"I knew I should've given up food for Lent," wisecracked my guest as the waiter removed his nearly full plate. We were dining at Busch's Grove, a pricey society restaurant established in the 1890s. Our dinners there were so bland that describing each dish is likely to be as scintillating as cataloging my grandfather's collection of Sansabelt slacks. But it's a reviewer's responsibility to keep diners from wasting their money and going home hungry, which is what we did. Twice. So here goes.
The food at Busch's Grove calls to mind the quip made by restaurant critic William Grimes that "white is not a flavor." The first white item we came across was melba toast packaged in cellophane. Apparently we'd been mistaken in supposing that this scourge had been wiped off the face of the earth along with smallpox and Riunite. But we later concluded that the toast was preferable to the stale airline-style dinner rolls that arrived with our appetizers. No pretense was made of wrapping the rolls, as though they might have been warm at one time. Instead, they were just plopped onto a plate, no doubt pulled straight out of a plastic storage bag.
As we surveyed the menu, we felt as though we had wandered into Bethesda Gardens. (To be fair, though, the meals offered at most retirement homes these days are probably considerably more palatable than the dinners we were served.) The challenge in dining at Busch's Grove, we discovered, is to identify the least insipid among the insufferably dull selections on the menu. We did not succeed. More white food showed up in the form of vichyssoise, a French potato-leek soup that's traditionally served cold. The starchy sludge was as pale as library paste and tasted something like pancake batter. The only pigment came from a garnish of chopped chives. They had the crackliness of tissue paper and the ashen bloom characteristic of the freeze-dried variety. Moving on hastily to the appetizer menu, we settled on fried artichokes. The anemic-looking lumps sprinkled with Parmesan cheese hardly made up for the dreadful soup.
Most fish and chicken dishes at Busch's Grove are broiled or sautéed. Using either technique, the surfaces exposed to the heat source should brown, forming a crisp, flavorful crust. Instead, our portions of fish and fowl looked as wan and peaked as post-op patients sprawled on gurneys. Except for a few sliced button mushrooms on the plate, the bourbon chicken looked identical to the grouper with lime sauce. In a blind tasting, we'd have been hard pressed to tell them apart.
The quality of the fish was questionable. Grouper -- and other finfish, for that matter -- should be smooth and compact. Furrowed flesh indicates that the fish is no longer in tip-top condition. Our grouper had deep fissures, like the jagged grooves in a loaf of rustic bread. Worse, the pasty lime sauce would have been more suitable as a poultice than as a dressing for fish. It was all the less appetizing for the lusterless skin that had formed over it. A little salt might have perked up the dish, but we couldn't detect one iota. In fact, seasoning was also lacking in the bourbon chicken and in most other items we sampled. Perhaps the restaurant's owners are still using salt as currency.
In desperation, on our second visit we tried to single out dishes that are tough to screw up. This strategy was suggested by a friend, a blueblood by marriage, who is periodically obliged to visit Busch's Grove for family events she has dubbed RIOs -- Really Important Occasions.
Accordingly, we began with shrimp cocktail, the only dish we actually finished. The oversize, deveined shrimp were served with lemon wedges and cocktail sauce that was probably bottled. From the entrée list, we ordered fried shrimp. The dish reminded me of childhood visits to Howard Johnson's for fried clam strips and orange sherbet.
We surmised that it would also be hard to foul up steak, so we ordered the surf 'n' turf special. Big mistake. The fillet was cooked to order, but it was topped with small, eraserlike scallops and "crab" the color of traffic cones. The "crab" bore a striking resemblance to Sea Legs, a cheap crab substitute. It's a sort of edible particleboard, made from compressed, frozen scraps of fish. I guess $32.95 just doesn't go as far as it used to.
How does Busch's Grove get away with charging such outrageous prices for food that would draw jeers in an army mess hall? Perhaps the restaurant's owners studied shakedown tactics under Jesse Jackson himself. But Ladue residents do have an excellent alternative. At Truffles (314-567-9100), right next door, $32 will buy you veal Oscar -- in this version, it's a veal chop stuffed with real lobster meat. Truffles' executive chef Justin Schultz turns out Continental fare made with such top-drawer ingredients as Périgord truffles, saffron, mascarpone cheese, smoked porcini mushrooms and pine nuts.
The ambience at the two restaurants is similar, although Truffles is a bit more opulent. Its warm dining room is draped in shades of coral and gold, whereas the comfortable eating area at Busch's Grove features wood paneling, a working fireplace and portraits of hunting dogs with their trophies. Busch's Grove also has several shady screened picnic pavilions that can be reserved for RIOs on summer days. But the difference comes down to the food, and Truffles sweeps every menu category.
Dessert at Busch's Grove was no improvement over the other courses. Our waiter explained that all desserts except the coconut cream pie are purchased from Sysco, a leading commercial food-service distributor to restaurants, hospitals and nursing homes (not surprisingly, Sysco also supplies the melba toast). Some of the tackier confections, such as the Snickers cheesecake and the chocolate obsession cake, would have been at home on the dessert bar at the Old Country Buffet. Others might have stepped up to Ponderosa. The Sysco apple pie, for example, consisted of flabby fruit enveloped in a pulpy crust.
Next we ordered the coconut cream, hoping that the house-made pie would be better quality. No dice. A bit of shredded coconut had been dusted over the whipped topping, and the thin layer of plain custard below tasted like Sara Lee.
That helpful waiter, who had given us exemplary service throughout the meal, abruptly stopped answering our questions when my dining companion requested a copy of the menu. "You're not going to write about me, are you?" he snapped.
My guest shrugged off this intrusive, appallingly unprofessional question with a joke, but the waiter persisted. "You didn't answer my question," he snarled menacingly. Then he recounted in detail how the restaurant had been "ripped" by the Post-Dispatch the week before (just after we had made our first visit to Busch's Grove, coincidentally). The server insisted, rather illogically, that the restaurant should have been notified before the review was published. It was unfair, he whined, for the Post's reviewer to complain that his musty baked potato had been whisked away but never replaced. I'll bet that if the waiter had paid $16.95 for a steak dinner, he'd want his baked potato back, too.
A couple of older staff members stood by silently during our server's tirade, finding nothing unseemly about his whaling on customers who had just coughed up $130 for dinner. The restaurant, it seems, wants to claim victim status along with women who slosh scalding coffee on their laps and men who blame their accusers when they can't keep their own trousers zipped. A nefarious right-wing conspiracy against waiters and restaurateurs is undoubtedly at work here. Isn't it funny, though, that the chefs and servers who bust their asses to put out good meals every night don't mind being reviewed?