I'm not from St. Louis. My girlfriend and I moved here three years ago, more or less on a whim. Whenever I tell native St. Louisans this, they screw up their faces into an expression that's part disgust, part disbelief and part amusement, like I'm a kid they've caught eating his own boogers, and ask, "Why?" At first I try to explain why we like the city so much. Then I say, "Well, we moved here from Iowa." Finally I just shrug. I'm honestly bummed. Do I have to become that cynical about where I live before I can fit in with the locals?
Last October, though, I had a revelation, a brief moment when I felt like an honest-to-goodness St. Louisan. Albert Pujols had just hit his moon shot off Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, and even as I cheered along with everyone else watching on the big screen in some generic sports bar, I wanted to run out to my car and turn on KMOX. I wanted to hear Mike Shannon's head explode from the excitement.
So I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a similar buzz as I walked into the new Mike Shannon's Steaks and Seafood for the first time. It was a contact high, a brush with St. Louis history. I never ate at the old Mike Shannon's and from the description one waiter offered, "dark and dank," I'm not shedding any tears but as soon as I stepped into the foyer and saw behind glass Shannon's uniform and the bats with which he hit the last home run in Sportsman's Park and the first home run in old Busch Stadium, I understood what he means to St. Louis. You don't love him because he played for your team. You love him because he is your team. He disproves that old Seinfeld bit about how when you root for a team, you're really just rooting for laundry.
Of course, it's tough to visit Shannon's and not be astounded by all the laundry on display. The main dining room is sensational. The high ceilings allow space for both elegant touches mahogany trim, a fireplace, open wine racks and an impressive, though not cluttered, display of photographs, jerseys, bats and balls. I was especially entranced by the collection of autographed baseballs arranged behind glass in columns that, from a distance, look like colossal flutes of bubbling Champagne. Even those who don't care about baseball might sprain their necks taking it all in. (For my efforts, I found the scrawl of Cal Ripken Jr., my boyhood hero.)
The lounge, the other main dining area, features gleaming black tabletops, shiny metal fixtures on the bar and floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of a broad stretch of Market Street. The evening we were seated there for dinner, however, I couldn't shake the feeling I was in just another sports bar, as opposed to one of St. Louis' most expensive restaurants. Flat-screen television sets are as common here as light fixtures, and during our meal a speaker above the table blasted a steady stream of Green Day, Nelly and other Top 40 hits. I wanted to order a burger, fries and a beer, not a $35 steak.
For all its classy features including the adorably named "snugs," private rooms for two to eight people the new Shannon's remains a steak house, and its menu offers no surprises. Appetizers are a collection of crowd pleasers: toasted ravioli, fried calamari, stuffed mushrooms and, of course, shrimp cocktail. I generally avoid shrimp cocktail cocktail sauce being the drooling-uncle-with-a-police-record of the condiment family so instead we tried the "Maryland" crab cakes. As a Baltimorean I reject any association with small crab cakes topped with an unnecessary and frighteningly pinkish Cajun remoulade. That said, the crab meat was firm and sweet and the corn relish that came on the side added a piquant undertone. The calamari, though, was disappointingly tough, and the dipping sauce was straight-up Heinz 57. We were much happier with our soups and salads, especially Mike's Special Salad, a refreshing mix of tomato, red onion and goat cheese, and the New England clam chowder, so rich that my girlfriend felt full before her steak arrived.
Ah, the steaks.
I do love steak, and Shannon's serves prime beef wet-aged for three weeks, so you're guaranteed to get, at the very least, a very good cut of meat. (Though now that I've brought it up, I prefer dry-aged steak.) But like many high-end steak joints, Shannon's serves its steaks without accompaniment no demiglace, no maitre d' butter, nothing. Which means the difference between a very good steak and a great one can be the difference between an ordinary meal and one that's divine. My girlfriend ordered the eight-ounce tenderloin, and even cooked medium (I prefer medium-rare), it was tender and juicy, with a delicious charcoal sear and a rich beef flavor. On the other hand, my sixteen-ounce strip sirloin, although tender and bloody, provided very little flavor other than charcoal. The thing is, I don't blame the kitchen. (Well, a more liberal sprinkling of salt before my steak went on the grill might have helped.) It's just the arbitrary nature of the aging process and why I find the steak-house experience an inherently frustrating one.
Shannon's does offer a variety of dishes besides steak. Two seafood specials seared tuna with a soy, ginger and pineapple glaze, and grilled salmon with a horseradish mousse were very good, large portions and impeccably fresh. And my favorite dish was the lamb, three small chops served over a sinfully cheese-laden risotto. Grilled to medium-rare, the chops offered a nice contrast between lamb's mild, grassy flavor and the primal pleasure of bloody, toothsome meat. Sides, all of which come à la carte, are excellent: I'd return to Shannon's to eat nothing but potatoes. The thick-cut steak fries are crisp outside, pillowy inside, and the garlic mashed potatoes in a pile so towering it brought to mind the famous mashed-potatoes scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind were as light as cotton candy and nearly as sweet.
The wine list, not surprisingly, is long, weighted toward California reds and very expensive. Several red and white wines are available by the glass, however, including one of my favorite versatile reds to serve at home, the Mark West pinot noir. Still, you don't have to have a major-league bankroll to enjoy Shannon's. The lunch menu, featuring burgers and smaller cuts of steak, is reasonably priced. Or you could just hang out at the bar before or after the game. Staring at the memorabilia and maybe even a few current Cardinals is always free.
Service, both in the main dining room and in the lounge, was excellent. On our second visit, when my girlfriend and I decided to order something other than steak, our server was especially helpful directing us to what he thought (correctly) were the house's other specialties. And near the end of both visits, our servers playfully insisted we at least consider dessert, and both times we were glad we agreed. The desserts, prepared in house, are fantastic, most notably the moist, savory carrot cake and the decadent chocolate turtle cake.
Stuffed with steak and mashed potatoes and cake, we waddled out of Shannon's, wanting only to collapse into calorie-addled sleep. But as we drove away, I looped back around so we could head south on Broadway past the new Busch Stadium. The stadium was lit up at night as workers rushed to finish in time for the home opener, the seating bowl such a bright red it seemed to glow. And while I'm not a fan of steak houses on principle, I could see myself following a throng of fans out of the ballpark on a warm summer night and heading over to Mike Shannon's for a beer or two, maybe a glimpse of the man himself.
The car behind me flashed its lights: I'd slowed nearly to a crawl. I wished he'd be more patient. I wasn't home yet, but I was nearly there.