I don't wear disguises. I don't dress up unless the restaurant tells me I must. Sometimes, though, as I try to figure out what makes a particular restaurant tick (or not tick), I imagine I'm someone else entirely. Maybe I can't appreciate this Turkish-Peruvian tapas joint and martini bar, but what about a young professional woman out for a night on the town with her college friends?
On second thought, maybe I should wear disguises.
Anyhoo, so it happened on a recent afternoon as I sat at the bar at Robust downtown. I'd assembled a grazing lunch from the menu's selections of cheese and charcuterie: gossamer slices of Spanish chorizo; two slabs of pâté de campagne; and Mantoro, a salty, nutty semi-firm cheese from Benton Harbor, Michigan, which the menu accurately describes as a domestic take on Spanish Manchego. Though Robust is a wine bar, I was in a beer mood, so I ordered one of my favorite local craft beers, Civil Life's English pale ale.
It made for a thoroughly satisfying midday meal: not too heavy, each element distinctly flavored. (The pork pâté, the one item of my lunch made in-house, was somewhat timid in its approach, especially compared to the smoky, spicy chorizo — I double-checked the menu that it was, in fact, pork pâté — but a dab of the horseradish-spiked mustard that accompanied it gave it a spark.) My initial reaction was to include Robust among the numerous area wine bars where you can enjoy such a meal — a list that of course includes the original Robust in Webster Groves.
No, the new Robust does not veer very far from the wine-bar template. Its menu is largely the same as the Webster Groves location's. But it wouldn't be fair to portray Robust 2.0 merely as a clone.
Or so my imaginary friend tells me.
The downtown Robust, located on the ground floor of the Laurel building as part of the new Mercantile Exchange development along Washington Avenue, certainly doesn't look much like the original. It is an airy space filled with natural light. Tall windows overlook Wash. Ave., though the streetscape must compete for attention with a dramatic arrangement of very thin metal rods suspended above the bar. Flat-screen monitors play a slideshow of wine-related photographs (and, occasionally, the game).
Slideshow: Inside Robust on Washington Avenue
For those who have never visited the original Robust, owner and certified sommelier Stanley Browne emphasizes pairing wine and food. He does so with what he calls the "Robust Factor." Wines are assigned to one of eight numbered groups: crisp, mellow or luscious whites; soft-hearted, generous and robust reds; with additional categories for sparkling ("Bubbles") and dessert ("Sweet and Stickies") wines. Dishes include the numbers of suggested pairings. So, for example, you might consider enjoying a glass of crisp (2), mellow (3) or sweet (8) wine with a bowl of the creamy, gently spiced chowder of shrimp, andouille, chorizo and corn with potatoes, sweet peppers and onions.
Or you can do your own thing. Either way, Robust's wine list offers a good balance of value wines and more sophisticated bottles, while the selection of glass pours (three or six ounces) provides a range of styles rather than the usual afterthought of a few token examples of cheap plonk.
I reviewed the original Robust in late 2007. Since then the restaurant has changed chefs several times, though the basic menu format of cheese and charcuterie, appetizers and smaller entrées has remained the same. (I did remember the chowder from my visits five and a half years ago, though.) Currently overseeing both kitchens is Joseph Hemp V, whose cooking I enjoyed when he was at Dressel's four years ago.
Among the appetizers (or "Shareables") is a spinach-artichoke dip in which you can actually taste both the spinach and the artichoke through the thick blend of mozzarella, Parmesan and cream cheeses. Hummus made from cannellini beans, on the other hand, tastes too strongly of white-truffle oil. A heavy garnish of kalamata olives and roasted red peppers further obscures any hummus-like qualities.
The menu insists on calling a selection of personal-size pizzas "Flatbreads" even though the crust clearly features risen dough. At any rate, the "flatbread" with chicken confit, garlic, oven-dried tomatoes and a blend of Fontina and Mantoro cheeses makes for an unexpectedly elegant (and very good) pizza.
Of the entrées ("Tasting Plates"), the scallops are the standout. The plump, buttery bivalves sit on a bed of Parmesan grits; on top is a garnish of oven-dried tomatoes and bits of country ham with a restrained dash of truffle oil. The bright, tangy tomato and the cheese-rich grits work as excellent foils to the sea-sweat scallops.
Hemp serves roasted pork loin over a parsnip purée in a caramel-bourbon sauce. Either the purée or the sauce would have worked as a sweet component for the dish; together they demanded a contrasting note of acid or spice. The pork was tender, but its temperature suggested that it had waited a while before being plated. I encountered a similar timing issue with an off-menu duck entrée: a lukewarm "hash" of potatoes and Brussels sprouts undermined a roasted breast's perfectly crisp skin and luscious flesh.
Timing and temperature glitches notwithstanding, Hemp's menu of approachable bistro fare works well with the Robust concept, emphasizing the pleasures of good food with good wine rather than going for a more progressive or highfalutin approach. Which, if I'd stayed in my own shoes, might seem like damning with faint praise.
But as I ate my cheese-and-charcuterie lunch and sipped my Civil Life beer that afternoon, I imagined myself as a business type taking his hourlong break, or maybe a loft dweller looking for a go-to spot close to home, and I realized how grateful I would be to have an option besides another fast-casual chain or sushi joint. I understood how ridiculous it must seem that in what planners envision as a thriving downtown, a good, casual wine bar would be such a rarity.
And I knew I would be back. Though next time, maybe, in a fetching skirt and heels.
Slideshow: Inside Robust on Washington Avenue