I've never been tempted to pocket hard rolls at the Old Country Buffet or filch Equal packets from Starbucks. But Richard Perry's strawberry-applesauce bread, with its moist crumb and musky clove scent, drove me over the edge. I lost my head -- devoured all I could and then began squirreling away the pieces in a doggie bag with my leftover shrimp stew. (Next time I'll stash a Tupperware container in my purse to make off with the pear butter that goes with the bread.) The restaurant's breadbasket also holds cracked wheat and Perry's signature boardinghouse white, which he used to bake during his days at the old Jefferson Avenue Boardinghouse. All evening, a server circulates about the room with the basket, like a 1940s cigarette girl, beckoning in a gentle lilt, "Cracked wheat? Boardinghouse white?"
These plainspun breads and the way they're served typify the food and philosophy at Richard Perry's Lindell Terrace Café. This is foursquare Midwestern food: pot roast, farmer's chicken, steak and gravy, pork chops with plum dressing. It's the stuff of Sunday suppers on Rolla farms and covered-dish potlucks at the Macoupin County grange. And while most restaurant operators are fretting over Americans' cocooning after the Sept. 11 attacks, Perry's timing couldn't be better: New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes predicts that such "granny cooking" is a kernel of familiarity diners will be eager to grasp during the next few uncertain months.
The Lindell Terrace concept goes like this: Each evening, diners choose from five main courses. These entrée selections -- beef, pork or lamb, chicken or other poultry, fish or shellfish and a vegetarian option -- are replaced about once a week. The other four courses, which comprise soup, salad, intermezzo and dessert, are the same for all diners. This Chez Panisse-style prix-fixe meal has several advantages. First, it's a welcome antidote to those overexposed menus that try to please everyone and end up doing nothing well. Second, the lack of choice in everything except the entrée compels the diner to trust the chef and sample dishes he or she might not otherwise have ordered. Finally, maintaining such tight control over the menu, and in turn over ordering and inventory, keeps costs down for both the restaurant and its customers. This meal is one of the best dinner values in town.
Such a one-size-fits-all approach appeals to us but may not suit some patrons. For example, customers with food allergies or religious dietary restrictions may have to forgo certain dishes. A vegetarian entrée is offered each night, but if a diner declines the beef stew and the sausage fondue that accompany it, she's still out two courses. Other diners may miss the sport of poring over the menu and constructing a customized meal.
The order in which courses are presented, beginning with soup, is also proscribed. Like the bread, the soup is served in communal fashion, ladled from a cast-iron kettle right at the table. One evening, tomato bouillon was spooned over a layer of chilled house-made sour cream. The beef-stock base of this velvety tomato soup made it surprisingly muscular and bracing. Another night, the soup was beef-barley, the kind of wintry stew that's all the more satisfying for having been thrown together without a recipe.
Chef Perry has an enigmatic way with vegetables: He conjures a lot of flavor from them, but you're never quite sure how he did it. On both of our visits, Perry showcased this sleight of hand in a "heritage salad" of mesclun greens topped with little knolls of tender black and white beans, marinated-tomato salsa and transparent cucumber rounds slicked with a sweet red-wine vinaigrette. Perry understands that using produce at the peak of its ripeness can transform a dish. This principle was evident in an intermezzo course of endive, pear and blue cheese. The combination seemed inspired by that snack beloved of Midwestern schoolchildren: wands of celery slathered with peanut butter. Perry began with a single crisp, boat-shaped endive leaf. He packed the leaf's hollow with a blend of Nauvoo blue cheese and cream cheese. Then he anchored a curvaceous, honey-sweet pear slice perpendicular to the endive. Stone perfection.
If Perry's lineup of courses has a soft spot, it's that the entrées can be somewhat tame. One evening my companion, a Steak 'n Shake enthusiast, ordered wild-mushroom chili mac, a playful redux of the diner standard. Our server cautioned that the dish had quite a kick, but we found it as mild as a plate of pasta salad. Nevertheless, the soupy mixture of mushrooms, tomatoes, celery, kidney beans and Parmesan cheese over soft macaroni was texturally varied and had a nicely acidic piquancy. Shrimp stew with buttered rice seemed to promise the spiciness of a gumbo, but it, too, proved docile. Our favorite entrée, wild-mushroom ragout with brandy cream sauce, was another of the vegetarian choices. The sauce was somehow more tangy than rich, like a tart crème fraîche. The springy mushrooms -- chanterelles, shiitakes, oysters and an unusual variety called hen o' the woods -- were spread over polenta, a neutral foil for the savory sauce.
A single dessert is prepared each evening as the last course of the prix fixe meal. Midnight velvet cake with brown-sugar frosting was a neat square of devil's-food cake with icing that resembled Canadian maple-leaf candies in both its pleasantly grainy taste and its firm texture. Rice pudding was not a wobbly custard but a haystack of buttery rice pebbled with raisins. The mound was set before us in a shallow bowl, and our server poured chilled heavy cream over it, the thick liquid seeping through the sticky grains of rice.
The servers don't miss a beat as they perform these tasks -- finishing desserts, dipping soup, parceling bread. They take their cues from diners, leaving starry-eyed couples alone and chatting with more garrulous customers. Somehow the ambience is defined more by the staff than by the restaurant's physical space, a boxy room on the first floor of a midrise apartment-and-condominium building. The dark room draws its character from tall plate-glass windows, candlelight, white tablecloths and eclectic paintings.
Lindell Terrace is perhaps most remarkable for its consistency. Service does not seesaw from one visit to the next. Not only is the staff well trained, we also felt as though they wanted to be there. Likewise, the kitchen chooses not to perform a high-wire act, turning out culinary stunts next to utter washouts. Instead, farmstead ingredients and simple preparations dovetail to create many exceptional dishes -- and not a single flop. Richard Perry has his name riding on it.