Tattered scraps of ordinary white printer paper are glued to the support column that stands in the center of the first-floor dining room at Plush: floor plans and recipes, handwritten notes that the "glassware looks like shit" (shit is underlined multiple times) and to "drink some vodka." In a restaurant (and bar and club and concert venue) overstuffed with eclectic décor, these proclamations might be the most striking touch. Certainly they are the smartest, conveying that Plush doesn't take itself too seriously while at the same time showing you just how much thought has gone into this venture.
Thought, time and money: Owner Maebelle Reed needed two years and $4 million to convert the building at the corner of Locust Street and North Leonard Avenue into Plush, which finally opened its doors at the very beginning of this year. A St. Louis native, Reed has operated a smaller version of Plush in Tucson, Arizona, for more than eleven years. The new Plush is a project with the sort of ambition rarely seen in St. Louis since the economy tanked. The 40,000-square-foot space books national touring acts (current indie-rock darlings Real Estate played here a couple of weeks ago); serves its full menu eighteen hours a day, seven days a week; and does so in Midtown Alley — a burgeoning commercial district, to be sure, but one that lacks the built-in foot traffic of the loft district or the Delmar Loop.
Oh, and there are Ping-Pong tables.
I ate in the first-floor dining room, an airy space with a thrift-store feel. The dining booths look to have been reclaimed from your favorite greasy spoon, the dining tables from your grandmother's house. (There is also table service on the second floor.) Should you tire of all the shabby chic, turn your attention to the sleek, semicircular bar, which boasts impressively towering shelves of booze and funky light fixtures that look something like blowfish. If the sound system ever plays an uncool song, I didn't hear it.
The menu, from executive chef David Zimmerman, a veteran of Catering St. Louis, is a playful spin on diner fare and comfort food. It isn't upscale, per se — the priciest entry is $11, and nearly everything costs less than $10 — but the presentation is more reminiscent of a bistro than a neighborhood lunch counter, and the kitchen takes pride in making everything from scratch: curing its own bacon and salmon, baking the rolls on which its burgers are nestled.
"Fried Green Tomato Eggs Benny," from the breakfast menu (available all day), is the most successful example of what Plush's kitchen aims to accomplish. This brings two poached eggs, each of which sits on a bed of braised arugula atop a thick slice of fried green tomato. The usual hollandaise sauce is present, but spiked here with chipotle. The pepper's heat and the tomato's acid cut through the richness of the yolk and the sauce. An extra dash of salt was all that was needed to round out the dish.
The lunch and dinner menu is split between "Smalls" (appetizer size) and "Bigger Things" (entrée size). The former list shows a perhaps a tad too much creativity — it's tough to type "meatloaf cupcakes" or "shrimp corndogs" without grimacing — but there are some solid options. The falafel sliders, despite defiling the corpse of a long-dead trend, could go toe-to-toe with any veggie burger in town: a crisp but not greasy, lightly spiced chickpea fritter, topped with creamy tahini and served on the restaurant's soft, challah-like roll. The deep-fried, unsauced chicken wings come with a side of thick, spicy chicken-sausage gravy for dipping (or, you know, eating directly with a spoon).
Several of the "Bigger Things" try to follow the same template as the eggs Benedict but fall short. "Brasied Short Rib Sloppy Joes," pulled beef short-rib meat on a roll, are very tender, yet the sauce doesn't capture or even tweak the essence of the sloppy joe; instead you taste beef and salt. A dish of bacon-wrapped shrimp and grits, goopy with cheese, receives a welcome dose of Southern cookin' thanks to a coffee-based redeye gravy, but too much salt spoils the dish. (I never thought I'd type this, but I'd lose the bacon.) The "Spicy Crawfish Roll," filled with small pieces of crawfish meat and an apple slaw, isn't spicy and hardly tastes of crawfish.
Plush does a sufficient number of basic things — an absurdly thick and creamy mac & cheese; a good burger, cooked to your preferred temperature; and perfect fresh-cut French fries — well enough that it would be easy to say the kitchen should simply dial back the playfulness. After all, the restaurant is only part of the larger Plush experience. But there's enough potential here to push the concept a little further, to pay closer attention to the finer details.
The owners and staff have invested plenty of thought (and time and money). The evidence is right there on that column for all to see. But look up, and you'll see there's room at the top for more inspirational paper scraps.