Two popular restaurants have finally listened to their customers and expanded their operations -- one by adding dinner; the other, by reintroducing its popular lunch menu. The Billy Goat Restaurant & Bar has been a good lunch, happy-hour and private-party destination for a couple of years now. With a homesteading mindset, owners Brian Roth (chef) and Rob Lyons (manager) took a big gamble when they renovated the quaint building with the curved façade on the corner of Vandeventer and Boyle. Roth and Lyons nurtured the space back to health, repairing the water-damaged wood floors and rehabbing the sadly neglected bar.
At the time there was more retreating than rehabbing taking place in the immediate area, back before the injection of capital along Tower Grove Avenue and Manchester Road. Roth and Lyons envisioned a gathering place for lunch and happy hour, a place that would close shop at 8 p.m. On Saturdays they would close at 3 p.m., reserving the evening for private parties. All that would be fine (except for the odd closing time) were it not for Roth's cooking, which elevates bar food from the depths of fatty fare used to coat the stomach in preparation for more alcohol to an emphasis on fresh ingredients and simple but flavorful food.
When watching Roth in the semi-open kitchen, it's hard not to notice the care he takes in preparing meals. The soups and chili are made in-house, as are the chips and the chicken wings, which are dry-rubbed with a spicy powder. Roth doesn't merely put food on a plate, ring a bell and have the dish whisked to your table; he dresses each plate carefully, wiping off dribbles of sauce and making sure the presentation is precisely right -- and that's just for a burger.
After realizing the extent of Roth's skills in the kitchen, people wanted something more than a few appetizers to nosh on while drinking their pale ales, Shiner Bocks and PBRs. So Roth and Lyons extended food service to the 8 p.m. closing time with a dinner menu that includes many of their lunch items. The upshot: Roth gets to take his culinary skills beyond wraps, clubs and burgers with nightly specials.
One night it was medallions of beef tenderloin -- three good-size ovals, about three ounces each and grilled medium-rare, just as I requested. Ladled over the top was concentrated caramelized onion sauce, which added to the beef just a hint of savory sweetness. And true to Roth's philosophy, the vegetable medley was nowhere near the frozen variety: fresh mushrooms, green beans and diced tomatoes sautéed in an earthy balsamic vinegar-based sauce. A baked potato provided the starch. At $13.95, the nicely balanced meal was a bargain. I started off with the house salad and was quite glad I did: Mixed greens were tossed with red onion, julienne carrots, dried cranberries, feta cheese and a sweet, creamy vinaigrette. My only problem with dinner salads in general is that restaurants love to pile the greens high on a small plate and assume one can neatly mix the dressing -- usually served on the side -- with only a knife and fork. Please, give me a salad bowl and two spoons so I can toss the salad and dressing evenly -- or at least ask if I want the kitchen to do it.
Dessert was a butterscotch crème brûlèe topped with a needless dollop of spray-can whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. But who knew that three small pieces of candied walnuts set to the side could add so much to this ubiquitous custard?
Now, if we can only get the Billy Goat to keep real restaurant and bar hours.
Let's admit it: "What's for lunch?" is the question we start asking around, oh, 9 a.m. (followed by "What's for dinner?" around 2 p.m.). For those who like to eat, the anticipation of going out motivates us through a dreary workday. And one of those culinary bright spots is Frazer's Brown Bag.
When Frazer Cameron opened his restaurant back in 1992, you couldn't snag an inch of personal space in the cramped, rustic restaurant on Pestalozzi Street, across the highway from the Anheuser-Busch brewery. Back then it was called Frazer's Traveling Brown Bag, and, true to the moniker, the place served lunch. I cursed Frazer's when lunch came to a crashing halt in 1999, when the restaurant expanded into the attached storefronts, more than doubling the seating.
Mid-day meals became expendable in light of trying to maintain a larger operation with banquet facilities and a more expansive kitchen. I could get a table faster, but damn, I missed those leisurely lunches on gorgeous spring days with hooky-playing friends.
Well, let's all do the happy dance, because Frazer's is once again firing up the stove in the middle of the day. The new menu reflects the Frazer's approach to food: heartily American with a few multiculti twists. And in keeping with the brown-bag image, there's a good assortment of sandwiches and "blue plate" meals like meat loaf, roast beef and blackened fish (in keeping with Cameron's New Orleans influence).
You could eat lunch like a Midwesterner and order the very good, very basic roasted-chicken plate, with its mashed potatoes, vegetables and gravy. But when that same half-chicken is rubbed with cinnamon and cumin and roasted with a honey glaze, you're suddenly transported to Morocco, especially when the crispy, moist bird is served on a bed of aromatic couscous, redolent with cinnamon, currants and slivered almonds. Bright, fresh green beans and sliced carrots livened up the plate's color palette.
The other special of the day was a grilled kebab sitting on a bed of plump, spiced rice. The lone skewer held large chunks of andouille sausage, shrimp, beef tenderloin, a mushroom cap, red onion and one of the biggest scallops I've laid eyes on in a while. But despite the kebab's visual heft, my friend -- one of those big eaters who looks forward to every meal -- deemed the portion too small, even for lunch.
We began with a cup of cucumber bisque and a cup of black-bean-and-shredded-ham soup. The bisque, served cold, was thick with almond pieces and bits of puréed cucumber, while the flavorful bean-and-ham soup was as rich and thick as chili. The house salad was mostly iceberg lettuce with some mixed greens tossed with tomatoes, red onions and a housemade red-wine vinaigrette. (See my above complaint about restaurants serving salads on small plates with dressing on the side. Here, I'll complain about restaurants that overdress their salads as if they were going to a formal ball.)
Cioppino (fish stew) for lunch is a good way to indulge without vaporizing your wallet. Frazer's satisfying bowl consists of four mussels, two shrimp, sliced squid, a clam and large chunks of whitefish, all steaming in a tomato-saffron broth -- not too liquidy and not too thick. All desserts are made in-house, including the chocolate torte, cheesecakes and apple crisp.
Both Frazer's Brown Bag and the Billy Goat, while different in their design and purpose, share similar qualities. Both places pay a lot of attention to what arrives on diners' plates. Both places surprise us and challenge our expectations.