It was an evening when a desire for elegance and excellence came upon us."Upscale," we thought. "Downtown," we decided. "Expensive," we agreed. "Cielo, in the Four Seasons Hotel," we concluded. "Outstanding," we hoped.
"You can't win them all," we concluded.
"No, you can't," we realized, and while Cielo performed slightly better than the Rams at the Ugly Dome a few blocks away, it was a mostly unsatisfactory experience.
Our first rule always has been that a restaurant sets its standards and expectations by the way it sets its prices, and Cielo is costly enough that all mistakes are magnified. To wit:
At a restaurant on the eighth floor of a new high-rise, we expected a maitre d' type to be waiting for
diners. We expected tablecloths. We expected carpeting to absorb the clatter of heels. We expected enough separation so that conversation and television-viewing and howls from sports fans in the bar did not intrude into the dining area. We expected real bread-and-butter plates, not saucers designed to hold coffee cups. We expected, with a party of two in a nearly-empty dining room, that the server would know who ordered what without asking. We expected a side dish to arrive with the main courses and not by a reminder 15 minutes later. We expected water glasses to be refilled and empty wine glasses to be removed. And most of all, we were absolutely horrified at the view across the patio and pool – not the Arch or downtown St. Louis, but a huge television screen offering a constant, garish stream of commercials for the adjacent casino, its facilities and its attractions.
Make no mistake; there are some very interesting dishes on the menu. We're suckers for intriguing soups and spiced carrot and lobster sounded alluring. It arrived a rusty orange, pureed and with a butterfly-shaped drizzle of crème fraiche perhaps three-quarters of an inch long floating center stage. A spoonful revealed carrot flavor punched up with a little cumin and some pepper – some, not much; this soup was spiced, not spicy. Another, this time with a dab of the crème fraiche, was about the same.
Where was the lobster? A bite of the outstanding, crispy flat bread in the bread basket, a sip of Roederer Brut Rose, and another try. Soup, crème – and there it was. The lobster flavor, we discovered, had apparently been concentrated and (apparently incompletely) mixed with the crème fraiche.
Tuna carpaccio turned out to be an example, we suspect, of the conflict between gastronomy and bureaucracy. Paper thin slices of pale-fleshed tuna were mixed with shredded raw asparagus, a light vinaigrette and segments of grapefruit whose light pink tint matched the fish almost precisely. The plate was chilled, and so were the slices of fish, nearly to the point of iciness, most of their flavor completely obliterated. We know the health department wants things really cold, but this would have been helped by either a room-temperature plate or a few minutes in the warmth of a working kitchen. This way, it was extremely unremarkable.
Pasta is available as small or large portions, so for an entree, we asked for two small servings. Ravioli filled with stracotta, or beef cooked almost to shreds, wore some fresh tomato, sauteed wild mushrooms, a little parmigiano and a light hit of red pepper, just enough to give it some kick. The pasta was cooked just right, the beef, like a succulent pot roast, worked well as a filling, and things blended nicely, if not to thrilling heights. Gnocchi and duck confit had immediately caught our eye. Gnocchi are something of a crapshoot. Too often they turn out to be gummy-chewy like the pencil erasers we absent-mindedly gnawed as kids. These were considerably better than that, with a little more of that tomato and a generous amount of the duck. The dish appeared to have been warmed in a saute pan, which crisped a little of the duck and left most of the gnocchi with a browned side reminiscent of an Italian potsticker without the filling. It didn't hurt, just provided an additional texture.
Grilled prawns were very large indeed, and beautifully grilled, with lots of tender, juicy flesh. They were accompanied by what the menu described as Chianti spaghettini. Cooked in the wine, we inquired? Oh no, said the waiter, it was made from Chianti. His response was so positive we decided to go no further with a discussion of how wine was treated to turn it into pasta. Just as spinach puree turns pasta green, Chianti wine created a pasta that was a serious purply red. When simply tossed with a little peppery olive oil, it was absolutely delightful, in terms of both taste and texture.
And, oh, yes, a dish of cipollini onions and wild mushrooms didn't come until we reminded the waiter. The subsequent wait made us think it wasn't sitting under the warmer but being prepared. And the combination was delicious, a simple saute with minimal seasonings beyond salt and pepper.
We do try to order different things when we dine out, when we're working or not. And while we ended up with two chocolate desserts, there was considerable difference between them. Chocolate crespella were chocolate crepes filled with homemade Nutella, that chocolate-hazelnut spread beloved of European kids, and a generous handful of raspberries, the crepes light and the filling full of flavor. We'd seen a chocolate layer cake go to the outside dining area, even closer to the movie screen and its ads for the casino, and it looked intriguing. Called black magic, it involves layers of chocolate cake and white chocolate mousse, topped by a dark, shiny ganache. It's served on a puddle of raspberry coulis; alongside is a shotglass of marsala zabaglione. The cake itself wasn't particularly thrilling, despite being stunningly handsome. But when you took a bite with a bit of the zabaglione – that was a different matter, a winning and unexpected combination. And the coffee was very good.
Cielo's wine list is gorgeous, with prices to match. Great labels and vintages abound, and there is something for everyone. The by-the-glass list is extensive, and expensive, but there are some superior tastes available, like the Roederer Brut Rose we sampled. An Barbera from Pio Cesare was good, but not quite as polished as it should have been.
Given its prices for both food and wine, Cielo is a major disappointment in almost every area; it's way not what a Four Seasons Hotel has shown us it can do.
Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis
999 N. Second St.
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner daily, Brunch Sat.-Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good