Stepping into the Graffiti Global Grill and Bar is like opening a box of crayons, the little one with eight colors and no sharpener on the back. Turn left and head for the bar. Better yet, turn right and head for the raw bar/sushi lounge, where you can feast on maki, bluepoint oysters, littleneck clams, shrimp cocktails and steamed mussels. Or just head straight to the dining room and begin mentally untangling the menu. Either way, there's nothing subtle about co-owner Todd Wyatt's latest Central West End operation.
Since shuttering his popular Crazy Fish restaurant in west county last year and taking over the Euclid Avenue location formerly occupied by a Pasta House outpost (which has resurfaced down the block as Pasta House Pronto), Wyatt and his partners -- including executive chef Jason Tilford and members of the Pasta House franchise group -- have garnered enough buzz to warrant earplugs. But back to the crayon box. Graffiti shoots for the big and bold: Vividly hued walls contrast with achromatic black-and-white accents; faux graffiti defaces paint-splattered columns (I wish they'd hired the tagger who keeps hitting my neighborhood); and large, impressionistic paintings in brilliant colors recall a primitive style. Oddly, the background soundtrack, played low enough to facilitate conversation, isn't world music or urban trip-hop, but rather the Top 40 soundtrack of suburbia.
In short, the look and feel comes right up to the precipice of "cutting edge" before backing off -- as if to say, "Nah, this is St. Louis." That's not really a criticism; I mean, short of having real graffiti artists running around squirting edible paint on your plate and decorating the place like a Pier 1 on steroids, how would you showcase a "graffiti global" theme? And I understand what Wyatt et al. are trying to accomplish: developing a menu that features a nod (or two, or three, or four) to popular cuisines of the world, and doing it amid an upbeat atmosphere. Of course, if the food sucked, the décor would be moot. Prime is the only grade of beef Graffiti Global serves. Fresh fish arrives several times a week and bluepoint oysters are flown in from Maine. Tilford and his kitchen crew convert the raw materials into some truly exciting dishes.
But first you'll have to get through the menu. I have enough ADD in me to become easily overstimulated by too many choices and flavors. When I saw "sesame seared tuna sushi tacos with ginger soy sauce and sweet chili sauce in a crisp wonton shell," I had to stop and think things through, one ingredient at a time. By the time my mind got done constructing the taco and moved on to the house salad -- spring greens, smoked apples, peppered cashews, hickory bacon, sweet onion and basil vinaigrette -- I needed a nap.
It's also a lot to track as you eat, paying attention to the contrasting flavors as they meld on your palate. The three taco shell-shape wontons were each layered with a long slice of tuna, sauce and jicama slaw. The appetizer was interesting, and flavorful, but the tuna suffered from those unpleasant tendonlike strands that plague certain cuts of tuna, forcing one to excavate the nicely seared fish from its taco bed for some tabletop microsurgery. That salad, though, with the bitterness of the greens mitigated by the sweetness of apple, was heaven on a salad fork.
Boldness pervades the rest of the menu as well. Anytime you combine Asian, Italian, American regional and Mexican influences, you'd better be damn sure you know your way around each cuisine. Tilford does. A sea bass entrée was so fresh, so expertly seared, so simple that I nearly forgot to tackle its bed of wilted spinach, studded with shards of garlic. The dish's Tuscan influence exerted itself with a creamy polenta mash and a cold white-bean salad, both of which sat off to the side in the large bowl. Another seafood dish, king salmon grilled in a corn husk, was equally pleasing, both to the eye and to the palate. Piled atop the salmon-stuffed open-face husk was a luscious mango-jicama slaw sharpened with a strident chipotle cream sauce.
But if you're the meat-and-potatoes sort who's not as adventuresome as your date who got the coconut curried chicken, you should do well with the pan-roasted rib eye, simple and nicely marbled for superb flavor. But caveat carnivore: Our server informed us that the kitchen has a heavy hand on the grill throttle and tends to overcook steaks. No problem -- order rare and it arrives medium-rare, perfect for a rib eye. Rounding out the hearty plate were molasses sweet potatoes whipped into a fluffy cumulus and a medley of roasted zucchini, squash, tomatoes, asparagus and red pepper. No sign, though, of the billed crisped leeks.
According to that same helpful server, that coconut curried chicken is Graffiti's most popular dish. While not as spicy as what you'd find in a Thai restaurant, the dish had all the characteristic flavors: mild curry, coconut milk and crunchy stir-fried vegetables mixed with pad Thai noodles and augmented by a dusting of peanut powder.
Forty bottles compose the wine list. You've got your chardonnays (five) and merlots (four), of course, but also more offbeat selections under the "unique" categories, such as the multilayered Sokol Blosser Evolution white blend from Oregon ($7.50 for a glass, $33 for a bottle), and the mellow red Toscana Centine from Castello Banfi, blended from sangiovese, cabernet and merlot grapes ($5.50 and $22). All told, bottles go from $19 to $50 -- a customer-friendly range, though no bargains stand out on the roster. Sixteen selections are available by the glass and run between $5.50 and $7.95. Wyatt aims to feature boutique wineries. "We like to keep the wine list fresh, fun and changing," he says.
Of the five desserts offered, three are made in-house. None really live up to the restaurant's moniker (which conjures up images of Basquiat coupled with food so fused that the servers need a course in multiculturalism). A plump, house-made caramelized apple empanada didn't disappoint, but a side of vanilla ice cream stood in for the advertised cinnamon, and that was a drag. The other house-made desserts: bread pudding made with bourbon and dried fruit, and vanilla crème brûlée (too dense). The out-sourced cheesecake was fine, if ordinary, while the triple-chocolate cake with crème anglaise proved more tempting on paper than on the plate -- it was too dry, and the disk of decorative chocolate served alongside was as tasteless as one of those crayons, from the box of eight, no sharpener on the back.