Winter's chill hasn't left yet, and the nip in the air, even once we were inside the restaurant, only added to the retrogression to days past. We sat at our table looking through aged, imperfect glass panes onto a streetscape that, aside from the automobiles, was probably much the same as long as 150 years ago. Squinting a bit transformed the now-dominant genre of antique and gift stores back into bustling river-town shops, with a gaunt man in a stovepipe hat ducking into one to get out of the cold.
Alton is a true charmer of a town, and although our all-four-to-six-lane-highway drive from West County Center took just under half-an-hour, there's definitely a feeling of passing from one place to the next for us Missouri-side folks as the North County suburban uniformity stops relatively abruptly, giving way to the relative wilds of the river-confluence floodplains before you cross the stunningly elegant, cable-stayed Lewis & Clark Bridge.
A half-mile or so north of the bridge, State Street turns off to the right and winds up a steep hill that once was residence of choice for the riverboat elite. At the foot of that hill are Alton's landmark grain silos, and a block north is Ralph's, part of a concentration of shops and restaurants that form a small hospitality-and-tourism district.
Like Alton as a whole, Ralph's is an interesting and sometimes deceptive set of layers. From the front, on Third Street, the bright neon beer signs are much more indicative of a neighborhood or sports bar, and the front room continues this motif. A chalkboard outside the entrance, advertising relatively pricey specials such as "medallions Thomas," is the only real clue of things to come.
As we were escorted to our table, we walked through one room with obviously added-later-than-original-construction walls, and, crossing another threshold, passed into a plank-floored, high-ceilinged space retaining many of its 19th-century touches, including the aforementioned windows. To overcome the cavernous feel of what is basically a long, deep and high space, the room has been partitioned with half- and three-quarter walls, with exposed brick and a paisley-papered chimney visible in the rear section. A few hanging plants add some life to the room, and the ceilings are molded and painted in a deep maroon.
The menu comprises grilled selections and more elaborate entrees, generally prepared in classical continental approaches. We were more attracted to some of interesting twists offered in the evening's specials, so we stayed off the menu for both of our entrees.
Right off the bat, however, we were greeted with an assortment of warm, fresh bread, along with regular and herbed butter and a finely chopped olive spread that, much like the legendary tapenade at Remy's, can quickly induce you to fill up on bread if you're not careful. For one appetizer, we went with the oysters Ralph ($8.95), which trips a bit off the tongue but is much more poetic in presentation -- six plump oysters broiled beneath a spinach-and-cheese mixture flavored with bits of red bell pepper and langostino, a halfway-between-shrimp-and-rock-lobster crustacean. Like Rockefeller, Bienville and other involved oyster preparations, this one turns the singular flavor of oysters into more of a backdrop, but the oysters still manage to retain quite a bit of plumpness, and it certainly works well in such a context.
We also tried the mushrooms Nantua ($8.95), about a dozen caps of various sizes stuffed again with langostinos -- apparently a big favorite of the chef's -- and topped with shaved Parmesan in a sherry-cream sauce. The sauce in this case was indicative of great skill at this element of cooking: perfectly smooth, with the sherry obviously there but not crossing over into cloying sweetness or excess sharpness from the alcohol.
One of the daily specials, the Mediterranean salmon ($18.95), was a noble composition, but to my perhaps jaded palate, it was a reminder of Emperor Joseph's remark to Mozart in Amadeus after the performance of a new symphony: "Too many notes." A fillet of salmon was glazed with a chardonnay-lemon sauce and then covered with sliced black olive, tomato and feta cheese -- a barrage of sweet and tart flavors that wasn't unpleasant, just never seemed to reach an elegant harmony. Like the royal doofus, however, I am unable to respond to the question of which notes I would remove.
Our other entree was medallions au poivre, three thinly sliced 2-ounce cuts of beef tenderloin topped with sliced mushrooms and served in another very smooth, very elegant sauce, this time a brandy-cream with whole black peppercorns that coated the entire surface of the plate. Both entrees came with a julienne of zucchini and red pepper.
We finished with three fine cannoli filled with sweet, creamy cheese and embedded in sour cream. The wine list has about 60 selections plus four ports by the glass and averages in the $20-$30 range.
In general, our service was rapid and attentive, and although the tossing of our salad tableside in an oversized, '70s-era bowl was a nice touch, there were a couple of slip-ups that shouldn't have occurred in a restaurant with $15-plus entrees: The beef medallions came medium-rare, which was fine, but we were never given a choice, and a dirty fork was placed back on the table between courses rather than replaced with a clean one.
Overall, though, Ralph's attempts and succeeds at high-end service and food, with the added benefit of charming historical ambiance. The folks up Alton way are lucky to have it in their frontyard, and, for the rest of us, it's a highly rewarding road trip.
219 W. Third St., Alton, Ill.
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4 p.m.-11 p.m. daily