There we were, the five of us, each knowing somebody in the group but none knowing all, sipping drinks and getting acquainted at the U Lounge, the new, ultra-hip bar/club conjoined with 609, the new, ultra-hip restaurant on Eastgate Avenue in the University City Loop that's been stirring up more interest and controversy than The Passion of the Christ. Interest because it's the first new restaurant in the Loop in quite a long time, controversy because of its difficult-to-pin-down cuisine, which embraces the Asian-Fusion/American-Comfort/ What-the-Hell School of menu planning.
But back to where it all began -- in that dimly lighted, highly stylized, coolly sensuous lounge, where we waited for our table, getting up every so often to slide open the stainless-steel door that separates lounge from restaurant to inquire about our seating. The bar is inlaid with a long, shallow, stainless-steel trough filled with ice, which reflects the room's subtle lighting and is perfect for setting your drink in as you prattle away or absorb the surroundings and the piped-in music (DJ Alexis and the Hot House Sessions provide the tunes on weekends). Beyond the bar, a back area comprises small, cordoned-off sections and low tables arrayed around the dance area. Seating is limited to the foam cubes that you pull out of a large cubbyhole on the wall. It's Romper Room for the hipoisie! The only problem was that the cubes are so small and light that one tends to fall off them -- and that's before imbibing one of the stiff drinks the bartenders pour.
Ensconced, eventually, at our table, we were able to notice how the sleek metal décor transitions from bar to dining room: A cement floor painted gray, tables lacquered a purplish hue, galvanized ducts, halogen lights and chrome-and-black chairs come together to form an interior that some will find innovative and pleasurable, others cool and aloof. Lining the walls (a mixture of exposed brick and plum-colored paint) are for-sale black-and-white photographs of St. Louis' finest architectural beauties, from the parabolic arches of Priory Chapel to the spanning geometric cable lines of the Clark Bridge.
So designed is this space that one half expects the menu to arrive as a set of blueprints. Close, actually -- it comes attached to a stainless-steel clipboard. Steve Yu, who used to own Silk Road in the Central West End and still operates Hunan Star on Manchester Road, and the much younger Bernie Lee, an interior-design graduate who worked at Hunan Star, paired up and hired an outside design firm to redo the first floor of the two-story brick building, once home to Pratzel's Bakery. Along with Lee, Yu recruited Andy Huang from Hunan Star to handle the bulk of the Asian cooking; Tom Balk, most recently of the Dining Room at Neiman Marcus, serves as executive chef. Pastry chef Ashley Kaplan creates the desserts.
This quintet makes for an interesting melding of tastes and styles, challenging the palate while expanding culinary horizons. In an age when you can choose from 1,500 drawer pulls at Home Depot, it's not surprising to encounter restaurants that attempt to offer something for every palate (sometimes on the same plate!). This can be a good thing, I think. But as with fusion jazz, while some notes meld, creating truly synergetic interactions, others may be too strong in their own right to stand next to one another, let alone start a conversation. (Think of the last office party you attended.)
As you're perusing your clipboard, wondering whether the French-influenced honey- and coriander-glazed duck breast will pair well with a soba noodle cake and Szechuan shiitake sauce, your server will bring out an amuse-bouche. Our little fillip of excitement this night was a tiny spoonful of white truffle mashed potato, a tasty trifle one dining companion remembered from Balk's days at Neiman Marcus. We were of a mind to keep it simple with the appetizers, beginning with a big bowl of perfectly steamed Thai mussels. But these were lusciously complex, as it turned out, steeped in a delightful broth incorporating galangal (a ginger-like rhizome) and kaffir lime leaves. An appetizer of seared sea scallops wasn't such a resounding success; the single seared scallop was tasty in a parsnip purée surrounded by a caramelized onion broth, but at $9 it seemed chintzy. The size of the portion didn't stop us from going ahead and ordering a variation on the same dish as an entrée, however: three plump scallops perched atop a bed of butternut squash risotto and surrounded by a basil beurre blanc. Delicious, though again, priced a bit out of line at $21 (the most expensive dish on the menu). A better seafood value was the "drunken" seafood noodle bowl, which contained three scallops, along with a plenitude of shrimp, fresh mussels and scored squid, served over a mound of wheat noodles mixed with mushrooms and laced with red and green peppers and whole red chiles. Price: $17.
When we settled on Szechuan-style tuna, a special of the evening, our server didn't ask how we wanted it cooked, so we didn't say, figuring we'd see what the kitchen figures patrons like. It was disappointing to see the tuna steak emerge somewhat overcooked. But everything else about the dish was just fine, including the bed of sticky rice that supported the two thick pieces of fish.
Mahi-mahi dusted with green tea leaves was one of those dishes that just didn't meld. Nothing wrong with the surprising, thick mound of pineapple fried rice that served as the foundation, or the fermented black bean sauce that kept things moist. But crushed green tea leaves are bitter when eaten in their non-brewed state and using them to coat fresh fish before searing doesn't lessen the bitterness. Put it all together and you have a cacophony of clashing flavors.
Meat and poultry are in abundance at 609, from thick, grilled pork chops with a celery-root purée to aged Angus strip steak with sweet-potato gratin to the aforementioned glazed duck breast to grilled chicken with mushroom ravioli. We settled on one of the night's specials, a lamb trio. A chop cooked medium-rare and drizzled with a rich lavender-wine reduction sauce was beautifully plated and teamed with a small but mighty potpie and a short kebab with an apricot salsa.
Pastry chef Kaplan translates 609's aesthetic to her cleanly plated, stylish sweets. A crème brûlée sampler proved perfect for sharing: five small square ramekins arranged as a cross, each filled with an unusually luscious custard -- Thai basil-lemongrass, toasted sesame, orange-ginger, passion fruit, bittersweet coconut. As wonderful as the sampler was, the apple3 dessert ought to stand as Kaplan's signature dish. A light apple and lavender tart, drizzled with a port-wine apple sauce and served with house-made caramel ice cream chunked up with bits of apple, will never go out of season. The dessert special of the night, a cinnamon chocolate mousse cake with raspberry coulis, was also superb, accented with a piece of chocolate molded into the restaurant's "609" logo inserted on top like a candle, just in case you'd forgotten where you were. A sampling of house-made sorbets -- passion fruit, blood orange and cherry -- proved fresh and sublime. Finally, as if the place weren't duded up with enough stainless steel, the very good French-press coffee is served in cups and saucers made of the metal.
The small wine list is categorized along the lines of "red, white, dessert and sake." All are available by the glass and will run you between $6 and $12, with bottles in the $21-to-$46 range, heavy on the cabernets and chardonnays. There's a smattering of zinfandel, pinot noir, syrah, Riesling and fume blanc -- if you call one of each a smattering. Service was uneven; aside from the tuna flub mentioned above, our waitress appeared to be unsure of herself as she explained the dishes and was at a loss as to when to remove plates.
I recently heard Virginia Postrel talk about her new book, The Substance of Style, and it made me think of 609. When is the look and feel of something more valuable than the thing itself? 609 is certainly chock-full of style. Moreover, the restaurant seems to have attracted a clientele that derives pleasure and meaning from style -- as if to say, "I like that and I'm like that." But without substance, a restaurant is destined to fade quickly from the public palate. For now, it seems Yu and crew at 609 have come close to hitting upon that elusive ideal balance.