I guess these things go in cycles. Maybe about 20 years ago, a jovial guy named Richard Perry revived an old building on Jefferson Avenue in South St. Louis into a spot trendy first because of its hefty portions of basic food (which eventually took on the title "comfort food") and later for not-as-large portions of much more complicated dishes with a strong reliance on local ingredients (which eventually came to be known as "new American" cooking). Adm. Perry's own culinary voyages since then are enough grist for a full-scale novel; however, one of his former mates, Michael Mullen, takes at least some of the same tacks as his former chief in a new restaurant called the Southern Belle Supper Club, in an east Central West End space that had its greatest fame as the Ladle.
The layout of the interior is a bit unusual in that it seems to be configured much more as bar/meeting place than restaurant, with only about a dozen dining tables arranged in an L-shape along the front windows and side wall. The space is dominated at its center by a rectangular bar, with café tables featuring Picassoesque formed-metal chairs offering additional bar-area seating. After sunset, the lights are fairly dim, given the black pressed-tin ceiling, with the outline of the bar highlighted by down spotlights in a distinctively pink-champagne hue; at the back of the dining room, though, the kitchen shines out like a beacon, providing the most light of any source in the room.
One thing that should be noted very clearly for the smoke-averse: The place is smoky, no two ways about it. Sure, you can be seated in "no smoking," but there's no way to get there without passing by the bar, and on both of our visits, the surgeon general's warning was being taken about as seriously as Bill Haas' run for mayor. (With ceiling fans running in the high-ceilinged room, neither my wife, who's relatively sensitive to smoke, nor I was adversely affected, other than the lingering scent on our sweaters.)
But if smoke doesn't bother you, the Southern Belle is a warm, welcoming -- and, yes, "comfortable" -- place to take a meal: good portions, fine value and enough little extras to keep it interesting for the kind of diner who doesn't exactly turn cartwheels over the idea of going out for meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
One of these extras is the simple pleasure of a country pâté, one of the short list of appetizers available at Southern Belle. What makes the version here, even more so than elsewhere, not just chopped liver is the accompanying thin, irregular crackers, flavored ever so gently with rosemary and garlic and made in the bakery next door.
That bakery, by the way, is called Mullen Creek (the other co-owner of Southern Belle is DeAnn Creek, a veteran of Kirk's American Bistro and C. Whittaker's Bistro, both on the Euclid strip) and is scheduled to open for retail sales one door east on Sarah within about a month. Meanwhile, however, the benefits of having an attached bakery are already apparent in the aforementioned crackers, in a long list of gourmet sandwiches, in delightful miniature alien spaceships of sourdough served for bread and in a delectable dessert tray.
Although the sandwiches and a short list of pastas are alternatives for the main course, the entrée list itself is decidedly in the "comfort" category and, with a couple of exceptions, the offerings are priced right around 10 bucks. We sampled the meat loaf and the pork chops, both moist and with full-bodied flavor. The meat loaf was seared after slicing for a richer grilled taste and accented with a thick brown gravy. The two thin but substantial pork chops were fork-tender and delicately fruity, although in this case we encountered one of several minor inconsistencies from the kitchen: The dish was billed as being served with an apple-mango chutney, and the meat certainly had a fruity coating, but the expected small portion of chutney somewhere on the side or underneath was nowhere to be found.
Another small nit was seeing tuna on the printed menu but finding it unavailable two consecutive visits many days apart. The first evening, we settled for a nightly surf-and-turf special that comprised a fillet of tilapia and a 4-ounce filet mignon, which, for $12.95, was quite a bargain. The tiny amount of meat didn't preclude the kitchen's preparing it rare in perfect fashion, with a crispy skin but moist and blood-red inside.
Two side dishes come with the principal entrées, and these continue the comfort motif, with choices like macaroni (well, actually cavatelli) and cheese, candied yams, mashed potatoes and creamed corn (the last more of a corn chowder with fresh corn). Speaking of chowder, we chose as one of our other appetizers what was sold as a specialty of the house, fresh-made soup -- on this particular evening, cream of artichoke. This reminded me of a creamy, buttery New England clam chowder, except with the clams replaced by leaves of artichoke hearts.
With many local restaurants, even the very good ones, relying on many of the same suppliers for their outsourced desserts, it's always heartening to come on a new place that does its own, especially when the results are as wonderful as those at Southern Belle. The blackberry-mango tart was terrific, a dense conglomeration of berries and the flesh of the tropical fruit, with a gentle brown-sugar-laced crust on top for an additional, but not overpowering, touch of sweetness. The tuxedo chocolate torte featured layering of white and dark chocolate both up and down and back and forth, providing an interesting visual approach to complement the chocolate lover's dream of a dessert, and the pecan-pie tart was basically "Honey, I shrunk the pecan pie" -- a miniaturized version of a full pie, with all the flavor but more of a delicate pastry crust.
As with the menu, the wine list is value-oriented, with most bottles hovering around the $20 mark and a modest selection of major grape varieties. Our service was best described as "cuddly" -- on the second visit, pats on the back and shoulder squeezes were regular events -- although despite the relative informality, Mullen and Creek could afford to brief the staff a bit better on ingredients and preparations and to emphasize the concept that if a patron asks a question about those elements, the best approach is to find somebody in the kitchen who knows the answer.
This criticism aside, we felt exceptionally welcome at Southern Belle, with Mullen and Creek thanking us (and everyone else, for that matter) profusely for our patronage. It's a very comfortable restaurant.