Confrontations with wholesomeness can be unnerving to us urban poseurs who have spent lifetimes plastering over our inner geeks with layers of streetwise sophistication. I wonder whether it isn't occasionally useful to scrape off some of our delusory glamour to see if there's anything substantial left underneath.
I scraped off some of mine at Hendel's Market Cafe. It was perfect timing, because I had a freshly sprained ankle. Just try being cool when your foot has morphed into a purple medicine ball that dangles uselessly between a pair of crutches you don't know how to use. Now who's the dork?
Nevertheless, I lurched toward Hendel's Market with my usual urbane skepticism, mostly because the menu they'd sent me contained alarming allusions to "penny candy" and "fresh water for the horses." The picturesque structure in Old Florissant housed a quaint little grocery store for 100 years before the restaurant took over in the mid-'90s. With its Norman Rockwell facade, it's straight out of The Waltons -- you know the episode where John-Boy learns an important lesson when he makes tumescent overtures to the grocer's barefoot daughter behind the cracker barrel? I feared I would encounter the phrase "old tyme" at any moment.
Mercifully, I would be spared. Hendel's Market peers over the precipice of nostalgia but catches its balance without tumbling headlong into the abyss. The staff is hospitable without being cloying, and there's civilized patio seating in a serene garden. The dining room's simple appointments avoid mawkish sentimentality, and the eclectic menu never once mentions "homestyle." In fact, at lunch they have alligator empanadas.
I was eager to try one, especially because the menu admonished that "life is too short to eat boring food." My heart was heavy when I absorbed the disagreeable news that they had run out. Apparently the dish is wildly popular; our apple-cheeked waitress confided that she had already disappointed five other gator enthusiasts during her shift.
My accomplice and I assuaged our shattered hopes with an order of cheese tarts. Four tidy triangles of phyllo contained small measures of blue and cream cheeses flecked with sun-dried tomato and were topped with pesto. Served on a bright-blue plate alongside a mammoth slab of ruby-red watermelon, they were a diverting spectacle. The flavors were equally arresting; there's nothing timid about blue cheese or pesto, and here they achieved a miraculous equilibrium. The tarts were perhaps a bit oily, but you can hardly expect otherwise when cheese meets fat-happy phyllo. Life is too short to deprive yourself of cheese tarts.
I usually say the same thing about crab cakes, but Hendel's version was disappointing. The pair of puck-sized patties featured uniform shreds of faux crab, a substance I condemn whenever the opportunity arises. Still, as much as I despaired of this dish from a conceptual standpoint, I had to admit that it made the best of a bad situation. If I averted my eyes from the pink dye and ignored the drab Pace-like salsa, the result was a tolerable fried-food experience. Note that this was measurably enhanced by a fistful of irresistible french-fried onions (which bore a keen resemblance to the kind Mom used to put on her green-bean casserole at Thanksgiving).
From the crab-cake incident I deduced that the kitchen was cutting a few corners in an noble effort to keep prices down. At dinner, a seafood-stuffed filet mignon was perfectly medium-rare and sauced with a well-executed bearnaise, but the much-anticipated seafood filling was plagued by substandard ingredients -- most notably the quarter-size, flavorless frozen shrimp -- and had to be brushed aside. At $17.95, it was the priciest dish on the menu, but I would gladly have coughed up a few extra bucks for edible shellfish.
The aforementioned bearnaise left me sanguine about the chef's prowess as a saucier. My optimism would undergo subsequent empirically induced revisions until I ultimately concluded that, contrary to William Blake's lyric claim, exuberance is not always beautiful. Hendel's ideas are solid, but forbearance would produce more graceful results. The Santa Fe pork tenderloin (an otherwise respectable lunch, in a chicken-fried-steak sort of way) flailed in a melodramatic chile cream so sweet it made my pancreas throb. And then there was the trout.
If this trout was any indication, the kitchen has the potential to kick some major booty in the fish department; our boneless fillet was done to a fluffy turn. Its caper-pecan butter, although an intriguing idea, was imperfectly realized. It seemed determined to make up for a dearth of discernible pecans with enough capers to choke John-Boy's mule. Even in small doses, capers can impart a pungence that is not always in the best interest of such delicate divas as trout fillets; in this case, the fish was violently brutalized by the shower of briny bullets.
A rich German potato soup provided redemption. It ought to have been hotter, but it perfectly captured the essence of its namesake salad dish. The biting jolt of vinegar was a felicitous twist on this rib-sticking, bacony comfort food. Likewise, mushroom caps stuffed with a pleasing amalgam of seafood and cheese floated in a pool of "garlic bisque," a curious notion that turned out to be a sort of Alfredo sauce.
On both our visits, service was executed by very young, very personable, very fresh-faced women. The whole dinner staff, in fact, was rosy with youth; I didn't check IDs, but nobody looked much older than 20, which may account for the faint thread of disorganization I detected that evening. Our server had delivered our drinks and wanted our order before noticing that we hadn't been given menus yet. There was also some difficulty deciphering the exact meaning of the menu footnote "served dinner salad, vegetable, baked potato, rice or pasta" -- a mystery we never solved. And two or three dishes suffered temperature issues.
On the upside, our waitress was so unaffected and exuberant that we scarcely noticed these little glitches. I watched in astonishment as another server smiled unflinchingly at a table of 14 elderly ladies who wanted separate checks (they later applauded his gallantry). Yet another server dashed to hold the restroom door for me as my crutches threatened to wrestle me to the floor.
Maybe it's just my inner geek talking, but far and away the most glorious food I've wrapped my mouth around in recent memory was a huge slice of Hendel's gooey chocolate cake with walnutty fudge frosting and caramel sauce. After one bite I forgot all about my ankle and became one big grateful quivering taste bud. Go and get you some, but check your pretensions at the door. n
HENDEL'S MARKET CAFE AND WINE BAR, 599 St. Denis, Florissant, 837-2304. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.; closed Mon. Entrees: $10.95-$17.95.