The space where Pho Grand built up its loyal following with food, though somewhat disappointing with regard to décor -- the typical evaluation was Dance 10, Looks 3 -- is now the berth of the Gulf Coast Café, a moderately priced (actually, one price: appetizers $5.95, entrees $11.95) seafood spot, filling the vacant niche for such a restaurant both in the city in general and specifically on the South Grand strip. (Pho Grand is still around, by the way, in new quarters just to the south.)
Gulf Coast is helmed by Sadik Kukic, a chef who is yet another example of the vibrancy that Bosnian immigrants have contributed to St. Louis. Although numerous influences are apparent on the menu, you could loosely categorize Gulf Coast (the name notwithstanding) as "Mediterranean seafood" -- paella from Spain, algarve from Portugal, a couple of Italian dishes, a soup of the day of Mediterranean seafood stew, and, of course, the fact that Bosnia-Herzegovina touches the Adriatic Sea. But there's also stuff like scallops and crawfish and "oyster succotash," nods to Kukic's adopted home.
The interior of the storefront space is cleanly and tastefully decorated, with a new floor and a light-blue gloss on the old pressed-tin ceiling. The usual maritime kitsch for a seafood place -- a mounted fish, seaport-themed pub signs, oars and the like -- dots the walls, but it's by no means overdone. And if you really want to proclaim your love for your dining partner to all who plod the South Grand sidewalks, ask to be seated at one of the tables in the two display windows out front.
The appetizer list is almost exclusively shellfish with some variant on a white-wine preparation. Shrimp basilico comprised seven medium shelled shrimp with the fuzzy herbaceousness of basil, garnished with a sprig of fresh parsley; shrimp scampi was the same number of the same shrimp, in a creamier sauce, not quite as garlicky as I might have expected. Scallops and crawfish included four small examples of the former and five tails of the latter, again delicately herby, this time from being poached in vermouth, and with a slight sweet edge on the finish, owing to a tomato hollandaise topping. Scallops Breval also used fairly small (but not so tiny as the bay variety) scallops, six this time, topped with slices of mushroom and a light, creamy tomato sauce. We also tried the steamed- mussel appetizer, a dozen medium-to-small but still-plump specimens in a delicate white-wine and garlic broth that would have been just a touch easier to devour with a cocktail fork.
The oyster succotash was simply a hoot, both at a basic conceptual level and in its presentation. It was succotash, all right, with sauteed corn and lima beans making up the bulk of the dish and getting flavoring from hints of bacon. The oyster part is a dozen small fried oysters, served four each on top of the vegetables on three coquille plates arranged in a triangle. It was clever, it was visually appealing and it turned out to be a surprising quantity of food.
The fish-fillet-based dishes we tried were both first-rate, with meaty, not-in-the-least-bit-fishy fish and complementary but not overwhelming sauces. Lemon-pepper tilapia included two big fillets of this firm, mild fish, with a tasty, cheesy edge to the accompanying rice and a large portion of fresh steamed-but-still-crisp green beans. The simple grilled fillet in the Salmon Philip, topped with a small clump of crabmeat in hollandaise sauce, would have been excellent on its own but was even better with the hint of butter-and-crab sweetness.
The paella was just OK, mainly because it was a seafood-only version (four mussels, four medium shrimp, a couple of clams and several rings of squid on saffron rice); it's lustier when made with sausage and chicken. (By the way, the menu does in fact include chicken piccata and strip steak for those who can't or won't eat fish.)
A very short list of wines, similar to the vins ordinaires you'd find in many family-run restaurants in France, was available, for $18 a bottle; we found the pinot grigio crisp and slightly tart and a good match for sauced fish.
Our service on both visits was friendly, and generally very prompt, contrasting with the "linger over the meal" approach we've encountered in any number of Eastern European-run or -themed restaurants that we've visited recently.
Only two desserts were offered, but they were both killer: classic baklava, flaky and honey-drenched; and a banana roulade, banana wrapped with thickened cream and then again with cake, cut into an inch-thick slice, drizzled with chocolate and garnished with fresh mint.
It wouldn't be fair to characterize any of chef Kukic's preparations as simple, although they incorporate few ingredients. Perhaps the correct description is "elegant," in the sense of refined and graceful but reasonably minimalist. The new Gulf Coast Café is an excellent value and certainly makes for a pleasant evening out amid the urban kaleidoscope known as Grand South Grand.