When you live forty miles from a metropolitan center, fairly serious dining out can be a challenge. In Jefferson County, just to our south, Petit Paree Restaurant & Lounge has been taking up the challenge since 1960. Back then, the Twin Cities of Festus and Crystal City, the latter the home of a high school basketball player who would eventually star in the NBA and then become a United States senator, were showing signs of culinary sophistication. There was a pizzeria, the only one, to my memory, between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau, perhaps even Memphis. (We would drive up from St. Francois County for a big-deal date.) And there was Petit Paree, not that it was in my orbit back then. Too fancy for my frugal parents and way too fancy for the boyfriend.
Ponza's, the pizza place, is long gone. But Petit Paree is still there. They've expanded into the building next door, but the decor is still pleasant and reserved, the lights slightly dimmed, but not much, and the noise level reasonable. A few ties were in evidence - a high school dance appeared imminent - but not many.
The menu hits the sweet spot, making it the sort of place that one's visiting aunts will find exotic but not frightening. For instance, there's French onion soup, on the menu for years. It's classic, as good as the now-gone version served at Famous-Barr, beefy but not too salty, a generous quantity of gooey, stringy cheese melted on top. Escargot, shrimp cocktail, but toasted ravioli, too, await on the appetizer list. The most intriguing choice is smoked haddock. The fish is served cold, large, moist chunks with a sauce that the menu describes as having dill and mustard, but I thought I tasted some horseradish in it. It's first-rate smoked fish, with or without the sauce, and an uncommon option.
Plaudits also should go to the house salad dressing, a classic Mayfair, well-balanced and not overwhelmingly celery-centric, enough to dress up a standard mix of greens. Friends had waxed rapturous over the house croutons, so crisp, so garlicky. Not to be seen, alas. But the dressing came close to making up for their absence.
The house is well known for its steaks. The New York strip seemed to be about 10 ounces – a larger “extra heavy” cut is also available. Excellent quality meat, it had been carefully trimmed, a little fat left on it, and was perfectly medium rare, just as ordered. A nightly special of grilled mahi mahi wore a citrus-y glaze, and it, too, was properly cooked, still moist and barely flaking rather than falling apart from too much heat. The menu continues to sport frog legs a la provencale, something that's been offered there for decades, perhaps from the start. There's also finnan haddie, another uncommon option in this part of the world. Finnan haddie is smoked haddock – so perhaps that accounts for the appetizer offering. They broil the haddock at Petit Paree and serve it with a dill butter sauce.
The evening's vegetable was julienne zucchini in a stirfry, surprisingly tasty for something that one might expect to be pretty bland. On the other hand, the twice-baked potato, an item which traditionally is a festival of indulgence, was stodgy and dense, lacking much flavor beyond potato and a little sour cream.
It's a nice touch that when the dessert list is recited, the ones made in-house are identified as such. An Italian cream cake, three layers rich with pecans and coconut, the frosting tangy and not gooey-sweet, showed itself to be moist and satisfying. The service was, on the whole, quite good. It certainly exceeded what frequently is found in higher-end restaurants outside the metro area, where servers don't seem as familiar with many typical dishes at such places.
There's parking behind the building and a well-lit, well-marked entrance. As we left, kitchen staff were taking a break and talking with considerable enthusiasm about the fresh mushroom soup they'd made.
Some hits, some misses, but overall a good performance.
228 E. Main St., Festus
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes (front entrance)