Here's a real whopper for you: a brand-new, high-end seafood restaurant, seating upwards of 150 people, with something like 30 fish and shellfish entrée choices, located just a block from the Mississippi River on Laclede's Landing.
By and large, this one, called the St. Louis Fish Market, is a keeper -- first and foremost because virtually all of the fish we tried, ranging from a classic New England clambake to straightforward grilled fish to elaborate combinations and spicings -- was ultrafresh and well thought out from a preparation standpoint.
A lot of credit should be given to executive chef Timothy Ivey, who has managed to temper a chef's normal desire for flashiness and individuality with a fine sense of balance in his flavor combinations. Take, for instance, a nightly special of cumin-seared grouper, served with roasted-corn mash and chipotle vinaigrette. Both the cumin and the smoked jalapeño flavors could easily have achieved domination over even a full-bodied fish such as grouper, but instead they were most perceptible in the initial aroma and then in the finish. The vinaigrette was mostly off to the edges of the plate, with the corn mash -- resembling a fritter or potato pancake -- providing a relatively neutral sponge for the smoky-hot liquid.
Among the Asian-influenced dishes was ahi tuna, served in two overlaid rectangles that our waitress had advised us to order "medium rare" but, in fact, appeared more seared, with darkened edges giving way to beautifully translucent, barely (if at all) cooked interiors, served over sticky rice and thinly sliced bok choy. Here again, although there were several supporting flavors, the fish was definitely the star, with a subtle peanut-butter-and-honey sweetness coming from a coating of honey-sesame glaze.
The FM Bucket, the clambake facsimile that the menu touted as "our specialty," included a succulent, partially cracked pound-and-a-quarter Maine lobster with copious unshrunken claw meat. The rest of the pot held several Little Neck clams and Maine mussels, plus large morsels of lump crab (supplemented by cut-up corn on the cob and new potatoes), although the clams and mussels were relatively small and sparse enough that the dish probably would have been a disappointment if we'd taken the available option of having it served without the lobster.
And just to be sure we sampled a wide range of styles on the menu, we drew from the "fried seafood" section of the menu in the form of the FM (think "Fish Market" here rather than "no static at all") Fried Seafood Platter, a collection of shelled and butterflied large shrimp, half-dollar-sized sea scallops, plump oysters and an oddly flattened fillet of catfish. The frying reminded me of the giant plates of seafood served "Calabash style" in North Carolina -- when it's done correctly, the dish is reasonably easy on the breading and not overly crispy, so that you taste more fish than fry.
The list of available appetizers was as diverse in style as the entrées, but here we hit a couple of clunkers, not so much in execution as in basic concept. The shrimp in the popcorn candied rock shrimp were small enough, as rock shrimp are, that they got somewhat lost underneath the coating and sweet-hot sauce. Worse, the menu said that the shrimp were served "on mesculin greens," which, phonetically, promised a psychedelic appearance, but even granting that "mesclun" is frequently misspelled, it doesn't usually indicate a single type of red lettuce but, rather, a pleasant mix of spring greens, which this wasn't.
The shrimp-and-salmon cake included an unusual powdery texture somewhere in the cake ingredients that bothered me slightly, although the dish in total was intriguing, built up with a combination of tan and maroon shavings that might best be described as Shredded Wheat and shredded beets. Crab cakes with roasted-corn salsa were excellent, with a large proportion of crab in the cake mixture, and the cold-smoked and peppered salmon comprised three large slices with the usual capers-and-onions accomplices but also an unusual, airy horseradish cream, all to be spread onto hard bread ovals topped with a lemon pesto.
Desserts are designed and made in-house, and special mention goes to the Key lime Napoleon pie, a piece of geometric modern art in which three squares of flaky phyllo pastry bracket spheres of equal parts dense lime and condensed milk. The local variation on crème brûlée -- banana and white chocolate, resulting in an elitist banana cream pie -- also took on an artsy touch, served in pink coffee cup on a blue saucer, all on an oversized plate.
The wine list is massive, numbering somewhere around 200 individual selections, with about 18 by the glass and a fairly equal balance between red and white. One interesting approach is the availability of a selected superpremium wine (Opus One and Rutherford's Quintessa, on our visits) in a 2-ounce "tasting" for about $15.
The restaurant is dominated by thousands of board-feet of luscious cherrywood ornamentation, with checkerboard carpeting and both subtle mermaids-serving-martinis wallpaper and loud tropical stretchings. Having eaten one meal there for lunch, I must note that the décor works better after dark; in full daylight, some of the contrasting elements seem oddly out of place.
Although the staff is uniformed and exceptionally attentive to basics, we encountered several missteps that shouldn't happen at a restaurant in this price range. We made a couple of specific requests -- once for a finger bowl or warm towel to mop up after the lobster and again for a cappuccino -- that were either forgotten or ignored. When the dinner check can easily approach the three-figure mark, you have the right to expect a high level of service.
But we can easily chalk the shortcomings up to a new restaurant's trying to get its sea legs under it. We're eager to see what chef Ivey has up his sleeve as he continues to experiment, and, meanwhile, local fish lovers have another alternative for very good fresh fish.