I don't fault the server for asking the question. On two previous visits to Ice Kitchen, two different servers had made the same inquiry. They were just following orders, I'm sure. Yes, I'm familiar with tapas. You're familiar with tapas. All of us in St. Louis, in this unexpectedly lovely late summer of 2009, are familiar with tapas.
Or, rather, we know tapas in its debased form: not the Spanish social ritual of enjoying drinks and tasty morsels in a succession of tapas bars — both literally and figuratively a series of appetizers for the night's meal — but a smorgasbord of small dishes eaten over the course of one visit to a single restaurant. In St. Louis, at least, these dishes are rarely Spanish, let alone traditional Spanish tapas.
This is more observation than complaint. I've accepted that St. Louis isn't Madrid and, more to the point, that the American approach to food, drink and social interaction will never be as relaxed, soulful and sexy as the Spanish. If nothing else, though, we should retire the term "tapas." It isn't accurate — and it hasn't been hip since the late years of the Clinton administration.
Ice Kitchen is the most egregious offender yet. The restaurant calls itself "fusion tapas," so authenticity isn't a consideration — nor, for the reasons listed above, do I even care — but Ice Kitchen takes it a step further: Here, most of the tapas dishes aren't even small.
Ice Kitchen opened in March in Westport Plaza, the latest "concept," as he terms them, from Munsok So. So also operates the sushi lounge Drunken Fish, which has expanded from its first location in Westport Plaza to the Central West End and Laclede's Landing, as well as Xes, a Laclede's Landing nightclub. His new venture sits on the ground floor of the plaza's Gold Tower, next to the Mexican restaurant Casa Gallardo and across the pedestrian walkway from the Trainwreck Saloon.
Given its name, you won't be surprised to learn that Ice Kitchen's interior aims to be as sleek and cold as the frosted-glass vodka bottles so prominently on display. These sit on shelves at the center of the bar, which itself is located right smack in the center of the main dining area, a square with seating on all four sides. Around the perimeter of the bar are high-top tables and booths for diners. Those wishing to avoid the bar area — from which, during my dinner visits, the cigarette smoke wafted continually — should ask for a table in the back, where there are two smaller and somewhat separated dining areas. Whatever sleekness the design might have achieved is undercut by its ridiculous blue lights — unflattering, at best, and, at worst, evocative of a morgue.
The lengthy menu is divided into soups, salads and tapas; the tapas, in turn, are divided into "light" and not-light dishes. Seeing this set off my alarm bells, as did the prices of those not-light tapas, most of which ranged from $13 to $18. The menu spells out that tapas are meant to be shared, but this seems arbitrary: Every single not-light tapas I ordered was, essentially, the size of a reasonably portioned entrée. I could share them, just as I could share anything I ordered at any restaurant with anyone else. That does not tapas make.
Of course, none of this semantic quibbling would matter if the food were any good. It isn't. The fault doesn't lie with the execution — the cooking and especially the plating showed care — but with the concept. The menu reads as though the cooks played mix-and-match with every hot ingredient of the past fifteen years, from Chilean sea bass to truffle oil to Szechuan peppercorns to pork belly. Oddly, almost unfathomably so given the range of ingredients, nearly every dish I sampled suffered from a simplistic flavor.
The pork belly, for example, was given a Guinness-honey glaze. I tasted no stout, but plenty of too-sweet honey. Worse, the pork belly had been sliced so thin that whatever pleasures its crisp skin might have offered were lost, leaving only the expected fat and little meat. This came with a bland fried-potato cake (read: hash browns) and "flash-fried" cabbage rendered flavorless by a thick jacket of batter.
The Chilean sea bass had the wonderfully tender texture that has endangered the very survival of the Patagonian toothfish. (Should I have asked if this was from one of the species' few sustainable fisheries before I ordered? Yes. My bad.) The filet had been marinated in sake and was served over rice in a mirin-shiso broth: the combination of sake and the rice-wine mirin, with the alcohol cooked off, was, like the pork belly, too sweet.
A "flight" of three small servings from the selection of soups brought a roasted corn chowder that was heavy on the cream and (yet again) sweet, a tortilla soup that was made with chicken broth but that looked and tasted like canned chili, and an elephant-garlic soup that was the color of peanut butter and had a blunt, bitter taste. When my order of albóndigas, from the light-tapas menu, arrived, I wanted to weep with relief: The pork and beef meatballs — an actual Spanish dish! — looked blissfully basic. They were tasty, with a strong note of smoked paprika, but came drizzled with three pepper sauces (green, red, orange) that were variations on the same sweet (!) note.
A couple of dishes didn't make sense, period. One brought acorn-squash gnocchi in a balsamic-sage cream sauce. The gnocchi themselves seemed to disintegrate as soon as they reached my mouth, imparting no squash flavor whatsoever, and the sauce had an unpleasant taste, funky and metallic. The "Asian Lacquered Duck Breast" was given a generic Asian treatment, with a soy-molasses glaze and, on the side, a ginger-pear sauce. You would think that this would join the roster of too-sweet dishes, but the flavors were indistinct, save for what appeared to be a chile sauce (unlisted on the menu) that gave it a hint of spice.
Oh, and also, as presented, the duck dish looked like a human vulva.
No, really: The sliced duck breast was arranged in an oval at the center of the plate. On either side three streaks of sauce followed the curve of the oval, the outer streaks longer than the innermost. At the head of the oval, bok choy had been artfully folded into the shape of a small flower bud.
Am I perverted? Undoubtedly. But along with "tapas" and vodka martinis, Ice Kitchen sells a certain empty sex appeal. On one visit, when I was dining alone, the server, a woman, asked if I'd like "to start with a ménage à trois or something." She referred, I learned after I read the wine list, to Ménage à Trois wine. But come on, really? Of all the wines on the list, that's what you lead with?
To the server's credit, she asked the question by rote. And, really, it's all of a piece. Ice Kitchen isn't a restaurant so much as a concept. In fact, the menu tells you to check out Munsok So's other "concepts." What is that concept? I don't know, but it's certainly not tapas — except that, as at a true tapas bar, you'll want to try only a few small bites, and then move on.