August out-fancies pretty much every other dining spot in downtown Clayton. The waitstaff wears formal attire -- no jackets, but white tuxedo shirts, bow ties and black trousers. At dinner servers introduce themselves to seated parties by attempting to soft-sell Voss designer water and/or a Champagne toast. A snowy lemon sorbet is proffered in a cordial glass between the appetizers and the entrées. Bread isn't set down in a bourgeois basket but bestowed one piece at a time, with tongs, from a selection of sourdough, whole grain and tomato basil. Despite the audacious purple tones adorning the walls -- lavender in the narrow bar area near the door, a deeper violet in the dining room a few steps down -- the feel among the white linen-covered four- and six-tops is monied. Also dated: The Cher-headpiece floral arrangement dominating the dining room, the pair of Ross Bleckner-style paintings (one in the bar, one in the dining room) and the sax-heavy Muzak combine to create the air of a "ritzy restaurant" in an '80s teen comedy -- like where Ferris Bueller poses as Abe Frohman (the Sausage King of Chicago), or where Elisabeth Shue and her Babysitting charges catch her boyfriend out with another girl.
Amid such decadence, August's eclectic bill of fare often plays too lax for the room. Black bean hummus, cucumber slices and warmed pita spears? Black bean cakes served with dollops of sour cream and guacamole and sprinkled with shredded cheese? These read more like snacks whipped up by a vegetarian coed for an all-night study session in the dorms than appetizers dished up by a decked-out waiter in downtown Clayton. And a potato-crusted grouper entrée, so heavily blanketed in shredded spuds that it resembled a diner helping of hash browns, was served on a plate whose rim was decorated with what has to have been Lawry's Seasoned Salt.
The incongruities aren't limited to the look of the food. The black bean cakes were pleasant in a mild and creamy way, but the very similar black bean hummus suffered from far too much pepper. The grouper, meanwhile, came surrounded by ho-hum haricots verts and julienned carrots (the chef's vegetable that evening), all of it mired in a plain brown gravy that developed a skin by the time it reached the table.
Dijon crumb-crusted chicken was so dry and cardboard-like that it was virtually inedible. It was accompanied by sweet potato ravioli that felt like concrete around the edges and imparted hardly any yammy flavor. Roast duckling, pan-seared and then baked until crisp, tasted like plain chicken, with none of duck's signature succulence and no pleasure at all to be gleaned from its skin. Elk, an off-menu special pan-seared, topped with a bourbon peppercorn sauce and filigreed with the Lawry's-like substance, was grainy and tasted too gamy and peppery. An undersize, unappealingly beige-hued serving of lobster bisque -- a teacup's worth, presented in a wide, shallow bowl -- faded away on the tongue too soon, without furnishing any sort of finish. A warm goat cheese soufflé conveyed none of goat cheese's luscious flavor and texture; it was overwhelmingly eggy, to the point of mealiness.
The soufflé did come plated with some nice baby greens in a raspberry vinaigrette. So did a char-grilled portobello mushroom cap topped with a congealed sweet citrus butter. Both appeared to be smaller renditions of the house salad, minus some carrot shreds and cucumber slices. And like the black bean cakes and the black bean hummus -- which appears a second time on the appetizer menu, among a catchall platter of roasted peppers, feta cheese, olives and more pita -- the repetition comes off as chintzy, especially when two people might well spend $100 on dinner.
A single lunch item deserves praise: the salade niçoise, a towering arrangement of delicious pan-seared tuna, scrumptious egg salad, tomato, black olives, French green beans and potato salad. Likewise, one dessert really stood out: a "white chocolate mousse tower," an off-menu special we ordered at lunch, in which a white and dark chocolate latticework provides architectural support for a vertical mass of sweet filling that, truth be told, tasted more like éclair cream than white chocolate mousse.
Other desserts fulfilled already low expectations. A crème brûlée sported spots where the sugar was missed by the torch and crusted-over parts that stuck to the molars like hard candy. A square slice of bread pudding was sunk in a substance that tasted like a chemical imitation of maple syrup. "Fudge divine cake" bore the off-putting tang of too much cocoa. And the white chocolate mousse cake was perplexingly named, considering it was a chocolate-chocolate slice through and through, except for a between-layers stripe of cream-color icing that tasted like cake frosting. The cake was festooned on top with a pair of milk chocolate coins, sticking out from the frosting at an angle. The underside of the coins, hidden from view, read "Happy Holidays."
August's wine list, mostly California-based, sports admirably modest markups in the lower- and mid-price ranges. While there are plenty of reasonable whites to choose from, the selection of reds isn't as balanced: Not including by-the-glass options, roughly three-fourths of these are priced above $50.
It turns out that Restaurant August was christened after chef and co-owner August Mrozowski (first name pronounced like the month, last name pronounced moe-zow-ski), owner of Augie's Front Burner in downtown Springfield, Illinois. That moniker rings less stuffy, comfier, denim as opposed to diamonds. According to a manager who's worked at both places, the seven-year-old Springfield establishment, a red-awninged storefront eatery, offers a more casual ambiance and service than the new spot in Clayton. Yet the menus at both places are strikingly similar -- aside from an uptick in prices at the newer, frillier location.
It sounds like Mrozowski developed a recipe for success in Springfield. If he wants his latest venture to live up to the "venerable" sense of its name, he's going to have to do some tweaking.