The appetizer at Water Street Café called "Cucumber" is only slightly more complex than its name might imply: three slices of cucumber, each about a quarter of an inch thick and topped with a plume of Gorgonzola mousse and a sliver of pancetta. The ratio of mousse to cuke is skewed too heavily toward the mousse, but on the whole the cool, crisp cucumber and the sharply flavored, light-bodied cheese spread make for a refreshing bite on a warm evening. (The pancetta, it pains me to report, is nothing more than a garnish.)
With this first course I pair Water Street's vintage cocktail of the week, the "Widow's Kiss." Served straight-up in a coupe glass (you know, the shallow ones only Philistines use for Champagne), this is a potent concoction of Calvados, Chartreuse, Bénédictine and Angostura bitters. (Everything in it contains alcohol, notes my server.) The drink has an unusual but not unpleasant one-two punch: sweet and earthy. You might find yourself signaling for another, in order to fully explore its complexity.
The brother-and-sister duo of Gabe and Maria Kveton opened Water Street in April at the intersection of Manchester Road and Southwest Avenue in Maplewood. The space, next door to Jim Fiala's Italian restaurant Acero, is small, a single room with an open kitchen at the rear and a bar along one wall. The entire wall opposite the bar is mirrored, giving an illusion of more size. The address used to be home to a boutique, and the design makes clever, practical use of the elevated platforms of the display windows, repurposing them as lounge seating. The dim lighting obscures some of the décor's finer details, but the terrazzo floor is a lovely throwback touch.
This is the Kvetons' first restaurant. Explains Gabe: "I wanted to open a place with a bistro-style atmosphere that was really casual and that offered a limited menu, really focused on the quality of the ingredients."
Gabe brings several years' experience as a server, bartender and manager at I Fratellini in Clayton. At Water Street his domain is the bar. His vintage cocktails of the week, like the "Widow's Kiss," are drawn from a book called Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. "We're drinking our way through it," he says.
The restaurant's specialty cocktails nod to trends both old-fashioned and contemporary: There is the "Rye Half-Flip," made with rye whiskey, cherry juice, lemon and egg white; there is also the vodka-based "Pomegranate," which also features Cointreau, lemon and POM pomegranate juice. My favorite cocktail might have been "Hemingway's Daiquiri," a bracingly tart blend of rum, maraschino liqueur, and lime and grapefruit juices.
The wine list focuses on vintages from the past few years, mainly domestic, with some Italian reds and French whites. Most bottles fall into the $30 to $50 range. For those looking to spend about that much but try a slightly more intriguing wine, Water Street also offers a selection of half-bottles, a welcome touch. The beer selection isn't very broad, but you can get Winged Nut, a terrific beer from one of St. Louis' new craft brewers, Urban Chestnut, on draft.
Maria Kvalton is in charge of the kitchen. This is her first restaurant job. (She used to work at the Saint Louis Art Museum.) "She's always loved cooking and has always been a really great chef," Gabe tells me. Water Street, he explains, is "more of a natural progression for her."
Maria's menu follows the path Gabe describes: modest and ingredient-focused. The appetizers are mostly cold dishes: the cucumber starter, deviled eggs, pâté. It isn't the most imaginative selection, but for Water Street and its tiny kitchen and small staff, it makes sense. Most of the fare can be prepped beforehand and plated to order.
Of the small plates, the salt-cured salmon might be the best bet, the natural flavor of the fish spiked with a horseradish cream. A trio of bruschetta brings mixed results. The bruschetta topped with honey and Gorgonzola is an intriguing mix of sweet and pungent (much like the "Widow's Kiss," though I doubt the cocktail would pair well with the bruschetta), but an artichoke-prosciutto blend was straight-up artichoke dip, with no sign of the promised prosciutto. The third bruschetta, topped with an almond-basil pesto, was pleasant, if not particularly memorable.
There are only a few entrées. The most interesting is also the most variable: a flatbread that changes each week based on the produce available at the Maplewood Farmers' Market just down the block. On my visits it came with thinly sliced yellow squash and zucchini from Biver Farms in Edwardsville, Illinois, as well as sausage and Parmesan cheese. This succeeded because aside from arranging the ingredients atop the flatbread and cooking them, the kitchen didn't interfere with the gentle spice of the sausage and the natural flavors of the squashes. It was a simple, surprisingly light meal, well suited for early summer.
When the kitchen exercises its ambitions, modest though they may be, it runs into some trouble. Beer-braised brisket, served as a sandwich with a tart, crisp cole slaw, has a good flavor — like pot roast with a little zing — but the brisket in my order hadn't been braised long enough to become tender.
Another entrée, a single golden trout fillet, looks terrific when it is set before you. As a dish, however, it is inherently flawed. The fish is perfectly sautéed, moist at the center, the skin on the fillet's underside crisp, but it is done in by a too-generous topping of chilled beets. The beets' burgundy juice stained the trout and the bed of spinach on which it sat, and their flavor overwhelmed the dish as a whole. If anything the kitchen needs to make this dish more modest: The trout should be the centerpiece, not the beets.
There's something charming about the division of Water Street between brother and sister, bar and kitchen, cocktails as alchemical as the "Widow's Kiss" and cuisine as simple as a cucumber. Given a little time, they have the potential to merge, like two cool, clear streams, into one.