For years, we'd heard about this log cabin in the middle of a cornfield somewhere beyond Eckert's as you go east from Belleville, where you ate this fabulous feast by candlelight off of one-of-a-kind antiques, featuring herbs from the surrounding garden and with the whole thing prepared by a student of Julia Child's. If you didn't feel like shlepping back to civilization after your degustation, assuming you'd reserved ahead, you could retire to one of the rustic but thoroughly modern bed-and-breakfast rooms upstairs, downstairs or in a separate outbuilding from the central dining area. In addition to the rumors, we'd seen articles in any number of regional and national magazines.
It all sounded too good to be true. And you know what? It's even better than it sounds.
Roughly a half-hour out of downtown St. Louis, perhaps even closer from the South County suburban density around the Jefferson Barracks Bridge, and not all that far from the Chain of Rocks link to North County, the Westerfield House is situated roughly three-quarters-of-a-mile from nowhere and at first glance appears to be a restoration of a frontier homestead. In fact, proprietor Jim Westerfield built the place about 20 years ago, so the exterior isn't authentic period, but the tales he tells about a 200-year-old table here or a rare pewter collection there make you realize that many of the furnishings and accessories certainly were in use somewhere about the time that Abe Lincoln wandered these parts.
Even as late spring turns to summer, the herb garden is in full splendor, sending out both expected and unexpected earthy perfumes as you walk from your car to the house. Jim is every bit the Renaissance man, with botanical experimentation one of his passions, and among the herbs are found several of his proprietary strains of mint, including one named for wife Marilyn, another for granddaughter Brittany, a third for garden writer Clarissa Start and another -- totally unusual because of its pear scent -- for a favorite cat called Jessie. As it turns out, Marilyn, the kitchen mistress of the house, did in fact study with and become friends with Julia Child, and so a citrus-scented hybrid is dedicated to her. A lemon-scented version developed about five years ago is named after Hillary Rodham Clinton. (We were unable to divine whether Jim is now developing a carpet-scented version as an homage to current New York politics.)
Jim -- the Chatty Cathy of the two Westerfields, with Marilyn serving as Teller-like counterpoint to his Penn -- on arrival greets diners in 19th-century period dress and takes them on a brief tour of the property, spinning tales of everything from the herbs to the remarkable collection of Windsor chairs. Guests are requested to arrive at 6:30 p.m. so that activities can be carried out with a single group, but even though we arrived about 10 minutes late (one of the men in the party having driven, and you know how we are about asking for directions), the dining room was a couple of tables short of capacity, so the hostess sent us on a self-guided tour, and Jim joined us later for a quick minilecture.
The dining room itself is L-shaped, with the section immediately inside the entry sporting a low ceiling that opens up into a cathedral space in the center of the room and another alcove in back centered on an antique candelabrum chandelier that has, as expected, a story of its own. Dried flowers and herbs hang everywhere, giving the room a country grandma's-house aroma.
Dinners are both prix-fixe and fixed menu, with the usually seven-course selection rotating at the beginning of each month. (I'd quibble with the counting methodology used to reach "seven courses," but given the huge volume of food that the meal cumulatively comprises, it's a moot argument.) Meals begin with a specialty cocktail, in this case something called "pink lemonade," a thoroughly refreshing and mellowing concoction containing cranberry juice, lime juice, lime soda, triple sec (an orange liqueur) and citrus-flavored vodka.
The meal that followed was fabulous, but much more so in the sense of traditional, straightforward preparation as opposed to catering to the kind of diner who lusts for arugula, foie gras, pomegranate, truffles or whatever the latest trendy or rare foodstuff happens to be. The appetizer course brought three shelled large shrimp, arranged in a pretzel-shaped intimate embrace and topped with a simple sauce of white wine, garlic, lemon and butter -- unintrusive, adding a hint of lemon flavor and a smooth sauce base but pretty much letting the clear, slightly sweet sea flavor of the shrimp stand on its own.
