Once upon a time, the Cheshire was The Place for big-deal brunches in St. Louis. And when I walked into The Restaurant at the Cheshire last week, I suddenly realized it was the first place I ever had a serious brunch. Oh, sure, the Station restaurant at the Clayton/Hanley Schnucks had been an occasional spot for my family, but elegant it wasn't, just tolerant of two small kids who were just beginning to be civilized.
I don't know when or how I ended up in the faux-Tudor building that first time, but I remember the food line and how incredibly dark it was inside. That, of course, added to the drama, the lights on the food line like spotlights on a darkened stage. But I don't remember the food at all except the prime rib being carved and a big pan of scrambled eggs which were, as expected, not at all what I made at home using MFK Fisher's method. (My personal food awakening really hadn't begun then, so I was only slightly better than gastronomically tone-deaf, in all honesty.)
So the return was quite different and yet the same. It's a lot lighter than I recall it being, but it's definitively the same room, despite the immense red light fixtures. And there's no buffet, which makes the morning meal a more relaxed experience.
Good coffee, hooray, and attentive service, including being patient with slow decision-makers when it came to ordering. But while we hummed and hawed, we did get far enough to ask for an order of the beignets. To my mind, beignets should be pillowy in texture, and these little guys were either tough or crisp, depending on who's talking. But they were hot and fresh and came with a marvelous sauce, probably egg-based, deeply apple-flavored with a strong note of cardamom that made my pal, who grew up with a kitchen where it was used with abandon, beam.
The bananas Foster waffle was immense, and omitted the ice cream that traditionally serves as the base for the traditional New Orleans dish. That way the pecan butter and the warm syrup that tasted of pralines and cinnamon could melt in without disturbing the waffle's crispness as much, and allow it to stay hot as long as feasible. The menu says that same syrup is used on the whole-grain pancakes, incidentally.
And then there was the shrimp and butternut squash bread pudding. Savory, of course, not sweet except for the innate sweetness of the chunks of squash, it was moist and complex and fascinating, the sort of dish it's impossible to stop eating. Nestled next to it was some sauteed spinach with a little bacon and a couple of poached eggs, the latter generously sauced with a particularly notable hollandaise. If a hollandaise is good, there is no such thing as too much of it, but this was just generous, enough to perhaps dip a little of the spinach in, as well. Altogether an absolutely first-rate plate of morning food, if not traditional.
One other thing lingers with me, though. The shrimp/butternut squash bread pudding was $15. It represents good value for money to me, and not just because it's tasty. It's interesting, it's complex, and is the product of more labor by the kitchen staff. The waffle, no bacon, and its only garnish a sprig of mint, was $13. That's a fair amount of change for a waffle. This happens, to some degree, all the time on menus; some dishes have a higher profit margin than others. but it somehow seems particularly striking.
Oh, yes, the much-discussed parking. I entered the lot from the east end, near the Hi-Pointe Theatre, and parked myself. There were valets at the door and on this rainy morning, one rushed to greet me with an open umbrella and held the door. No implied guilt, either. They get points for that, as well as the bread pudding.
The Restaurant at the Cheshire
7036 Clayton Ave.
Dinner Tues.-Sun., Brunch Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Brunch Entrees: $11-$15