frankly, I think the Terrace View should be commended for offering something more ambitious than usual in such a public spot.
Though when you're downtown at night, "public" is a relative term. When I left, taking a circuitous route back to my car to enjoy the fresh air, my only company in Citygarden consisted of the stick figures on an electronic sculpture. They were walking in place, forever going nowhere.