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Chef Brooks has struck gold, however, with his appetizers, which are heavy on the seafood choices and have evolved dramatically from the opening weeks. Gone are the littleneck clams and the terrine of smoked trout. In their place are pan-roasted mussels in garlic and sherry ($8.50) and chilled, paper-thin slices of ahi tuna eaten with a jolting wasabi cream and crackers ($9.50).
Thank goodness the best appetizer on the menu got a reprieve: a delicious plate of light and crispy flash-fried calamari, tucked into a papery sheath of fried spinach ($6.95). The boring lemon-garlic mayonnaise, which tasted neither lemony nor garlicky enough, has been successfully replaced by a smoky tomato beurre blanc that has more zing. A new addition, fingers of sliced portabella mushroom dusted with cornmeal and fried (in "roasted fried butter," the server said straight-faced), is served up with a cream sauce vaguely flavored with horseradish and a ponzu dipping sauce, a salty soy-sesame concoction that sounded far more exotic than it tasted ($6.95).
It's doubtful Union Station's first restaurateur, Fred Harvey, would recognize the sophisticated updating of his Westport Room salad ($5.25), but it's a class act: The traditional wedge of iceberg is served in a puddle of a cold and delicious lemon-parmesan dressing and is adorned with fried shards of bacon, chives, and "grilled Lyolene croutons," a haughty description for an average crouton. The Knife and Fork Caesar ($4.94) is a stalk of romaine simply plated up and neatly dressed with the real Caesar ingredients, including eggs and anchovies. The house salad, an assortment of more exotic greens lightly tossed in a piquant sherry vinaigrette is by far the best bargain ($3.95) and absolutely delicious.
Although Rod Anderson's claim to local restaurant fame is the juicy steaks (and reasonable prices) at the Hereford House, only two steaks appear on the Pierpont's "manifest" (the creative alternative to a menu here). The $24.50 pan-seared Kansas City Strip Steak was a disappointment: "I suppose J.P. Morgan would have sent this back," grimaced my dining companion, sullenly sawing through a tough and flavorless cut of loin, hardly enhanced by the lovely Pinot Noir sauce surrounding it. Being a classic restaurant martyr, he did not send the steak back ("It's too much trouble") but nibbled halfheartedly on the mound of mushroom mashed potatoes and the tiniest dish of "baked macaroni and brie" ($4.95) that was rich and salty on a previous visit, sweeter and more watery on the later one.
In addition to the grilled filet mignon (far better than the strip; $25.95), there's a tender and juicy pan-roasted pork chop, all sweet and sticky in a splash of fruit chutney sauce ($17.50) and more of those paste-color mushroom mashed potatoes. I would buy stock options in the restaurant's best signature dish: a spit-roasted duckling, artfully presented, its dark, crackly crust drizzled with a glossy sauce, not too sweet, flavored with Grand Marnier ($18.95). It was all so luscious and tender, I couldn't resist pulling the bones right off the plate to devour every last bit of glazed meat and crispy skin.