I got wind of Taylor's from my barber. Besides being the only barber I've found who knows how to cut the remnants of the unruly curly hair that encircles my male-pattern-baldness head, Bill shares many of my interests: jazz, local politics, figuring out women, cigars, bourbon and, of course, food. Bill knows things about food. He usually tells me about some new eatery or shares his latest dining experience or lets me in on the fact that so-and-so is thinking about opening a such-and-such place. In short, Bill is not only a great barber, he's a great source. And he was raving about Taylor's.
"It's in Imperial?" I asked incredulously. "Isn't that to hell and gone?" Actually, it's only about twenty miles south of downtown on I-55. It just feels like it's to hell and gone because it's in Jefferson County, an area known more for casual family eateries than something as fine and formal as Taylor's. Like most of St. Charles County and the far western edge of St. Louis County, the burgeoning area of south St. Louis and northern Jefferson counties have seen, until recently, little in the way of elegant-dining options despite enjoying about a 3.5 percent growth in per-capita income. Economic analysis aside, let's just say that there's more disposable income down there than I ever imagined. And nobody knows this better than Chris Bates, owner of Taylor's, Bates Electric and a custom-homebuilding business.
Bates put his construction know-how to work in renovating the late-1800s two-story structure that houses Taylor's. Once a school and later a bar, the building was in poor shape when Bates bought it four years ago. After months of work he and his wife, Stephanie, named the restaurant after their young daughter and opened for business in April 2003. The design is decidedly formal and Victorian, with maroon patterned wallpaper, settees, dark velvet curtains with gold tassels, a grand piano and a massive chandelier. An open staircase leads to a mezzanine level that features tables overlooking the first-floor dining area.
What Bates didn't know about cooking he found in young executive chef Andrew Guillot. A graduate of the Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts, Guillot had served stints at the Ameristar Casino, the Lodge of the Four Seasons and Greenbriar Hills Country Club in Kirkwood. Taylor's' food is dubbed "American regional style cuisine with classic European influence," and Guillot's cooking lives up to the moniker.
The half-dozen appetizers all sounded interesting, but even alongside a Cantonese duck roll and chilled salmon with apricot rice pilaf and Montrachet mousse, the bison-and-bourbon apple turnover demanded attention. Chunks of braised bison tenderloin and sweet Fuji apples were stuffed into a flaky pastry, baked, then ladled with a mild beef stock reduction. When I think of strudel, I think of a rolled pastry. In that sense, the Missouri wild mushroom strudel was a visual shocker: Imagine a square pastry shell about an inch high, stuffed with chopped mushrooms, then sliced diagonally. The two pieces had been stood upright in a pool of tomato and Brie fondue. The entire concoction looked like ground beef on a pastry bun -- weird, but surprisingly appealing with the earthy flavors blending with the zing of the fondue.
Salads are on par with most other high-end restaurants and include the necessary field green and Caesar versions. Most notable, though, was a salad of baby spinach, peppered bacon, candied walnuts, Gorgonzola cheese and shiitake mushrooms, tossed with a sweet and creamy citrus-poppyseed vinaigrette and topped with slices of poached pear. The Gorgonzola's sharpness, tempered by the sweetness of the nuts and the fruitiness of the pears, made for a luscious combination.
Entrées were impressive, showcasing Guillot's emphasis on creative pairings. Farm-raised salmon is an overexposed menu entry, but Guillot elevates a simple grilled fillet by slathering it with his own bourbon-mango barbecue sauce and topping it off with a fresh mango salsa. Roasted fingerling potatoes and fresh asparagus rounded out this delicious dish. Chilean sea bass is another tired menu mainstay -- and an overfished one at that. Still, there's no denying that it tastes good when Guillot lightly dusts it with flour and subjects it to a pan-searing. Even better was the outrageous red potato and spinach hash the chef created to support the fish: roasted, chopped potatoes mixed with freshly sautéed spinach and a creamy beurre blanc to bind it all together.
Another winner was the fourteen-ounce New York strip steak, a magnificent two-inch slab "crusted" with sliced morel mushrooms and slathered with a rich, concentrated bourbon mushroom demi-glace so addictive that we had to request extra bread to sop it all up. On the side were more of the roasted fingerling potatoes, plus a few carrots trimmed of all but a bit of green at the end for a punch of color.
Only two desserts -- a twin chocolate mousse martini with Grand Marnier and strawberries, and citrus Grand Marnier crème brûlée -- are made in-house (a change from last year, when all desserts were made in Taylor's' kitchen). The rest are procured from the excellent Sugaree Baking Company in Dogtown, including a refreshing slice of strawberry dream cake (made even dreamier by the addition of strawberry mousse into the vanilla cake) topped with a layer of butter cream. The cake was served vertically like a tower and accented with fresh strawberries and chocolate ribbons. The crème brûlée, on the other hand, was served in a salad bowl -- odd, but it was cool, creamy and perfectly caramelized. Then again, the citrus and Grand Marnier flavors were difficult to distinguish; where was the mouth-puckering sensation I expected?
It's a young waitstaff, but the service was fine. Even at that, I hope the server who poured a double shot of Beefeater gin and liberal splashes of Vermouth straight into a short glass and served it unchilled was following a customer's request and not mixing a standard Taylor's martini.
The most evident blemish at Taylor's is the wine list. Visually, it's laid out like a spreadsheet gone awry: no distinction between columns, uneven indentations and small print. But worse is the anemic selection of wines by the glass. For example, of 67 red wines (heavy on the cabs) on the list, only one, the Castle Rock pinot noir, is available by the glass ($8). The good news: It goes fine with the barbecued salmon. Same deal with the white wines: Only two are available by the glass. I'm told they're revamping their wine list. Here's hoping it gets more readable, at the very least.
It's about time for another haircut. I have some new cigars I want Bill to try. And it'll be nice to tell him that his restaurant tip was well worth the drive.