Vintage Balaban's

Chef Dan Joyce could rest on Balaban's laurels -- but he'd rather take St. Louis on some delicious adventures

The lifespan of a restaurant — any restaurant other than fast-food joints and coffeeshops, any establishment that shoots out of the gate beholden to a finely hewn culinary genre, a name-brand chef, a marketing concept — follows a trajectory like that of a pro athlete's career, or a bottle of dependable-but-not-immortal wine. It tends to mature and then devolve along a bell curve, often improving in its nascent years as it smoothes out the kinks, finds its legs and cashes in on the skills it possesses and the innovations it manifests. After that it may coast on its reputation and before you know it, it's but a shell of what it once was, be it Michael Jordan sinking ho-hum jumpers for the Wizards or a once-glorious Châteauneuf-du-Pape that's sat for too long in the cellar and emerges from the bottle no more remarkable than Two-Buck Chuck.

Exceptions do surface — the 1961 Latour, the career of Rickey Henderson. But how does a restaurant achieve that kind of longevity?

"Herbie always said to find as many new products as you can, to be a pioneer." Flynn recalled that Balaban's was the first local restaurant to bring in West Coast oysters, to grill with mesquite charcoal and to introduce seafood from Hawaii.

Chef Dan Joyce: Like a fine wine, Café Balaban is aging nicely.
Jennifer Silverberg
Chef Dan Joyce: Like a fine wine, Café Balaban is aging nicely.

Location Info


Cafe Balaban

405 N. Euclid Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63108-1601

Category: Restaurant > Brunch

Region: St. Louis - Central West End


Café Balaban
405 North Euclid Avenue; 314-361-8085. Hours: Lunch Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner 6-10:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 5:30-11:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 5 -10:30 p.m. Sun. Brunch 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sun.

Barramundi $23.95
Veal Oscar $26.95
Coriander tuna $10.95
Cucumber bisque $5.95

From a review of Café Balaban in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 20, 1998

Herb (a.k.a. Herbie) Balaban opened his namesake café in the Central West End in 1972. Some things about the place haven't changed since. The beef Wellington and the cucumber bisque, for example remain steadfast after 30-plus years. And why not? Restaurants of a certain age have license to transcend — or pay no attention to — fad-chasing. Besides, ain't nothing wrong with a good beef Wellington or cucumber bisque.

Unless you're looking for a dish so fashion-forward that you're not likely to find it anywhere else in town (yet). Take Balaban's barramundi, a saltwater species native to Australia and the centerpiece of one of the entrées chef Dan Joyce debuted on the menu with the advent of 2006. What a showstopper this baby is, a white-fleshed fillet that begs to be sautéed so that its skin can crisp up with a deliciously toasty flavor while its meat remains impossibly moist. This is a serious piece of seafood, robust and edgy and complex — anything but mild and subtle — and Joyce smartly underscores it with a sweet and simple potato hash and a lobster butter sauce. It might also be one of the few fish that could go toe to toe with a glass of Australian shiraz in confidence and bite.

The barramundi's awesomeness is only part of its presence on Balaban's menu. It's there, too, as a bellwether, a signal that the chef doesn't fear evolution and is committed to keeping his kitchen invigorated. Café Balaban walks a fine line of past-present-future cuisine, and right now it is doing so very, very well.

Another newly arrived menu item is veal Oscar — which, in the pantheon of culinary inventions, hearkens back to royal Sweden. Here Joyce is toying with us, bringing something centuries-old to a decades-old eatery and having fun with it as something new. It certainly comes off as fresh: brilliantly sautéed right to the brink of overdone, topped with luscious crab meat and a heady but not too heavy béarnaise and sided classically with a few firm asparagus spears.

An appetizer of seared, coriander-encrusted tuna dances nimbly on the tongue alongside sticky rice and a pleasing pile of seaweed salad. (Balaban's has long played with Asian influences, which, if the era of fusion taught us anything, can harmonize beautifully with French fare.)

[T]his one-time pacesetter, in business nearly 30 years, is resting on its laurels. ... Joyce relies on ingredients whose 15 minutes of culinary fame has expired — things such as sun-dried tomatoes, roasted portobellos, Asiago cheese and balsamic vinegar.

— From a review of Café Balaban in the Riverfront Times, January 30, 2002

About four and a half years ago, Culinary Institute of America alum Joyce took over the reins in Balaban's kitchen. He'd been brought into the fold in 1996 via the sister restaurant, Balaban's Bistro 201 in Chesterfield, which closed in 1999. (A cautionary tale; extending a successful restaurant formula for the sake of it rarely lasts, unless you are Happy Happy McHoHos Slather Everything in Cheese Funk and Jack Daniel's Sauce and Call It a Meal.) A few short months prior to Joyce's arrival at the CWE Balaban, long-time partner Tom Flynn, 44 at the time, had drowned during a vacation to Mexico with his wife and six children. Herb Balaban had passed away unexpectedly about a year earlier, in late 2000, after a brief illness.

"Personally, I think that review and everything in there was 90 percent correct," Joyce told me on the phone a few days ago when I broached the subject of Balaban's last RFT review. "I had been here about six months, two people who had been crucial to the business had recently passed away, and I really hadn't gotten the kitchen running the way I wanted it yet. That review was a wake-up call not just for me, but for everybody around here."

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