We eyed the revelers enviously, wishing we'd coasted down the highway on my companion's Honda Shadow instead of making the trip by car. Although we had checked Front Street's hours before trekking 50 miles to New Haven (between Hermann and Washington), we discovered that the bikers had shrewdly reserved the entire restaurant for their own outing. But it was such a lovely spring day that it was impossible to feel we had squandered our time. We'd driven past tire swings and footbridges, suckling calves and weeping willows, split-rail fences and clapboard farmhouses.
Dennis Connolly, former owner of the Broadway Oyster Bar, and Joe Sutterer, a veteran chef who cooked there, were drawn to the tranquility of the countryside. They opened the Front Street Grille in 1999 to sidestep the commute to the city. "We decided to create a destination," Joe explains. "We've had very, very good support from our locals, and each year we draw customers from a wider radius." Nearby Röbller Vineyards hosts seasonal festivals. These special events, as well as live bluegrass, folk and jazz at the restaurant each evening, help attract diners.
The restaurant's front door is left ajar on balmy days, allowing a breeze to flutter through the dining area. The high-ceilinged rooms are adorned with grange relics and a touch of hillbilly kitsch, such as a boar's-head trophy wearing a paper party hat and Mardi Gras beads. Pastoral scenes painted onto a brick wall have been fitted with frames simulating windowsills, mimicking the view from a farmhouse kitchen.
Because he's cooking both for locals and day-trippers, Sutterer offers a diverse menu. If he had to name his specialty, he says, it would certainly be Creole food, such as his shrimp-and-ham jambalaya. Or maybe it's his lasagna and cannelloni, he muses indecisively. His grilled bison? No, it's definitely his grinders -- hollowed out French-bread loaves spread with spicy butter and stuffed with shrimp, andouille sausage, oysters -- whatever strikes his fancy. Such a lack of focus usually dooms a restaurant to mediocrity, but fresh ingredients save the day. Sutterer prepares almost everything from scratch, including chicken stock, beef stock and fumet (fish stock).
The menu changes daily, so dishes are listed on chalkboards. There is mercifully little bar food here -- just thin-crust pizza, fries and Louisiana hot wings. The plump wings are basted in an acidic marinade that permeates the poultry as well as its skin. A Buffalo-chicken-breast sandwich, served on an onion roll with melted Provel and all the requisite toppings, is flavored with the same sauce. It's about as fine a specimen as a chicken sandwich has a right to be.
You don't expect to find fresh seafood in the middle of livestock country, but the Front Street Grille has it. A heap of mussels is steeped in a sauce of white wine, butter, garlic, sweet basil and thyme. It's presented with a heel of toasted French bread for sopping up the aromatic liquid. Barbecued shrimp are served Creole style, in their shells -- but sans heads. The term "barbecue" in this dish refers to the method of preparation rather than to the sauce, a rosemary-garlic butter. Sutterer's bouillabaisse departs from the classic Provençal seafood stew. His Louisiana version is brightly flavored with tomatoes, celery and onions in a rich fumet. Mussels, clams, shrimp, crab and whitefish are ladled over this base. Another seafood entrée, pan-fried grouper, is brushed with a briny citrus glaze reminiscent of the warm tropical waters in which the fish was netted.
As "Take My Burning Heart" thrummed over the speakers, our waitress plunked down a cauldron of red beans and rice, a down-home concoction made with smokehouse bacon, chewy ham and chunks of andouille. The textures in this dish -- roily gravy, slippery onions, al dente white rice, smooth beans with chalky centers -- are the foundation of its soul-satisfying flavor. Jalapeño-cornbread muffins with rosettes of butter made it a genuine low-country supper.
The disappointing desserts we sampled would be unlikely to win any ribbons at the county fair. The amaretto cheesecake had nutty undertones and a velvety consistency -- but then, cheesecakes are almost foolproof. Fruit desserts are a tad harder to pull off, what with the perils of runny filling, sodden pastry and syrupy-sweet fruit. The peach cobbler and apple strudel did not taste as though they had been made that day.
The Front Street Grille doesn't aim to turn out gratinées, galettes or granités, and the food's presentation is as humble as its ingredients. But there's an honesty about a place so plainspoken and guileless, a place so eager to take on the ordinary yet virtuous task of filling our hungry bellies with homey food.