Since Vin de Set opened in late June, a spot on its rooftop deck has become the most coveted in town. Come on a Friday or Saturday night, and even with a reservation you'll wait an hour (if you're lucky) for a table outside. Cooling their heels at the bar with you will be black-clad loft dwellers, Armani-suited power brokers, Ladue patricians in plaid golf slacks and even a couple or two in matching Kurt Warner jerseys. Listen to the buzz around you buzz that's been building since before this restaurant opened, on Chouteau Avenue just off Lafayette Square and you'll think you're at the premiere party for a sensational new movie, a surefire Best Picture nominee.
It's a beautiful show at that. The rooftop deck offers a sweeping view from Union Station to the Arch, and on a warm night with a cool breeze and a bottle of very nice Alsatian white wine, it's hard to imagine a nicer place in this city. The French-heavy wine list is impressive, though marked up at the distressing St. Louis standard of roughly three times retail. (At $32, my Alsatian white was one of the cheaper bottles. On the bright side, Vin de Set offers more than 30 wines by the glass, including a half-dozen sparkling wines.)
Owners Paul and Wendy Hamilton have taken a commendable risk opening a restaurant on this otherwise barren stretch north of Lafayette Square, and their investment is substantial. The view aside, the rooftop deck is the least interesting aspect of the design, a no-brainer: Put out the tables and wait for the lines to form. The restaurant's interior is stunning. The bar area resembles the nave of an old, small church, more than twice as long as it is wide, with exposed brick walls, mahogany (or mahogany-stained) fixtures and a high, arched ceiling. The centerpiece of the room is a large five or six feet tall replica of the Louis IX statue that stands outside the art museum. It's a bold statement, the symbolic equivalent of the view from the roof: This is where you live.
In the adjacent dining room, the exposed brick walls give way to exposed rafters, which rise gently to a steeple-shaped skylight. A lovely design, but also functional. The sense of space helps reduce the claustrophobia of a packed restaurant, the crowd of two- and four-tops and wraparound booths, the constant ballet of waiters, runners, bussers and diners looking for the bathroom.
There's a second, smaller dining room an exaggerated hallway, really: tables on one side of a narrow passage, a banquette on the other. That's where I sat on my first visit, and it's where the restaurant's many seams began to show. On the wall above the banquette, two plate-glass windows look into the kitchen. You can't see much cooking, though. What you can see is a steady parade of waiters: waiters picking up finished plates, waiters taking ice from an industrial icemaker, waiters sipping soft drinks out of Styrofoam cups, waiters chewing, chewing, chewing.
I don't begrudge the waiters their breaks. But that doesn't mean one should have to watch them; it suggests a certain sloppiness or disregard that threatens to extend to the entire meal. And unfortunately, in this case it does precisely that.
Vin de Set bills itself as "an American twist on a French bistro." Executive chef Ivy Magruder, who helmed the Hamiltons' well-regarded 1111 Mississippi half a block away, has drawn up an exciting, unpretentious menu stocked with rustic French classics: foie gras, frog's legs, a confit of duck, bouillabaisse.
Vin de Set offers an entrée called "Duck Two Ways," a pan-seared breast served with the skin on, combined with a confit of leg. It's an ambitious preparation one that acknowledges the fact that different parts of the bird require different approaches in the kitchen and it was a complete flop. The presentation was unappealing: the slices of breast meat slathered in a neon-green "chive-hazelnut pesto vinaigrette" and served atop a spill of lentils, which were described on the menu as "tri-color" but had dulled to a greenish brown. On top of it all, a scoop of shredded confit had been gracelessly dumped.
It tasted about as unimpressive as it looked. The vinaigrette was dominated by a too-sweet pesto that swamped the duck's flavor. The skin was nicely browned, but none of the fat beneath it had rendered, so it wasn't as crisp as it should have been, the meat (cooked medium leaning to medium-rare) dry and bland.
"Half Roasted Chicken" half a roasted chicken, not a half-roasted chicken, I was thankful to see was moist, but the skin was so jacked with salt and "herbs de provence" (read: rosemary) that it was barely edible. While I attempted to eat the chicken, my friend tried to taste the barbecue in the "fig barbecue" sauce accompanying his lamb chops, a special. No luck it was as if the kitchen had scraped the filling from a Fig Newton and spread it over an unremarkable pair of lamb chops.
A bouillabaisse of swordfish, corvina, turbot and sole featured large pieces of fish in a rich, buttery, fennel-spiked broth and was, by a wide margin, the best dish I tasted during my three meals at Vin de Set. There was also a very good salad of chopped tuna tartare over diced kalamata olives, (out-of-season) Roma tomatoes, hard-boiled egg and spinach. Another seafood entrée, pan-seared monkfish, would have been more than good, had its "roasted red pepper concassé" not been a dead ringer for bottled cocktail sauce.
Though Vin de Set generally did better with seafood than with meats, the seafood appetizers were duds. Lobster bisque tasted like warm milk, while the lobster in the toasted lobster ravioli (confidential to St. Louis chefs: it's not funny anymore) was overwhelmed by the breading. As for the frog's legs, what meat could be discerned beneath the very thick fried breading emitted an unpleasantly fishy flavor.
I bet I could probably count on one hand the number of St. Louis restaurants that offer foie gras. That might owe in part to the escalating cruelty-to-poultry debate. It may also have to do with the difficulty factor: You don't have to do much to foie gras, but what you do you have to do carefully. Vin de Set's "Seared Foie Gras" appetizer was served atop a maple-parsnip purée, with a raspberry beer sauce. Given the $14 price tag, I wasn't expecting a whopping load o' liver. But what I got two leetle morsels perched atop a big pile of whipped parsnips had been sliced so thin that subjecting it to a searing obliterated its texture. Aside from the maply purée, the only discernible flavor was an unpleasantly tart and bitter (and inappropriate) raspberry-beer sauce.
A "Seared Tenderloin Tartare" appetizer consisted of barely seared chopped tenderloin bound together by a mixture of ketchup, mayonnaise and well, frankly, I stopped listening after that. (Though I'm glad we asked our waitress about it. The menu said only that it comes with truffle oil, nothing else.) My friend ordered it anyway. It looked like a slice of meat loaf. I had a bite: It tasted like meat loaf. Decent meat loaf, but meat loaf. My friend said its flavor was growing on him. What he actually said was, "It's like that condition where after a while a hostage starts to sympathize with his captor."
The sad fact may be that Magruder and the Hamiltons don't think St. Louis is ready for real bistro food that we need ours buried under barbecue sauce and pesto and raspberry-beer reductions. I'd like to believe St. Louis is more than ready for an authentic French bistro, and that soon Vin de Set will be ready for us.
Until then, we'll have to make do with the rooftop, the gorgeous view and the wine.