If chef Lou Rook III has had previous lives, one of them may have been as George Gershwin.
Rook truly is an artist at flavor composition, and the musical parallel to Gershwin popped into my mind after the third or fourth dish in which he had taken fairly mundane elements of everyday dining life, used them as props for a sublime central theme and created a rhapsody. A graduate of Mizzou's food-service-management program and of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., he came up through the ranks at the Trellis in Williamsburg, Va., the original Cardwell's, the now-defunct Grappa in the Central West End and Harry's downtown.
For about eight years now, Rook has been king every night (and day) in the kitchen at Annie Gunn's, the multiple-personality restaurant adjacent to longtime country store the Smoke House Market in the developmentally out-of-control Chesterfield Valley. Old-timers who remember the area when it had little more than an airport, an art studio, a jail and a tendency to flood may also remember that it's called Gumbo, which is no small irony, given the diverse influences that come together and wander out of Annie Gunn's kitchen.
As for the "multiple personality" description, Annie Gunn's is every bit the clubby Irish bar, "proudly serving Anheuser-Busch products" right alongside a pull of imported ale or stout, with a by-the-glass wine list that includes over-$10 selections. Some of the soups, sandwiches and appetizers (and even, as is found in several nicer places in and around Galway, the smoked salmon) are basic pub grub and can feed two for under $20.
At the same time, Annie Gunn's is a melting pot for bald hog riders, families with little ones, river-bottom bicyclists (although these are becoming rarer as the vehicle traffic explodes), folks in loud golf outfits, wine connoisseurs and women who still give air kisses as greetings. It's virtually always wall-to-wall, even when warm weather permits overflow into the outdoor area, and the fact that only half the tables are available to be reserved on any given night makes advance planning a requirement if you don't wish to spend a long time hanging out at the counter in front of the wine case waiting for your table.
Above all, though, Annie Gunn's has earned, and maintains, a reputation for great food that has transcended local geographical boundaries to include write-ups in some of the major national food and wine mags. Be forewarned that you're probably going to drop close to 100 bucks (or more, if you'd like to include, for example, a well-aged red Burgundy or boutique California white). But for palates that appreciate everything from extreme subtlety to broad boldness, Annie Gunn's is among the very best St. Louis has to offer.
Located as it is adjoining one of the best butcher shops in the area, Annie Gunn's offers a quintessential steak menu, but we actually had even greater success with the seafood, which was available in as many as four off-the-menu entrées (and a few appetizers) on both evenings we visited. Of all the great items that we had, I continue to fixate on the Georges Bank scallops on a bed of poblano corn cream, topped with black caviar -- a stunning dish that really wasn't all that elaborate but was a perfect illustration of Rook's compositional skills. The main body of the dish was four half-dollar-sized scallops, about an inch high, cross-hatched with grill marks and topped with a buckshot dollop of caviar. The flesh of the fish offered ideal resistance when bitten into and an inherent slight sweetness that was teased by the similar, but not identical, sweetness of the corn cream and notable fire from the all-but-invisible poblano chiles. As I put it into my mouth, it finished with the pop and gentle saltiness of the caviar.
A similar genius in flavor groupings was found in the mahimahi with golden kiwi Riesling butter. The fish was sublime to begin with, in and of itself almost buttery in texture, and the gentle honey and fruit overtones of the Riesling wine came through in the sauce, blending with the quite fruity sweetness and slight acidity of the kiwi to achieve something of the same effect as a lemon butter but with infinitely more dimension to the flavor.
Sliced breast of Muscovy duck presented yet another combination of successful flavor surprises, with the rich, pure poultry taste of the thin slices of duck meat playfully interacting with a thin, crisp layer of fat right at the skin -- another smoky, bacony flavor fitting of a "smokehouse" provisioner -- but also with another fruity chutney. Variants on potatoes are a recurring motif at Annie Gunn's, and the side dish, along with crisp asparagus and I-can't-believe-it's-butternut squash, was something called Champ, mashed potatoes that pretty much define the state boundary between solid and liquid.
