A small mound of steak tartare sits at four o'clock on the broad rim of a large plate. Here and there specks of chopped cilantro stems dot the meat with green. Three thin rice crackers jut out at odd angles. Atop the tartare glistens the dusky orange yolk of a quail egg. At the center of this plate, in a shallow indentation, is an amber daikon-radish consommé. Per your server's advice, you spoon the tartare through the consommé, and the daikon's mild sweetness and hint of earth pairs beautifully with the meat's mineral sharpness, while the silken egg yolk, no bigger than a quarter, gives the dish a luscious, lasting body.
A server brings you a bowl containing a single seared scallop and a tangle of oyster mushrooms — some cooked, some dehydrated; "mushroom jerky," your server calls the latter, and you both chuckle. A second server steps up with a tureen and pours thick sunchoke soup over this arrangement. How these flavors work together is tough to describe. But they do. Sweet, buttery, nutty, earthy and even, thanks to that jerky, a tad meaty: You can't imagine an additional element this soup could need, and you don't leave so much as a drop in the bowl.
There are moments of sublime beauty and pleasure to be found at Little Country Gentleman, the new concept from Mike Randolph, owner and chef of the SLU-area Neapolitan pizzeria Good Pie and the gourmet breakfast spot Half & Half — dishes so remarkable that, at three months old, Little Country Gentleman deserves mention in a discussion of St. Louis' best restaurants.
Yet there are also dishes as confounding as any I've encountered anywhere. Plump hunks of lobster claw meat, orange segments and a sprig of tarragon bob in a bowl of what looks to be melted vanilla ice cream, right down to the little black bits of vanilla bean. In fact, this liquid is potato aerated through a whipped-cream charger; the black bits are sesame seeds. But the potato concoction is flavored with vanilla and bourbon, so the dish really is like eating lobster in melted vanilla ice cream (and New England weeps). The orange reinforces the incongruous dessertlike preparation, a misstep for which the tarragon and a touch of Thai dragon chile can't compensate.
This inconsistency isn't that surprising, given Little Country Gentleman's back-story. What's more, it suggests what could be, in the long run, the restaurant's greatest strength.
Little Country Gentleman replaced MEDIAnoche as the other restaurant inside the Half & Half space on Maryland Avenue near the western fringe of "downtown" Clayton. Whereas MEDIAnoche focused on modern Mexican cuisine, Little Country Gentleman follows the whims of Randolph and chef de cuisine Dale Beauchamp. The menu highlights local, seasonal bounty — though only to a certain point. Root vegetables figure prominently right now, as you would expect in the late autumn, but purveyors go unmentioned on the menu, and only once, and then as an aside, did a server mention the origin of a specific ingredient. (Randolph originally pitched Little Country Gentleman, named for an heirloom breed of corn, as featuring Midwestern produce exclusively. In practice, as the presence of lobster and scallops show, the restaurant draws from a broader marketplace.)
Slideshow: Photos from Little Country Gentleman
The space has received a slight makeover. The half of the restaurant featuring the bar and the open kitchen remains more or less the same as before. That includes a large swath of unused space lighted like a cafeteria and with a plate-size drain in the middle of the floor. The dining room proper has a new coat of paint (a deep midnight blue), a sleek wine fridge and low, warm lighting. Billowing white fabric conceals the ugly drop ceiling.
Ambitiously, Little Country Gentleman offers diners no choice other than one of three prix-fixe tasting menus: three courses, six courses or the "Grand" tasting menu. For the three-course meal ($38 per person), you choose one of two savory options for each course. The six-course progression ($68 per person) brings five of the options from the three-course menu in succession, followed by a dessert course. Both meals start with an amuse bouche; the six-course version includes a palate-cleansing intermezzo in the form of a cocktail.
Which brings us to the grand tasting menu ($98 a pop). On the evening I ordered it, this featured an amuse bouche, six savory courses, a cocktail intermezzo, four more savory courses, a glass of housemade eggnog, two cheese courses and a snickerdoodle in a little bag to take home.
