The corner of Grand and Arsenal -- and, specifically, the restaurant called Once Upon a Vine -- is something of a metaphor for the whole wonderful South Grand district. Sometimes in baby steps, sometimes in huge strides, the area just keeps getting better. A young crowd has long claimed South Grand as a nightspot; several immigrant communities have brought a cosmopolitan feel to the restaurant-and-retail strip and the surrounding residential areas.
More subtle, though, has been the influx of moderate affluence, with more expensive places like Chez Philippe gaining a foothold alongside the traditional grouping of lower-priced Asian choices. Perhaps even more important, the area is drawing new residents like the "older" couple who joined us for dinner at Once Upon a Vine, having recently moved into one of the elegant old homes adjacent to Tower Grove Park, which must certainly be one of the most beautiful Victorian parks in America.
Oh well. I should stop gushing before the ink starts to leak off this page. (Did I mention the contributions of the gay and lesbian community, the high-tech community, Metropolis and even the St. Louis Public Library? Somebody stop me, please.)
Anyway, we first visited Once Upon a Vine four or five years ago, when it was still confined to the easternmost edge of its current space, housing maybe a dozen tables and doubling as kind of a boutique deli and wine shop. At that time the menu was limited, although the results were pleasing, and the opportunity to get a moderately priced glass of good Cabernet or Chardonnay was good for the neighborhood.
Several years later, they managed to snag the adjacent space and take over all the way around the corner. Although the prices edged up (entrées now top out at $18.95), it's an airy, festive space with simulations of a crumbling Tuscan farm and vineyard painted and etched into the walls and tall plate-glass windows all around.
In addition to the food, Once Upon a Vine has expanded on its original oenophile tendencies, now offering more than 100 wines by the bottle (generally in a moderate $15-$30 range) and another couple dozen by the glass. Virtually every country is heard from on this list, and there are representatives from almost every type of wine grape, with the traditional choices of Cabernet, merlot, pinot noir, zinfandel and Chardonnay augmented with Sauvignon blanc, fumé blanc, pinot grigio, seyval, viognier, syrah, sangiovese and more. In another nice touch, Once Upon a Vine is one of a fairly rare breed of restaurants locally that explicitly pair foods and wines, providing suggested varietals with each pasta and entrée.
The way the menu is presented indicates that Once Upon a Vine is happy to function as a dual-purpose restaurant -- the smaller plates are listed as "small appetites," working either as the traditional appetizer or as main courses for a light meal. They range from as simple as something called "hot dip" -- a basic but well-prepared spinach-artichoke melt, served in a small tub with crispy lavosh sesame crackers as the delivery vehicle -- to a more elaborate smoked-tuna carpaccio, a sizable portion of thin slices of ruby-colored smoked tuna, served with a salsa of daikon radish and red and green bell pepper, and tanged and citrused with a delicate sauce of tangerine and ginger. It's an admirable combination of flavors, but especially with a designation of carpaccio, I would have preferred the tuna slices to more closely approach razor-thinness. We were also quite pleased with the crab cakes, three served atop a mix of mesclun greens with a tangible but not fishy crab presence and a significant bite from the viscous hot-chile sauce that came alongside.
There's very little middle ground on duck -- you either do it very well or you do it very poorly. The roasted-duck-breast entrée at Once Upon a Vine is fine indeed: the rich flavor of perfectly cooked, moist slices of Muscovy duck blends with a nutty rice mixture and varying degrees of sweetness and tartness from a vinegared raspberry sauce and a poached pear. It's the kind of dish that breaks your heart when you finally corral the final morsel, the diverse variety of flavors lingering well after you've finished.
We also sampled a couple of the pasta dishes, all of which are presented as full-meal options. Pasta Stephanie is a tart and acidic vegetarian specialty, angel-hair pasta tossed with a deceptively simple sauce of tomatoes, basil, capers and olive oil but with a distinctive lemon finish. The wild-mushroom chicken penne offers a nice balance of sweetness (from a Madeira-based sauce) and earthiness (from the wild mushrooms), and the pieces of chicken breast mixed into it were certainly added at the end of the cooking process; they managed to retain good firmness rather than taking on the stewy quality that would have occurred had they been added to the sauce too early.
Several of the desserts come from Hank's Cheesecakes and Cravings, but the crème brûlée (a raspberry version) and the bread pudding were touted to us as being made in-house. The bread pudding -- dense, moderately sweet and marvelous -- went home with us (actually, in a display of above-and-beyond service, the hostess chased us all the way into the parking lot when we left it on the table) and lasted for two full additional servings because of the huge portion size. The raspberries gave the crème brûlée a pink-maroon hue underneath, and I found the broiled crust on top to be a little too thick and hard, but not enough to ruin the dish.
The 15 or so tables in the front room (and there are more in back, through a whimsical vineyard trelliswork archway) were packed on the night we were there, but service generally proceeded quickly and without hitch, save for the fact that, especially as a wine-focused restaurant, our various servers committed the venial sin of letting the wineglasses stand empty far too long.
But really, we barely noticed. We were having too much fun watching the late-evening crowd start to arrive catercorner from us at MoKaBe's, and hearing that the whole corner over there (the Paramount Drug building) was slated for a big facelift, and in generally oohing and aahing over the newly painted fences and pavilions of Tower Grove Park. Another grand era seems to be taking shape down this way, and Once Upon a Vine is climbing its way up along with the neighborhood.
ONCE UPON A VINE, 3559 Arsenal St. (South Grand), 314-776-2828. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fri. & Sat. Entrees: $15.95-$18.95.