Is St. Louis' best bang for the restaurant buck (to use Tim Zagat's phrase) the tasting menus at The Crossing? Quite possibly. Jim Fiala's flagship restaurant offers a delicious, flavorful four-course meal for $32 or $45 per person, in a location where menu entrees range from $26 to $38. Yes, St. Louis, the servings are smaller, but if you can taste more and not stagger out feeling like the Goodyear blimp, what's the downside?
Over the years, The Crossing has grown more relaxed. That's to be expected, of course; we can't think of a single local restaurant that's moved in the other direction. While it's not unusual to see movers and shakers, servers don't wear ties, and later at night the clientele often tips toward the young. Chef Ian Vest can be seen intermittently chatting with guests. Some folks complain that chefs belong in the kitchen, but we politely disagree with isolating them; most are well-traveled, interesting and knowledgeable, and if they've taught the staff properly, food won't suffer. This doesn't mean they should spend all their time walking and talking, but there's nothing wrong with occasional visits. Both sides may learn something.
Dinner always begins with the house appetizer, a blue cheese souffle, actually closer to a custard in texture. The cheese notes are well-woven with onion, and it's well-nigh impossible to resist piling it on the housemade toasts that accompany it. A split of prosecco worked well with it, all the better with which to study the menu.
And so we did choose the two tasting menus. The soup du jour was a brodo, or broth, rich, redolent of mushrooms, with tiny dice of housemade sausage and a few white beans, which kept it light and, at the same time, created one of those big-flavor dishes we enjoy.
The Caesar salad explained why we shudder at the bottled Caesar dressings that creep onto so many plates. This is about as close to a perfect rendition of the classic as we've seen lately. Yes, romaine, and homemade croutons, flakes of real Parmigiano, a lovely salty, peppery, slightly tart dressing with the right flavors, all topped with white anchovy fillets. (“How are you with anchovies?” inquired the server; the anchovies are mentioned on the menu. Nice of him to ask, but we're more than fine with them.)
Three seared sea scallops sat on a bed of leeks, lettuce and shiitake mushrooms, the vegetables quickly sauteed to leave a little crunch in the romaine. Just a touch of truffle on it, and a little lemon, and it was ready to go. One scallop was overcooked, but the other two were perfect. A crab cake with a crunchy panko exterior tasted more like crab and less like seasoning, which is how it should be. Nearby was a small puddle of a basil aioli, tasting like a combo of garlic mayonnaise and pesto, and a handful of tender greens.
One of the house's signature dishes is available sometimes on the tasting menu. Beef cheeks would be the perfect dish for someone who likes short ribs but finds them too greasy. It's the same sort of rich, tender meat and subjected to the same sort of long, slow braise in red wine and aromatic vegetables. Served over crushed potatoes, which remind us of the lumpy school of mashers, it's succulent comfort food.
For those who have heard about heirloom breeds of hogs, here's a chance to taste their pork. When the menu says, “wooly pig rib-eye”, it's a little disconcerting. Lamb? Pork? Beef? “Wooly pig” is a nickname for the mangalitsa breed of hog, and this is a rib chop from a Missouri-grown mangalitsa. One of the reasons heirloom pork is so popular is that the breeds escaped the pressure to produce meat as lean as possible, and the result is meat that's more consistently tender and flavorful. The server pointed out that since this is a rib-eye cut, there would be more fat, and there was. (Tasted good, too.) The meat was sauteed and served with a sweet-sour pan gravy (balsamic, maybe?), some chanterelle mushrooms, a handful of pea sprouts and a few roasted new potatoes. Absolutely delicious, and the best dish of the evening.
We're never sure when a menu talks about a “tort” if it's a typo for “tart” or a misspelling of “torte” (or perhaps even a civil wrong, as in the legal system). The Crossing's chocolate tort is closer to a torte, being an individual warm cake, served with vanilla ice cream. Great texture, and perfectly baked, with none of the burnt-edge taste that plagues many similar desserts including the thankfully-disappearing molten chocolate cakes. We were intrigued by the date cake, which turned out to be the same size, a warm, chewy cake that reminded us a little of banana bread. The date flavor was pretty mild, but the toffee sauce served with it was a good complement.
The wine list is long and excellent, with a nice twist. When a particular wine is down to its last few bottles, it goes on clearance sale, which offers some fine bargains. We spotted a French Burgundy whose label looked good and was at an excellent price. It was delicious, and when we were told it was the last bottle, we grinned like a pair of Cheshire cats.
The Crossing was the first of Jim Fiala's restaurants, followed by LiLuMa, Acero and The Terrace View. Fiala, who trained under, among others, Daniel Boulud in New York, believes in emphasizing service as well as food, and we were pleased with the attention we got, which included a highly professional sensitivity to our unspoken signals about the rhythm of the meal that we wanted.
7823 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Fair