Which makes it all the more embarrassing to admit that, although I lived here for several years before I became the RFT's restaurant critic, I'd visited Balaban's just once, for an unremarkable lunch. On those rare occasions when I did think of Balaban's, I thought of the place where my fiancée and her friend once had dinner at the same time as the cast of Riverdance. Or the place where, after California and nouvelle and New American cuisine, after pan-Asian and pan-Latin fusion and tapas and molecular gastronomy, you could still order beef Wellington.
Enter Brendan Marsden and Harlee Sorkin, who bought Balaban's late last fall. Marsden has injected life into the St. Louis dining scene twice before, at Modesto and Mirasol. To reinvigorate Balaban's menu, he and Sorkin hired Andy White, formerly the executive chef at Harvest.
The "new" Balaban's opened in early February, following a few weeks of renovations. I can't say for certain whether these renovations improved the interior, but the buzz from those more familiar with the restaurant's past suggests that it's much cleaner now. At any rate, the two main dining rooms are spacious and pleasantly lighted, not too casual, not too fancy. There are white tablecloths and cushy burgundy banquettes, but the walls feature exposed brick and a charming hodgepodge of paintings and vintage liquor posters. The entire restaurant the dining rooms, the bar, the private dining rooms downstairs and the more casual, enclosed sidewalk café just inside the front door is now smoke-free.
My favorite touch is a small one. You unfold the paper wrapped around your napkin to discover the menu. A neat trick, considering the menu's size: twelve starters and thirteen entrées, a raw bar, an assortment of salads, sides and desserts, and a rotating selection of daily specials. Sunday, for example, means fried chicken. Friday is bouillabaisse.
(The wine list, on the other hand, is several pages attached to a clipboard. There are more than 100 bottles, many of them post-2000 reds from California and France. Wines are offered by the carafe roughly one-third of a bottle rather than the glass, a very good value. I was disappointed, however, to see how commonplace the reds-by-the-carafe were Wishing Tree shiraz and Castle Rock pinot noir, for example and that four of the seven whites were chardonnays.)
When I spoke briefly with Andy White on the day Balaban's reopened, he described the menu as classic American bistro fare with French and Italian influences. In practice, the menu isn't defined by any one cuisine or even the rather broad notion of "bistro fare" so much as the considerable skill and attention to detail displayed by White and his kitchen staff.
So you might begin your meal with thick slabs of pork pâté served with a sharp brown mustard and a pile of pickled vegetables about as bistro as it gets or you might detour south and start with shrimp and grits. The pâté was the only lackluster dish I encountered, with a blunt flavor of boiled ham and black pepper. The shrimp and grits were fantastic, though: four plump shrimp in a dark, smoky barbecue sauce arranged atop grits that were properly, well, gritty, and piquant with the flavor of Tillamook cheddar cheese from Oregon.
Two other starters showed White's range. Brandade fritters, featuring the classic, creamy salt-cod concoction lightly battered and fried to a golden-brown crisp, were like funkier crab cakes and jazzed up with a thick, sharp chive mayonnaise. Grilled merguez sausage was a straightforward presentation of the North African dish, a little smoky, a little spicy with harissa.
Entrées hewed close to hearty bistro tradition. The "Bar Steak" might be the best steak frites in town. Truth be told, you get better fries at Atlas or Franco, but Balaban's delivers the whole package: very good fries and a tremendous hanger steak that cut du jour from a few years ago maybe two inches thick, chewy and juicy and topped with a classy béarnaise sauce. This dish doesn't come with any greens besides a frisée garnish, but you might order the excellent roasted-beet salad, a lovely composition: a puck of diced beets topped with a thin layer of smooth chèvre and then a handful of delicate watercress.
Duck confit was a thigh quarter served on the bone, the skin crisp, the meat moist. The flavor was the essence of duck, the meat's richness intensified by the cooking process and nicely accented by lentils braised in bacon. A side of puréed parsnips provided a soft, sweet counterpoint. In contrast, I found the oak-grilled Norwegian salmon too intense. Its bacon-horseradish vinaigrette, with a flavor reminiscent of German potato salad, clashed with the fish's strong flavor.
The best entrée from my first two visits was roasted leg of lamb with coriander-spiked pesto and rosemary broth, served with a dense, delicious onion custard and bitter too bitter, for my taste braised rapini (broccoli rabe). The lamb, served off the bone, was beautifully browned on the surface and a deep red inside; the tangy pesto drew attention to the meat's natural gaminess while the savory broth rounded out the flavor.
Last week Balaban's introduced its new spring menu. Gone are the brandade fritters, merguez sausage and grilled salmon. The lamb with pesto has been replaced by lamb chops with dandelion greens; duck confit now comes with elephant garlic and butter beans. The new menu features rabbit, yellowfin tuna and oh, yeah! sweetbreads.
And although I visited on the very evening the new menu made its debut, it was the best of the three very good meals I had at Balaban's.
To start, I tried the sweetbreads, which had been sautéed just enough to crisp the surface while leaving the inside tender and snow-white. They were served in a veal jus, with diced ham and sugar-snap peas, but the flavor that lingered was a surprise: cinnamon, or maybe cinnamon and vanilla, as delicious as it was unexpected. On the other side of the plate was a scoop of rhubarb compote a good idea in theory, but I found its tartness too mouth-filling when paired with the sweetbreads.
Pork-cheek ravioli are another new starter. The ravioli arrived in a neat row, like a display of cushions, sauced with "salsa verde" on one side, crème fraîche on the other. The ravioli were excellent, the pork braised tender and sweet, but I was ambivalent about the sauces. They didn't overwhelm the pork, but something the salsa verde, I suppose bore an overpowering broccoli flavor.
Yellowfin tuna, grilled rare, was excellent, the sweet flesh given a juicy finish with a pinot noir reduction. The centerpiece of this entrée literally, two pieces of tuna stood on either side of it was a light, sweet crêpe bursting with wild mushrooms and braised spinach. A lovely dish. The new rabbit entrée, the saddle roasted a mouthwatering brown and folded over a stuffing studded with English peas, was a bit messy on the plate, the stuffing spilling over into the side of farro, and the rabbit was, by its nature, a little tough, but the dish was excellent, with verdant notes of sage.
The brief dessert list includes crème brûlée (of course), chocolate fritters and even a root beer float. But I went for the strawberry trifle, sliced fresh strawberries layered with mascarpone cheese and slices of a kind of pound cake. The strawberries and cheese paired beautifully, but the cake was on the dry side. I preferred the lemon-poppyseed sorbet I'd had on a previous visit, a simple, delicious palate cleanser.
How all of this compares to Balaban's in 1972, 1992 or even last year, I can't say. But I do know that when I return to the restaurant, it won't be because it's Balaban's the "institution," but Balaban's, the restaurant made new by Brendan Marsden, Harlee Sorkin and Andy White.
Old-school Balaban's fans can take heart, however: You can still order beef Wellington if only on Wednesdays.