Monday, August 20, 2012

Fountain City Grille

At the Arlington
DeSoto, Mo.
On Facebook

The Place:
'Fountain City' is a nickname for DeSoto. It is called that due to the large number of artesian wells in the area, the water from which was shipped to the famous 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. The Fountain City Grille is located in the landmark Arlington Hotel alongside the railroad tracks. The Hotel was built in the 1860's and has a storied history itself. It is  now a bed and breakfast (without the breakfast, so I am told.)
In June of this year the Fountain City Grille opened. Freshly redecorated and up-scaled, the idea was to be something a cut above local fast-food and pizzeria fare. 
The old hotel, with it's expansive first floor and high ceilings are a welcome break from modern, cookie cutter construction and utilitarian design. The dining area is surprisingly classy with flat black walls and bright white trim. Were the ceilings low, and the trim thin, this would be more like a darkroom. But with the century-old heavy trim and high ceiling this actually works very nicely. A few nice, but not gaudy chandeliers provide just enough light.
The tables were covered in white, plastic covered cloth and topped with small black votive lanterns. The staff uniforms as well picked up on the black and white decor. On the walls along with some black acoustic dampeners were poster sized B&W photos of various fountains in the city.  Artesian wells are positive pressure, meaning the water is under pressure in the ground, so to make a fountain one need not use a pump, just let the natural pressure make the water flow. A local photographer, Matt O'Harver, took the excellent pictures and enlarged them for the Grille.
The entrance is a long hallway, decorated tastefully with large, elaborate vintage furnishings.
Mary, the delightful hostesss showed us to a table and introduced our server. You'll hear more about Mary later.

The Food:
The menu was simple and straight forward. A few well defined entrees, a small selection of appetizers, and a wine list on the back. Selection was difficult, most of it looked pretty appetizing. I had no idea going in what they served, so my mind was pretty open. We ordered our drinks, tea, unsweetened with lemon, Dr. Pepper for Angel and Pepsi for Adam. The drinks and basket of rolls arrived almost immediately.  The rolls were small and firm, but not very warm. Fortunately the butter wasn't frozen, so it spread nicely anyhow.
We started with an appetizer, the ubiquitous St. Louis area specialty, fried ravioli. Adam got most of those because Angel and I ordered big food.
Me: 8 Oz Sirloin, baked potato and corn.
Angel: Haddock with shrimp etouffee, baked potato and asparagus (gag, spit).
Adam: Buffalo chicken strips and steak fries.
Angel took the soup, cream of mushroom, I opted for the salad, with the sweet vinaigrette.
Now here's the  first home run for the restaurant's service. The salad and soup were delivered in just a couple of minutes after our order was taken. This is the way it should be. Salads and soups are made in batch ahead of time and occupy a diner while the main courses are prepared. There's no reason to wait ten or fifteen minutes for simple soups and salads. Angel said the soup was a little unremarkable, indistinguishable from canned, but that's not a condemnation in itself, Angel eats a lot of canned soup.
Second point, the main courses arrived shortly after the soup and salad were finished, just a scant few minutes of foodlessness was all there was. The management of this place should stand as a model for other upscale dining establishments, the timing of all the courses was dead-on perfect.
8 Oz Sirloin
Between the soup/salad and the main course, Mary rushed by between duties of setting out silverware and greeting guests. The guest greeting was made complicated because people kept coming in the side door. I'd almost done the same thing but noticed a small sign on it saying this was the handicapped entrance. (Maybe a bigger sign is needed?) On one of the trips through the dining area Mary dropped something, a salt shaker maybe, it hit the hardwood floor and the sound was louder than the surrounding din. When she bent to pick it up something else slipped from her grip, repeating the thud and causing Mary to do an acrobatic double bend and catch. She apologized to us, I told her it wan't a problem and that I had assumed this was the evening's floor show, quite entertaining. She'd already chatted with us a little earlier as she'd stepped in front of my 'waiting for the flash to fire' camera was trying to catch a picture of the room.
Haddock and shrimp etouffee
She also told us about the photos of the fountains and added that she was the grandmother of the restaurant's owners. A sweet lady indeed, probably overworked and underpaid. Her grand-kids should probably pitch in a little more for her efforts.
In pretty good time the entrees arrived. Simple, clean plating, no frills or superfluous garnish, just good looking food.
The potato was cut open and a dollop of butter was starting to melt inside it, Angel said her butter was still a little frozen, not a gross violation since the potato was still pretty hot. She'd asked for some sour cream, and it arrived in a clear plastic ramekin. We shared it, making the potato perfect.
My steak sliced open to perfect done-ness, medium rare. It gave up some juices which I used as a gravy for the corn and potato. Mmmmm. The steak was more firm than some I've had recently, it held up to the slicing without going mushy. The char on it was perfect, and the seasoning was there, but not overpowering.
The corn was fresh and sweet, not canned.
Buffalo chicken strips
There were no surprises or disappointments on our plates, we ate quietly and at our usual brisk pace. It was during this time that  I really noticed the music. It was all piano-based coming from speakers at the back of the dining area. Something bugged me about it. Floyd Cramer? No I don't think so, but like that. All the tunes were 70's and earlier pop music making it sound, well, I'll be honest, a little cheap. Like a compilation CD that you might  find in discount bins of a drug store. If I could make a recommendation on this note, I'd say go for something a little more classical.
Almost all the way through her fish Angel noted that it was indeed spicy but the thick breading was starting to come off as too salty. She finished it anyhow.
Adam's food disappeared pretty quick, without complaint. "It was good." was all I actually got from him though.
We thought about dessert, but when the waitress told us there was only one piece of cheesecake left, we decided to forgo the fight for it. With the three of us and only one slice of cheesecake, the 'sharing' would more resemble vicious and bloody mob carnage. Had they had more than one piece there would definitely been an order for each of us and perhaps a couple of cups of coffee. I'm just sayin'.
Mary, stepping out the front door.
The bill came to fifty three dollars and change. This is no fast food franchise. Locally it's more on par with Munzert's in Hillsboro or Bistro at the Square, north of DeSoto. It's a nice, but not-quite-formal dining experience. The setting and decor in the old Arlington adds significant value to the experience. If I could make a few suggestions, not as an expert in the business, but as an active observer, I'd say change the music, mark the doors better, back off on the salt in the fish breading, pay close attention to the quality of the ingredients in the food, use fresh only or not at all. Most importantly, step up the web presence. Word of mouth is great, but it is only responsible for about half the new customers. They have a Facebook site, but the pictures of the food offerings are not very good, and there is no online menu. Yes the building is lovely, and the decor is excellent, but when it gets right down to it, it's the food. An online menu will help potential  browsers determine what kind of place it is. Also, entries in the many restaurant search sites, Yelp, Google, Yahoo, Urbanspoon*, etc. will steer a few more people toward the restaurant. An absence of a presence in these guides cannot help the business.
And last but not least, pay Mary more. She was an absolute delight and worth a million bucks in goodwill and friendliness. She made us feel like valued customers. She even wanted my opinion of the steak, since she can't eat steak but heard that it was supposed to be the place's specialty.
Seriously though, Fountain City Grille is rather new, open only since June, which means that they are still learning the business and making their spot on the culinary map. Even as it is now it is a fine place to eat, great atmosphere, excellent food, and a cozy, comfortable experience. If it can keep it's goals in focus, concentrate on the food, it can't help but be a success.


* I've taken care of creating a presence on Urbanspoon, I've got a good relationship with that group, as you might have noticed.

Fountain City Grille on Urbanspoon

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