This place has an identity crisis," my friend concluded as we finished our $28 entrées at the elegant Clark Street Grill. "With its name and its location near the stadium, you expect a sports bar or maybe a moderately priced casual restaurant. Instead, you get this," she said, gesturing toward the angular blond-wood furniture, pale hardwood floors, contemporary photographs and opulent table settings. The hotel and restaurant are so exquisite that it's almost worth the dear cost of the meal just to take in the dazzling package. But the exposed-ductwork ceiling, hulking cement columns, brick back wall and tiled pizza oven -- hip and attractive as they are -- send a different message. Customers, like members of a live studio audience at the Food Network, can even eat at a counter in front of an open show kitchen. Most of the prep work and cooking is done downstairs, in a well-equipped kitchen supervised by executive chef Doug Knopp.
The Clark Street Grill is housed in the stunning new Westin St. Louis at Cupples Station, which unfairly bills itself as "the city's only luxury downtown hotel." Near the turn of the last century, the building was part of a cluster of warehouses owned by lumber baron Samuel Cupples. Its brick exterior has been restored and its interior gutted and rebuilt. The hotel is also refurbishing another of the original structures.
The incongruities in the restaurant's physical space raise questions about service: Should diners expect Emeril-style familiarity or black-tie formality? No matter what the protocol, any restaurant in this price category, with seven of the 11 dinner entrées costing $24 or more, should retain a seasoned waitstaff. Instead, the service -- deplorable on our first visit but perfectly acceptable on our second -- was another conundrum. Our first server, a mere scrap of a kid, made one blunder after another. Some were perplexing, such as when he asked my friend what temperature she would like her lamb. Some were mortifying, such as when he badly mispronounced the name of a common wine. And some were rankling, such as when he interrupted our meal on at least 20 visits to our table. Hovering is annoying enough, but this waiter fairly dive-bombed our table. Fretting like an insecure prom date, he dogged us with the question "Is everything OK?" He pestered us for our wine selections. Tried to swipe our plates if we put our forks down for a moment. Fed up with this blitzkrieg, we politely explained that we didn't want to be rushed. Nevertheless, two more servers swooped down with our entrées while we were still eating our appetizers. We sent this new detachment back to the kitchen.
When plates weren't scudding past us in a blur, we noted that the dishes are as baroque as the restaurant is sleek. The food is a casualty of what former New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton calls "unrelenting creativity." "There are places where you can't get something done simply," she comments in the trade journal Restaurants & Institutions. Washington State white asparagus, as cool and succulent as green grapes, would have been lovely on its own or with a simple garnish. Instead, an aerial view of the salad (see sidebar) from left to right revealed a mound of field greens; leathery slices of "duck prosciutto"; asparagus spears marinated in white-balsamic vinaigrette and dotted with tatsuma and chive oils; and a roasted shallot drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Diners should not require a map and key to navigate their plates.
The entrées are mired in risottos, ragouts, hashes and the like. Corn-crusted monkfish, a species often called "the poor man's lobster" because of its sweet, snowy flesh, was bogged down in a lagoon of creamed baby cabbage with pancetta. The lamb that had arrived at the table prematurely was served over polenta sauced with veal demiglace. The polenta had set into a viscous paste that my friend compared to thick, gluggy quicksand. A dish billed as "white truffle gnocchis, crispy duck confit and port wine essence" meandered off course in both conception and execution. The white truffles were undetectable, and the "crispy" duck had the texture of brisket.
Sometimes the chef pulls off his high-flying maneuvers with grace and precision. A plush scoop of warm goat cheese glides in formation with an array of ideal complements: pesto, roasted garlic and shallots, sautéed porcini mushrooms, oven-dried Roma tomatoes and thin slices of grilled walnut bread. Flashy flavors and kaleidoscopic colors command attention in the lobster tempura. Lobster meat is fried in thin jackets of ginger and cornstarch, placed on a bed of soba noodles (slender, grainy noodles made with buckwheat and wheat flour) and showered with a confetti of shiitake mushrooms, pea tendrils, red chiles, mangoes, red onions and bell peppers.
The food's presentation is consistently worthy of a Bon Appétit cover shot. Many dishes, such as the goat-cheese platter, follow the culinary trend of separating or "deconstructing" the ingredients rather than heaping them together. The most radiant dish we sampled was a so-called tomato tasting, in which three salads are made from ripe red and gold tomatoes, yellow grape tomatoes and such ingredients as walnut bread, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and avocado. Another handsome dish is the lobster-and-corn bisque crowned with morel foam, a vaporous froth generated by a nitrous oxide-powered whipped-cream canister.
Our dining experience was marred during one visit by three drunken louts who chortled and cursed loudly at a nearby table. One of them accompanied his outbursts with lewd tongue-flickering. Now, in a tasteful restaurant like this one, you might expect such disruptive customers to be discreetly asked to settle their bill. The staff, however, didn't seem to find their behavior objectionable.
We had hoped to be taken for a thrilling ride at the Clark Street Grill. Instead, callow service, overwrought food and boorish diners kept our feet on the ground. A second restaurant is due to open at the Westin in a year or so -- perhaps having a sister eatery will help the Clark Street Grill define its own identity, giving diners more than just a first-class ticket to disappointment.