The resurgence of Maryland Plaza is not just a civic booster-type press release. It’s been one of our favorite areas for a long time and we’ve watched as it waxed and waned. At the moment, it’s waxing happily with new dining, drinking and shopping spots. Sitting at a sidewalk table watching the to-and-fro is extremely satisfying.
~scape (and the little wiggly thing is part of the name) is a collaboration between Chicago-based Levy Restaurants and St. Louisan Ted Koplar, and has the potential to be one of the anchors of not only the block, and but perhaps also the entire Central West End. Eric Kelly, Levy Restaurant Group Chef, designed the menu, with help from St. Louisan David Frattini, who has become executive chef.
It’s lovely but low-key, the sort of place that causes an "Mmmm," rather than a "Wow" upon entering. The two-level dining room offers banquettes and tables, big windows and cozy corners, in an ambience that’s adult without being snoozy. There are private dining rooms upstairs and downstairs, with the lower level also holding a glamorous wine cellar and overflow seating. And besides seats for two dozen on the sidewalk facing the fountain, there is outdoor seating in what could become a highly popular courtyard area created on the south side of the restaurant. The latter, however, will not be at its best until spring, when decorating is complete.
The XM Satellite radio music reflected the glamour of the late Fifties, which tied in well with the mood, although it’s strange to hear a station ID in a dining room where entrees climb above $40. There are several possible reasons for the action: Maybe it’s pointing out that ~scape id too hip to use Muzak, maybe the sound system isn’t fully operational, maybe the strolling violinist had strolled off to another gig.
A young, smiling waitstaff is eager, though occasionally slightly overenthusiastic, and might do with a little more drill on the menu, in terms of both knowledge and pronunciation. These are minor errors, but in a restaurant that is among the most expensive in town, all errors are major.
The menu itself is a delight, with a number of options that make ordering a pleasurable dilemma. We struggled, because it’s extremely difficult for us to pass up the opportunity to sample, say, duck confit, and we were sorely tempted by other options.
An amuse guele was a bite of crab salad, served in its own little spoon. Crabmeat has the potential to be deeply bland or, alternatively, to have it’s delicate flavor disappear under a deluge of seasoning. This hit the perfect in between, with the crab full of flavor, received help in the texture department from a tiny, tiny olive oil crouton atop it, and then, in the finish, showed a slight hit of heat. Very nice indeed.
Olives wrapped in sausage and deep-fried or baked were on hors d’oeuvre plates 50 years ago, but have pretty much disappeared except in parts of Great Britain where they are barroom snacks. At ~scape, the sausage is stuffed into green olives – gorgonzola cheese mentioned on the menu is impossible to detect – and the whole is dipped into a coarse cornmeal breading, then fried, coming out about the size of grapes on steroids. Salty-tart, they’re served lined up next to a small bowl of chopped sweet red pepper slaw, pleasant and fun but not remarkable.
Chicken livers sat on three toasted slices of baguette, slightly pink inside from their saute with lots of deeply caramelized onions and smoky thick-sliced bacon. The glossy mahogany-brown mixture almost glowed with flavor. And at $10, it should.
On a quiet night, it was 20 minutes from the time our first-course plates were cleared until our entrees arrived,. Another table that had arrived before us had a similar gap, so we don’t think it was just us. Clearly things are just getting organized, another reason why early restaurant visits can be difficult for us. We don’t like to have a "was the food worth the wait?" element in the judgment equation.
Aqua pazza translates as "crazy water," a fish poached in spicy broth. The kitchen uses some very tasty turbot along with three good-sized chunks of lobster, some crab meat, chorizo and fingerling potatoes. There wasn’t much broth, but what there was, was spicy and delicious with notes of pepper, saffron, a little cumin from the chorizo, and the seafood base.. It’s an outstanding, satisfying dish.
Short ribs are served as a sandwich on a ciabatta, house-made, as is all the bread. Rich, gravy-laden and boneless, they’re topped with a hit of horseradish sauce after they’re ladled over a handful of peppery watercress. After one attempt to eat it as a sandwich, we resorted to a fork. The meat is really too juicy to manage without endangering clothing, but in addition, the ciabatta was somewhat dried out, despite its heavy dip in olive oil, making it difficult to handle as a sandwich. It’s served with unannounced French fries. Ann, who ordered the entree., also ordered a potato side dish; the waiter didn’t volunteer that the sandwich came with fries.
And the fries were very good, though short of greatness. But if we had had a choice, the other potato dish was a must-try. We’d had aligote potatoes in Paris a year ago, served in a highly dramatic style to emphasize their singular qualities. Potatoes are whipped with cantal cheese, which makes them slightly gooey and prone to a degree of stringiness, less than mozzarella cheese on pizza, but noticeable enough to be characteristic of the dish. In Paris, they looked like this; in St. Louis, they looked like the photo to the right, in a small cast-iron cocotte pan which kept them nice and warm. And, though they were not as dramatic as the Parisian version, their flavor was just splendid. This is a platonic dish. Think about au gratin potatoes, but mashed. A little stringy on the fork, though not in the mouth, and spectacularly tasty. You can understand why the fries got very short shrift.
The signature dessert here is a six-layer carrot cake, a huge slice designed to be shared. We passed on that this time, and ordered something we seldom see on St. Louis menus, bomboloni, the Italian doughnuts whose shape is more of the doughnut hole than the doughnut itself. Walnut-sized nuggets arrived, warm and rolled in granulated sugar. Fried dough rolled in sugar? What could be bad? Well...somehow, they just didn’t make it. They were a little tough, and got tougher as they cooled. There was a little bitterness to them and an indefinable taste that may have been from the cooking oil; some of the newer, trans-fat free oils seem to take a little getting used to. The dipping sauces were lavender honey and dark chocolate, and they were fine, but the underlying doughnut didn’t pass muster. Coffee was fresh and hot and good, even though we didn’t order a French press carafe of one of the single-source special coffees.
This is among the earliest visits we’ve made to a new restaurant. ~scape is a Levy restaurant, from a reliable Chicago group that includes Spiaggia and Bistro 110. Locally, it handles food service at the Jones Dome club level. Founder Larry Levy is a St. Louis guy, a boyhood pal of Koplar. Given the experience and the blood lines, we thought it worth an early try. The results were slightly uneven, but well worth a return, which will include Crepes: etc., the ~scape little sister who lives next door, and the new Bissinger’s operation just down the block.
48 Maryland Plaza
Lunch & Dinner daily, Brunch Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Good