A trip to the shopping mall rarely leads to a fine meal. This is the province of the giant cookie, the Orange Julius and the toothpick-skewered sample of chicken teriyaki. There are exceptions, of course, like Cardwell's at the Plaza at Plaza Frontenac — though Plaza Frontenac is hardly the typical shopping mall. For the most part, if you expect to find culinary bliss between stops at Brookstone and Hot Topic, you'll be waiting even longer than the poor souls clustered around the entrance of the Cheesecake Factory.
I don't know that I can classify West County Center as another exception, but over the past year or so the Des Peres mall has stepped up its game. Last February McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant, an upscale national chain, opened its doors, followed not long after by Bravo! Cucina Italiana, another upscale national chain, something like Olive Garden on steroids.
Most recently, in November, the former J. Buck's space on the mall's first floor became Hanley's Grille & Tap. This is the second J. Buck's to metamorphose into a Hanley's, following the Fairview Heights, Illinois, location, as Joe and Julie Buck and their partners have concentrated the J. Buck's operation into the Clayton and downtown restaurants. Jeff Constance, a Belleville, Illinois, native whose résumé includes stints at acclaimed New York City restaurants Aureole and Gramercy Tavern, owns both Hanley's restaurants. His intriguing pedigree demanded a visit.
The Des Peres location is spacious, with a large, bright main dining room and a second, more dimly lighted mezzanine level that overlooks the long, curving bar. I didn't dine here when it was J. Buck's, but one dining companion who had told me the look is more or less the same, heavy on the wood trim. Though the restaurant is located inside the mall, its isolated spot down an otherwise unused corridor insulates it from the hubbub of shoppers.
Hanley's website describes the restaurant's approach as "contemporary American 'comfort' food, influenced by French and Italian cooking traditions, but based on time-honored recipes from all regions of the United States." This description is so broad as to be nebulous, but in practice it means a crowd-pleasing selection of burgers, sandwiches, steaks and pizzas, along with a few pasta dishes and house specialties.
The specialties include baby-back ribs, available as a full rack, a half rack or a half rack paired with fried "chipotle" shrimp. I went for the third combination, which comes with onion rings and coleslaw. It's enough food to feed two easily, so of course I polished it off with ease and only a tinge of regret. The menu promises that the rib meat will fall off the bone. Though a common description, this is not what good barbecue should be; the meat should almost fall off the bone — and this meat, though tender, did stay on the bone. The ribs are glazed in a lightly sweet sauce with just a hint of smoke and spice. Not the most distinctive sauce, but far more interesting than the chipotle shrimp (also available as an appetizer), which lacked much flavor, let alone the smoky bite of chipotle pepper. I was also disappointed by the onion rings (again available as an appetizer), which were too lightly battered and could have benefited from a longer dunk in the deep fryer.
Cedar plank salmon, another specialty, brought a decent piece of fish, its exterior grilled to a very light char, the interior a luscious pink. A nice touch: Our server mentioned that medium was the chef's preferred temperature before I had time to ask for something besides well-done — the all-too-common fate of salmon and one big reason I've grown weary of its presence on menus. The salmon was topped with a red wine-Dijon reduction, though this did mask any flavor from the cedar. The accompanying mashed potatoes were plain old mashed potatoes, a perfunctory side.
The steak selection includes cuts both humble (flat iron, top sirloin) and mighty (rib eye, New York strip, filet mignon). Oddly, the prices differ very little, with the flat-iron steak at $16.99 and the strip and filet mignon only $3 more. I opted for the rib eye, which possessed the expected balance of tenderness and flavor. The steak was topped with an herb-garlic butter (my choice from a selection of half a dozen butters), which gave the meat a spike of flavor; and a pile of fried onions, an unnecessary addition. Unlike the mashed potatoes, the steak fries were anything but perfunctory. Labeled as "French onion steak fries," they were four very thickly cut fries topped with roasted onions and melted Gruyère cheese. A bit over the top, to be sure, but an enjoyable change of pace.
Pizzas and burgers are straightforward. My burger with cheese, bacon and jalapeño was relatively juicy, given that my server told me medium-well was the lowest temperature at which I was permitted to order it. The stone-fired pizza crust is fairly thin, with a very light chew. I chose the barbecue-chicken pie from the brief list of specialty pizzas. The barbecue sauce was sweet but not overly so, and a sprinkling of cilantro added a welcome verdant note. A drizzling of sour cream was inoffensive, though it rendered the leftovers unappealing.
The beer selection isn't as exciting as the "Tap" part of the restaurant's name might suggest, save for Bell's Two-Hearted Ale by the bottle. The restaurant does have its own proprietary brew, an amber-colored ale, which was quenching, with enough body to separate it from the macrobrew pack.
The appetizer selection is where the shopping-mall vibe is most prevalent, with can't-miss selections such as T-ravs, fried calamari and potato skins. Curiously, for a restaurant only a few months old, the spinach-artichoke dip is described as "award-winning." On a hunch, I looked up J. Buck's menu online. Sure enough, J. Buck's spinach-artichoke dip is also described as award-winning, and, in fact, the two restaurants share several dishes that, at least as presented on the menu, are quite similar.
I haven't eaten at J. Buck's, so I can't compare the execution of the dishes there and here at Hanley's. But that Hanley's is clearly trying to achieve the same broad appeal of J. Buck's raises questions. Can a restaurant with a talented chef as its owner distinguish itself? Or is it constrained by its location, just down a hallway from JCPenney?