Though the least expensive, the three-course option presents the greatest risk. You could easily end up with a sequence of the restaurant's most disappointing dishes, beginning with the "Relish Tray." This is an artfully arranged plate of raw, roasted and pickled beets, radishes, potatoes and okra. The pickled component overwhelms the palate. I couldn't taste the dish's other components (a housemade "ranch" sauce and a strange puddle of pulverized pine nuts), let alone figure out how they worked with the vegetables. Next you could choose the aforementioned lobster. Then you could finish with the dish called, appropriately, "Pig," which is too much of a good thing: deep-fried croquettes of pork cheek meat; smoked pork loin; pork belly; and a chicharrón. Similar to the pickle plate, all that pork obliterates nuance.
On the other hand, you could end up with a meal that progresses from the brilliant tartare to a scallop dish to the dish called "Cow." (The scallop dish was the sunchoke soup on one visit; for the grand tasting, it brought scallops over a sunchoke purée with both braised and flash-fried kale and dots of apricot syrup; if not as otherworldly as the soup, it's still excellent.) "Cow" consisted of two beef preparations: one a thumb-size piece of medium-rare prime strip steak, the other tender strands of braised beef cheek meat, served with roasted root vegetables, pearl onions and Maytag blue cheese over a parsnip-miso sauce. The dish brings to mind a Sunday pot roast amped up with the funk of the cheese and the umami of the parsnip-miso sauce. The six-course meal doesn't make the disappointing dishes better, but it does balance them out with much better courses, and it concludes with a simple, pleasant dessert of buttermilk panna cotta in a citrusy Campari sauce.
The grand tasting isn't for everyone. For one, obviously, it's a lot of food. It's also very expensive. Dinner for two, with tax and tip, will set you back well over $200 before you order a single beverage. And it suffers from the same inconsistency as the smaller menus. The pickled "Relish Tray" precedes the amazing tartare and a solid course of country-fried chicken liver with roasted apples, which are followed by the lobster dud. Two pasta courses — garganelli with Brussels sprouts, lemons and mushrooms, and housemade pappardelle with king trumpet mushrooms, shallots and Parmigiano-Reggiano — are perfunctory, there only because the kitchen felt it needed to include pasta.
The grand tasting wisely splits the pork course over two dishes, a fun little pairing of pork belly and a tiny piece of French toast with a quail egg (a homage to Half & Half's breakfast menu, according to our server) and the pork-cheek croquettes with radishes, mushrooms and a delicate sweet-sour sauce. The savory run finishes with the "Cow." The meal ends with a thud, though: the two cheese courses rather than one cheese and a dessert. The courses themselves (Appenzeller with honey, orange and celery; blue cheese with caramelized beets) aren't bad, but doubling up on them is too heavy (and too stinky) this late in the game.
I can't help but think that cutting down the grand tasting menu to nine or ten courses would benefit Little Country Gentleman immensely. It would allow Randolph, Beauchamp and staff not simply to cut the less-successful dishes but also to give the menu a more distinctive flow — to let it represent their culinary vision rather than overburdening that vision with what they think a tasting menu must have.
Aside from the space, which in terms of ambiance and comfort still feels like a lesser restaurant playing dress-up, Little Country Gentleman has the pieces in place to be a major player on the St. Louis scene. Service is friendly and very efficient — essential when they're swapping out your silverware after each course. The wine list, overseen by Dan Parseliti, formerly a wine buyer in New York City, features an eclectic mix of Old World selections with an emphasis on lesser-known regions and varietals. Parseliti is an enthusiastic sommelier, guiding diners to smart and often unexpected pairings while T.S. Ferguson presides over a list of classy old-school cocktails.
Little Country Gentleman is far from perfect. The grand tasting will leave you reeling and a few hundred dollars poorer. But after several years of recession dining, of minor-key restaurants and comfort-food safety, it's an exhilarating and often delicious tightrope walk.
Slideshow: Photos from Little Country Gentleman