It hasn't been an easy start for Ryan and Rich Radil, to hear the young owners of Gabrielle's in far west county tell their tale. Their original chef, they say, proved unable to execute the restaurant's Italian-oriented menu on any consistent level. Customers complained -- so much so that one waitress told me nearly half of the meals she served on a weekend evening were sent back owing to one kitchen screw-up or another. A disaster like that can sink a restaurant faster than an overloaded dumpling in hot water, especially in the first month of operation.
The good news is that the Radils, who have worked in the restaurant biz for years as caterers and managers, righted the ship, bringing on a new executive chef, Anthony Devoni (previously of Café Eau and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America), as well as pastry chef Jackie Polette, to revamp the menu.
Welcome to the new and improved Gabrielle's, five months later.
The inside of the restaurant is on a par with most other "casual yet elegant" establishments: a mixture of subdued lighting, brick-red and ochre hues, an open dining room segmented with partitions and a clubby chrome-and-wood lounge area where you can eat, watch television and smoke. The interior is a bit austere, but some might see that as appealingly simple and unpretentious. A local artist's large canvases of tulips, positioned prominently on the main walls, continue the color scheme. Sitting in the dining room, with its high, tiered ceiling, may seem a bit like sitting in an auditorium (or, as one dining companion observed, in a choir hall). Come to think of it, the room has the same feel as those huge "great rooms" you find in many of the new homes in the area. When it's warmer, diners can eat outside on the patio and watch the planes come and go at nearby Spirit of St. Louis Airport. For now there's piped-in music inside: straight-ahead jazz in the dining room and pop in the bar. The only annoying factor there is that when you're in the bar on a quiet evening, the two styles of music tend to bleed into one another. When the place gets crowded, it's not an issue.
Devoni's menu spans the protein spectrum, from beef and pork to seafood, poultry and veal. There's also plenty of pasta, in keeping with the restaurant's original Italian concept. The chef's seasonal approach comes in the form of creative sauces and vegetable accompaniments. His seared duck breast was wintry and rich, with a sublime cinnamon reduction sauce providing the perfect flair. The addition of three house-made agnolotti stuffed with butternut squash fell into the "delight the customer with the unexpected" category. These lusciously sweet and smooth ravioli-like plumpers are also available as an entrée in a sage butter sauce -- and for my money they ought to become Gabrielle's signature dish during the fall and winter months.
Osso buco was another winner, presented correctly with a small fork to dig out the creamy marrow from the veal bone. The shank was braised with vegetables and, true to its Milanese origin, served over risotto (spiked, in this case, with peppery arugula). A Chianti demi-glace made the dish even more succulent. A seared sea bass fillet, meanwhile, incorporated flavors of the season, resting atop a generous mound of sweet potatoes puréed with scallions. Encircling the dish was a ribbon of aged balsamic vinegar and green basil oil, interrupted by one lone spear of broccoli. Though the flavors competed at first, they settled into a happy marriage after a few bites.
An appetizer of duck confit may seem a bit robust to start a meal, but it's winter, after all, and the duck leg paired particularly well with its accompaniment, a spiced pear chutney. Not so satisfying was the house-smoked salmon: two thick slices of salmon served atop a bed of arugula and dressed with a tasty lemon vinaigrette and Parmesan shavings. Trouble was, the salmon was mushy, not very smoky and lacking in overall flavor, like mediocre sushi.
Dessert choices were a chocolate-banana bread pudding, a blueberry cobbler and a crema catalina, described by the waiter as similar to a crème brûlée but lighter, owing to the fact that milk is substituted for cream. Polette's bread pudding was like a sculpture, incorporating sliced bananas, chunks of bread, and milk, sugar and eggs to arrive at just the right combination of tenderness, smoothness and substantial texture.
While they were tweaking the menu, the Radils adjusted the wine list, and they promise further changes in that area. For the time being, at least, many of the two dozen or so bottles are Italian wines, though a few high-end Greek wines have surfaced, as well as a Spanish Rioja. Prices range from about $20 to $50, with glasses coming in at $5.50 to $7. In keeping with a recent local trend, a couple of nonvintage sparkling wines are available: the excellent Toad Hollow Amplexus ($5.50 for the 175-milliliter bottle, $23 for a full bottle) and Ferrari brut ($30 a bottle).
The Radils surely must have realized that opening a high-end spot out here would be risky. Most suburbanites don't eat out much during the week, especially at places like this. But by capitalizing on the lack of options in the locally owned restaurant department -- especially on the weekends when many must journey east to find a white-tablecloth spot -- Gabrielle's has the potential to establish a comfortable niche, with just enough creativity to keep things fresh.