Red walls always give a room energy - not, of course, that any restaurant located on the east side of the first block of North Central needs energy. (Strange, isn't it, how the other side of the street hasn't had any serious momentum for a good while?) Coastal Bistro, despite its focus on seafood, has avoided the maritime decorating cliches, for the most part, and given us red and white with some black accents. And the prices are, well, not unreasonable given the rising cost of seafood and the neighborhood.
But it worried us when we asked what kind of oysters were available and the server said, "We have East Coast oysters and West Coast oysters." Yes, we agreed, that was what was on the menu, but where were they from? A craning of the neck to look at the board over the kitchen pass-through, words mumbled and stumbled through, some squinting and finally the clearly pronounced declaration that the West Coast oysters were from Rhode Island.
The Old China Hand was determined to have oysters nevertheless, and ordered a plate of West Coasters. Gratifyingly, they were excellent, cold and briny and cleanly detached from their shells but not missing any juice. Fish tacos, from the "tastes" section of the menu were two small soft tacos, a strip of grilled white fish that hadn't been overcooked with tomato, shredded cabbage and the traditional crema sauce zipped up with a little lime, pretty good for a spot halfway between Overland and Cherokee Street.
Oysters and okra both quickly fried in a cornmeal batter were crunchy outside and soft inside, the sort of thing you might find in a Texas Gulf seafood cafe, the sort of dish to remember and begin to salivate. And a spinach salad, gently dressed and wearing spiced pecans and hearts of palm, sported a disc of fried goat cheese.
We haven't seen low country boil on a Missouri menu before; this comes out of the coastal Carolinas; it's a spicy multi-ingredient dish whose components people must argue over for decades (and beers) on end. Mussels and clams are not traditional, but the shrimp were, and so were the corn on the cob and new potatoes, all nicely seasoned from the cooking liquid, and some andouille sausage. The promised lobster claws was one large right leg, glowing red atop the dish. Unfortunately, the shell had not been cracked in the kitchen, nor was a lobster cracker and pick at hand.
Picking up on the Southern theme, shrimp and grits featured some first-rate grits. If you like polenta, you'll be happy with grits, so forget the eye-rolling, these are creamy and rich and satisfying. The fat shrimp were cooked in a style that seemed more like shrimp Creole than other s-n-g I've come across, with chunks of tomato, onion, peppers and some andouille, leaving it somewhat spicy. I'm a firm believer in the "Everyone's momma did it differently" school of heritage recipes, but this is a surprise. Tobacco onions, those thin, crispy fried rings, on top, was a nice touch.
Hints of someone's momma's kitchen came with the desserts, too, although momma never put a nicely tart lemon filling in a double shot glass, topped it with Italian meringue and served it with two pastry stars alongside when she had promised lemon meringue pie. Never mind, honey, it still tasted great. And her strawberry-rhubarb cobbler didn't come in an individual dish, but it, too, was tasty, the fruit mixture leaning toward the rhubarb, and hooray for that. Perhaps that exchange student from Australia brought the idea of a pavlova to the kitchen, pavlova being a meringue shell that holds fruit, topped with whipped cream. Here, the crisp shell holds lime curd, the combination giving a great textural and flavor contrast. Definitely the winner of the three, although not by much.
Reasonably good service aside from the oyster glitch, a cocktail menu and happy-hour specials, if that's of interest. And it is; a return visit for some late-afternoon sips and nibbles may be in my future.
14 N. Central, Clayton
Lunch & Dinner Mon.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor