Any number of restaurants in town proudly display (sometimes with price tags) artwork, but a relatively new one in Ellisville even takes its name from its dual role.
The Gallery is located in a large freestanding building in the Clarkson-Clayton Center (the clever reader is left to deduce the location) that once housed part of the Hanon's empire and for a brief time was also a second location of another West Port-based restaurant, Wilbur & Gil's. With high ceilings capped by black-painted rafters and a ton of natural light from huge windows across the front, the space really does look like an art gallery, albeit one containing quite a number of tables. Some 165 people fit into the main dining rooms (a bilevel space and a circular room in front, complete with complementary circular fireplace), 50 more can be seated on the patios and two rear rooms, also lined with artwork, seat 120 for banquets.
When it first opened some six months ago, the Gallery heavily promoted the kitchen influence of Norbert Andujar, the younger generation of the family that has long had a significant presence among local French restaurants, first with Le Bistro and more recently with Malmaison. Andujar the younger has since moved on, leaving Tim O'Connor and Willie Butler to helm the kitchen for owners Mike and Lou Hirons, who also hold a majority stake in the rejuvenated Route 66 restaurant Big Chief Dakota Grill in Wildwood.
Perhaps the temptation in a place with a name like the Gallery is to go overboard on the presentation, but luckily we didn't find this to be the case. To be sure, the food is attractively presented, but artsy-fartsy froufrou has been pushed aside in favor of solid, large portions. Lou Hirons describes her restaurant's culinary style with the amorphous "contemporary American" label, and this allows the guys in the kitchen to wander from Cajun to smoked duck to bruschetta to prime rib without feeling constrained by any recurring style.
That smoked duck is available both as an appetizer in Wellington form and as an entrée; we sampled it in the former incarnation, which turned out to be four "mini-Wellingtons," marinated duck and boursin cheese enclosed in a pastry shell, served on top of fried spinach. The combination of mild cream cheese and the hamlike flavor of the duck was excellent, and the pastry was still firm when served. The only (minor) annoyance was that the small pieces of duck tended to settle into corners of the enclosures, resulting in some forkfuls' ending up with no duck at all.
Crawfish-cake appetizers were a good variation on crab cakes, with the sautéeing bringing out the inherent sweetness of the tiny crustaceans without tampering with their texture, and the chicken nachos turned out to be a huge portion of fried wonton skins, the chicken (like the duck before it) sporting a pronounced smoky flavor and mozzarella cheese supplanting the usual cheddar/jack toppings. The $6.95 appetizer of six medium-to-large Cajun shrimp was relatively mild for a "Cajun" dish, but at the same time the shrimp themselves were prepared perfectly and the so-called appetizer was large enough to be a entrée for a moderate appetite.
The entrées themselves, although sizable, weren't overwhelmingly so. Chicken dishes are generally my choice of last resort on menus, but a breast stuffed with smoked Gouda and wrapped with pancetta looked like an entertaining mix of flavors, and I wasn't disappointed by the result -- a dish with the full flavor of a smoked sausage but components that were much healthier and of higher quality than what one usually associates with sausage.
Anyplace that can successfully serve prime rib in the medium-rare range gets my vote of confidence, and the Gallery's version included the twist of dill in the accompanying horseradish cream sauce. Pecan-encrusted ruby trout was firm and moist, with the "encrusting" more of a light breading that imparted a gentle nuttiness. I wasn't totally enamored of the sea scallops over angel-hair pasta, but this was more because of the style of preparation itself than any flaw in the way it was presented. The five sea scallops in the dish were solid, but the sautéeing didn't enhance their flavor the way that searing or broiling would, so they lent more of a texture than a flavor, and the dish was thus dominated by tarragon and garlic flavors. In a nice touch, though, two large mussels served as "garnish."
The Gallery gets high marks for side dishes, which weren't elaborate, but the vegetables -- asparagus, squash, red bell pepper and cauliflower one night, broccoli and shredded carrots on another -- were cooked ever so lightly, allowing them to retain their individuality and garden crispness rather than just blending together.
The hefty appetizer and entrée portions resulted in our trying only one of the desserts, a fine créme anglais with fresh strawberries -- a delicate custard swirled with strawberry sauce covering many slices of the fresh berries of the season, all served in a large red-wine glass.
The wine list was relatively short, with prices ranging from $17-$32. Service was generally prompt, although on one visit the time from appetizer to entrée was a little too lengthy, but this was remedied by a true "above and beyond" effort by our server -- a busperson inadvertently pitched the small amount of pasta remaining from one of our orders, even though we'd requested a doggie bag (no doubt inspired by the precious lifelike dachshund sculptures that were part of the featured artwork), and our server had another full order prepared and packaged for us, despite our insistence that the original remainder wasn't enough to quibble over.
We saw any number of families with younger children and teenagers in tow, no doubt attracted by the big portions, relatively straightforward approach and moderate (generally around $13) entrée prices. Despite a potentially highfalutin name, the Gallery is anything but elitist, which is something of an art in and of itself.
THE GALLERY, 1308 Clarkson-Clayton Center (Ellisville), 636-391-0700. Pastas: $9.95-$14.95. Entrees: $11.95-$19.95. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tue-Thu; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri & Sat; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.