Perhaps it's the influence of the ghosts of my ancient Eastern European ancestors, returning from the hunt to a giant cauldron of bigos stew after a long spell gallivanting around the Polish forests. On the other hand, maybe it's my general affinity for ordering what I perceive as the weirdest thing on the menu, be it sweetbreads, or seaweed, or sea-urchin roe. Whatever the cause, I've always felt drawn to the special game menu featured every year around this time by Fio and Lisa Antognini, whose Fio's La Fourchette has rightfully earned a place among the very top rank of restaurants in St. Louis.
Thus it was that we made our reservations well in advance and on the proper night got all fancied up (coat and tie aren't required, but it just feels better to dress well in a restaurant like this) and headed to the deceptively subterranean space at the northeastern edge of downtown Clayton for a wide-ranging tasting of not-often-prepared meat and fowl.
The Fio's dining area is so well balanced and serene that it's hard to imagine that the room once housed the Leather Bottle, although an unlit neon Budweiser sign in the bar area provides a subtle clue of the space's past. We arrived a good half-hour before our reservation time, and given the pacing necessary to serve meals of this complexity, it didn't surprise me that we were sent to cool our heels, albeit briefly, in that front area, where the coffee-table reading material primarily comprised copies of the Wine Spectator. We were soon ushered back to our table, set with copious knives and forks against a backdrop of maroons and peaches, with an arched window allowing views into the kitchen and a spectacular single, fully opened rose in a bud vase on each table.
Meals may be ordered prix-fixe, with a choice of five or six courses, or à la carte. Either way, you have the privilege of Fio's unique offer of "supplemental" servings: The initial portions are generally big enough, but if you have a lusty appetite or simply happen to love any given item, a second portion will appear at your request.
Never ones to be timid, we went for the whole shootin' match, pairing a six-course game dinner with six courses picked from the everyday menu. (Several of the individual game dishes are also available à la carte while the game menu is offered.) On the printed menu, Fio describes his game choices as "a memorable experience of aromas, tastes and textures," and this description proved to be right on target.
Even before we got around to consuming Skippy, Bugs, Donald and Bambi, Fio presented us (and all diners that evening) with an amuse-gueule, loosely translated as an "appeteaser" by our waiter but probably more appropriately termed a lève-gueule for the way it woke up our taste buds. Each of us received a selection of a tangibly tangy pickled mushroom, a small hunk of sea bass amplified by a rub of cumin and a rillette de veau gently enhanced with Roquefort.
Over and above the fact that there were four separate game-related courses, each individual course was a medley of three types of game, designed by Fio to achieve the desired harmony and counterpoint of aroma, taste and texture. He started carefully, with stuff most relatively adventurous diners have probably run across in the past -- a miniscoop of the delicate but richly condensed liver flavor of foie gras; thin slices of duck breast, feeling and tasting something like gamy lamb loin; and a more full-bodied loin of rabbit, lightly flavored with the vaguely licorice taste of tarragon.
The next course leapt several degrees of exotic, featuring a caribou egg roll, pheasant custard and antelope pâté over a softly sweet sherried veal glaze. The caribou, captured in bite-size form over cabbage inside the egg roll, was probably the densest texture of the evening; conversely, the pheasant was ultralight and airy, with a pronounced fowl flavor but an almost ethereal texture. The antelope pâté came across in both flavor and texture like a finely ground, finely spiced meat loaf.
Again in the next course, Fio played with gradations in boldness, with partridge, venison sausage and wild-boar bacon arranged consecutively across a puff pastry, a small assortment of greens vinaigrette positioned at the top of the plate. The partridge was moist and very subtly flavored; the oval of venison sausage much more powerful; and the boar bacon tasting almost as if it had been cooked into a reduction of itself -- a double-barreled boar, if you will.
The largest course, dubbed the "main," featured a scallopine-like slice of grilled elk, a semiboned lacquered quail and -- the oddball of the evening -- a kangaroo fritter. This final item had a texture like a coarse potato pancake and a flavor like a mixture of several ground meats -- another exotic meat loaf, not as herbed as the antelope pâté -- and wasn't displeasing but was my least favorite item of the whole safari. The quail, in contrast, was a marvelous game bird, sweetish-tasting both in the lacquering and in its delicate flesh, and the elk was lightly colored, firm in texture and full-bodied in flavor. For a sauce, Fio chose cranberries and roast garlic, and all three meats balanced nicely with this rich and acidic combination.
Dessert was a fresh-fruit terrine, colorful slices of strawberry, banana and kiwi suspended in a thick berry mousse encased in a light pastry, adorned with mint leaves and raspberries over a "collision" of raspberry and custard. For those for whom all this wasn't enough, a tray of petits fours arrived as a final, final course to go with our coffee.
As noted, many of the game items are also available à la carte, and we leveled off some of the exotic nature of our evening with a second meal of the more "normal" Fio's items, such as a napoleon of smoked salmon and crawfish, couscous in a small fortress of fresh asparagus, a tomato-and-spaghetti-squash salad, and lobster and shrimp around a seaweed-based Japanese salad called chuka, flavored with a vermouth beurre blanc.
On game and nonwild dishes alike, Fio is a master plate sculptor, deftly arranging the many individual elements of each dish and ornamenting with intersecting swirls of sauce, or ridge cuts of carrots, or any number of other decorative elements but always resisting the gaudier trends of stacked, high presentations that overwhelm both the visual aspect of the dish and the diner's ability to maneuver his or her utensils efficiently.
And if you're a soufflé fan, Fio makes some of the best in the city, with the current selection including raspberry, Grand Marnier and Swiss chocolate.
A very short list of restaurants in the St. Louis area consistently perform at the level of "fabulous," and Fio's, now a part of the community for 17 years, has certainly earned its place in the very highest echelon. We are privileged to have them, and they are privileged to serve a dining populace with the good sense to have supported them for all these years.
Fio's game menu will be available until Dec. 18.
FIO'S LA FOURCHETTE, 7515 Forsyth (Clayton), 863-6866. Hours: Dinner starts at 6 p.m., Wed.-Sat. Entrees, $20-$25; prix-fixe: five-course $53.75, six-course $63.75.