On many levels, nothing in St. Louis compares to Monarch, the new restaurant in downtown Maplewood. First there was all that crazy buzz before the place even opened -- about the staggering cost of renovating the space formerly occupied by Bobby's, the number of investors and the ultra-expensive menu. Then the society folks talked up the triumvirate of Monarch's young impresarios: co-owner Aaron Teitelbaum, who moved home to St. Louis after managing one of America's best restaurants (Daniel, in New York City); co-owner Jeff Orbin, who designed and transformed the massive space into a functional floor plan (he also designed the restaurant Miso); and executive chef Brian Hale, whose résumé includes SqWires, Harry's and the erstwhile Al Baker's.
Then there's the space itself, extensively redone with Orbin's imaginative use of expensive hardwoods, supple leathers, chic fabrics and art glass, helping Monarch emerge from its cocoon as what might be the most visually interesting restaurant around. Orbin's innovative floor plan allows the choice of five separate dining areas and experiences: a coolly contemporary bar; a bright and airy bistro; a formal dining room that's nearly theatrical in design; a secluded room accessible only through the glass-enclosed wine room; and a private "chef's table" overlooking the bustling kitchen. (The restaurant offers two menus -- one for the fine-dining room, another for the bistro.) There's even a gallery off the bar area, with monthly exhibits by local artists.
Simply put, Monarch is a food lover's paradise. Or, as one dining companion -- a man who plans his vacations around food and wine -- phrased it: "This is the closest thing St. Louis has to a New York City-caliber restaurant." Indeed, until Monarch alighted here, if you wanted to experience a New York restaurant in St. Louis, you had to turn on the Food Network. Judging by the number of luxury cars in the restaurant's lot, the place also appears to be a new hangout for the well-heeled. Might Maplewood unseat Clayton as the mecca for the dressed-in-black crowd?
Teitelbaum calls Monarch's cuisine "international" -- a term that can yield either focus or confusion in the kitchen. Chef Hale's approach is definitely the former, and the result is haute cuisine with a French twist. The Missouri farm-raised trout galantine is a good example of Hale's method: In a true galantine, the fish would have been stuffed, formed into a roll and cooked in stock, then chilled, glazed in aspic and served cold. Here the process serves as inspiration: A large trout was stuffed with crab meat and hazelnuts, poached in sweet vermouth to a beautiful pinkish hue, topped with beurre blanc and served hot over rice pilaf.
Back to all those different rooms for a moment. Unlike the bar area at most restaurants, Monarch's, where both the dining-room and bistro menus are available, is a nice place to eat (though smoking is allowed). The setup is comfortable: four booths separated by white hanging sheers line one wall, three tall bar tables fill in space and three modern love seats form a conversation area. Contemporary woody tones complement the quirky fabric lampshades (think Dr. Seuss) that hang over the bar itself, which is fashioned of stainless steel and wood. A glass case behind the bar is a focal point, as if to display fine artwork rather than the large collection of boutique booze. The bistro section, a bright, narrow room with big casement windows that open onto Sutton Avenue, is decked out for casual, though the menu is by no means economy-class. In fact, prices for salads, appetizers, sandwiches and main courses here are at the higher end of what most upscale restaurants get.
But think of the bar and the bistro as an appetizer -- a prelude, if you will, to the main dining area's simple beauty. Guests in the "fine dining room" begin their culinary journey with an amuse-bouche, the French term for a gratis pre-appetizer whose aim is to "amuse the mouth." This gift from the chef titillates your palate while you soak in the dining room's visual feast, and it also allows Hale to indulge his whimsy while portending the meal to come. On one visit, our edible trinket consisted of two asparagus spears drizzled with beurre blanc, plus a couple of nut-stuffed dates.
The amuse can be consumed quickly, but take your time. Let your eyes follow the flow of the silk fabric overhead, draping across the ceiling in billowing waves. The massive, glassed-in, 3,000-bottle wine room bespeaks Monarch's extensive wine list. It's Teitelbaum's baby -- and he'll be more than happy to make a suggestion or escort you into the temperature-controlled "cellar" for a closer inspection. He'll likely also boast that his wine markup is one-half of what you'll find at most restaurants, where bottles are typically hiked to three times their wholesale price. Our appetites sufficiently whetted, we ordered the crab martini, an exquisite appetizer of small rounds of lump crab meat served in a chiffonade of radicchio and endive, dressed with a vanilla-bean vinaigrette and presented in an oversize martini glass. If food can be art, then Monarch is a gallery.
Hale and crew's artistry continued with braised beef short ribs, boneless and slowly cooked to tender beauty, then bathed with a rich, concentrated cabernet reduction. Next to the beef sat a truffle-celeriac-polenta tart, the earthy-tasting celeriac (celery root) nicely complementing the richly flavored dish. Chilean sea bass got its proper treatment, arriving perfectly pan-seared -- crisp exterior, succulent center -- atop purple Peruvian potatoes and crowned with a cucumber-onion-mango relish. A final drizzle of a brothy leek reduction paired well with the mouth-filling richness of the fish. The vegetable accompaniment for all dishes comprised a colorful medley of whole baby carrots and thin spears of broccolini and white asparagus. And that brought the only quibble from our table: With an abundant supply of fresh raw material available this time of year, sending out the same standardized vegetable dish with every entrée betrays a certain lack of enthusiasm in the kitchen.
Most desserts are distinctive, although there is the regulation molten chocolate cake. More satisfying is the crème caramel or the fresh-made sorbet du jour, not to mention an adventuresome mango-coconut-papaya bread pudding.
Teitelbaum says he wants to expand Monarch's services with events like wine-tasting parties and a "day with the chef." St. Louis food junkies could use a little more of that -- if only to pry their starving eyes from the Food Network.