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Review: Big Sky Cafe

Because there aren't enough autumn dinners to pass up one like this.

Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts

47 S. Old Orchard
Webster Groves
Dinner Tue–Sat

Average Main Course: $19
Dress: Like you understand there is no such thing as being accidentally well-dressed.
Reservations: Not a bad idea.
Chef: Colleen Clawson

Not to be maudlin, but face it: You only get so many Octobers in life. Don’t waste any. This month, celebrate. Go to Big Sky Café. Ask for a seat in the beautiful, often-overlooked wine grotto out back. Sit. Watch dusk come and shadows grow. Order the roast chicken. And a mixed green salad. And a glass of the ’09 Clean Slate Riesling. Listen to the crackly whisper of the trees and vines all around losing their leaves. Be glad you wore that sweater. Breathe in that chilly, earthy aroma of autumn in the Midwest. Enjoy—savor—a meal that, with the season all around you, only comes once a year.

Nearly hidden at the end of a shady street, Big Sky has long been a premier dining destination in St. Louis in any season. It’s just that with fall upon us, it’s a perfect time to make either a first visit or one to remind you why you keep coming back.

Big Sky’s wine menu deserves your attention first. Yes, there are bigger, more extensive lists in town. But there are few that are so well-balanced and matched to the food—hardly a course here isn’t a splendid match for one or more wines offered.

The menu isn’t overwhelming, with about a dozen main courses, half of them continually changing specials. On a recent night, we were seduced by a creditable cioppino that’s frequently on the menu. Shrimp, slices of salmon and whitefish, squid, and mussels crowd the large white tureen. Dip thick, toasty bread into the broth and sip a wine like the ’09 La Terre chardonnay.

The “ivory” of ivory char is not a proper name—it’s marketingspeak—but it reminds us that the meat of this handsome coldwater fish is not the pink of salmon, though it’s in the same family. The char that arrives at your table is white, dense, succulent. Think of a muscular trout filleted on your plate atop a cloud of couscous, along with grilled zucchini and squash. Think of matching that trout with the stone-dry ’10 Stefano Massone Gavi Masera. Another worthy seafood offering is the “BBQ” shrimp, a Big Easy classic. Matching the shrimp with a Parmesan-dusted polenta is inspired.

Chuck roast is treated well here, braised in a rich, purply soup of wine and rosemary until the sizable brick of meat flakes under your fork. It’s sided by carrots, onions, and celery, all piled atop a mound of garlic-scented mashed potatoes—and nicely accompanied by the ’09 McKinlay pinot noir. If you’re beef-inclined, also consider a tenderloin filet, pan-seared and glossed with a green-peppercorn butter, or a burger of grass-fed cow that’s robed with melted blue cheese and splashed with a balsamic reduction.

On the sandwich side, good luck choosing between one loaded with slices of pungent grilled andouille, mozzarella, a chunky caponata, and grilled vegetables, and another with a thick slab of portobello grilled with brie, kale, and golden tomatoes. We’ll say that the ’08 Chanson pinot noir would be fine with a burger or the sandwiches—just so you can disagree and insist the ’08 Pannotia Malbec is a much better choice.

Risotto forms a starchy, soupy base for all manner of ingredients that add to the fun. Here, it’s mushrooms and whole-wheat kernels that provide a nutty crunch, along with slivers of asparagus. The risotto is creamy enough to be eaten as it always should be, with a spoon. And it’s hearty enough that along with a salad, it makes for a full meal. See that ’08 Shooting Star zinfandel? It’s there for that risotto.

Speaking of those salads: Caesar would approve of neither red onions or pancetta in his. Go for the spinach salad instead, tossed with tiny, sweet, dried cherries; toasted walnuts; blue cheese; and an understated port-wine vinaigrette. The apricot vinaigrette on another good salad of roasted golden and red beets is enlivened with crumbles of fragrant goat cheese. A lemony-garlicky aioli adds a kick to fried calamari; the shallot-dill pickle sauce does the same for pan-fried crab cakes. But you’ll regret it if you don’t order that starter helping of Prince Edward Island mussels.

Desserts are fine, especially the salted caramel butterscotch pudding. A quartet of almost-bite-size carrot cupcakes is moist and spicy, slathered with an impressively thick dollop of cream-cheese frosting, scattered with pecan pieces, and dusted with powdered sugar. When it comes to powdered sugar, though, are you really going to pass on those airy, impossibly sweet beignets? We didn’t think so.

If you can’t get outdoor seating, the interior is delightful. Lighting is such that the place grows more attractive as the evening closes in. The dining room is simultaneously cozy and roomy enough that it never feels crowded.

But you’re outside in this last month of alfresco dining in St. Louis, and you’re sitting in front of that plate of roast chicken. Its crispy, golden-brown skin adds a salty crunchiness to the sweet, juicy flesh underneath. The mashed potatoes are fragrant with feta cheese, drizzled with balsamic vinegar. The spinach is buttery and sweet. The Riesling plays sparkling riffs on your palate.

Life is short. And it’s rarely so sweet as on these precious nights in October.

The Bottom Line: Traditional American fare—with some modern takes—in a well-mannered, friendly atmosphere.

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