The first clue to the personality of Brian Menzel, a longtime country-club chef who has just opened the first restaurant of his very own, B. Tomas, came right after we were seated. Somewhat incongruously for a fancy Clayton place, there at a café table next to the bar sat a grade-school kid working on his homework.
A few minutes later, a 50ish-looking lady burst in the front door carrying several boxes, and after planting a big kiss on the kid's forehead, she made a beeline to the kitchen and soon returned to retrieve the youngster and haul him off to a table in back, where they were later observed eating dinner.
As you might have guessed, the kid is Menzel's, and the lady is his mother-in-law. The family affair is furthered by Menzel's wife, who splits her time among making desserts, working the dining room and expecting another child.
And you thought your family life was hectic.
B. Tomas occupies the space that was formerly Paul's, along a restaurant walk of fame on Forsyth in Clayton that includes the likes of Fio's, Café Napoli, the Crossing, India Rasoi and Shiitake. Menzel (full name: Brian Tomas Menzel, of Austrian, German and Italian ancestry and raised on the Hill) originally had planned just a minor makeover but ended up performing full-scale surgery on the place, in the process removing 16 seats to add a bar (which Paul's didn't have). The dominant element now is the textured red clay of the walls, adding an earthy, rustic edge to an overall atmosphere that's well above casual but still not at all stuffy, accented by a selection of classic crooners (Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra) on the sound system.
One item that caught our eye was a framed certificate of recognition of Menzel by the James Beard Society, signed by no less than Julia Child herself. We later learned that he's the co-founder of the St. Louis branch of the society, which holds several "local all-star" events around town every year (the next of which is the Barbecue for Beard at Mount Pleasant Winery in Augusta this weekend) to raise money for a scholarship fund and a guest-chef program at McMurphy's Grill downtown.
Still, his face and talents aren't terribly well known to the general dining public because he's spent the last eight years at Boone Valley, the very exclusive country club between Defiance and Augusta in St. Charles County, and several years previous to that at Cherry Hills Country Club and its successor, the Country Club of St. Albans. Menzel's résumé also includes time behind the stove at Dominic's and a very early stint at Stan Musial and Biggie's, as well as training at both St. Louis Community College-Forest Park and the Culinary Institute of America.
But never mind the pedigree. In short, the guy can cook. I went absolutely nuts over a creation he calls "lobster hash," served as a side dish under a firmly flaky seared sea bass flavored with tomato oil and lemon aioli. Menzel turns potatoes into crustaceans by making stock from the shells, cooking the potatoes in the stock before reducing them to hash, and then adding in bits of the meat from the lobster for additional flavor. A soft but still crisp blob of spinach, and it's heaven for seafood lovers.
Our other entrés were less innovative but still expertly done: a veal saltimbocca that, because of the herbaceous flavor of fresh sage and the salty bite of prosciutto, really did "hop in the mouth," as its name implies; and a combination grill of chicken and shrimp that had a dusty breading that bonded a rich garlic flavor to the four large shrimp and pieces of chicken breast, with a delicate sweetness added from a sherried tomato cream.
The freshly fried artichokes were the best of the appetizers that we tried, three big quarters of artichoke heart, slightly elongated by the frying, with an oniony complement of matchsticks of frizzled leek and a perfect, papery, totally unoily rendition of flash-fried spinach at the base. A combination plate of smoked shrimp, trout and salmon was a bit better than OK because of the feathery selection of sieved egg (white and yolk separately) served alongside, but the smoked fish struck me as the kind you can get from Duck Trap Farms at the seafood counters of the higher-end Schnucks.
For carpaccio, Menzel takes the tack of marinating and then searing the outermost edge of a beef tenderloin, resulting in a grayish-black ring at the periphery of the subsequently sliced razor-thin pieces, served with shaved Parmigiano, capers and shallots and a hard, grill-toasted sesame bread. It's excellent, but the menu description was a touch misleading, claiming a bed of mesclun greens (a word that usually connotes a mixture of field greens) but delivering only a single type of lettuce at the base.
The family theme was reinforced for our desserts, which our waiter told us had been made by the mother-in-law (a pear-almond tart), the wife (an orange-raspberry cake and a flourless chocolate "nemesis" cake) and Menzel (a cassata cake). We tried the orange-raspberry cake and the tart. The first was a white layer cake rich with the two fruit flavors in both the in-between filling and the frosting. The tart was a real winner, with a thick custard at the base, fully flavored fresh pears, slivered almonds for a smoky, nutty background and even a garnish of fresh raspberries.
The wine list is relatively short, with most stuff in the $25-$35 range by the bottle and $5-$7 by the glass. Service was downright enthusiastic, with our waiters on each night behaving as if they were truly proud and excited to be part of a new adventure.
On both of our visits, Menzel himself was actively cruising the dining room, sometimes actually helping to serve and others showing up a few bites in to inquire about satisfaction. He's physically imposing -- well above 6 feet and probably somewhere around 250 -- but he definitely comes across as the gentle giant, looking a bit like Fred Gwynne in chef's whites. He seemed honestly eager to expound on his cooking approaches, and he reappeared at the very end of the meal to drop off a small plate of cookies and biscotti that he again proudly attributed to his mother-in-law.
My only real knock on B. Tomas would be the prices, which struck me as a couple of bucks too high (entrées averaging $20) for a place that seems to be shooting for a more casual, café-style feel. That's going to put him out of reach for some segment of the dining population, and that will, in truth, be a loss both for him and for them. Perhaps a few more selections in the middle teens would go a long way to getting his name (and great food) onto many more lips.