The original Balaban's opened in the Central West End in 1972, and for the next 35 years offered fine bistro food and one of the best wine cellars in town, winning the prestigious Wine Spectator Award for 15 consecutive years.
Now, it's in Chesterfield. And the new Balaban's has kept up the award tradition, having just received the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for 2011.
The chef statue, which stood out front in the Central West End, welcomed visitors from near and far until a fateful day in late 2008 when Cafe Balaban shuttered its doors.
Co-owner Steve McIntyre kept the Balaban's name and the award winning wine cellar, which formed the nucleus of Balaban's rebirth in Chesterfield as a wine cellar and tapas bar.
There are some tributes to the original Balaban's here. Large French prints adorn the walls and the appearance is a combination of bistro and European wine shop. The wine shop occupies a majority of the space and there are a dozen or so tables to one side. The menu is tapas—small plates of well-prepared food.
The wine shop features wines from $9.99 to $500 (and up) when you get into their library wines—those that have been saved and aged from the old cellar.
A great benefit for diners is they can have any bottle of wine from the wine shop with their meal plus a modest $10 corkage fee. You will be hard-pressed to find a restaurant where you can order a bottle of wine that retails for $100 and only have it marked up by $10.
At a Balaban's recent wine dinner, five wines from Drouhin's Winery ($17.99-$50.39/bottle) were offered up, paired with five dishes. The wines were either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir grapes from Drouhin's Burgundy or Oregon wineries. They all featured levels of rich earthiness to varying degrees, with some possessing a more or less fruity nose.
The depth and complexity of the wines was intriguing, with the 2008 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir ($40.49) for example, so deep in flavor there were hints of the soil and clay where the grapes grew.
The food was impressive too. The escargot, truffle whipped potato and angel wing mushrooms was rich and a great starter, and demonstrated the agility of a constantly changing menu based on availability of ingredients. The snails had only become available the day before, and the mushrooms had grown overnight due to rainy weather.
Wild Chinook salmon with cucumber-melon relish was well-prepared, a tad overdone, but tasty and paired-well with a Pinot Noir from Oregon—the wine seemed to take on the rich salmon flavor since it was such a good match.
Roasted quail was as good as I have ever tasted. The bed of farro pilaf was the perfect accompaniment, and the pinot noir cherry reduction (on which all rested) provided a welcomed sweet element.
The Lamb Persillade was not the most attractive dish, and yet was my favorite. The lamb was tender and juicy, cooked medium rare, the celery puree imparting its inherent saltiness, and the bread crumbs on top of the lamb had the thinnest crispy layer on its surface one could ever hope to find.
A dessert plate of Pain d'Epices à la mode—or hazelnut gingerbread with ice cream, creatively piped whipped cream and blueberries—finished the meal. The gingerbread was soft and flavorful, the ice cream rich and soothing, and the blueberries were a welcomed combination of sweet and tart.
The particular dishes I ate are not on the menu, but Balaban's prices for dishes like these run $8-$19, with wine by the glass averaging $8-$12. Considering what the cost would be if dining à la carte, an all-inclusive wine dinner at Balaban's is a pretty tasty deal. The fixed priced for an evening like mine was $75 dollars, plus tax and tip.
The next wine dinner is on October 16, costs $70, and features wines from Washington state.
Balaban's is located at 1772 Clarkson Road (at Baxter Road in the Dierbergs Market Place) in Chesterfield.
Reservations are not accepted after 6 p.m., 636-449-6700
Open Mon.-Thu. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.- Sat. 10 a.m.- 10:30 p.m. Closed Mon.