Posted On: 10/28/2003
Menu listings of "small plates" and "large plates," instead of using more traditional titles for dinner courses, came to St. Louis nearly 15 years ago when Tim Mallett re-did the menu at the tiny Blue Water Grill, a spot so small that diners at different tables could become really good friends between courses. The idea spread nicely – enough to satisfy people eating at different price levels and different locations. Spanish tapas and Chinese dim sum, tradtional "small plate" dining, added extra polish to the idea.
The relatively new Bastante, bringing "food, wine and sweets" to a Watson Road location about halfway between the well-established Lo Russo's and Trattoria Marcella, offers "small" and "medium" plates, with the former of a proper size for two to share as an appetizer or first course, the latter easily large enough for a main course. Two smaller plates provide dinner for one, and everything makes for lots of sharing, a tactic encouraged by an instruction on the back of the menu, "No split orders allowed. Please share at the table."
A selection of Mediterranean fare brings ingredients, preparation and flavors from France, Italy, Spain, Greece and other countries surrounding what the Romans called Mare Nostrum.
The establishment is warm and friendly, with service to match, and the servers seem comfortable and familiar with preparation of the dishes and with pairings of food and wine. The entry area offers a view of the kitchen, the main dining room has a bar at one end, comfortable chairs and tables, and beamed ceilings increase the friendly, casual aura. The menu, bolstered by a large chalkboard of daily specials and notices of future events, is nicely varied. Small plates begin with a sauteed mushroom medley that provides a variety of the woodsy flavors that the great fungus shares. Cooked with shallots and garlic, flamed with Sherry, the mushrooms display deep, dark flavors, and each type of mushroom brings its own.
Showing restraint, Bastante avoids the term "wild," used on too many menus for mushrooms that are farm-grown. Missourians hunt and pick mushrooms, but rarely enough to add to a restaurant menu. This doesn't lessen the rich flavors that mushrooms bring, but it's a good example of truth in menus, an idea the Guru things is a splendid one.
A bowl of olives with toasted, spiced pistachios and walnuts is an ideal accompaniment to a pre-dinner drink, and the use of walnuts in several dishes shows that someone in the kitchen thinks, as I do, that walnuts are a fine addition in terms of both flavor and texture.
Mussels, fast becoming a regular on St. Louis restaurant tables, have a slightly different twist; they are baked and served in a gazpacho-type sauce, redolent with garlic. Spicy Spanish sausage known as chorizo adds a spark to a spinach salad, and those walnuts return on an interesting salad combination of balsamic-glazed pears atop endive. Spanish blue cheese brings another fillip of flavor. Those in search of more traditional salads can test romaine lettuce topped with Parmesan cheese and a balsamic-mayonnaise-garlic dressing with a good hit of black pepper. Since garlic and the Mediterranean traditionally go together, its prevalence at Bastante comes as no surprise – good news for the Guru.
Pizzetas, or small pizzas, also are on the small-plate menu. Serrano ham (the Spanish answer to Parma), goat cheese and capers top one offering, another is vegetarian, with caramelized red onions, blue and Parmesan cheese and a good topping of mushrooms. Others are on the specials board.
Soups change regularly, of course, and we sampled a potato soup that was splendid, with good flavor and the sort of warmth that hurries from tongue to tummy smoothly and comfortably. Mango gazpacho was outstanding, and duck salad also is a winner, the fowl and crisp greens topped by a light dressing.
Those who like a sweet component in a first course will be happy with oven-baked dates wrapped in pancetta.
Main courses also offer something for everyone. The Guru, who loves the spice, garlic and smoked-meat flavors of sausages, was overjoyed with a medley of links that included chorizo, Italian salsiccia and merguez, or lamb sausage, all delicious, and accompanied by tasty potato salad enhanced with a mustard dressing.
A special on one visit was the traditional osso buco, but made with pork instead of the usual veal shank. The flavor of the meat, slightly stronger than veal, added a new dimension to an old favorite. And speaking of meat, a highlight was a couple of lamb chops perfectly cooked in a red wine reduction (Barolo, I think) to just-right tenderness, done-ness and flavor, and accompanied by delightful flash-fried spinach and tiny fingerling potatoes, all buttery and sweet.
Lobster dumplings are light and tasty, and the kitchen again shows its liking for the Asian sweet-hot combination with a pineapple-avocado relish and a dipping sauce showing the influence of red pepper. Roasted duck leg, its skin beautifully crisp, its meat rich and tasty, arrived with a dried cherry-and-mushroom sauce and fried sweet potato logs that were too tough and the only weak spot of a pair of evenings.
The fish choices included grilled trout with cucumber-avocado relish, olive-crusted grouper, sea bass on pasta and seared scallops, and a steak dish that piqued our curiosity involved a sirloin with barolo sauce and bacon-cheese grits, plus pan-fried tomatoes on the side.
The wine list is small, but well-balanced and with a by-the-glass list that allows for experimentation and the opportunity to taste different wines along the way. We sampled several, and were especially impressed with a 2001 syrah from McDowell Valley Vineyards of Sonoma County.
Desserts come from Sugaree, and though the name is inelegant, a chocolate "dump" cake made for a fine ending to an outstanding meal.
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