Sunset 44 in Kirkwood recently got a new chef, Tony Nguyen, and he has changed things up a bit. CIA-trained, his pedigree includes Whitmoor Country Club, the Ritz and other high-end restaurants. He has moved the menu from a largely classical French tone to ‘global-Pan-Asian,’ with subtle decorative elements like sprouts and colorful herbs that crop up in delightful ways: sugar-fried greens on a dessert plate and fennel seeds in toasted ravioli. One thing that has not changed is the excellence of the meal: our food was consistently good, and very well priced for dishes of this caliber.
Located in the heart of Kirkwood, the restaurant has a decidedly chic atmosphere that might seem a little incongruent with its positioning on the ground floor of a seniors building. Warm, caramel-colored walls and expanses of windows combine to create a sleek, nightclub-y effect. The layout, too, offers a feeling of intimacy, with one dining area a narrow passageway lined with booths and tables, the other a room anchored by a large curved-glass wall.
The first thing that came to the table was a generous basket of seeded lavosh. It was fresh and crisp, served with tubs of butter and beer cheddar. The appetizer menu includes traditional dishes like oysters and crab cakes, but also items with clearly Asian influences like Pork Belly Buns (with pickled cucumber and hoisin sauce) and Tempura Shrimp Cocktail.
We opted for Homemade Toasted Ravioli ($8) and Pan-Seared Crab Cake ($11). The ravioli were stellar, with a thick, crunchy crust and a filling of ground meat, carrot ad herbs. They were hearty and moist inside, and the fennel seeds imbedded in the coating made for an unexpected and delectably savory addition. The dipping sauce, called ‘tomato cream’ on the menu, was a delicious, full-bodied red sauce, somewhat chunky.
The crab cake, too, had unique characteristics. For one thing, it was more of a crab ‘block,’ being a good 2” high mound of shredded blue crab encased by a crisp square shell. The crust was delicious, hard and crunchy, and the inside soft and filled with flavorful crabmeat tossed with cream or mayo and bits of green—no filler and no discernable bell peppers. It sat on cold tomato salsa and creamy chipotle aioli, both good complements. It came appealingly decorated with a few tender, slivery sprouts and was plenty big for sharing. My only complaint is that the crabmeat didn’t heat up uniformly, yielding some mouthfuls hot, some cold.
It is rare that a salad (and a house salad, at that) excites me, but this one was exceptional. Served in a deep, asymmetrical bowl, a mix of romaine and field greens was dotted with imported Parmesan, thick-shaved carrot ribbons, thinly sliced red onion and very good house-made croutons with the slightest hint of garlic (I cannot over-state the importance of restraint when it comes to garlic). It was tossed with the house dressing, which is simply divine: a creamy, vinegary, sweet concoction with a hint of anchovy.
The entrees, about a dozen, are a good mix of meats and seafood. The lone pasta dish, Carbonara, interestingly, is topped with a ‘local farmyard egg,’ a custom from Italy. Our choices were Braised Colorado Lamb Shank ($27) and Grilled Shrimp ($21). The lamb dish was memorable. A large shank bone protruded from a deep dinner bowl, and the braised meat was fall-off-the-bone tender. A dark brown glaze added eye appeal, as did the caramelized carrots strewn over the top. Underneath sat butter-mashed potatoes, with a natural jus poured over all. Each element was delicious in its own right: the potatoes were buttery and hearty; the carrots, brown and sugar-glazed; the meat flavorful and tender; the jus hearty.
The shrimp entree, five large crustaceans fanned on delicate risotto with wilted spinach leaves, was good. The shrimp had excellent flavor (not always the case), and the risotto was al dente and made with lobster stock and drizzled ‘tomato oil.’ It was a subtle dish that didn’t ‘wow’ the way lamb shank tends to. And while it was enough food, it might not satisfy heartier appetites. Fortunately, a side order of Butternut Squash Puree ($5) filled in the gap with its creamy, buttery richness. It was only lightly tinged with sugar, which allowed its natural flavor to shine.
A small dessert list includes Bananas Foster Pound Cake, crème brulee and a few frozen treats. We sampled the cake and Ice Cream Cookie Sandwich, each $6. As with the savory foods, these were very good and exhibited attention to every detail. The pound cake was moist and buttery, with a little bit of crunch on top. It came with sugary sauteed banana slices and a scoop of yummy cinnamon ice cream. Most unusual (and tasty) were the bits of flash-fried greens decorating the plate; they were also sugared!
The other dessert came as a trio of tiny sandwich cookies: house-made double chocolate disks that sandwiched dollops of peanut butter ice cream and sat on whipped cream—exceptional.
Sunset 44 has been a mainstay of the Kirkwood dining scene for quite some time (and of South County, before moving to Kirkwood). The service is friendly and knowledgeable, and owner Bob Menendez welcomes guests personally and circulates to see how things are going. I have to say I’m more impressed with this current chef and menu than with previous meals there, which were nonetheless good. This one is memorable.
Courtesy of Sunset 44
Yield: 12 Servings
2 sticks (1 c) unsalted butter, softened, plus additional for buttering pan
3 c sifted cake flour (not self-rising) plus additional for dusting
1 t salt
3 c sugar
7 large eggs, at room temperature 30 minutes
2 t vanilla
1 c heavy cream
Special equipment: a 10-inch tube pan (4 1/2 inches deep; not with a removable bottom) or a 10-inch bundt pan (3 1/4 inches deep; 3-qt capacity)
Put oven rack in middle position, but do not preheat oven. Generously butter pan and dust with flour, knocking out excess flour. Sift together sifted flour (3 c) and salt into a bowl. Repeat sifting into another bowl (flour will have been sifted 3 times total).
Beat together butter (2 sticks) and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes in a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment (or 6 to 8 minutes with a handheld mixer.) Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in vanilla. Reduce speed to low and add half the flour, then all of the cream, then remaining flour, mixing well after each addition. Scrape side of bowl, then beat at medium-high speed 5 minutes. Batter will become creamier and satiny.
Spoon batter into pan and rap pan against work surface once or twice to eliminate air bubbles. Place pan in (cold) oven and turn oven temperature to 350°F low fan. Bake until golden and a wooden pick or skewer inserted in middle of cake comes out with a few crumbs adhering, 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. Cool cake in pan on rack 30 minutes. Run a thin knife around inner and outer edges of cake, then invert rack over pan and invert cake onto rack to cool completely.
Serve with Banana Fosters Sauce (below) and Cinnamon Ice Cream
Banana Fosters Sauce
3 Bananas Sliced ½ inch thick
½ lb Butter
½ lb brown sugar
1 oz Grand Marnier
1 oz cream
Slice bananas. Sauté in pan with butter for 1 minute. Add sugar to develop caramel. Flambé Grand Marnier. After flames are gone, add cream and salt and turn off heat. Serve warm.