No doubt there are cursed restaurant spaces, locations that — no matter how ingenious the concept, no matter how talented the chef — inexorably draw occupants down, down, down into a black hole of failure. Long-time St. Louisans can probably name a half-dozen of these spots, easy. Even I, a recent transplant, have come to know a few of them, like the cozy Lindenwood Park address that over the past few years has been home to Café Ivanhoe, KoKo and Bistro Toi, the last of which closed before I could schedule a review.
Much less common is the restaurant space that demands to be occupied. This is the spot that, by virtue of its location, design and history, fulfills our storybook notions of what a restaurant should look and feel like. Whether its food is any good isn't irrelevant, but it's definitely a secondary concern. When it closes — and then remains closed, days to weeks, weeks to months — we can't quite believe it. We double-check the locked door; we peek inside. Surely there will be new owners. They must just be behind on their paperwork....
Café Balaban was a perfect example. For 35 years it was the anchor of the Central West End and one of the city's signature restaurants. I missed its heyday by three decades, but its décor — the chef statue outside the front door, the classic liqueur ads on the walls, the antique cash register on the bistro bar — pushed primal buttons. Those trendy loft-district joints with their exposed ductwork and sleek track lights? Screw 'em. Who wants to look at ductwork anyway? This was a restaurant.
Balaban's run ended in January of last year. Owners Brendan Marsden and Harlee Sorkin had taken over the restaurant in late 2006 and made two fateful decisions: They redid the menu, jettisoning many classic dishes in favor of the contemporary bistro fare of chef Andy White, and they banned smoking.
I'm a big fan of White's cooking, and I filed a positive review of the "new" Balaban's ("Balaban's Is Back," May 3, 2007). But White departed Balaban's that summer, and in an interview with my Post-Dispatch counterpart, Joe Bonwich, after the restaurant closed, Marsden admitted that banning smoking had alienated some regulars. It seemed remarkable that Balaban's would remain dark for a few weeks, let alone the better part of 2008, yet there it sat, St. Louis institution turned white elephant.
Then the rumors started: There was a buyer. And not just any buyer. Aaron Teitelbaum and Jeff Orbin, owners of Maplewood's Monarch, were taking over the place. Would it be a new "new" Balaban's? Monarch II? Or something else entirely?
The answer is none of the above. Herbie's Vintage 72 both is and isn't Balaban's. The new name is an homage to the original restaurant and its founder, Herbie Balaban; such classic dishes as chilled cucumber bisque and beef Wellington have returned to the menu. Yet the fact that the restaurant has a new name sends a pointed message:
Herbie's should stand and fall on its own merits.
That said, Herbie's looks much the same as the last version of Balaban's, with exposed brick and liqueur ads dominating the dining-room décor. The bistro room at the front of the restaurant remains cozy, with many tables packed into the narrow space. Natural light illuminates this space; at night the ambient glow from streetlamps and other storefronts is bright enough to let you read the menu.
There are separate menus for the bistro and the dining room, though dishes overlap the two. In both cases the appetizer selection is underwhelming on the page, relying on old warhorses like beef carpaccio, escargot and French onion soup in the dining room, and universal favorites like fried calamari and spinach-artichoke dip in the bistro. A limited raw bar offers oysters on the half-shell, Blue Points during my visits. (For more on these and other oysters, see "How Do You Like Your Oysters?" in this week's issue.)
"Firecracker Shrimp" is a Balaban's classic, three fried shrimp atop a chipotle aioli. The shrimp were plump and tender, the breading fried crisp, but the aioli that gives this dish its firecracker status was tame. Americans' exposure to, interest in and tolerance of chiles grew considerably over Balaban's lifespan. It would be interesting to see this dish updated to reflect the change.
My favorite starters were specials. Rabbit, cut into chunks and sautéed a lovely golden-brown, was served over two kinds of housemade pappardelle — one seasoned with black pepper, the other with red bell pepper. The rich, gamy flavor of the tender rabbit was an ideal foil for the pasta's bite. Shrimp and grits featured excellent examples of both ingredients, yet other components stole the show: Housemade andouille sausage added a little heat, while a veal demi-glace spiked with brandy provided an extraordinary depth of flavor. A topping of flash-fried leeks added crunch and a hint of spring — even if we're still weeks away from leek season.
With a few exceptions (Herbie's Balaburger, beef Wellington), entrées hew closer to the contemporary-bistro course that the final edition of Balaban's took than to some kind of throwback aesthetic. My favorite: two thick slabs of yellowfin tuna seared with a black pepper-coriander crust. These are served over a "cake" of risotto, edamame and shiitake mushrooms; a tremendous serving of flash-fried bok choy leaves stands sentinel over the plate. If coriander and black pepper are a tried-and-true seasoning for tuna, they are no less successful for it, and despite its odd Japanese-Italian fusion, the risotto cake is very good, providing a mellow, creamy contrast to the brightly flavored fish. The bok choy is delicious, though there's too much of it to enjoy at its piping-hot best.
Also very good were braised beef short ribs, which get a kick from the addition of hoppy Schlafly APA to the braise, as well as the potatoes whipped with blue cheese that accompany them.
Short ribs are bistro standard these days, and the menu tends toward the conservative. The "Duo of Duck" pairs a grilled breast with a "cake" of duck confit. The latter is a puck-shaped mix of duck meat and chopped vegetables, too bluntly savory. The tart zip of a raspberry demi-glace helped cut through the breast's unctuous fat, but on the whole the plate was lacking something. Besides the duck, there was the barest streak of a cauliflower purée and a single stalk of broccoli rabe. Likewise, pork tenderloin (from the bistro menu) got a jump-start from the fig that flavored its veal demi-glace, but everything else — meat, potatoes, spinach — seemed rote.
The dessert list, too, is conservative: No matter how much I plead, crème brûlée isn't going away. But the chocolate fritters, a Balaban's special, remain a winner, plump little spheres of molten dark chocolate. Not surprisingly, given Monarch's stellar beverage program, the wine list has received a serious upgrade, with a wide range of regions and varietals represented and decent values to be found in the $30 range.
And, yes, smoking is once again allowed in the bar, though on my visits, more guests seemed to be watching sports on the flat-screen TVs than lighting up. Which isn't too surprising. Smoking in public is so 1972.