We also found great rewards in dishes with humbler origins, most notably an appetizer of potato pancakes with peppered slab bacon. The pancakes themselves were fluffy and relatively thick like batter pancakes; more important, their primary role was as a base for the rich smokiness of the bacon and sweet-tart tang of a pear chutney, with little bits of onion and red and green pepper, along with the black pepper crusting the bacon, providing additional flavor bursts.
For a look at the steaks, we tried the peppermill ribeye, crusted with cracked pepper and with a butter that included shallots and a reduction of Cabernet and served with whipped Yukon Gold potatoes. It was trimmed with nary a hint of sinew or gristle, yet still firm and moist -- as expected, an utterly perfect cut of meat. Even better, though, was Annie Gunn's take on carpaccio, paper-thin rounds of rosy tenderloin lying flat at the periphery of the plate, with a dome of folded-over sheets of the meat mixed with grilled shiitake mushrooms over a small serving of fresh greens in the middle. The meat and mushrooms were drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, and the whole plate was dusted with a flurry of shaved grana padano, a close cousin of parmigiana cheese.
A word is also in order with regard to the smoked seafood available as appetizers -- a trout that's on the regular menu and jumbo shrimp that rotates as a special. The difference between freshly smoked trout and that stuff you get in the vacuum-packed case in the grocery store is tangible. The two full fillets that come in the appetizer portion at Annie Gunn's are just a shade or two off pure white, and the texture has neither the oily density and aftertaste nor, conversely, the fall-apart, overly watery consistency and taste of smoked fish that's been refrigerated too long or even frozen. Annie Gunn's trout is served with crustless points of brown bread; a dilled, creamed horseradish sauce; capers; and chopped red onions.
The shrimp are gargantuan (and our waitress noted that those in an entrée are even larger), smoked and also maple-glazed, and served with a "Pennsylvania Dutch" barbecue sauce, so named because of the addition of honey. Despite the different levels of sweetness in the ingredients, the sweet flavor is well balanced by the smokiness in both the preparation and sauce, with a black-bean salsa served on the side to add another foundation flavor and a slight kick.
The desserts we sampled weren't fancy -- apple pie and bread pudding -- but the portions were huge and the quality outstanding. The roughly double-sized slice of apple pie had a flaky, granular-sugar crust and came with two scoops of cinnamon ice cream; the bread pudding was like random chunks of a dense cake held together with a caramel-sauce glue.
The wine list numbers in excess of 300 bottles and wanders through all regions and price ranges, including 20 Bordeaux ($450 for a '62 Lafite) and more than 40 California Cabernets. In general, it's not cheap, but that's more from the base prices than from a markup standpoint, given that a 1997 Domaine Drouhin pinot noir, for example, generally retails for $25-$30 and sells at Annie Gunn's for $43.
Perhaps the main drawback of Annie Gunn's is its very popularity, which is exacerbated by an extremely high bozocity quotient among some of its patrons. Judging from some of the behavior we saw, wealth and dignity are demonstrably independent variables. I suppose that the guy who set his cell-phone ringer to the first eight bars of "Für Elise" was trying to illustrate his sophistication, but letting it play the entire tune twice every time it rang proved that his ear for music was about as healthy as Beethoven's was at the end of his life and that he was equally deaf to any semblance of common courtesy. Then there was the poor nicotine addict who, much like a first-grader who can't get to the potty on time, couldn't even make it to the door before lighting up, thus generously sharing his match sulfur and cig smoke with the entire no-smoking section.
This brings us to the good news. Recognizing that some folks aren't entirely comfortable eating a top-of-the-line $100 meal in a raucous Irish pub, Rook and owners Thom and Jane Sehnert are actively working toward an expansion, which they hope to have completed by late 2001. The plans include enclosure of the current patio space, which will be turned into a quieter, no-smoking dining room; construction of a new patio farther out; and the addition of some sort of conference facility. It sounds like quite an investment, but assuming Rook and his staff can maintain the quality even with the increased capacity, it's more of a license to print money and a welcome relief for all those folks who currently wait an hour or more with virtually no qualms.