Once again we were scrambling to find a place to eat. Our intended destination was like something out of an Edward Hopper painting: The chef, in kitchen whites and striped apron, stood outside the restaurant's entrance on a Friday evening, gazing forlornly up and down one of the city's busier avenues.
"Nope," I told my wife. "I can't do it. Not tonight."
"Oh, please God, no."
It had been that kind of week. We needed a slam-dunk. Good food, good wine and the promise that the past five days would soon fade into oblivion.
"Eleven Eleven Mississippi?"
She nodded. We hadn't eaten there in two, maybe three years. I recalled a lovely meal of red deer osso buco so tender that — in my memory, at least — the meat dripped like butter from my fork.
Since then owners Paul and Wendy Hamilton had opened Vin de Set and tapped Eleven Eleven Mississippi's executive chef, Ivy Magruder, to head the new restaurant's kitchen. The executive chef at Eleven Eleven Mississippi was now Bruce Piatek, formerly of Harry's East and Mangrove.
We didn't have reservations, of course, but after only a brief wait at the bar we were led upstairs — to the exact table where we'd sat on our last visit years ago. We saw this as a good omen. We ordered a bottle of shiraz and, as an appetizer, one of the restaurant's signature dishes, wild boar ravioli.
When Riverfront Times first visited Eleven Eleven Mississippi ("Thank You and Here's My Address," February 4, 2004), Michael Renner wrote of the wild boar ravioli: "A spicy tomato-herb ragout overpowered whatever perfectly ordinary boar meat the three house-made ravioli contained."
Now the ravioli come in a tomato sauce with vodka. These days such a sauce is pedestrian — I think Bertolli bottles the stuff — but I was there for the boar. Unfortunately, the boar wasn't there for me. The house-made ravioli themselves were excellent. Each was the roughly the size of a fortune cookie and had the lovely, ever-so-grainy texture specific to fresh pasta. But inside...there were only a few shreds of braised meat. Wild boar is strongly flavored, but there wasn't enough of it here to compete with a plateful of sauce.
While rabbit isn't as uncommon on area menus as it used to be — in the past year, I've had it at Revival and the late Balaban's — it still, um, jumps out at me when I see it, so for my entrée I ordered braised rabbit in a balsamic vinegar-pilsner sauce over polenta with aged goat cheese. My wife opted for the "crispy" rainbow trout in a lemon-tarragon vinaigrette over an eggplant gratin.
The trout, served skin-side-up, was certainly crisp, but the vinaigrette was much too salty. This is a common complaint, but it's especially galling in a restaurant of Eleven Eleven Mississippi's caliber — and particularly when the over-shaking screws up a no-brainer pairing like lemon and fish. I did like the eggplant gratin, which offered a mellow take on eggplant's bite.
The side dish was also the highlight of my entrée. The goat cheese gave the polenta an extra dose of creamy texture and a welcome funk. The rabbit, though, was tough, and not simply in the sense that rabbit is generally tougher than, say, chicken. The sauce was very thin and had a strong astringent quality, which was much more noticeable than its blunt balsamic flavor.
For dessert we shared the white-chocolate bread pudding. This was dry and not flavorful and pretty much par for the course.
"You know what this means," I said.
My wife did know, but I think she was in denial. "What?"
"We have to come back."
We did, with a friend. Our second meal was better, though still far from perfect. We began with house-cured gravlax served with the traditional accompaniments: dill, chopped red onion, crème fraîche and toasted rye bread. The gravlax was a lovely color, red with the slightest purple tint, and had a clean, pure flavor with a bracing accent of dill.
Our other starter was a dish of sautéed wild mushrooms with a puff pastry "tower." A wedge of flaky, hollow pastry about the size of a slice of New York-style pizza, it did tower over the mushrooms until I clumsily tried to tear off a piece. It tilted to the side, Pisa-style, then collapsed. The mushrooms offered a burst of intense, meaty flavor, satisfying enough for a couple of bites but not complex enough to be memorable.
We gave the wild boar another try, this time with buttery pappardelle and Parmigiano-Reggiano. In this incarnation, the generous serving provided all the wild-boar flavor you could want and then some. As with the mushroom appetizer, there wasn't anything wrong with this dish, but its appeal was blunt. There was no complexity.
Same went for the lamb entrée we ordered. Four lamb chops were served in a pineapple jus that leaned too heavily on the fruit's straightforward sweetness. A shame, because the four chops were perfectly grilled, with a crisp char and flesh that was a rose-red medium-rare. Again, the side dish was excellent: a risotto, precisely al dente, imbued with the deep flavor of Gruyère.
Honey-roasted duck breast brought two small breast halves over mild apple sausage and wilted spinach in a bourbon-veal jus. Here almost all the components worked together: The skin on the duck was a gorgeous golden-brown and very crisp, the flesh tender and flavorful. The honey added just the right note of sweetness to the savory jus, while the spinach added bite and the sausage — well, the sausage, though very tasty, mostly just added more meat to the plate.
Our desserts fared much better on this visit. A bowl-shaped almond tuile held a luscious chocolate pudding and a bounty of fresh berries, while a napoleon balanced the sweetness of both banana and caramel without being overwhelming. Crowd pleasers, both.
Still, I couldn't shake my disappointment. Here, in what should be one of St. Louis' best restaurants — certainly, along with An American Place and Araka, one of its most beautiful — the food seems caught between two ideals.
On the one hand, the kitchen isn't content to leave well enough alone by preparing the best possible ingredients in ways that draw out or enhance their flavors. Instead, we get ideas both trite (tomato-vodka sauce) and better left on the drawing board (that pineapple jus). On the other hand, even the best dishes seem geared toward crowd-pleasing simplicity. There's nothing to compel a serious gastronome to return.
It's enough to make this writer, at least, stand at the crossroads, gazing forlornly up and down the street, looking for something different.