Space. The final frontier.
Tim Mallett has certainly made his mark on St. Louis restaurants over the past decade or so. Starting with the original Blue Water Grill, which took over the culinary birthplace of David Slay's La Veranda in a converted Dairy Queen on the South Side, he carefully expanded both size and format, first with Big Sky Cafe in Webster and then Remy's Kitchen and Wine Bar in Clayton, both of which continue to be among the best restaurants in St. Louis.
The original Blue Water was also a lot of fun, but it was just plain small. So Mallett trekked out to a new building in Kirkwood to open a new, much larger incarnation that retains and even expands upon the whimsical decor of the first place (which is now not operating). The interior features everything from Caribbean sea-blue walls to a planter full of oars to a collection of psychedelic blowfish hanging above the bar to a full-wall mural titled "Prosperidad y Sabor" (translated, "prosperity and flavor," but open to the possible liberal interpretation "If we cook your seafood well, we'll both be happy"). Caribbean rhythms alternate with flamenco guitar on the sound system, and even the beverage list follows the beachcomber theme, including such items as Jarritos Mexican soda and Jamaican ginger beer.
The menu is, of course, heavy on seafood, but there are sufficient choices to satisfy carnivores and vegetarians as well, and although both basic dishes and uses of salsas imply a lot of Southwestern influence, enough Asian and other cross-cultural elements creep in that the only way to pigeonhole the style would be to call it "Noe," which happens to be the chef's last name. Further, the new Blue Water Grill continues a tradition from Mallett's other restaurants of both an implicit and explicit tapas-style approach to eating, a Spanish custom of nibbling on many different small portions rather than one single large one. Monday nights at the Blue Water Grill are "flying saucer" nights, with a special tapas menu, but the regular nightly menu includes a selection of "small plates" that may be chosen as appetizers or light meals or in concert to form a full entree suite.
In keeping with the seaside atmosphere, we started with the shellfish fiesta ($13.95), an ice-bedded cornucopia of seafood. The dish comprised two oysters each from the East and West coasts (bluepoint from the East Coast, Pacific Orchard from the West); four partially shelled snow claws; house-smoked mussels; and three shelled-to-the-tail jumbo shrimp. The shrimp and crab were both perfect raw-bar examples and the crawfish was whole (although we refrained from the New Orleans ritual of sucking the heads), but the local smoking of the mussels made them the most elegant item on the plate, firming up the meat and imparting just a delicate amount of smoke. The bluepoints were fat (and therefore we were happy), but the West Coast mollusks were a bit anemic, proving the only disappointment (and a moderate one at that) on the plate.
The shellfish orgy continued with an entree of Mexican bouillabaisse ($14.95), which included mussels, shrimp, large scallops (the best item in the mix), another whole crayfish and nuggets of a couple of varieties of fillets, served with cross-cut slices of French bread, in a broth that had a gently spicy bite. The stuffed whole trout was truly that, retaining both head and tail (although completely lacking in bones), dusted with a cornmeal mixture and perfectly moist, with significant amounts of real crab in the stuffing and decorations of red and green tortilla strips. The still-joined kernels in the corn salsa that topped it indicated an obvious use of very fresh ingredients, even in the side dishes.
Speaking of sides, they're not entirely necessary with the "large plates," but -- especially if you're building a meal with the smaller items -- there's also a selection of four "share" dishes of vegetables and starches with modified Southwestern leanings. We were enticed and not disappointed by the au gratin potatoes, flavored with a combination of the richness of a smoked Gouda cheese and the earthy kick of mild green chiles.
The white-chocolate cappuccino and dark-chocolate terrine was a mouthful of a dessert in every sense of the word, a layered disc with a fluffy coffee-flavored mousse on top and a densely concentrated dark chocolate beneath.
More than 50 wines are available, almost all under $30. Our service was exceptionally prompt, even though the place was fully packed on a weekend evening.
Mr. Mallett has certainly done a lot of things right in his restaurants, and he continues the streak with the relocated and expanded Blue Water Grill. Most important, though, he always seems to surround himself with dedicated, competent managers and staff, so that the sequential expansions don't result in his spreading his talent too thin. We're left to wonder what he's going to come up with next.TIDBITS: We here at the RFT are pleased to kick off expanded coverage of the local food scene by introducing our new "Cafe" section with next week's issue. The piquant and sometimes biting commentaries of Jill Posey-Smith will be added to the restaurant reviews, and every week we'll present capsule reviews of recommended restaurants and lots more items about food, chefs, wine, kitchens, markets and all the other things that make eating and drinking so much fun to write and talk about. L'chaim!
BLUE WATER GRILL
343 S. Kirkwood Rd. (Kirkwood)
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Sat; dinner, 4:30-10:15 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 4:30-midnight Fri.-Sat.