Revival is an audacious name for any new restaurant, let alone one that's replacing an institution as beloved and influential as King Louie's. The word's connotations are mostly positive, of course. (Don't worry: I don't plan any CPR jokes.) But whether it conjures thoughts of a Cardinals' late-season rally from the middle of the pack to win the pennant or a charismatic preacher saving souls in a crowded tent outside of a dusty town, the name raises a curious question: What, exactly, is being revived?
The answer isn't King Louie's. I don't mean that as a slight. I moved to St. Louis long after that restaurant had made its reputation; I never dined there. So I arrived at Revival with no lingering associations, no expectations of, well, a revival. At any rate, the new owners — executive chef Cary McDowell, pastry chef Carolyn Downs and her husband, Charlie have taken a much more casual approach than King Louie's did.
Revival's Web site (www.revivalstl.com) presents the restaurant's philosophy: "Our passion at Revival is bringing back the things that matter most in life — good friends, good food, good drink, great conversation." And: "Our menus center on one common theme — good home cookin'." That translates into both American comfort food with a definite Southern accent, as well as reliable bistro favorites.
So you might begin your meal with "Salt and Pepper" chicken thighs, the boneless dark meat moist and flavorful, the skin seared an appealing dark golden brown and perfectly seasoned with little more than the salt and pepper of its name. Fried calamari featured a light breading, exceptionally tender squid and — thankfully — a piquant, creamy dipping sauce rather than the standard marinara. Shrimp and grits, a special, brought only a few pieces of chopped Gulf shrimp, but the four-cheese grits were a rich, tangy indulgence.
Or you might opt for more "continental" fare: veal sweetbreads, chicken liver mousse, steak tartare. I was especially taken with this last dish, topped with a halved quail egg. The steak had a lovely clean flavor; a dribble of rich, golden yolk provided a subtle undertone.
The menu is quite long: In addition to starters, salads and entrées (or "Fancy Dinner Plates," as Revival preciously calls them), there are sides, sandwiches and flatbreads. And desserts — two different categories of them, in fact, and which you should absolutely save room for. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Anyway, despite ordering enough food for what seemed like two restaurant reviews — servings are generous — I made no headway into the sandwich or flatbread menus.
Of the sides, I liked the maple-sweet collard greens (a special) and, especially, the mac & cheese. A topping of crumbled Ritz crackers gave the already exceptionally creamy mac & cheese an extra hit of buttery richness. Both dishes were served in small crocks — what you would probably consider "side"-sized. But orders of both fried okra and onion rings could have served two or three as an appetizer. The okra, like the fried calamari, struck an ideal balance: crisp but not too heavy. The batter on the onion rings was on the soft side, though I did like the sweet barbecue sauce that accompanied them.
The entrées tend toward bistro simplicity rather than comfort-food indulgence. The most interesting dish is stewed rabbit. The meat is served off the bone atop four or five large ravioli filled with a smooth blend of cheeses; these, in turn, sit on a bed of baby spinach. Sliced green olives were scattered around the plate but struck me as an unnecessary touch. Shaved sheep's milk cheese already provided a pleasantly sharp top-note.
Beef short ribs long ago passed from overlooked cut to restaurant convention, but Revival prepares them well. The full-flavored meat was fork-tender and smartly paired with a sweet-potato purée. Likewise, the "supper steak" — a hanger steak, one of my favorite cuts, chewy but not unyielding — needed nothing more than its own juices and the sweetness of caramelized onions.
Simplicity isn't always a virtue, though. Braised lamb (either pulled off the bone or, to split hairs, stewed) atop buttered noodles lacked a spark. Unless you have a particularly strong craving for lamb, the meat's hearty flavor might grow tiresome. In general, while you won't have a problem choosing a satisfying entrée, nothing except maybe the rabbit jumps out as a must-try.
The desserts are outstanding. Carolyn Downs makes both traditional desserts as well as "snacks." The latter, priced at $2 each, include both simple treats like doughnuts and fudge as well as more unusual offerings. Bourbon balls, served inside a cute packet bearing the Revival logo, had the texture of softened fudge and a very strong bourbon flavor. An adult's dessert. Lavender shortbread cookies were intriguing. I liked the first few bites, but after that I kept thinking of Bath & Body Works products.
Downs avoids usual dessert suspects like cheesecake and crème brûlée. Chess pie, a Southern classic, had a lovely, flaky crust and a pure, eggy sweetness. Another Southern touch: chocolate bread pudding, served in a Dr Pepper sauce. Though I'm not sure I would have guessed Dr Pepper was in the sauce if I didn't know, it was delicious.
The wine list, overseen by certified sommelier (and general manager) Andrew Patania, is impressive for a new restaurant, with well over 100 selections, including both values and splurge bottles. Given the list's length, the by-the-glass selection is disappointingly perfunctory. The beer selection is standard-issue.
The only service problems I encountered were long waits to flag down our server. The restaurant is large and, when busy, the waitstaff seemed stretched thin. Again, I have no emotional connection to the late King Louie's, but I wonder whether those who do are having trouble adjusting to the more casual service. The restaurant looks a little fancier than it aspires to be. Indeed, a quick scan of the menu finds only a couple of dishes over $20 and everything but the entrées is priced under $10. The "snack" desserts and the sides — $4 each or four for $14 — are especially good values.
Revival might not have the most exciting menu in St. Louis, but it offers something for just about everyone and, considering the quality of ingredients and preparation, the price point is more than fair. It's a smart business model, especially with our economy headed down the tubes. Will it still be as appealing when things turn around? I don't know, and I doubt we'll be talking about that revival any time soon.