Next it was on to something called the "Strawberry Fields" salad, a sliced fresh strawberry atop a bed of greens mixed with chunks of the radishy, vaguely nutty root called jicama, all dressed with a raspberry vinaigrette. Then came a soup course, a tomato-basil announced as a "sipping" soup, which meant it was to be drunk directly from the demitasse in which it was served. The flavors were subtle rather than concentrated, with neither the sweetness or acidity of the tomato nor the mintiness of the fresh basil overpowering the other.
A tiny dome of raspberry sorbet was then presented for its traditional role of "cleansing the palate" in anticipation of the simultaneous arrival of stuffed chicken and oven-roasted vegetables. Although "stuffed chicken" may conjure up images of something commonplace, this was anything but, a boned breast topped with a bone-in leg pointing skyward in a presentation that would have made David Lynch smile. The chicken was more moist than I ever could have imagined possible, provided with a combination of smoky and sweet flavors by a stuffing of spinach, ricotta, bacon and Madeira. The large portion of vegetables, again simple but perfectly done, included quartered red potatoes, celery, mushrooms and baby carrots.
Dinner includes a bottomless glass of either red or white wine, with a Boucheron merlot and a Jacob Demmer Riesling offered as the choices. Although neither of these is by any stretch challenging or complex, they're both ideal "quaffing" sorts of wines and worked well as background beverages for the meal.
Several dozen candles on tables and on sideboards provided pretty much the only lighting during the body of the meal, but just before dessert, Jim reappeared with a brass candle lighter in hand and altar-boy jokes on his lips and proceeded to light all of the candles in the ceiling fixtures, making the room, if this was possible, even more romantic. The dessert for the evening was called "Chocolate Fantasia" -- a hockey puck of spongy, intensely flavored cocoa-and-Kahlua cake with a layer of mascarpone cheese and two equally intense amarena cherries on top. Afterward, Jim again told a story, this one about the Massachusetts origins of the aforementioned chandelier in the side alcove and his pilgrimage to the home of a Smithsonian curator in search of this particular grail. Marilyn came out from behind the curtain for a well-deserved round of applause, although it was here that we discovered that she's a woman of few words.
Now, much as we hadn't bothered to ask for directions before we went in search of the Westerfield House, we also hadn't bothered to ask how much all of this would cost. Thus we were virtually astounded when presented with our bill, only to discover that this whole shootin' match had boiled down to $43 for each of us before tax and tip. Now, let's think about this for a minute. Even if the wine was the moral equivalent of a house wine, that would be 9 or 10 bucks for a cocktail and two glasses at most better restaurants -- and, in fact, we never saw our glasses empty, and we were in a convivial mood because we were spending the evening with two dear friends whom we hadn't seen for months. But even for light drinkers, that comes down to about $33 for appetizer, salad, soup, entrée with sides and dessert, and you certainly won't equal the atmosphere anywhere within 50 miles. Conversely, 100 bucks (including tax and tip) for dinner for two isn't exactly chump change, but on balance, in addition to the remarkable experience, I'd chalk up the Westerfield House as a significant bargain for the money. (And the roughly once-a-week herbal luncheons -- a starter, light entrée and dessert for just $14 -- let you sample the ambiance for just a third of the dinner price.)
If you decide to go for it, be forewarned that the phone isn't consistently answered during the week, so be sure to keep trying. Dinner is served on Friday and Saturday only, and leaving enough travel time, coupled with dropping the male-ego thing and asking for directions, will result in a sense of promptness that will optimize your experience. Once you're there, though, expect to spend about two-and-a-half hours, a pace that's leisurely yet not sluggish but can't be rushed because all of the 40-60 patrons are being served at exactly the same time for each course.
And if you're into the B&B-in-the-country thing, overnight stays in the charming sleeping quarters are $201 per couple, which includes dinner and breakfast for both of you. The trip back in time is on the house.
WESTERFIELD HOUSE, 8059 Jefferson Rd., Freeburg, Ill. 618-539-5643. Hours: dinner ($43 prix-fixe), 7 p.m. Fri & Sat, preceded by tour at 6:30 p.m.; lunch on selected dates ($14 prix-fixe), noon weekdays, 1 p.m. Sun. Reservations mandatory.