And so a restaurant that began as a Coco's, that mid-price, polite version of Denny's, has gone through a few name changes, like a Las Vegas grass widow, and now it's come full circle to be the Frontenac Grill. The project was mostly completed by the late Mike Faille, whose more-or-less full story appeared in St. Louis Magazine last year; he was the man who brought us Talayna's Pizza, stained glass and overwrought statuary. Lawyers for the Sinatra estate, and the very aura of Frontenac eliminated much of that heritage, showing its ancestry in many, emphasis many, large photographs of Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals. We're great admirers of Francis Albert Sinatra's singing, but this is not (yet) a spot for the cabaret tunes of the swingin' life he exemplified.
Lights are romantically low, and there are two bar areas, with tables between. Prices are on the high side, but note the location and the name, which define high rent district.
However, primarily -- and happily -- the Frontenac Grill is about the food. Restaurants that are an excuse for something else are, well, poor excuses for restaurants. “Steaks Pasta Pizza” says the sign on Lindbergh Boulevard, and that mostly covers things. And yet there are plenty of details that make sure this isn't taken for just another old-fashioned St. Louis Italian restaurant. And in the kitchen is the executive chef David Timney, who has been successfully feeding St. Louisans more than 20 years
At the top of the appetizer list, for instance, is calamari, and right next to it are crab beignets. The calamari's breading is crunchy and extremely well drained. Alongside are a warm tomato sauce, a little chunky and garlicky, not surprising but pleasant, and aioli, garlic mayonnaise that had been spiked with sriracha, the Southeast Asian hot sauce. Good stuff. In the dimly lit dining room, we thought perhaps it was a remoulade, but whatever the name, it was terrific.
Crab beignets? Ping pong-ball-sized orbs, crumbed on the outside before a trip through the fryer, and inside a gooey center, probably the fontina cheese the menu mentions, with the crab meat and a dab of crab seasoning ala Old Bay. A real winner, making the accompanying sauce superfluous.
Given the restaurant's heritage, pizza was a must as an appetizer to share. Four kinds, St. Louis thin crust, Chicago deep-dish, New York, described as thick bread dough, and Boston, a new one to us. Ann ate a fair amount of pizza in western Massachusetts many years ago, but there was little to distinguish from its counterparts elsewhere. Today's Frontenac version is partially baked and finished on a grill. We found it extremely tasty. Thick by St. Louis standards, it wore a chunky tomato sauce, a light hand with mozzarella and “other cheeses,” and our addition, some salami. Salami is under-appreciated as a pizza topping; it adds the same saltiness as anchovies, plus a little more chew. Cut into julienne, it almost disappeared into the chunky sauce, but showed in the flavor. This was a first-rate pie, one we'd happily order again and again. Just don't let us hear anyone moaning because it's different. Grandma's apple pie and the one made by the cousin who lived in Virginia apple country were different from each other, too.
Most enjoyable among our entrees was the pork chop. Brining is the best thing to happen to pork since the barbecue pit, virtually guaranteeing a juicy, tender piece of pig. This guy was perfectly cooked – the kitchen prefers to do it medium, which is quite acceptable – and topped with a salad of shredded arugula, tart and slightly bitter. The other ingredient was slivers of something slightly crisp, a little sweet, and a faded red color. Too dark for us to distinguish with accuracy, the light of day on the leftovers proved Joe right; it was tomatoes. The sweetness was a good contrast to the greens, which wilted slightly from the chop's heat, and worked well with the meat. We chose an alfredo sauce to go with the pasta side, and it was mild, benefiting from salt and black pepper.
Veal piccata, one of those St. Louis classics by which Italian restaurants should be judged, brought tender slices of veal, hammered thin and sprinkled with the traditional capers. The pan sauce, thickened with flour from the meat's preparation, could have shown a little more lemon, but that's a matter of personal preference. Tutto mare pasta can be sauced with a cream sauce or olive oil. Mussels and clams, plus good shrimp but a minimal amount of crab topped the pasta, but the olive oil option was just not flavorful enough. The ribbons of pasta were reasonably close to al dente, but overall this dish was a miss. Given Timney's prowess. we think that the unassertive seasoning will eventually shape up.
On the dessert front, an apple tart with streusel topping worked well, displaying an excellent crust and nicely tart apples with a little nutmeg to offset the sweet streusel, all topped with cinnamon ice cream. A light, tender bread pudding was scooped into three small balls and drizzled with raspberry and chocolate. Both tasty.
Weekend nights, the Grill offers live music, and as the tables in front of the musicians empty, the tables are removed to make way for dancers. During our visit, a trio began with Al Jarreau and Al Green, and morphed into nostalgic music of the '60's and '70's. Plenty of dancing from a crowd whose dress varied from sparkly tops to pressed jeans and cowboy boots. Our server was pleasant to deal with but slightly disorganized; we guess he was pretty new to the game.
731 S. Lindbergh Blvd., Frontenac314-569-4115
Lunch Mon.-Sat., Dinner nightly
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good