Kevin Nashan had quite a task. Buying the extremely popular Sidney Street Café in 2003, and becoming the chef, he faced the difficult situation of doing what he wanted to do without alienating the restaurant’s fanatically loyal customer base. And this is St. Louis, where "we’ve always done it like this" is an litany. Five years later, it’s obvious he’s succeeded.
The interior is pretty much unchanged, with brick walls and candles on the tables. We suspect they’ve brightened the lighting in parts of the restaurant, which is a good thing, since it allows folks to admire the food, both theirs and the plates arriving at nearby tables. Food-watching is a hobby just about as good as people-watching. Guests range from a dressed-up couple whose waiter waved good-bye and wished them a happy anniversary, to a long table of business folks to a couple of casually dressed guys attacking large strip steaks. We’ve never quite understood why people think Sidney Street is particularly romantic, but that’s just us.
It is, however, hypnotizing to watch the candle’s first half burn down very quickly, thanks to the constant air circulation. It can feel a little like a challenge–will the meal finish before the candle disappears? Then the dribbled-down wax begins to make the candle fatter and the burn rate slows, and somehow it relaxes the pace of the meal, too.
One of the things that hasn’t changed is the style of the menu. However, the individual chalk board, entrees on one side, appetizers on the other, is available before the server runs through the careful recital of every item, with far more details on method of cooking, saucing, and sides, than could ever fit on the board. This has to be a major task for servers, and we’ve been impressed by staff memory skill. Another constant is the bread basket, with the deep-fried rolls and sweet garlic butter.
Entrees, which range from $20 to $29, include soup or salad. Portions of the soup and salad are reasonably small, and that may be a good thing since the appetizer menu contains some irresistible choices.
"Ham & Egg" reads one chalkboard item. This proves to be a single egg, cooked to have a firm white and a still-somewhat-liquid yolk, then shelled, dredged in crunchy bread crumbs and deep fried. It arrives accompanied by a small square of brioche toast, a few leaves of Swiss chard quickly sauteed and matchsticks of prosciutto, fried until crisp. The creamy warmth of the egg contrasts beautifully with the tartness of the greens and the crunchy saltiness of the cured ham, and the dish simply romps through the mouth. The Deep South Roll is a holdover from the old days, full of chicken, sausage, ham and peppers. Resembling a gigantic egg roll, the crust is thicker than its Asian inspiration, but there’s a lot more filling to hold. A first-rate spicy pepper sauce perked things up, although the roll itself is lighter and far less greasy than it once was. Given the deconstructionist approach to Ham & Egg, it will come as no surprise that the oyster po-boy is four cornmeal-dusted fried oysters, each perched on a small finger of more of that brioche, the traditional mayonnaise, slightly garlicky, used as a glue to hold the brioche pedestals to the plate. A bit of tomato confit and a hit of arugula added color. Small oysters, yes, but full-flavored and not overcooked.
A cup of roasted tomato bisque, the soup du jour, pleased, and a salad of the last of the summer tomatoes, cut up, topped with more greens and a wafer-thin slice of roasted tomato also did well to ave off any possible hunger pangs.
Rack of lamb, one of our favorite meats, arrived as two large pieces, grilled rare, just as we ordered, flavorful and moist. Surrounded by an apricot sauce laced with Asian seasonings, including a nice dose of ginger, it was absolutely seductive, but then so were the creamy mashed potatoes and buttery spinach. We had pondered the filet of beef, available au poivre, with wasabi, crabmeat or bearnaise sauce, but settled on stuffed pork loin, and what a happy choice that turned out to be. The stuffing consisted of bacon, onion, and other aromatic vegetables, the slices of loin laid out over what the kitchen was calling corn custard, a texture much like very moist mashed potatoes, but full of the rich sweetness of good corn flavor. Pig on pig: What a fine combination, especially when combined with its natural partner, corn.
Desserts move toward the homey. Gooey brown sugar cake tastes like real Grandma food, a simple sponge cupcake, rich with the butter-brown sugar combo that almost makes it butterscotchy, served with an artful smear of berry coulis and an arrangement of red raspberries. Fried apple pies are more handsome than what came out of the ancestral cast-iron skillet, fingers of pastry wrapped around the fruit and deep-fried, dusted with powdered sugar and served with ice cream. Fried dough is nearly always a winner, and this was nice, but we’d have liked a little more fruit flavor to balance the dish.
The wine list is strong, though the by-the-glass list could use a few more. Wine is popular enough that we think upscale restaurants should have at least two of each type. The offerings at Sidney Street are good, but we’d like a little more choice. The bottle range is fine, with good pricing and sufficient variety.
Service at Sidney Street has always been a strong point, attentive without being overbearing or condescending, and perhaps that’s a key to its popularity. And that brings us to our last point: Especially on weekends, reservations are pretty much mandatory here. Do call ahead, even if it’s only an hour or so before arrival.
Sidney Street Café
2000 Sidney St.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Poor