It was my third attempt in as many days. I'd foolishly waited until the weekend to pursue the J. Buck's experience, and twice I was denied. On Friday evening the place was so jammed with Anheuser-Busch "VIPs" swinging from the rafters that I made it only as far as the airlock in the vestibule before succumbing to my innate fear of reveling brewery personnel and slinking back into the night. On Saturday night my merry band and I pushed all the way to the reception desk, only to wither under the hostess' steely gaze as she coolly informed us that we'd wait two hours for a table if we waited a minute. My friend Woofer, who always has his ear to the ground, explained about "Rams fever," how all the world was out infesting restaurants tonight and how we'd be lucky to snag a crusty hot dog at 7-Eleven. A broken woman, my only recourse was to retreat to base camp.
But persistence is the Posey-Smith motto. J. Buck's is closed on Sunday, so I used the downtime to hatch clever plans for my next assault. By Monday I had devised an innovative gambit: My pal Rena and I would sneak into the restaurant at the unobtrusive hour of 1:30 p.m., figuring that by then most of the suits would have put down the midday feed bag and waddled back to their cubicles. Thus would we catch these J. Buckers off guard and possibly even land a table.
J. Buck's is in a Clayton bank building. Once inside, we caught a thick wave of air smelling of barbecue sauce and rode it down a granite-paved corridor, past bagel cart and security desk, to a pair of imposing doors. The handles were shaped like microphones.
This is because J. Buck's has something to do with a guy named Jack Buck. My expert sleuthing has revealed this personage to be a sports announcer of no small local celebrity, but thus far I have failed to determine what, if anything, sports announcing has to do with food. Two meals later, I will be tempted to assert that cooking and broadcasting are completely unrelated disciplines.
As far as stuffing a bit of lunch into the Posey-Smith face, however, my game plan was, as Mr. Buck might say, a winner. We were shown to a comfortable booth immediately on our arrival. Moments later, our affable waiter ("Don't get the cheddar- broccoli soup!") presented us with a platter of french-fried onions.
We nibbled these while soaking up the local color. The dining room was surprisingly serene. I say "surprisingly" because, owing to the sports connection, I'd expected lots of tacky brass fixtures and glass cases full of sports junk -- you know, autographed hockey pucks, Mark McGwire's jockstrap, that sort of thing. But aside from a few photographs of Mr. Buck with famous people, the place is tastefully bereft of jock-related excess. It exudes a sort of compelling, sophisticated beauty. Spare without being clinical, designed without being trendy, the appointments are almost Japanese in their restraint. Could it be that the food would actually live up to this swank interior?
Nah. It is true that of the 10 dishes I sampled, none was inedible, and a few were solid examples of their species. The plates looked nice, too, with little trees of fresh rosemary sprouting all over them and very little of that affected sauce-squiggling I find so distressing. But at the end of the day, the word "bland" had suggested itself as the one-size-fits-all adjective.
Of course, one woman's bland is another woman's zip-a-dee-doo-dah. I illustrate this point with a philosophical disagreement Rena and I had over the aforementioned french-fried onions. Their coating, I complained, was dry, floury and dull, and somehow they didn't taste much like onions. Yet this is precisely what endeared them to Rena; no worshiper of the edible bulb, she was content to enjoy them as a vehicle for the accompanying barbecue sauce (I should note that a serving of these onions at a subsequent dinner, exhibiting crispier, greasier qualities, was more to my liking).
Even Rena, however, was moved to sniff disapprovingly at a plate of capellini with sun-dried tomato and eggplant. Its pinkish sauce was of the cream-soup school, and a liberal glob of gummy cheese added little interest. A last-ditch pass with the handy pepper grinder (there's one on every table, an innovation I heartily endorse) failed to enliven this tired pasta. It emitted listless sighs, fostering the impression that it would rather not have gotten out of bed this morning. You will find its nearest relative snoozing in the frozen-food aisle at Shop 'N Save.
A similar malaise afflicted both the dinner salad -- which begged the question "Don't you get enough iceberg lettuce at home?" -- and the Thai-chicken pizza, regarding which I offer this observation: It's gonna take a lot more than this dish to convince me that bean sprouts belong anywhere near a pizza; worming through the cheese, they were uncomfortably reminiscent of a parasitic infestation.
Ailing from ennui to a lesser degree were the French onion soup and something called "Clayton Club Salad." The first was less a soup than it was a sort of grilled cheese sandwich submerged in a bowl of reddish broth. This broth, though far from unpleasant, was thin and without gumption. Even so, do not approach this soup lightly. It's a meal in itself.
The salad -- named, like many of J. Buck's dishes, after an affluent white suburb (the menu also alludes to Brentwood, Frontenac and Ladue; no "North Side Stew" here) -- was also gargantuan in scope. Crisp greens were tossed with crumbled egg, bacon, avocado. Atop this vertiginous tribute to Mount Everest were slices of fried chicken; these I could have done without, because the breading affected the same floury consistency as the previously described onion strings. A grainy mustard dressing was too sweet and one-dimensional for such an enormous meal -- I tired of it long before I'd made a dent in the bowl -- but it was not without its momentary appeal.
On the upside, there was the epic strip steak. No kidding -- the thing was this big, and it came with a huge baked potato, gratifyingly doctored with all the fixins. Both flavor and texture were excellent.
Meanwhile, service was attentive, almost to a fault; these J. Buckers were intent on keeping us apprised of their every move, checking in every couple of minutes to find out whether we still liked our dinners. An especially nice touch were the hot towels that appeared to aid in our postprandial ablutions.
And I sorely needed them after an encounter with the baby back ribs. It's almost impossible to dislike ribs, and J. Buck's were no exception. Sure, I was perplexed by the apple-jalapeno jelly melted over the top (it resembled Karo syrup in which were suspended those sinister candied-fruit cubes commonly used in fruitcake), but fortunately the affected area was small and I was able to rescue more than half the slab from its cloying influence. The meat was just what you want in a barbecued rib -- tender, juicy and bigger than your head. That's, as Mr. Buck might say, a dinner.
J. BUCK'S RESTAURANT, 101 S. Hanley, Suite 120, 725-4700. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Entrees: $11-$20.