In "Casablanca," the movie, the line is "Everybody goes to Rick’s place." On a Friday evening at C.J. Mugg’s in Webster Groves, that was just about the way it was. Young and old, singles and tables of 10, folks at the bar watching sports and three generations having a casual dinner. They all were there. On another night at the Clayton location–which is much smokier, if that’s a consideration–there wasn’t a kid in sight, but other than that, the story was about the same.
The cuisine is Modern American, which equals How America Eats Now, ranging the world from quesadillas and pizza to pad Thai, gumbo, hummus and pulled pork. If a menu ranges that far and wide, how good is the food? We worry when kitchens stretch themselves thin, but we were generally happy at both places. Service was prompt and extremely professional, and while the kitchen creations might not have scored perfect grades with natives, they worked on American palates that were happy with close imitations that showed respect for the originals. Meals were good values, too, from a menu large enough and plates well-filled enough to allow an appetizer and a sandwich to make a full meal.
We were happy with the hot wings, not immense but very meaty, a reasonably generous serving with a sauce that was hot without causing ignition and flames coming out our ears. A cup of gumbo sported sausage, chicken and fish, plenty of okra and a judicious amount of spice, not fabulous but perfectly adequate. And the housemade hummus arrived with a drizzle of olive oil on the top, a mound of tapenade made from good olives, and a little feta. The pita had been warmed as promised, although it was clearly moving toward stale. Still, the hummus itself grew on us, with its slow-building spiciness. A piece of pita layered with hummus, tapenade and cheese made for a fine combination.
A Reuben sandwich arrived on marble rye, with lots of corned beef , the bread crisply grilled, the interior gooey from sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing, overall a good rendition of the standard. Cole slaw in a vinaigrette leaned heavily on celery seed for flavoring. We also got very brave and ordered the mushroom and spinach risotto with shrimp. We’re not complaining when we say we’ve had worse risotto in Italian restaurants. We didn’t expect al dente rice, and didn’t get it, but it was very creamy, without that feeling of rice-added-to-sauce that one sometimes has to endure, the shrimp not overcooked and some sun-dried tomatoes adding an effective flavor note to the whole thing.
A pork special brought two chops, grilled but still moist, piled on top of some mashed potatoes and covered with a gravy made with ham and mushrooms, quite delicious. The server said the sauce was one used on a chicken dish on the menu; we’d advise begging them to serve it on the chops (which are on the menu with an onion marmalade). Some pencil-sized pan-roasted asparagus came alongside. Less pleasant was the hamburger, ordered medium-rare and arriving barely pink on one side of its mid-section. But the potato chips were crisp and very well drained, although the shower of cheese, apparently a house signature, seems unnecessary.
Snickers ice cream pie is not the sort of dessert we usually order, thinking it doesn’t give the kitchen much of a chance to show its stuff. But for some reason, it called to us. Thank goodness we listened. An Oreo crust, caramel sauce, nice chewy chunks of Snickers bars...dieter’s nightmare, eater’s delight. The deep dish apple pie wasn’t quite so thrilling. Heavily cinnamon-laced and made in a straight-sided pan like those for baking cheesecakes, the crust was more like a relatively thin layer of sponge cake. The streusel on top had gone to complete sogginess. It just didn’t measure up to the Snickers pie.
Service was pretty snappy, and certainly very pleasant. Don’t worry about the wine list; have a beer and watch the scores crawl across the bottom of the television set.
C. J. Mugg’s
200 S. Central Ave., Clayton
101 W. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves
Lunch & Dinner daily, Brunch Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Poor (Clayton) to Good (Webster)