The Loop owes its boho reincarnation of a couple decades ago to the burgers, beers and darts of Joe Edwards' Blueberry Hill, and Edwards will soon receive renewed Savior of St. Louis-style accolades when he debuts a knot of new businesses -- a pan-Latin eatery, a bowling alley and a small theater space -- east of Skinker Boulevard, opposite his Pageant concert hall and Halo Bar. Washington Avenue, meanwhile, owes its ongoing renaissance to restaurateurs, artists and real estate entrepreneurs too numerous to list. But not much attention is being paid to the work of restaurant pioneer Rick Yackey.
Actually more of a restaurant resurrectionist, former Norton's owner Yackey has bravely hung his shingle at one of St. Louis' most cursed restaurant spaces: the Mississippi River, a location that even McDonald's wasn't able to make work. Not counting what's ensconced in casinos, Yackey's restaurant on the Lt. Robert E. Lee riverboat is the sole place to eat on -- or even next to -- the Missouri side of the Mississippi. Yackey's on the River opened in May, after an outpost of the Mesquite Charlie's chain sank there after just three months. Humbly docked beneath the Arch's shadow and painted a hokey palette of red, white and blue, the Robert E. Lee looks like just another cruise boat until you get all the way to the parking lot, at which point a yellow banner bearing the establishment's name comes into view from a top-tier balcony.
The exterior of Yackey's on the River may fail to overwhelm, but the innards harken back to the days of steamboats and Mark Twain with sweet-natured, sometimes unintentionally goofy aplomb. The second-floor main dining room, accessed by a set of creaky, carpeted stairs, boasts white tableclothed six-tops and old-timey chandeliers, with inviting round banquettes lining the easternmost wall. Fancy in a comfy, unfashionable way, it looks like what a child would call a "grown-up" restaurant. Likewise, the seafood-heavy fare served aboard might not qualify as fine dining, but it's just fine.
This kitchen's at its best when working a few notches above bar food, and when it employs shrimp, crab or catfish, each served six different ways to Sunday. Two peel-and-eat shrimp appetizers -- one accompanied by cocktail sauce, the other ("Steamboat shrimp") steamed in Cajun seasonings and drenched in drawn butter -- feature firm, plump, unassailable meat, as does a similar, third shrimp starter simply called Cajun shrimp, which is basically the Steamboat shrimp substituting a bed of rice for the puddle of butter. More variations on the theme (best read in the style of Bubba, Forrest Gump's tragically gunned-down best friend): barbecue shrimp, bayou shrimp, shrimp scampi..... That's about it.
Yackey's doesn't exactly offer crab. There are loads of crab cakes -- which, although the menu unfortunately doesn't mention it, contain that processed crabstick stuff along with the real McCoy. (The only item that features the genuine crustacean unenhanced and unbreaded is the seafood salad, where it's mashed together in mayonnaise with shrimp and dill.) That said, the crab cakes taste good. Although they're thinner than average, these cakes possess a dense and crackling crust that plays terrifically off their filling. And the two main crab-cake items don't leave well enough alone; they actually make well enough much better. In both the crab-cake slinger appetizer (a terrific bit of hometown whimsy) and the entrée platter (which comes with damn good hush puppies and macaroni served in a soupy cheese sauce), a pair of cakes come topped with the house étouffée sauce. Though étouffée sounds like a delicate preparation, these two creations serve to remind that it's a typical Cajun/Creole concoction -- a delicious, spice-based assault on the taste buds, a zesty stew of crawfish and vegetables cooked in a brown, roux-based sauce. The result is an unsophisticated, tasty mess.
Catfish comes dredged in cornmeal and flash-fried, then either put on a po' boy sandwich or served with the aforementioned hush puppies and mac-and-cheese. A surprising tweak (on the dinner menu) is the pecan-encrusted catfish, which actually gains more nutty-flavor mileage out of its Frangelico cream sauce than from the pecans.
Speaking of nutty, Yackey's does occasionally veer from its fried-fish milieu. There's shark for sale here, believe it or not. An appetizer of Cajun shark bites -- not breaded but pan-seared and unexpectedly served over rice -- makes for a curious crowd pleaser, while a main course of grilled mako shark steak is just plain curious, topped by a roasted red pepper sauce that tastes a little weird, a little candy-like against the dense flavor of the shark. Another appetizer you might not expect is the shareable smoked-trout platter, similar to East Coast lox-and-bagels plates, served with capers, red-onion cream cheese, tomato slices, hard-cooked egg wedges and pita segments.
Unfortunately, more upscale foods don't quite cut it. Scallops (served over scampi) are ill-prepared, their stark white color suggesting that they were soaked in water before cooking to plump them up (a common cheat) and their tough, overly chewy texture hinting at an inappropriately long time on the fire. The ingredients of a Steamboat fettuccine -- roasted red and yellow peppers tossed in Cajun garlic cream sauce along with blackened chicken, which serves as the dish's protein -- never fully coalesce; it tastes like the chicken snuck its way into the bowl.
For dessert, the array of off-menu cakes will right any meal's course. An old-fashioned chocolate "sinful cake" -- no flourless preparation or lava center, just cake and frosting -- and two kinds of cheesecake put up no fight against the fork. Even better is the bread pudding, heavier than most variations yet still submissive, and topped with a barely there lemon cream sauce that gives the ubiquitous dessert a nifty kick in the pants.
So long as people realize it's there, Yackey's will be able to serve as many things: the nearest place for Arch visitors to eat, a top choice to take parents during an in-town visit, a larky lunch spot for downtown business folk, a fun new place for brunch, one of the very few spots in town that does a Saturday brunch. And maybe, down the road, a restaurant that people will point to as the one that gave St. Louis riverfront dining the beachhead it so desperately needed.