You may recall reading about Eleven Eleven Mississippi in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Much as NBC's reality show, The Restaurant, chronicled the trials and machinations of opening a big New York restaurant, Joe Holleman's Post piece gave us a several-installments-long glimpse into Paul and Wendy Hamilton's tribulations in opening a big-budget operation. And just as the television series gave owner Rocco DiSpirito enough free advertising to make a sales staff wince, the newspaper series was about the best buzz generator a restaurateur could dream of. On the downside, all that hype tends to raise expectations. Fortunately, for the most part Eleven Eleven Mississippi walks the walk.
The restaurant touts itself as a "wine country bistro." The Hamiltons define the term as a melding of Tuscan and Northern Californian cuisines -- which, to me, means one thing: There's bound to be a wood-fired brick oven somewhere on the premises. Sure enough, we were greeted outside by the telltale aroma of burning oak, which perfumed the block with a comforting wintry feel. (Though I'm not sure how I'd feel about all that smoke come summer if I lived next door.) Situated between two large loft developments, Eleven Eleven Mississippi's squat brick building once served as the Star Shoe Company's factory. When the Hamiltons took over the space, the red-brick, 1922-vintage structure was all but demolished. Using what remained of the shell as a template, the owners reconstructed the 4,500-square-foot edifice brick by brick.
Inside, the restaurant manages to be at once industrial and rustic, trendy and historic: Exposed brick, slanted ceilings with narrow windows, natural hardwoods, burnished metals and two wood-burning fireplaces impart a cozy, lodgelike feel to the tri-level space, a place where you half-expect to see a twelve-point buck trophy over the bar and wild elk on the menu. Even clubbier are the glass-enclosed wine room, where a private party can dine amid the cellared racks, and a small lounge that overlooks the entire affair. When it's warmer they'll open up the outdoor patio, increasing the capacity beyond the current 187 seats.
In the kitchen, an open-display affair run by Ivy Magruder (formerly of Blue Water Grill), the brick oven takes center stage. True to the restaurant's bistro subtitle, Magruder's menu doesn't stray much into the outlandish -- it's mostly simply prepared, flavorful food, albeit with a few flourishes. Though there's neither buck nor elk, there is braised rabbit and an appetizer of wild boar ravioli. Serving rabbit is one way to test the culinary boundaries of diners, and it's showing up on more menus around town. It's also a good test for the kitchen; rabbit can be tough and disappointing if not given the proper attention. Magruder's effort here is quite satisfying: a pair of generous leg and thigh portions braised in the brick oven till tender, served atop creamy polenta and bathed in a rosemary-porcini mushroom broth. Earthy and rich, the broth complemented the mild flavor of the succulent meat. Digging into this lusty dish while sitting next to the upstairs fireplace conjured images of returning to the lodge after a day's hunting -- an absurd scenario, considering I've never handled a gun. The wild boar ravioli, though, was a misguided creation that provided far more excitement on the menu than on the palate. A spicy tomato-herb ragout overpowered whatever perfectly ordinary boar meat the three house-made ravioli contained. Apart from that, if you're going to offer boar, why only in a ravioli appetizer? Why not go all the way and feature it as an entrée as well? And if not, why not skip the tusked pig and stick with what's already on the menu -- rabbit, say, or duck?
Though it sounded like an odd melding of Latino and Deep South cuisines, one of the menu's few adventurous entries, an appetizer of four buttermilk-fried oysters, worked quite well. Perched atop little beds of mashed boniato (a bland, light-fleshed tropical sweet potato), the fried oysters were served on the half-shell, drizzled with a mango-peach barbecue sauce. Try eating them two ways: Pluck the crisp oyster from its pillowy bed and chase it with a spoonful of the fluffy mash, or dig in and devour it all at once, letting the flavors sort themselves out in your smiling face.
The seasonal selection of house-made soups included warming selections like oak-roasted butternut squash soup, as well as a traditional Tuscan ribollita with Swiss chard and white beans. A special, mushroom and chicken soup, won us over with its rich pairing of thick-sliced mushrooms and shredded dark and white meat in a spicy, creamy base.
A seared breast of Muscovy duck was prepared quite rare (too rare, perhaps, for St. Louis palates), sliced into a half-dozen pieces and served on a bed of saffron rice. While the rice was nothing spectacular, the dried-cherry beurre sauce had us dipping our oven-baked flatbread, the better to sop up every drop of the luscious liquid. Pork is pork, but after being roasted in the oak-fired oven and laced with an apple-cider syrup, a tenderloin emerged crisp on the outside and infused with a delicious smokiness. Only two quibbles here: The end pieces had seen a bit too much of said oven, and we could have used a bit more of that cider syrup. But given the side of garlic-pecorino mashed potatoes, we could forgive that smidgen of overcooked meat.
Lighter -- or bistro -- fare is available, including: a sirloin burger; a prosciutto, asiago and arugula club; those buttermilk-fried oysters made into a sandwich; and a very unusual and tasty "BLT" composed of chunks of Maine lobster, sautéed bourbon apples and a thyme rémoulade. All bistro dishes come with your choice of slaw, truffled potato salad or house-made fries.
Service was efficient, focused and not effusive. Our server explained the menu as if she'd written it herself and knew the extensive wine list (constructed by wine director Scott Gaghan) in depth. Speaking of that list, a whopping 35 wines are available by the glass (priced from $5 to $9), while the entire five-page roster comprises a huge range of Tuscan and Californian wines, along with a few Australian, Spanish, South African, French and Oregon selections for good measure. Such a large array offers diners the opportunity to experiment with different wines from the same region. Most bottles are priced between $20 and $36. Additionally, the list contains thirteen dessert wines and ports. But why, I had to wonder, would Eleven Eleven Mississippi offer a white zinfandel -- and nestled in among the (red) zinfandels, no less? It's a surprising gaffe on an otherwise well-rounded list the owners say is specifically selected to go with their food. If you want to go blush, why not just offer a true rosé?
While munching on our dessert sampler plate (poached pear, gooey butter cake and crème custard napoleon -- all excellent), we marveled at how packed the place was at 11 p.m. Granted, it was a Friday night and young urbanites filled the bar and upstairs lounge. But to have a restaurant serving full meals till midnight is a welcome advance in this early-to-bed town. Were I actually in my private lodge after a day's hunting, I'd be exhausted by now. At Eleven Eleven Mississippi I can order gooey butter cake (which comes with an "ice-cold glass of milk") and go home and not worry about cleaning my gun.