Anna and I eyed each other skeptically over our shared gnocchi appetizer. A moment earlier, as soon as the food had hit the table, we'd plunged greedily and with relish into this plate of potato dumplings. We love gnocchi, and we were very hungry, and yet here we were now hesitating, mute, our utensils hovering.
"This isn't very good gnocchi," Anna said finally.
"I know," I replied dejectedly.
"I don't think they were done right," she continued.
"I know," I said again, and started nuzzling them with my fork, as if trying to wake up somebody you really love after a fight the night before -- caring yet anxious. Come on, gnocchi. Rise and shine, time to be delicious! Hey, gnocchi, c'mon, don't do this. Don't make me write bad things about King Louie's. I don't want to dislike you, and I sure don't want this whole town disliking me. Can you just do your gnocchi thing, please, for me? Stop tasting so doughy and just...sing for me....
What these gnocchi tasted like was the remnants of a plate of biscuits and gravy. Mushy, disassembled, essential, blunt. Gratifying, yes, but not true gnocchi, and certainly not gnocchi prepared with spinach, béchamel sauce and an Amish blue cheese. Anna and I rechecked the menu and learned that the gnocchi, after being boiled and blanched, were oven-baked. That final step was unorthodox, we agreed, and maybe that was the problem. But neither of us seemed to have the enthusiasm to finish the train of thought. After all, you don't come to King Louie's to carp.
We waited for the Prince Edward Island mussels, chosen as our second starter after a friend we ran into at another table recommended them, distracting ourselves in the meantime with two pieces of awesome bread (brought in from Breadsmith) -- shiny, crackly crust, hint of cream, moist middle -- which we coated with a splendid butter-based spread puréed with cream cheese, dill, lemon, green onion, radish and cucumber. The mussels arrived and we dove in. We love mussels.
The mussels were cold. They actually seemed to have dipped below room temperature. Amid more than a few empty, broken or suctioned-shut shells, those ready to eat with meat intact were blighted by a mealy texture and an all-salt, no-sweetness flavor. After we'd worked our way through the top of the pile, Anna discovered the pool of strong-flavored, roasted-tomato broth at the bottom of the bowl; the canopy of mussels above had retained its heat. By repeatedly ladling the broth back on top, we were able to restore some warmth to the shellfish.
Like the bread, the salad course lifted our spirits again. Anna's off-menu spinach salad with roasted baby beets and a lemon balsamic vinaigrette was not surprising but it resonated perfectly, the two main ingredients contrasting with great verve, while my Lyon salad, despite being a downright oddity in these parts (it was a very French mélange of chicory, warm bacon and vinegar, with egg yolk assuming dressing duties), carried itself off without a hitch.
And then we both had fish for our entrées: she the tilapia on a bed of spinach, fennel and kalamata olives; I the striped sea bass special with a side of snap-, snow- and sweet-peas bathed in a spicy carrot broth. Both were unspectacular, hampered by too much salt and butter (which made them taste quite similar), and I didn't like either vegetable accompaniment: snap peas and snow peas don't go particularly well together, and while spinach and kalamata olives may both be common components of Greek cuisine, mixing them together tasted very Greek to me.
For dessert (made in-house) we split the beggar's purse, filled with a sour-cherry and chocolate mixture that called to mind an undercooked chocolate bread pudding. It was okay, not particularly impressive, the crust a bit too solid and cement-like. We begged for the check.
When I returned for a second meal a few nights later, I didn't utter a word to my three companions about the disappointing meal I'd just had. I couldn't bear to -- this was King Louie's. Maybe they won't notice. Or maybe things will be different....
This dinner was symphonic from beginning to end. We actually toasted the meal itself -- twice. We began with oysters on the half-shell, much tinier than oyster bar-style mega-mollusks but all the sweeter for it. Prawns swimming in an olive oil treated with garlic, almonds and sea salt and presented shell-on were oversize and not tender, but oh, were they mighty. The first-course showstoppers, though, were the sea scallops au gratin, prepared with a delectably gooey ricotta cheese, and also a roasted mushroom, goat cheese and thyme flatbread: piping hot, crust crisp, and superior to pretty much any pizza in town.
Once again the salads were excellent. The King Louie's salad -- which our server pronounced "the best salad in town" upon setting it before me -- tweaked the classic Waldorf, studded with dried cherries, walnuts, blue cheese and sliced pears. The Caesar successfully goes against tradition as well: bibb lettuce rather than romaine; shaved Reggiano Parmesan cheese rather than grated; playful, fried polenta mouthfuls that resemble croutons in look but hardly in flavor and lemon essence as a headliner instead of a supporting grace note. A roasted sunchoke soup, meanwhile, made for a light, refreshing pause between courses as an alternative to greens.
We tore through our main courses as ravenously as we could. The monkfish was a fat, firm piece of flesh, just flaky enough, presented on a bed of yummy braised yellow lentils. The cowboy steak (um, could most cowboys afford a $38 cut of bone-in rib eye?) didn't disappoint, though truth be told, it was overshadowed by its twice-baked potato, a creamy, carbohydrated dream that none of us could get enough of. Mushroom ravioli were firm, delicately flavored with garlic and more of that Reggiano -- everything the gnocchi had failed to be.
Of course my pals wanted the soufflé-like chocolate molten cake for dessert; this dish is fast becoming the new crème brûlée on dessert menus around town, which is absolutely nothing to complain about once that lavalike center hits your lips. But we also ordered the crème duo: one ramekin of caramel pot de crème topped with candied pistachios, another of panna cotta done up with cubes of framboise gelatin. I am still reminiscing about that panna cotta. Too firm and sweet to be yogurt, not quite as saccharine as a custard and as simply satisfying as a crème brûlée or a chocolate molten cake yet rarely seen, a great panna cotta might just be the perfect dessert, and this was one of the best I've ever had.
King Louie's has been around for ten years -- in restaurant years, that's close to forever. Often -- all too often in St. Louis -- if a restaurant lasts that long, it winds up a comfy, meat-and-potatoes kind of place frequented precisely because of its sameness. And because of that, the food often falters. That hasn't been the case with King Louie's, which has been and still is widely considered a vital part of St. Louis' culinary landscape.
In March King Louie's lost its head chef of five years, Kirk Warner, who was replaced by Cary McDowell, who had worked at the Crossing and Liluma. McDowell didn't last -- about seven weeks ago Warner's old sous chef, Stephen Ciapciak, took over the kitchen. Obviously the menu has weathered transitions for a couple of months now. And anybody can have a bad night at the stove.
What if any of this might account for my dinner with Anna? I'd rather not go down that road. I'd rather not speculate about whether King Louie's is still the restaurant it once was. I just want another helping of that panna cotta, please.