Park West Grille, the new restaurant on the otherwise distinctly not-happening stretch of Jefferson Avenue between Gravois and Arsenal, is tough to describe. The exposed brick, funky artwork and flat-screen TV sets pumping music videos both truly cool and ironically so lend the narrow space an air of casual sophistication. Most entrées fall into that $15-to-$20 range somewhere between casual and sophisticated. The aged strip is a grilled steak. Nothing more, nothing less. Pan-seared muscovy duck breast, on the other hand, comes with a tamarind glaze an unexpected touch, as are the herbed grits served with it.
But when I say "most entrées," I mean precisely three out of four. That's what Park West Grille offers, one or two specials notwithstanding: the steak, the duck, pan-seared chicken and a burger. It's too small a sample to define a menu, let alone a restaurant; the list of appetizers, which covers everything from can't-miss offerings like bruschetta and fried calamari to the "Grilled Sirloin Napoleon" (something like what happens when an ice-cream sundae marries a pot pie and gives birth to a steak dinner), further complicates the question.
Better to call Park West Grille a neighborhood joint, a place to drop in for a beer and a bite to eat. But even that description doesn't quite hit the target. When Park West Grille opened in January, a few colleagues asked whether I knew about this new place "in the middle of nowhere." In truth, it's not the middle of nowhere, but the eastern frontier of Benton Park West, the triangular neighborhood bordered by South Jefferson to the east, Gravois to the northwest and Cherokee to the south. Yet, knowing this, when a colleague just now asked where Park West Grille is located, I basically said, "In the middle of nowhere."
Benton Park West may be the next big thing in St. Louis. Or it may not. You probably need three doctoral degrees plus some thousand-dollar software to accurately predict such things, but you might as well ask the savant in your office who hasn't watched a minute of college basketball ever but is kicking everyone's butt in the office pool. It's a crapshoot.
If Benton Park West is to succeed, it will need boosters as enthusiastic as Mike Eagan, Park West Grille's chef, sounded when we spoke on the phone. Eagan all but sold me on the neighborhood: a historic area, a real estate boom, a great atmosphere. Eagan and his brother Tim, who co-owns the restaurant with Joe Droege, have a personal connection to Benton Park West, too: Their mother grew up there.
Eagan got his first kitchen experience as a teenager, working the pasta station at Charlie Gitto's on the Hill. Since then he has worked at Sam's Steakhouse in Affton, founded a catering company and owned Double E Dogs, a hot-dog stand inside a Sunset Hills Home Depot. When I asked him to describe Park West Grille's food, he used a few of the terms that had flitted through my brain: "contemporary casual"; "comfort food"; "eclectic fusion."
These are broad terms, of course. Meaningless, really. But they give a chef lots of leeway in planning a menu. Plenty of room to stumble, too.
I visited Park West Grille for the first time on a quiet Monday evening. A friend and I sat near the back, where we could see through the pass into the small kitchen; now and then, through the gap in the curtain separating the kitchen from the bar, I'd spot a sliver of flame leaping off the grill.
To start we shared that "Grilled Sirloin Napoleon" and an order of the lobster won tons with a soy-sake glaze. The latter looked a bit like steamed dumplings, and their creamy interior tasted a bit like crab rangoon, but the main impact was: sweet, very sweet. Squiggles of a peppery sauce on each corner of the plate mitigated the sugar rush, but only slightly. The napoleon was an impressive tower strips of blushing-pink steak, gobs of "smashed" potato, a hash of fried onions, mushrooms, all of it intertwined in a layered pastry shell but after a few bites it killed my palate, those gobs of potato whitewashing everything else.
I went for the duck entrée. The breast meat, a fan of slices, was tender and flavorful. This was a very good dish, and the herbed grits on the side were a nice change of pace though for the life of me I couldn't taste the advertised tamarind glaze. A slight sweetness, maybe, but that could have come from the browning of the crisp, umber skin.
My friend ordered a special: four small lamb chops heavily seasoned with black pepper and mustard. While a strong lamb flavor might have stood up to this, the chops had been grilled medium-well and were overpowered. (Our waiter hadn't asked how we wanted our entrées cooked; then again, we didn't pipe up.) It didn't help that the lamb was served with smashed potatoes.
We split what our waiter described as the restaurant's signature dessert. Essentially, it was an ice-cream sundae served in a martini glass. What made it distinctive were three green won ton wrappers twisted to look like Tootsie Rolls and filled with a key lime-flavored cream cheese. Strikingly imaginative, but too sweet. I don't think I can adequately describe how intensely sweet these Tootsie Roll things were. It's the kind of sweet you get from candy so cloying it hurts your teeth. I thought of those generic lollipops my pediatrician would give me at the end of a visit.
When I went back a few days later, the restaurant was busier and the kitchen seemed to be struggling to keep up. We waited a while for our appetizers and another while for our entrées. Our servers were friendly, dropping by often to top off our water and take drink orders from a wine list very modest in scope, size and price (the most expensive bottle is $30). Beer is available only in bottles, with the list dominated by macrobrews.
We began with an order of bruschetta strongly flavored with tapenade and also split an appetizer of small shrimp dry-rubbed with jerk seasoning, topped with a dab of a mango barbecue sauce and served on fried plantain slices. As with the duck's purported tamarind glaze, I couldn't taste much jerk seasoning on the shrimp, which made the dish more reminiscent of a shrimp cocktail, only served hot.
The entrées were better. Strip steak, a substantial fourteen-ounce cut cooked (at my request) on the rare side of medium-rare, bore lovely grill markings black and deep and while the steak itself wasn't an extraordinary cut, it was quite good. Pan-seared chicken was even better, the skin crisp, the meat tender and nearly as flavorful as a roasted bird.
The chicken was served with smashed potatoes. The steak was served with Gorgonzola smashed potatoes.
I rescind what I wrote before: There is a universal definition of comfort food, and it is smashed potatoes.
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