dumpling soup from billie-jean photo by carmen troesser

Review: Billie-Jean in Clayton

Zoe Robinson named her latest restaurant, Billie-Jean, after her parents, who seemed like a couple of fun-loving bons vivants, judging by the black-and-white photo cards of them included with each check.

It’s those little details that make Robinson’s some of the most popular restaurants in St. Louis, starting with Café Zoe and Zoe Pan-Asian Café. Like her other places on Wydown Boulevard, I Fratellini and Bar Les Fréres, Billie-Jean is designed to elevate the senses and enhance the dining experience. 

The entire restaurant is draped in a monochromatic veneer, from the dramatic, matte black entryway to the striking, black-on-black interior motif. The design manages to exude casual and chic in the same breath. Black-and-white Rorschach-like prints by Robert Motherwell line the main wall, while photographs by celebrity photographer Harry Benson appear here and there. Carved walnut chairs, curved walnut bar stools and vases of greenery on the white-clothed tables provide colorful contrast throughout the intimate shotgun floor plan.

the dining room at billie-jean // photo by carmen troesser

Everything about Robinson’s touch – the aesthetics, the food, the inexplicable dice and poker chips scattered about – is meant to take us some place else. Even the uniforms – chef coats, jumpsuits, T-shirts, cardigans – convey whimsy. To embrace the expected confusion with the Michael Jackson megahit, some of the clothing is embroidered with “Lover” or “Not Your Lover.” New York fashion designer and St. Louis native Todd Thomas receives special credit on the menu for designing the outfits. 

It shouldn’t be surprising, but the food – Mediterranean-inspired with Asian flourishes – is excellent, sometimes excitingly so. As with her other restaurants, Robinson collaborated with her longtime executive chef Ny Vongsaly to create a compact menu thoughtfully balancing smaller plates and full-sized entrees.

Taking a seat at the bar one evening – highly recommended for watching the action in the cramped, open galley kitchen – a plate of flaky, chewy-crunchy scallion pancake triangles with a ginger-soy sauce soon arrived, a nice touch provided gratis with meals. 

If I were forced to choose between the two exquisite roasted entrees I tried, I’d have to go with the quail. Rarely seen on local menus, it was a great change from the ubiquitous roasted chicken. Stuffed with golden raisins, pine nuts and cornbread served on a bed of roasted root vegetables, the bird’s subtly wild character still remained distinctive. 

But the other roasted selection – whole red snapper under a pungent layer of lime leaf and cilantro-based salsa verde nestled in a copper serving dish – was no less impressive, nor was the sticky rice alongside. It sounds like a mishmash of Latin-Mediterranean-Asian flavors, but nothing overwhelmed the snapper’s moist, flaky texture and mild, slightly sweet taste.

Not counting the 10 bar seats and cozy semicircle booth tucked into the back of the restaurant, there are just seven tables along the main banquette wall. The setup seemed pretty smart. Sitting at one of the many two-tops during another visit, it was downright quiet – not in a formal, hushed way, but in the way an intimate atmosphere fosters normal conversation when fewer people are chattering.

whole roasted red snapper at billie-jean // photo by carmen troesser

A couple small dishes exemplified the kitchen’s skill with Asian flavors. Dumpling soup (cup $13; bowl $18) reminded me of a similar soup at Bobo, the noodle house Robinson sold three years ago. Full of bok choy and scallions, it had the rich upfront meatiness of plump pork- and shrimp-filled dumplings followed by the fresh, floral finish of a broth redolent of lemongrass and lime leaf. Chunks of tender neon purple Japanese eggplant glistened in a sesame-soy-vinegar lacquer with crispy cubes of fried tofu providing crunch and a meaty but silky texture.

Hardcore carnivores will be pleased. I saw quite a few beautifully thick prime strip steaks leave the kitchen seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper. But I was in the mood for the beefy braised short rib, a hulking hunk of meat barely clinging to its Flintstone-sized bone, ready to slip off with the barest nudge. It was topped with a zingy horseradish-citrus gremolata.

The beverage selection is as compact as the dinner menu, but there are several cocktails ($13) cued by classics like the Manhattan Rebellion, which combines rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, orange bitters and Cappelletti, an amaro that imparts the drink’s smoky rhubarb character. The intriguing wine list is decidedly New World – mostly South American, Californian, Australian and African – and at $13 to $17 per glass, enough to make one hesitate unless someone else is paying.

If good things come in threes, then Billie-Jean rounds out Robinson’s stylish transformation of the 7600 block of Wydown Boulevard. When was the last time a restaurant handed out matchboxes? When did you last feel transported somewhere you couldn’t quite describe by a dining experience? Welcome to Billie-Jean. Mom and Dad would be proud.

Where // 7610 Wydown Blvd., Clayton, 314.797.8484, billiejeanstl.com
Don’t-Miss Dishes // Whole roasted snapper, roasted quail
Vibe // Cool, noirish sophistication evokes an intimate, speakeasy vibe. Reservations are highly recommended.
Entree Prices // $18 to $38
When // Tue. to Thu. – 5 to 10 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. – 5 to 10:30 p.m.

Michael Renner is a longtime contributor and critic for Sauce Magazine.

Tags : Places, Reviews, Restaurants