The 1997 opening of Spago, Wolfgang Puck's Beverly Hills restaurant, was one of the most fanfared moments in fine-dining history, heralding the age of the megamillion-dollar hotspot and the celebrity chef. Seven years later Puck has quietly infiltrated St. Louis' restaurant scene in the unlikeliest of locales: museums.
Last October Wolfgang Puck Catering, which maintains offices in LA, Chicago, and -- ahem -- St. Louis, took over the eatery inside the Saint Louis Art Museum, renaming it Puck's. This past spring, soon after the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis debuted its new Grand Center digs, the same operation unveiled that cultural center's café, dubbed TEMPT.
It's surprising to see that the more highfalutin Contemporary features the more informal eatery; while Puck's offers a full menu and table service, TEMPT is simply a sandwich and salad stand. (The most pretentious element of the place is its all-caps moniker, a sideways take on "conTEMPorary.") Of TEMPT's ten or so items, a few are signatures borrowed from the menu of the fast-casual chain Wolfgang Puck Express, such as the chinois chicken salad and the honey smoked turkey sandwich. But thanks to very fresh ingredients and creative sandwich combinations -- including a shrimp club (shrimp rémoulade, smoked Gouda, bacon, lettuce and tomato) -- TEMPT largely lives up to its name. Beers and wines are available by the glass, and there's seating inside or in the outdoor sculpture garden. It would be a nice and similarly polished touch if the food came on real plates rather than in plastic take-out containers.
The bacon-wrapped meat loaf at Puck's, accompanied by some lovely green peas and perfect pearl onions, is as awesome and exquisite as the Frank Lloyd Wright chair inside the Saint Louis Art Museum itself. It's a standout dish amid a roster of perfectly fine items that includes a spring roll appetizer (they seemed more like mini egg rolls to me); a salmon entrée; and breaded, fried calamari served with plain old mayonnaise for dipping. Also worth the price of museum admission (and not just because the museum's free) are Puck's desserts: a light-as-air crème brûlée cheesecake and a made-to-order chocolate soufflé cake that actually manages to avoid the typical molten-lava center in favor of a perfectly prepared, spongy, warm, moist cake middle, which the server then cuts out and fills with vanilla or cappuccino ice cream.
Not something to hang on the walls, but a little work of art all the same.
Puck's at the Saint Louis Art Museum (1 Fine Arts Drive, in Forest Park) is open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch (11a.m. to 2 p.m.), Friday for dinner (5 to 9 p.m.) and Sunday for brunch (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Call 314-655-5490 for reservations. TEMPT at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (3750 Washington Boulevard) is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for more information call 314-535-4660.