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Aug 23, 2014
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Favorite Overall Restaurant: Eleven Eleven Strives to Make Guests Happy
By Erin Sirianni - Photo by Allyson Mace
Posted On: 07/01/2005   

We are currently searching for a new Off the Menu columnist. The column will be updated as soon as it is reintroduced in the magazine.

Eleven Eleven Mississippi opened its doors on Dec. 7, 2003, less than two years ago. Guests declared their encounter with the new bistro in Lafayette Square “love at first bite” and voted it best new restaurant in the 2004 Sauce readers’ choice poll. But the affair has proven to be more than just an infatuation. This year Eleven Eleven Mississippi won the top honor of favorite overall restaurant.

Upon hearing the news, owners Paul and Wendy Hamilton, executive chef Ivy Magruder and wine director Scott Gaghan couldn’t contain their excitement. Hugs and high-fives were served all around. A party is in the works for the restaurant’s 50-member staff. “Getting that recognition was one of our goals,” Paul Hamilton said. “It’s what every restaurant aspires to.”

The Hamiltons attribute the achievement to the personal relationships they share with their guests. The servers and bar staff know regulars on a first-name basis. “We look at every guest as if he or she is wearing an invisible sign that says, ‘Make me feel special,’” Wendy Hamilton said. “That is our ultimate goal – making sure all of our guests know what they mean to us.”

Numerous regulars are the result. Kandace Davis, a local caterer, and Laura Brundick, a physical therapist, frequent the restaurant for its relaxed atmosphere, innovative menu and, of course, the great service. “It’s nice to patronize a restaurant where you know the owners,” Davis said. “Paul and Wendy are always very visible and always available. This restaurant is their heart and soul. You can just tell that.”

Guests also love Eleven Eleven for its cozy atmosphere. The restaurant provides an ambience of intimacy, casual sophistication and living-room comfort. Red-brick walls, autumn-leaf colors, high ceilings of hardwood rafters, soft lighting and enticing aromas wafting from the oak-fired brick oven induce guests to relax and enjoy as they catch up with friends or ponder menu selections. In the loft above the wine cellar, guests can sink into plush leather sofas and loungers and sip Eleven Eleven Mochas and Café Sophias in front of one of the restaurant’s three fireplaces.

A major key to ensuring guest satisfaction is the quality of a restaurant’s food. Here, too, Eleven Eleven stands out. The menu reflects Tuscan and Northern Californian cuisines. Wild game entrées such as Rabbit Fricassea and Red Deer Osso Bucco are signature dishes. Wendy Hamilton said that guests have responded enthusiastically to the menu’s more exotic selections, such as the House-Made Wild Boar Ravioli served with a tomato vodka cream sauce or the Orange-Pomegranate-Glazed Quail stuffed with black Mission fig couscous over wilted spinach.

Magruder said the key to most of his dishes is the freshness of his ingredients, requiring six deliveries of fresh food a week. The restaurant hardly uses its small freezer. “We also focus on simple recipes,” Magruder said. “Instead of creating complicated dishes, [I] showcase the incredible flavors of the most basic ingredients.” He recommended the Potato-Wrapped Grouper with roasted garlic Cabernet reduction and creamy leek fondue.

But perhaps the most delicious selection on the menu is by no means a simple creation. It’s Magruder’s signature dessert: the Crème Custard Napoleon. The dessert is a 4-inch-tall structure of layered custard and flaky pastry sheets served with caramelized bananas and chocolate shavings.

Eleven Eleven also boasts a moderately priced and diverse-yet-focused wine list of mostly domestic and Italian wines. Gaghan is partial to the niche collection of Cal-Ital wines, which are Californian wines made from grape varietals indigenous to Italy. “I’m glad I have the opportunity to educate our guests and show them how wonderful these wines really are,” Gaghan said.

The restaurant’s five-course chef’s tasting gives guests the option to pair a wine with each course. Gaghan spends time with the groups on this culinary adventure and describes the pairings’ complementary qualities. Wine education is his passion. “To see him get all wound up on wines, it’s pretty amazing,” Magruder said.

Paul and Wendy Hamilton are delighted about the restaurant’s success and the reputation it has developed as the favorite overall restaurant in St. Louis. It is a distinction they’re intent on keeping. And if you love Eleven Eleven’s style, keep your eye out for the 30,000-square-foot property that the Hamiltons have purchased around the corner on Chouteau. The multipurpose building will open near the holidays first as a banquet hall, with retail space and a bar with outdoor dining to follow.

“Every day we know we need to improve on something,” Wendy Hamilton said. “We want to listen to our guests and get their feedback to make sure they’re always satisfied.” That’s one reason the gooey butter cake served with an ice-cold glass of milk is on the menu, though there’s nothing Tuscan about it. “It’s wonderful to watch the reaction of a native St. Louisan to the gooey butter cake, especially if he or she lives somewhere else and is just back for a weekend visit,” Paul Hamilton said.

“It makes our guests feel happy,” Magruder added. “That’s just what we want to do.”

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