The St. Louis dining institution that is Tony's may or may not still be at home at Broadway and Market in another few years. Plenty of speculation on that, but no firm answers. But what about this restaurant that's become the subject of so much chatter recently? What's going on there?
Tony's key word must be Elegance "Welcome to Tony's," say the parking valets. "Welcome to Tony's," say the men who open the doors. The walk down the carpeted, wood-paneled hall to the maitre d's stand creates a sense of anticipation, and the understated décor reinforces the thought that food and service are the focus of the evening.
There must be folks for whom dining here is a routine event, but for most of us, it's definitely a special occasion, or for a special occasion. For the enthusiastic eater, this means time poring over the menu, more time discussing and considering the specials, described by the captains down to the last grind of the pepper mill. First courses create particularly difficult decisions for us. The soups are always fabulous, Joe's in love with the roasted peppers and anchovies. Then there are the pastas, served as first courses, in the Italian style. However, this being Tony's, a request to have one as a main course will be granted in the blink of an eye. The seared sea scallops with black truffles are a classic, the order bringing forth three immense ones, perfectly seared and carefully positioned on the plate before the dinner. Then, kept hot over a burner on the guerdon, or serving cart, a sauce, creamy, rich and flecked with bits of the black truffle that adds its wondrous, woodsy, delicate flavor, is poured over and around the scallops. It's difficult to keep from licking the dish.
Now that “Mad Men” has brought the mid-20th century back in fashion, we expect more folks are going for beef tartare. A half-century ago, in the '50s, this was considered a manly dish because the beef is raw. Were begirdled women too refined for such a rowdy dish? The hand-chopped tenderloin is tossed at the table with minced onion, capers and anchovies, and presented with slices of housemade melba toast. (Oh, there's another Fifties food!) The toast is a more elegant way of eating it, but we're such carnivores, we use our forks to dig into the juicy meat with the crunch of onion, the tartness of the capers and the salt of the anchovy bits all singing in fine four-part harmony.
Vince Bommarito tells us that 41% of the main courses are seafood these days. That says a lot about St. Louis dining habits, which echo those of most of the nation. And we're sure it's not just because lobster Albanello is probably the house's signature entree and its most popular. Large chunks of lobster are sauced with a reduction of white wine (“About a thousand bottles,” laughs Vince, Jr., the chef and a CIA graduate), butter and shallots, and plenty of mushrooms. The Bommaritos padre and figlio both encourage diners to have a little pasta with it, the better to mop up every drop of the sauce, and it's a good idea. Carb-counters can ask for a sauce spoon, an interesting utensil that allows for politely getting almost the last molecule of yum.
On a recent visit, a nightly special was a fish stew that included with half a lobster, swordfish, another huge scallop and an equally gargantuan shrimp. The broth seemed located on the Italian-French border right where it meets the Mediterranean, since it was full not only of fish stock but notes of fennel, garlic, saffron and maybe just a little hit of orange peel. Definitely a big-flavor dish, the seafood in the stew was perfectly cooked, the lobster generously sized, and alongside, quite properly, were two slices of toasted bread slathered with rouille, the spicy mayonnaise that's traditionally served with such a dish.
Helen Fletcher, one of our town's pastry masters, has closed Truffes, her baking and catering business, and is doing exciting desserts for Tony's. Her splendid chocolate cake is still there, of course, but now there are new goodies like an almond tart with salted caramel ice cream, a dark chocolate and coconut tart with toasted coconut ice cream, absolutely irresistible, and a pumpkin mousse set over a brown sugar-laced graham cracker base, the two separated by a thin layer of cheesecake. The mousse, seen on a number of tables around us, kept drawing us back for just one more bite.
Not surprisingly, the noise levels here are nearly always quiet-to-pleasantly-medium. The staff seem less reserved than they did a decade or two ago, a sign of modernization; the only slip we experienced was not being offered the restaurant's wide-ranging, deep and expensive wine list.
410 Market St.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair (use Broadway lobby)