Some Dishes Worth the Ride into Sunset 44

118 W. Adams Ave., Kirkwood, 314.965.6644

Entree prices: $16 to $28

I’ve shared many meals with loved ones at Sunset 44 Bistro. Over the past decade, I’ve toasted my dad on Father’s Day and I’ve celebrated New Year’s Eve with a family that, after a wedding, would become my own. My most recent visits, however, have required me to hone in on what, exactly, makes Sunset 44 a place my family chooses to patronize.

One reason: the fish tacos. For a place that has a reputation for drawing an elder crowd (There’s a retirement community located directly above the space.), the fish tacos are a testament to how Sunset 44 heeds the call of those looking for good plates, regardless of their age. The fish is a mild and firm tilapia, whole little fillets seared a crispy golden shade, laying in a double hammock – one soft, warm flour tortilla adheres to a light and crispy fried tortilla – with the help of a bright and spicy chipotle crèma. Chopped cabbage is nestled under the fish, offering a raw bite, garnished by an unfortunate pico de gallo (A non-tomato salsa would be more appropriate in winter months.) and tortilla chips on the side. The fish tacos rival the best in town – a forkful of slaw on top (in lieu of the pico) nudges them over the edge.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Saint Peter’s Fish – a tilapia fillet crusted in black and blond sesame seeds, sauteed and served over a bed of rice pilaf with an Asian glaze – is a tamer entree that leaves less of an impression. The glaze – sweet and salty with soy and sticky honey – adds just enough flavor to save this dish from the brink of boring.

There are many steaks and chops on the menu, usually paired with one of several recurring starch options – sweet potato purée or risotto cakes on recent visits. A couple spears of asparagus and overcooked carrots garnish many entrees, adding color but very little flavor. The steaks are seared and juicy in the center and typically accompanied by a rich wine reduction, though on one visit, the filet was in need of a little more pink and a slightly heavier hand with the seasoning.

Given the broad inspiration of the aforementioned dishes (Latin, Asian, American), it’s clear that Sunset 44 draws from a wide range of cultures. Not surprisingly, owner Bob Menendez and executive chef Anthony Lyons both have varied culinary backgrounds from which to build upon. Menendez, who has operated Sunset 44 since 1985 (when it was located in South County) and can be found perpetually greeting diners with a smile, has been in the restaurant biz since childhood. He keeps up on the goings-on of the industry by staying involved in the local culinary community (He’s on the advisory board at L’Ecole Culinaire and is the former educational chairman for the Missouri Restaurant Association.). With the success and longevity of Sunset 44, he demonstrates a grasp on how to get customers in the door time and time again. Chef Lyons, who joined Sunset 44 last year, cut his teeth at several area country clubs and completed an 18-month apprenticeship at the Dromoland Castle Hotel in his native Ireland. He also has a knack for putting out tender yet crisp toasted raviolis.

The problem with a lot of T-ravs is that the corners and edges are brittle and tough, making it difficult to get to the steamy meat filling. Here, the pasta is thin and yielding, with a fine, golden breading that makes them almost eager to be bitten. The meaty filling is soft and savory, flecked with herbs and topped with a sweet, herbaceous and hearty tomato sauce. If you feel like (American) Italian, get these to snack on instead of the pasta verde, a vegetarian linguine entree that lacks soul.

Service is friendly and runs smoothly, especially considering the restaurant plays host to a thriving private party and banquet business, much of which coincides with regular dinner service. There were missteps, however, among the dishes – some under-seasoning and overcooking. The handsome burgundy-hued dining room and sophisticated bar are cozy, fitting and only enhanced by the glass-encased wine cellars that provide an extensive selection. I wasn’t wowed by a glass of Napa Cellars pinot noir; the $12 price tag didn’t help. An $8 glass of Ferrari Carano chardonnay, meanwhile, was more pleasing to the palate – and the pocketbook.

Sunset 44 isn’t drawing in customers with innovative cuisine. The run-of-the-mill menu won’t dazzle or surprise. But with such a prime location and broad stroke of a menu, the food must merely be good. And it is.

Cedar Plank Salmon Smoky and moist, some version of this standby fish dish always seems to be on the menu. The meaty flesh gets a good sear and seasoning before being plated with a seasonal garniture.