As we left Water Street, we mused. about restaurants.
If Kirkwood is the new Clayton and South Grand the new Loop, then has Manchester in Maplewood become the new Euclid? Dining from casual to high-end, a few bars, some interesting shopping. Could be. Not that there's anything wrong with Clayton, the Loop and Euclid, of course, but it's a good sign of thriving urban activity in different parts of town. Despite the woeful economy, people still want drinks and dinner, and as fast as restaurants close, new ones open.
Water Street's simple interior makes use of mirrors to skillfully enlarge what's just another storefront; we suspect that at peak hours the hard surfaces would raise the noise level, though it appears to be no problem for youngish patrons, some of whom were nibbling at the bar while Gabe Kveton, one of the owners, was mixing cocktails. It's a family affair; his sister, Maria, runs the kitchen, and their dad lends a hand there, too.
The menu is relatively brief and rather simple, but much of what we had was tasty, displaying good ingredients, imagination in the kitchen and excellent skill. For instance, deviled eggs, so easy to become mundane, were generously stuffed with a mustardy filling (“deviled” classically refers to the inclusion of mustard, by the way) studded with nuggets of sweet pickles, a picnic favorite given new dignity. Gravlax, cold cured salmon, arrived tender, sweet-salty and—wait—why is the pink on one edge turning to a deep red on the other? Maria's marinade includes some beet juice. Topped off with a first-rate horseradish cream, it was swell.
Tender, tasty golden trout is topped with strips of bacon, the better to keep it moist and bring some flavor to the mild freshwater fish. Nice enough, but the real star was the vegetables on the side. Red and yellow cherry tomatoes, leaves of spinach and cannelini beans all brought something different to the plate. The tomatoes were quickly sauteed, just enough to warm them through, and each bite brought a burst of tart and sweet flavor, like the similarly named candy. The spinach, too, was gently sauteed. The cannelini beans, though. . . . We're not sure exactly what went into the cooking of the long, white legumes beyond a fair amount of garlic. Some might argue they were a touch overcooked, but they were rich and delicious.
Mussels and chorizo, a reference to a traditional Spanish dish, was an easy choice. The chorizo is the firm, sliceable Spanish kind, unlike the Mexican, which usually is bought loose and cooked as crumbles. It was quite spicy, a good thing by itself and a better thing in contrast to the small, sweet mussels. The cooking medium, white wine and tomatoes, were out of proportion to the mussel juices, though, so the broth was more a winy tomato soup with a faint flavor of seafood rather than mussels with a hit of wine and tomato.
The strawberry-rhubarb tart is a winner because, first of all, it's more about the rhubarb than the strawberries, which raises it considerably on our scale. We prefer the rhubarb flavor, and its tartness, to be dominant, rather than yielding to the sweet, blander berries. The pastry was good and retained some crispness despite the inevitable soggy consequences of refrigeration. A house-made blackberry-tequila sorbet, a gorgeous deep, dark burgundy in color, started off with a slight bitterness remaining from the seeds in the berry, although they had been strained out after the mixture had been pureed. The bitterness vanished after a few bites The sorbet, full of proper berry savor and a touch of alcohol, was hard to resist, and we didn't.
Besides cocktails, there's a non-alcoholic beverage list, including an elderflower fizz, flowery, only a little sweet and quite refreshing. The wine list benefits from an interesting, and very smart, idea. Water Street's list displays half-bottles of some excellent high-end wines like the Duckhorn Merlot ($44), Robert Sinskey Pinot Blanc ($34) and Caymus Conundrum white blend ($32), or superb French Champagnes like Cliquot Yellow Label ($48) and Billecart-Saumon Rose ($75). Prices for a full bottle run from $21 to $60, most on the lower end but with splendid values, and the by-the-glass list has some fine choices, like an Italian rose or a Novy California red blend.
Attentive service as we watched the dining room fill up; many diners seem to be regulars, and some of them are old enough to remember cocktails from the first time they were fashionable.
7268 Manchester Ave., Maplewood
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good