Harry "Doug" Douglas must have had, at very least, faith as small as a mustard seed when trying to move his mountain of a restaurant into the Maplewood Loop.
Many months passed between the time that the three adjacent early-1900s storefronts at Manchester Road and Southwest Avenue showed signs of renovation activity and when the restaurant now known as the Mustard Seed finally opened. The result is just as much antique-and-architecture display as it is a restaurant, seating somewhere between 250 and 300, with a sprinkling of live tunes added regularly both in the bar at the eastern end and the dining room to the west.
Douglas, a 29-year TWA veteran, has actually owned the building since 1984 and once ran an antiques store called Legends Past and Present out of one of the three storefronts. Remnants of that business, along with some original Douglas creations and projects, now decorate the four rooms that make up the complex: Egyptian artwork purchased in Cairo by Douglas in the "dining room," which runs almost front to back in the easternmost space; area newspapers (including such long-lost banners as the St. Louis Star-Times and the St. Louis Daily News) from historically significant dates (V-E Day, the Kennedy assassination) in the "club room" in the rear; a custom-built functional fountain that gives the center room its name; and '70s-album-cover-style murals in the bar, the farthest west of the various spaces.
The atmosphere alone is worth the trip, and that's a good thing, because the execution on the food side during our visits was sluggish. Just as the rooms themselves are an eclectic, sometimes-disjointed collection, so too is the menu -- classic bar food in the appetizers but shooting for a bit more sophistication than that in the $10.95-$17.95 entrées -- so it's not really clear whether one should evaluate the Mustard Seed as a better-than-average, entertainingly decorated neighborhood joint or a "destination" wannabe that doesn't totally deliver on a special overall experience.
In the role of a very good neighborhood joint, the Mustard Seed can offer you a large plateful of basic appetizers -- potato skins, chicken strips, jalapeño poppers, chicken-wing "drummies" and fried mushrooms -- for two, but easily enough for three average appetites, which can then be followed with a basic plate, such as boneless marinated pork chops served with sides of baby carrots and a baked potato. Add a couple of beers and it's about a $30 date, and you get to look around at the original oil paintings or the brass-animal coat hooks or any of the dozens of other tchotchkes all over the shelves and walls. If you happen to be there on a Wednesday or on a weekend and get seated in the "dining room," there's even live music, a relative rarity in St. Louis restaurants.
As far as a more sophisticated dining experience goes, we found several holes. A simply broiled salmon fillet was all well and good, but a pair of beef fillets advertised as "steak Diane" came out cooked all the way to gray -- we were never asked how we wanted them cooked -- a waste of good tenderloin. (And maybe it's just a St. Louis thing, but this is the third or fourth time I've run across a dish by this name that wasn't, as I would have expected, a flambée. Brandy in the sauce, yes, but no spectacle at the table.) In any event, even with a tangy, smooth brown sauce, it ended up as nothing more than an overcooked fillet.
Beyond what we tried, the rest of the menu is rounded out by a couple of grilled steaks, three Continental-influenced chicken and veal dishes, and a sautéed sole. Five pastas are also available.
The desserts we tried came in at approximately the same level as the appetizers -- competent and straightforward, including cheesecake and fruited cake and the omnipresent chocolate "confusion" (see also: "suicide," etc.).
As for the service, this was another case in which it would have been OK for a neighborhood place but fell short for a better restaurant. Ironically, during a visit when the room we were in was close to packed, our server was right on top of everything in taking the orders, whereas on a second visit with a much lower percentage of the tables occupied, each diner's courses showed up at completely different times. Add to that never once seeing a wine list on either visit and then a pretty fair re-enactment of Monty Python's cheese-shop skit after being told "all kinds" of beer were available -- "Do you have any Harp?" "No, we don't." "Pilsner Urquell?" "No, none of that ..." -- and we seemed to uncover all sorts of rough edges in the service category.
Douglas may have been in the process of figuring out some of these shortcomings even as we were finding them, though; he told us in a follow-up phone call that he was bringing in Daren Miller, formerly of the Bevo Mill, to manage operations at the Mustard Seed. Miller joins John Zwolinski, a Paris- and Frankfurt-trained chef whom Douglas hired to set up the menu, while Douglas cuts back on the grind that resulted from building out the space virtually singlehandedly (he even laid the forms and poured the concrete for the fountain) and then running a seven-day-a-week restaurant.
With luck, Douglas, Miller and Zwolinski will get a better handle on what they want to be and either step up the service or step down the menu to set a more consistent expectation. I have faith that they'll eventually pull it off.