You and I need a place like Five, probably even more than we realize. We need that chicly simple restaurant whose opening causes a bit of buzz not a press release-driven, obnoxious, "eat here now!" onslaught, but an ear-to-the-ground, indoor-voice rumbling of "didja hear?" newsiness making us feel not like we must go there to maintain any semblance of relevance, but that maybe we should go there just out of curiosity, just because we might find a find. We need a restaurant within short driving distance, and Five's location along the relatively treeless "Grove" stretch of Manchester works nicely for most parts of south city, midtown and central St. Louis County. We need a place where we don't necessarily need a reservation, and where we needn't spend more than a hundred bucks on two appetizers, two salads, two entrées, a shared dessert and two (oh, who are we kidding, four) glasses of wine, plus tax and tip. We need a place that's understatedly sexy and subtly romantic: a place for first dates and good friends, not marriage proposals; a place with low-toned ambiance where you still won't feel embarrassed by laughing too loudly; a place that somehow makes you feel more attractive just by walking through the door.
We need these restaurants the way some women need mani-pedis and some men need whatever small niceties it is that men need. Being treated well, treating yourself well, luxuriating (if only for but one evening) in the contentment brought on by solidly and, at times, surprisingly prepared food and receiving a bill that won't erase all previous pleasures and bring on an anxiety attack.
Five is what Moxy was when it debuted two and a half years ago, albeit in a decidedly dicier nabe and a more brightly illuminated storefront. It's got some of Terrene's eco-consciousness in that most ingredients are organic, selected by chef Anthony Devoti at the markets that morning, but its price points are lower. There will always be places like Five, and while Five is not the ultimate "it" place right now, it's a worthy place all the same.
What we need most from a place like Five and what Five delivers thoughtfully and confidently on its tweaked-daily menu is food that speaks to us, not above us. Hip, but not intimidatingly so. We know what saffron aioli means, we understand its distinction, and yes, we're very curious to see how it fares on a grilled chicken appetizer plated with onion marmalade and crisp won tons. We've hitched a ride on the Yukon Gold potato bandwagon before, but never in the form of blini treated with Ozark Forest mushrooms, veal reduction and crème fraîche. We dig on many of the ingredients that chart a course through Five's offerings: cilantro, goat cheese, risotto, salmon and so on.
An antipasti platter kicks things off with an array of clean-tasting morsels like marinated olives, prosciutto slices that fill the mouth with a great, cured flavor yet are cut so translucently thin you can see straight through them to the plate beneath, hefty and creamy duck-liver mousse, poached shrimp puffed up just so with stock and the shining star of the bunch, white anchovies, redolent with brine, bite and zing, the fish's metallic skin catching the light like a silver-sequined disco dress.
It's not surprising that Five relies on lots of grilled vegetables (what other food group can you buy in such abundance at the farmers' market?), but it takes a little chutzpah and a good deal of cleverness to reimagine them into more than just side dishes. A grilled veggie panini at lunch is just fine, provided a layer of smokiness by a slice of melted Swiss. A dinner appetizer of coriander-marinated grilled zucchini, squash and red peppers makes a flavorful case for itself. Fried goat cheese would be a gimme pairing for this app, but sadly, not as it's done here. With no breading rolled onto these underwhelming smears of chèvre, they absorb too much of the cooking grease, taking on a lardy texture akin to kindergarten paste.
The goat cheese that shows up in a radish, goat cheese and cilantro salad is not fried, and therefore it's quite luscious. As it does throughout the entire menu, cilantro rums rampant on this plate. (Your affection for Five may very well hinge on your liking of cilantro.) There's as much cilantro as there are field greens, which don't even get mention in the menu's written description of the salad. A honey-coriander vinaigrette, just a drizzle, brings together the dry ingredients nicely. Still, the radishes could stand to be more fiery, and the salad itself is slight, barely a few forkfuls.
When a restaurant charges less than $20 for a big fillet of what may be the best wild-caught salmon there is, you know that the rent is wicked cheap, the house believes in value as much as it does quality or both. Shipped in from Alaska's Copper River, Five's salmon is so bubblegum pink, it's hard to believe there's no dye in there. It has lately been grilled and plated alongside firm green beans (this being a great time of year for them), a little arugula and, of course, cilantro. At lunch the salmon is hashed up by fork and sandwiched on a mildly sweet onion roll, still strutting its crazy-pink hue and tasting just as ridiculously delicious without any too-fishy notes.
Duck for $19 is another bargain, especially when it's done "two styles": an ample portion of seared and sliced breast, plus a leg of confit like you'd find tucked into a hearty, hearthy cassoulet. My preference for duck breast may be changing. I've loved it my whole adult life, but here, as in recent tries at other restaurants, I've found the breast too salty. The confit was nice but needed further confitting. The meat possessed a brisket-like stringiness but not enough of that sealed-in-its-own-fat unctuousness. Like the salmon's side of string beans nowhere near a sexy vegetable, but rightly put on the plate for their unbeatable, in-season sweetness the duck came with a side of new potatoes, which have taken a back seat to the more au courant russet potatoes for far too long.
A succinct, single-page wine list doesn't cover a lot of ground; there are excessive amounts of chardonnay (seven of them, compared to five "other whites") and merlots four, which is at least three (if not four) too many. Eleven of the bottles are also available by the glass, and the price range is reasonably in tune with the prices on the food menu, featuring lots of choices in the $20s and $30s. One gem to try is the Rancho Zabaco old-vine zin, a knockout at six bucks a glass.
The only element of Five that doesn't exude casual panache is its name, which stands for the five senses. It's an elementary concept for a restaurant, one that would only carry through if the menus were printed on scratch-and-sniff paper and each meal was accompanied by a customized iTunes playlist. Other than that bit of outré quirkiness, though, Five is right on.
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COME AND GET IT!
Though she'll continue to write for the paper, with this week's review Rose Martelli answers the Riverfront Times dinner bell for the last time.
Restaurant owners tempted to heave a sigh of relief should know that RFT contributor Ian Froeb has graciously agreed to fill in on an interim basis. Additionally, the paper is hereby accepting applications for the position of freelance restaurant critic. Think you've got the requisite discerning palate and rapier-like writing touch to match? Send résumé and writing samples to:
Tom Finkel, editor
6358 Delmar Boulevard, Suite 200
St. Louis, MO 63130
No phone calls, please.