— "Balaban's Is Back," May 2, 2007
I didn't return, though. And it seems I wasn't the only one. The "new" Balaban's wasn't long for this world. Andy White left the kitchen last summer. The St. Louis institution closed — maybe for good — in January.
In my case, it was nothing personal. I liked the food White was serving there — a lot. I remember excellent duck and lamb dishes and a killer steak frites. But there were other restaurants to review, and Balaban's slipped from my mind until I heard the news that White was departing.
I wondered where White would end up next. His résumé, which includes turns at Harvest and the late Café Campagnard, would surely be an asset to any number of any restaurants.
Fast-forward to January. White is heading the kitchen at Off the Vine, the new restaurant near the intersection of Hampton and Columbia avenues. As with Balaban's, the space will be familiar to longtime St. Louis diners: It was the original location of Tim Mallet's Blue Water Grill (among other restaurants).
Off the Vine is the first restaurant I've visited in this spot, and I was impressed by the efficient use of the small interior: The bar and the kitchen stand back-to-back in the center of the room. Bar seating (including a smoking area) is to one side of this central area, while restaurant seating forms an "L" to two other sides. (For what it's worth, despite the close quarters, I didn't notice any cigarette smoke.) The lighting is low, the décor is warm, and there is a freestanding, working fireplace. I'd call the atmosphere cozy, but when the restaurant is busy, and servers are navigating the narrow lanes between tables, it can feel cramped.
Off the Vine calls itself a bistro, and while White's offerings don't venture too far from what has become the standard bistro template (in St. Louis, at least) — duck confit, lamb shank, hanger steak with hand-cut fries — he provides most with a distinctive flourish.
There is at least one holdover from White's menu at Balaban's, a starter of shrimp and grits, and I was happy to see it. The grits, prepared with Vermont white cheddar, managed to be creamy yet light, while the three plump shrimp were perfectly cooked. The dish came topped with a rich, smoky barbecue sauce and scallion shavings that provided a slight textural contrast and a jab of verdant flavor.
A flatbread topped with roasted apples, prosciutto, Maytag blue cheese and grilled scallions made for an ample appetizer for two and would likely make a satisfying entrée. Apples and cheese are a common pairing, of course, and the very thick slices of roasted apple stood up especially well to the funky cheese; the prosciutto added a lovely salty, savory note, and the flatbread itself had a nicely crisped bottom and a pleasant chewy texture.
I wasn't as enamored of the chicken-liver mousse, which lacked the strong flavor you'd expect from chicken livers. On the other hand, the frisée salad rose above its status as a bistro cliché: The delicate poached egg, nestled among the greens in a cracked-mustard vinaigrette, gained depth of body and flavor with the addition of potatoes and, rather than the usual lardons, chopped pancetta.
Our server informed us that Off the Vine already has a "signature" entrée: pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon, topped with apple butter and an apple fritter and served over cabbage braised in cider. Regular readers know the server had me at "wrapped in bacon." I was especially pleased when she asked whether medium was OK for the pork's temperature. Yet it was the apple fritter that made this dish. The jacket of crisp batter yielded to tender, sweet apple that paired beautifully with the pork. The three very thick slices of tenderloin were tender, if closer to medium-well than medium by the time they arrived at the table. The bacon kept the pork flavor prominent among the various apple flavors.
For my money, the duck confit entrée, the customary leg and thigh served in a blood-orange vinaigrette atop a square of herbed bread pudding like an especially dense stuffing, topped the tenderloin. The confit's skin was exceptionally crisp, the meat redolent of duck's rich flavor. The vinaigrette provided a bright, though not overly so, accent, and a side dish of roasted celery heart was a welcome change of pace.
Braised lamb shank could be cut with a fork and paired well with both a mildly sweet parsnip purée and smoky grilled endive, yet I didn't care for the "tapenade gremolata" atop the lamb. The combination of olive's sharp saltiness with lamb's distinctive flavor made the whole thing taste a little off. A pairing of black grouper and clam chowder fared much better, the broth acting as both sauce and flavoring for the meaty, mild fish. The best part of this dish was the moist, delicious cornbread atop which the grouper sat.
The dessert selection is brief and includes such standbys as crème brûlee and cheesecake. Devil's food cake with a peanut-butter filling was absolutely decadent, and I loved the homemade peanut brittle that accompanied it, which was actually brittle rather than teeth-rattlingly hard.
For a restaurant that calls itself "Off the Vine," the wine list fails to inspire. The main varietals and regions are covered, but even casual oenophiles will recognize most producers. Wines by the glass are available as three- or six-ounce pours. Such a format works best when customers can try three-ounce pours of more expensive wines, but Off the Vine's by-the-glass list is perfunctory. The beer list, by contrast, features some uncommon selections, including Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout and Hitachino Nest Ale.
Service was friendly and polished, especially for a restaurant not yet three months old. From kitchen to floor, Off the Vine functions like a veteran restaurant, the sort of place discerning diners return to again and again for plain good food.
In that sense, Off the Vine may be a tad too comfortable for my taste. White's menu at Balaban's was more adventurous — you don't see sweetbreads and rabbit on other local bills of fare.
Which, sadly, might be how St. Louisans like it.
In an excellent article on Balaban's closing, Joe Bonwich, my conterpart at the Post-Dispatch, wrote that one reason the "new" Balaban's faltered was the fact that some regulars didn't appreciate the wholesale changes to the menu.
That could be the most depressing notion I've heard all year. I'll tell you what: I like Off the Vine fine the way it is, but if Andy White decides to change up the entire menu, I'll go back. Eagerly.