When the Bleeding Deacon Public House closed suddenly late last year, St. Louis lost its first "gastrodive." I don't know who coined the term gastrodive, and I'm not about to embark on an Oxford English Dictionary-style exhumation of the earliest citation. I never much liked gastropub, its direct Gourmandese-language forebear, which carries such a strong whiff of pretension: "This is what pub fare should be." But for my money, the root on the term's suffix side is more egregious — and far older, "dive" having been co-opted so long ago that the elitists who propagated it aren't even called elitists anymore. (I'd argue that hipster is a textbook example of the punishment fitting the crime.)
At any rate, regardless of the derivation, a gastrodive is by definition free from expectations. That a grungy south-city joint such as the Bleeding Deacon would offer anything besides TJ's Pizza was in itself a win. That it served up tasty meat loaf, fish and chips, and sandwiches was cause for celebration.
In early October, not quite two months before the Bleeding Deacon shuttered, its owner, Mike McLaughlin, opened the Crow's Nest in Maplewood. The Crow's Nest wasn't intended to be the Bleeding Deacon 2. As executive chef Jimmy Hippchen, a Bleeding Deacon vet who has also worked at Harry's downtown and Mosaic, told RFT at the time, "It's a step away from the comfort zone of the Deacon. This is going to take a step in a more adventurous direction."
The space (home to a long succession of restaurants, most recently the Red Lion) retains some of the Deacon's ramshackle charm. It's a single room, long and narrow, with a bar along one wall and booths along the other, plus a few larger tables in back. Vintage posters for rock and pop acts hang on the walls, and a projector shows old movies on a loop (the French new-wave classic Breathless on my visits). As at the Bleeding Deacon, the menus are glued inside the foldout jackets of old record albums. The Crow's Nest also echoes the Bleeding Deacon's love of beer: Several dozen craft brews are available on draft or in the bottle. For those who roll their eyes at "craft" beer, there's also Stag.
As Hippchen promised, the menu deviates here and there from the comfort-food pantheon. There are frogs' legs, soaked in buttermilk, dredged in a Gorgonzola purée and fried (though these turned out not to be available either time I ordered them). And there's a sandwich made with fried calves' brains, topped with a sunny-side-up egg and sambal chile sauce. Yet the bulk of the menu looks an awful lot like the Bleeding Deacon's did: sandwiches, fish and chips, meat loaf.
Sandwiches remain a strong bet. The Nest's burger is plump and juicy, its accompaniments straightforward and sensible: lettuce, tomato, fried onions, your choice of cheese and a thick, tangy aioli. The pulled-pork sandwich features tender meat, though the flavor of barbecue sauce overshadows that of the pig.
The BLT off-roads things just a bit, taking the form of a "BAT." The substitution of peppery arugula is a welcome departure, a hint of apple in the mayo another nice touch. The grilled cheese, with notes of honey, rosemary and, again, apple, is downright elegant.
Fish and chips is one of five entrées. The batter is thin and fried to a perfect, lager-colored crisp, but it overpowers the fish — you don't expect haddock to pack a lot of flavor, which is why the second rule of fish and chips (the first is "Fry batter to a perfect, lager-colored crisp") is "Don't skimp on the fish." The chips are the same waffle fries that are among your choices for a side when you order a sandwich, and they're good. (Third rule of fish and chips: check!) But on the day I ordered fish and chips, the kitchen had run out of waffle fries, and my order came with regular-cut fries. No big deal — except the fries were limp, barely cooked through; a few were cold.
Rather than compare the Crow's Nest's meat loaf to my memory of the Bleeding Deacon's, I opted for "Steak Frites." The presentation is striking and playful, the first sign that this might be a more mature restaurant than the Bleeding Deacon was. It brings strip loin steak grilled to temperature (medium-rare, for me) and cut into slightly bigger-than-bite-size chunks. These are tossed in a rich, tangy cherry-Worcestershire sauce and piled atop French fries (conventional, cooked just right). Accompanying this are two long arugula leaves battered and deep-fried and, on the side, what the menu calls a tomato "jam" but which has the look and texture of stewed tomatoes. The flavor doesn't quite live up to the plating, though. Steak, steak sauce, fries and a few crunchy bites of greens are hard to get wound up about. The tomato jam — summer sweet, boosted by a little heat — was nearly enough to pull it all together, but not quite.
A similar effort to elevate mac & cheese above the predictable meets with greater success. Large pasta shells are tossed in a light Parmesan-based sauce. A garnish of chives rounds out the presentation; if you like, you can add bacon (for $1) or chicken (for $3). The menu promises paprika and turmeric in there somewhere, but if any was present, its delicate mustardy signature was blotted out by too much salt. A heavy hand with salt detracted from a hummus appetizer, as well, though the kitchen's notion to supplement the tahini with peanut butter proved an interesting twist, thickening the purée and adding nutty depth to the flavor.
If the menu is a step up from the Bleeding Deacon's (in theory if not always in practice), the service feels unsuitably rough around the edges. The staff is friendly enough, but scattered. On multiple occasions our server forgot to tell us that dishes weren't available or involved some substitution until after we'd placed our orders.
And then there was the veggie burger, which reeked unpleasantly of smoke. Apprised of the situation, our server informed us that the kitchen smokes meats in-house and that the chef was, in fact, doing so right then. This, despite the fact that we had made it clear that this was not the smell of in-house smoke. It wasn't wood smoke or charcoal smoke or even Liquid Smoke — nor any imaginable grill-imparted aroma of the smoky sort. It was the smell of smoke you wake up to after a long night's partying, which you didn't notice at the time but the next morning — whoa.
Of course, her theory might have been right. I wouldn't know, though. She didn't offer to ask the chef to come out and, well, clear the air, nor did she offer to substitute another dish, nor did she deduct the veggie burger from our check.
It's the sort of experience that can turn a person off a place for good, and that's unfortunate, whether it's a bistro or a gastro, a pub or a dive.