Gallagher's has the look of an affair of the heart. Opened last year by husband-and-wife owners John and Susie Gallagher after an extensive renovation, the restaurant occupies a stately three-story brick edifice in downtown Waterloo, Illinois, that dates back to the late 1800s. For years they'd been gathering local artifacts pocket doors from the Chase Park Plaza, metal railings from the original McKinley Bridge to incorporate into the space, which includes two full bars (one on the ground floor, one on the third) and which is done up in a cross between old-money country club and frilly Victorian manse. All of this played into their dream of opening a destination restaurant that would bring in diners from all around the metropolitan region.
Gallagher's also boasts two figures of living St. Louis history in its kitchen: chef Mickey Kitterman and consulting chef Richard Perry, who were firing up stoves around St. Louis long before most of the servers at Gallagher's were in diapers. The duo is best known for their work at the Jefferson Avenue Boarding House, which Perry opened in 1972. The Boarding House and its provocative victuals foreshadowed the dawn of New American cuisine; Perry was a celebrity chef in St. Louis at a time when the term "celebrity chef" hadn't yet been invented.
How deflating, then, that the Gallaghers, Perry and Kitterman have chosen to celebrate some of the least-appetizing aspects of local cuisine. Amid these elegant surroundings, they're churning out dishes that make toasted ravioli look like a cover shot for Gourmet magazine.
Take, for example, "Chicken Modiga." It is ballyhooed on Gallagher's menu as "crumb-crusted chicken breast, topped with Provel cheese, and served with a white wine, lemon and butter sauce with sautéed mushrooms on a bed of linguini." Having read the postscript, "Staff meal favorite so good we had to put it on the regular menu," I probably should have known to avoid it.
Modiga is an antediluvian preparation of protein, the kind of pointless, humiliating treatment visited upon cuts of beef or poultry that gives St. Louis Italian cuisine a downmarket, outmoded reputation. (After two visits to Gallagher's, I went looking for evidence of the dish's roots in the canon of Italian cuisine. When that failed, I Googled. And the bulk of what I found ties it to St. Louis and Kansas City.) Modiga bears some relationship to indigenous fare like veal saltimbocca, veal Milanese and chicken Marsala: the light breading, the coating in sautéed mushrooms, the sauce. But that's kind of like saying Beatle Bob bears some relationship to the Beatles. To modiga-fy something in Gallagher's kitchen is to stifle it under a bland mantle of Provel and a scattering of 'shrooms that seem to have been dumped from a can. The linguini underneath the chicken was virtually ungarnished no evidence of herbs or cracked pepper, just a white sauce the same shade as the Provel, the sort of white-on-white presentation my home-ec teacher warned us about in middle school.
I was vaguely intrigued by the steak modiga in that we'd ordered it medium and it managed to arrive barely pink on the inside and dry, while a New York strip that was also requested medium came forth a bright, bloody red. The house offers three different steaks: New York strip, tenderloin and rib eye. The rib eye is misdubbed "Delmonico Steak" on my map-of-the-cow that's a synonym for New York strip, which is cut from the short loin, located rearward of the rib section.
Those steaks can be ordered modiga, no modiga, with a sauce such as béarnaise, mushroom or Cognac, or with none of the above (which is how I generally prefer to bite into a $25 steak entrée). You also choose two from a list of sides. In the plus column, a spinach casserole made with mushrooms and cheese carried a nice bite, Susie's Sweet Potatoes (since deleted from the menu) yielded a pleasant if saccharine flavor and a smoothly mashed texture, while corn custard perhaps the menu's single most daring item possessed a quiche-like, eggy sweetness that would pair fantastically with pork or chicken. But "Cheese Crusted Potatoes" turned out to be nothing more than pedestrian chunks of baked potato with melted cheese here and there, and grilled asparagus spears were so scrawny they qualified as anorexic.
The waitresses and their support staff may be trussed up in white dress shirts, black suspenders and bowties, but gauche service doesn't lie. During our Saturday-night visit, water glasses were not once refilled, a side dish was forgotten entirely and our waitress spouted so many thank you's that we began to feel uncomfortable. Perhaps most oddly, a cocktail tray containing a single soiled napkin was left sitting on one of the chairs until we asked that it be taken away. Then again, that faux pas paired well with the paper menu masking-taped onto the window behind our table, covering up a hole the size of a baseball. It was also consistent with the scene in the otherwise handsome Art Deco-style bar on the third floor a limbo area where patrons are often directed to kill the hour-plus wait for a table (the consequence of a no-reservations policy), and where the tableclothed two-tops weren't cleared of dirty glasses between customers, giving them the look of a cafeteria right after lunch period.
The modiga isn't the only evidence that Perry and Kitterman have pitched their creative tent somewhere in the culinary nadir that was St. Louis in the 1970s. Gallagher's roster of outdated preparations also includes blackened snapper and (at lunch) the Prosperity Sandwich, a St. Louis invention that takes a distant back seat to the St. Paul Sandwich in the pantheon of local cuisine, and with good reason: It consists of grilled ham, turkey, bacon and cheese served on an English muffin a McBreakfast, if you will, with the addition of lettuce, tomato and pickle placed on top.
The brief appetizer menu is three-fourths fried. Crab cakes were nice, prepared with lump crab meat and plated on leaves of romaine, a much-appreciated shot of color. "Strawberry Shrimp," touted as a "critically acclaimed dish" dating back to Perry's halcyon days, featured black tiger shrimp, beer battered and served with a "sweet and sour strawberry sauce." All I tasted was fried shrimp and jelly, blunt as you'd imagine it to be, utterly without nuance. As for the batter, they may as well have been cloaked in freezer burn. The same could have been said for breaded zucchini strips. (What can one say about breaded zucchini strips? These retained their heat well but were paired with a ramekin of ice-cold roasted-red-pepper dip that evaporated on the tongue with a whiff of what tasted like rubbing alcohol.)
For dessert we got a crème brûlée that had hardly any crust to it, negating more than half the fun of ordering crème brûlée; an unmemorable cheesecake; and a strawberry something-or-other that reminded me far too much of Toaster Strudel.
Speaking of dessert, during a lunch visit each member of our party was given a complimentary chocolate-chunk cookie. The cookies were chewy and delicious and the gesture was the kind of thoughtful, cute touch that's the hallmark of a restaurant aspiring to homespun goodness. Sad to say, it was just about the only evidence that Gallagher's is such a place.