The coldest spot in the United States yesterday? West Yellowstone, Montana a balmy 27 degrees in the first week of June. The Gary SouthShore RailCats of the Northern League signed a right-handed pitcher. The comedian Dana Carvey turned 52.
You take a brightly colored brochure from the rack in the hotel lobby and follow the directions out of town, past the Wal-Mart and the Applebee's, the antique shops and the Cracker Barrel, along an interstate flanked by corn fields, the stink of fertilizer and pig in the air. A billboard reminds you to take the next exit. You drive a dusty country road, past a few battered farm houses, turn right at the shuttered Amoco station and, finally, reach the world's largest jar of Grey Poupon, or ball of twine, or fiberglass cow.
There comes a time during most vacations when the exotic becomes mundane, if not outright drudgery. You start craving the comforts of home bland but reliable. I realized my "summer vacation" among the restaurants of the Metro East had reached this point when I wasn't merely considering the toasted ravioli appetizer at Gentelin's on Broadway in Alton, but advocating it to my companions.
Gentelin's is the third restaurant in this "summer vacation" series, but on account of a scheduling quirk, it was the last of four places I visited. After logging about 300 miles on Illinois highways, sampling Mike Mills' world-championship barbecue in O'Fallon, Kevin Willmann's inventive dishes in Edwardsville, and food in Sauget so strange that well, you'll just have to wait till next week toasted ravioli sounded just right.
These were no ordinary T-ravs, though. There were only three to our order, but each was as plump as an empanada. The breading was crisp, the pasta kept its shape without being tough or chewy, and the stuffing exploded with flavor: meaty wild mushrooms, spinach, tangy Boursin cheese. There was marinara sauce for dipping, but it was unnecessary; the shredded Parmesan and truffle oil atop the ravioli were a delicious accent.
Gentelin's opened in December of last year. The main dining room is modern but not too sleek, with dark green walls and dim lighting that suggest a romantic mood, though it's not forced upon you. The most striking feature is the front windows, which provide a dramatic view of the Clark Bridge over the Mississippi River. It's a lovely scene, especially at night, with its signature cables seeming to hover in mid-air. If you're lucky, a barge will float past as you dine, a constellation of bright safety lights.
(If you happen to spot a barge approaching from the north near the beginning of your meal, you can have a race: Will you finish your meal before the barge crosses the bridge?)
Most of the dishes I tried at Gentelin's fit the pattern the toasted ravioli established: familiar fare prepared well. Nothing as memorable as the view, but with a pleasing flourish here and there an attractive presentation, or an unexpected hint of Southwestern flavors in a salmon dish.
That salmon was both fascinating and frustrating. Ryan Gentelin serves a grilled salmon filet atop a mixture of arborio rice, crab, lobster, bacon, roasted corn and tomato in a sauce that tastes of seafood stock spiked with brandy or sherry. That sounds like a risotto how often do you encounter arborio rice outside a risotto? but the menu doesn't call it a risotto, and it was decidedly not a risotto.
The texture was somewhere between a thick soup and a thin stew, with the grains of arborio rice adrift in the sauce. If you got a forkful with plenty of lobster and crab, it was excellent. If you got mostly rice, it was a little like a particularly flavorful porridge. I did like that flavor, though. The sauce had a substantial, though not overpowering, body: I could taste the delicate crab and lobster meat. (Especially important, since both were in small pieces.) The bacon added a little pepper, and the corn and tomato gave it that slight Southwestern flair.
As a complement for the salmon nicely crisp on the surface and tender inside the not-risotto was a mixed bag. It didn't clash with the salmon's flavor, but its complexity drew attention to the rather blunt flavor of salmon cooked all the way through.
I enjoyed the dish, but I wanted to love it. It was certainly the most ambitious offering on the menu.
Still, I preferred the straightforward grilled pork chop. The chop was fat and, if not medium, then on the juicy side of medium-well. (I wasn't asked how I wanted it cooked.) It was served over excellent mashed sweet potatoes; on top was a tangle of "frizzled" think: shoestring sweet potatoes. Tender asparagus tossed with bacon and mushrooms made an excellent accompaniment.
Pasta with chicken, peas and ham in a white-wine and butter sauce was simple and satisfying. The beef stroganoff was equally comforting, though its flavor relied a bit too much on its red-wine demi-glace. The only misstep I encountered was the stuffed chicken breast in marinara sauce over spinach fettuccine. The chicken's stuffing was essentially identical to the toasted ravioli's mushrooms, spinach and, in this case, a blend of several cheeses but whereas the ravioli showcased the stuffing, here the bland breaded chicken and the marinara sauce swamped it.
The toasted ravioli were the most appealing appetizer, though the spinach-artichoke dip was an above-average take on this workhorse, exceptionally creamy. The "Dim Sum" pork pot stickers suffered from being coated with a rather simplistic version of the usual dipping sauce.
I would probably need another half-dozen visits to Gentelin's to try the entire menu. There are more than a dozen entrées, including several noted as vegetarian-friendly a nice touch, as is the ability to add one of the excellent salads to your meal for only two dollars more. The wine list is reasonable, too. I didn't see any bottles over $50, and most of the by-the-glass selections, though unremarkable, are $6.
Desserts include homemade ice creams and sorbets as well as such reliable favorites as molten chocolate cake and bread pudding. The latter was actually my favorite dish at Gentelin's, the moist bread chock full of walnuts, drowned in a decadent caramel-bourbon sauce and topped with fantastic cinnamon ice cream and a crisp tuile.
There is a separate bar, which was lively both times I visited. Despite its cosmopolitan look, the restaurant as a whole gives off a definite neighborhood vibe: more than once during my visits, diners wandered away from their tables to greet friends or co-workers eating at other tables. You might not consider Gentelin's destination dining, but should you happen to stop by on your way from the world's biggest macramé cat to the junkyard dinosaur diorama, you'll feel awfully close to home.