Most of us don't think of Cardwell's at the Plaza in terms of snacking, but after a movie at the other end of the mall, it's a real no-brainer for first-rate food and drink. Warning: Early in the week, which is their term, the kitchen closes at 9 p.m., or so the hostess told us when we walked in, despite the fact that it was Thursday, and the website lists 10 p.m. After that, it's desserts and drinks. Nevertheless, coming in right at 9, we were welcomed, seated and fed very well without feeling hurried. Most of the action later in the evening is at the bar, so the California-feeling dining room is often quite calm
Bill Cardwell has made his name creating great riffs on traditional American food, so this an easy and approachable menu, albeit one that makes it extremely difficult for some folks to make decisions. (The flashing arrow is pointing to our table.) We kicked things off with a bowl of gumbo, andouille, chicken and shrimp over a little rice, sided with a small brick of delicious, sweet, tender cornbread that had been nicely toasted. The gumbo was classic, with notes of pepper, garlic, bay leaf, file, thyme and other wonderful additions.
An appetizer plate brought whiffs of the Mediterranean, with olives, creamy feta, some stuffed grape leaves in a cool dill-yogurt sauce, and a caponata that was close to thrilling, its notes of sweet and sour dancing around cool tomato, pepper and eggplant pieces, a few raisins and plenty of pine nuts for texture. An excellent, meaty, spicy bratwurst came not as a sandwich, but rather a small-plate meal, sided with a bit of German-style red cabbage, some sweet potato chips and a spicy barbecue sauce.
A word of explanation about the Burger Meister Burger is probably in order. Marcel Desaulniers, a chef who's known for his several books, primarily on chocolate, his television shows, and his former restaurant, the Trellis in Williamsburg, Va., created a book about hamburgers, with his own recipes plus some from other distinguished chefs around the country. The book won a James Beard Award in 1994 as best single-subject cookbook. Bill Cardwell's burger was included, and it remains on his menu, always popular. We'd never tried it – there was always something else luring us – but here was our chance. Not surprisingly, this is a fat burger, on a fresh, warm bun. The medium-rare came out quite pink in the middle, but not squooshy, and it wore both cheddar and an Amish blue cheese and two strips of excellent bacon, beautifully smoky. We generally prefer our hamburgers less adorned, the better to appreciate the beef, but this was a first-rate variation, and deserves its permanent status on menus in both Plaza Frontenac and at BC's Kitchen in Lake St. Louis.
The wine list is long and impressive, and it's easy to match a ideal wine with anything from the menu.
Desserts are frequently irresistible. Profiteroles, cream puffs filled with ice cream, appear too seldom locally, alas. They offer a delightful contrast of creamy and crisp-chewy, and these worked well, although we'd like more chocolate sauce than a mere drizzle. The ice cream, with a fine capuccino flavor available, wasn't rock hard, either, which made it much easier to eat. The nightly special was described as a lemon and raspberry tart, lemon curd in a tart crust. Mouths began to water. The tart, almost six inches across, was piled high with meringue that had been browned under the grill, and was surrounded with raspberries in a thickish syrup. Interestingly, although the crust was hard to cut with a knife when we divided it up, in the mouth it was very flaky and not tough at all. Very lemony, and quite mouthwatering. Lemon lovers should hope it's available when they visit.
Over the years, we've heard, read and participated in discussion of service here. We've visited when we were recognized and when we clearly weren't. (And by now, believe us, we can tell.) In the dining room, we've always been extremely well taken care of, with smooth, friendly, correct service. The front desk can be chilly at times, but beyond that, things are smooth and professional.
Cardwell's at the Plaza
94 Plaza Frontenac (Lindbergh Ave. and Clayton Rd.), Frontenac
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good