For Balaban's Wine Cellar & Tapas Bar, the legendary name is a lot to live up to

Mar 10, 2010 at 4:00 am

If Balaban's Wine Cellar & Tapas Bar is meant to evoke nostalgia, then I must admit upfront that I'm not the ideal audience. I wasn't yet born when Herbie Balaban opened his iconic restaurant in the Central West End; by the time I did review it, 35 years later, it was in its final iteration, the menu purged of beef Wellington, cucumber bisque and other Balaban's classics, the see-and-be-seen bar purged of smokers (and, thus, vacant). I liked this "new" Balaban's, but St. Louis diners didn't cotton to the changes: In January 2008 the restaurant closed its doors.

Yet the lure of the Balaban's mythos remains strong. In October 2008 Herbie's Vintage 72 debuted in the original Balaban's location, its menu nestling several classic Balaban's dishes among more contemporary bistro fare. (See "The Year of the Herb," February 12, 2009.) Then in November of last year, long-time Balaban's owner Steve McIntyre opened Balaban's Wine Cellar & Tapas Bar in the Dierbergs Market Place at the corner of Baxter and Clarkson roads in Chesterfield.

The décor of this new Balaban's features a few nods to its namesake — French liqueur ads, mostly — but McIntyre and his business partner Brian Underwood have fashioned this venture not simply as a restaurant but rather as a restaurant/wine bar/retail outlet more befitting its suburban locale. Indeed, the retail wine racks dominate the center of the single, large, roughly oval-shape room. On one side of these racks is the dining area, on the other are a display of gift baskets, the open kitchen and a selection of carryout food; a bar stretches along the wall directly behind the wine racks.

As you might imagine, the wine selection is considerable. In fact, it is the award-winning wine list from the original Balaban's, which McIntyre owns. There are by-the-glass options, though these are on the pricey side.

The tapas menu — all together now: not tapas, but "tapas" — is divided into "Balaban's Classics as Small Plates" and "New Dishes in Small Plates." Often this translates into dishes that aren't snacks or appetizers but reduced-size entrées — smaller plates, if you will.

Consider the grilled tenderloin, one of the "new" dishes: What I would estimate to be at least a four-ounce piece of beef is topped with crisp shoestring potatoes and a veal demi-glace and served alongside Parmesan gnocchi and sautéed mushrooms. This looks like an entrée and at $15 is priced closer to a less-expensive entrée than to a small plate. Were it not for our insistence on supersize portions, it likely could pass for a main dish.

Its "new" moniker notwithstanding, this is a resolutely old-school preparation, heavy on the palate, savory beef compounded by savory demi-glace and savory mushrooms. It isn't what you might seek from a "small plate," but on a cold February night, it does the trick. The gnocchi did provide a certain lightness of flavor, but they were dense in texture.

Other "new" dishes follow this same pattern: chicken breast with whipped potatoes; bacon-wrapped pork loin in a gorgonzola-port wine reduction. The more appetizer-like selections vary from pleasant — like a caprese-salad-aping bruschetta topped with tomato, basil and goat cheese — to perfunctory, like three limp (and, in my case, lukewarm) lobster ravioli in a bland, unctuous lobster-butter sauce. The antipasto plate is especially uninspired: Brie, manchego, salami, olives and spicy toasted walnuts.

Of the non-classic dishes, your best bet is probably the flatbread pizzas, either to share or as a reasonable-size meal for one. The "Carne Picada" flatbread is a classic pizza, with roasted tomatoes, sausage, pepperoni and, for added kick, red onion, atop a thin light crust. The spinach pizza is even better, thanks to the depth of flavor from nutty fontina cheese and caramelized onions.

If you were a fan of the original Balaban's, you will likely find one of your favorites among the "Balaban's Classics": cucumber bisque, Ligurian shrimp pasta, barbecue salmon. "Firecracker Shrimp" brings three modest shrimp dressed with a chipotle aioli. The dish packs a mild kick but hardly lives up to its "firecracker" promise. This is a flaw of design rather than execution. As I noted when I reviewed the version offered at Herbie's Vintage 72, our tastes have changed since the 1970s, our tolerance for hot foods exponentially greater.

The crab cakes are crab cakes in the St. Louis style: too wet with filler, their crab flavor quickly giving way to the unnecessary romesco sauce that dresses them. This too seems an unfortunate throwback to a time when something as simple (and seemingly un-mess-up-able) as a crab cake was considered exotic.

Yes, there is beef Wellington, by default the most intriguing dish on the menu. Here it is stripped down not only in size but in luxury. Traditionally beef Wellington is tenderloin topped with pâté of some sort — liver usually; foie gras ideally — and the minced-mushroom mixture known as duxelles and then wrapped in puff pastry and baked. Here the puff pastry is a lovely golden brown and appropriately flaky, the beef a gorgeous medium rare, but what the menu describes as mushroom pâté is drab, resulting in a tenderloin pie rather than a bona-fide indulgence.

This isn't a bad dish, by any means. A Madeira-wine sauce adds an extra shot of flavor, and even those who only think they want to try beef Wellington will enjoy the beef itself. Yet the preparation, like the other Balaban's classics, seems rote, a bid to appeal to nostalgia rather than to make a statement about the restaurant's true identity. Indeed, the pedestrian nature of the menu as a whole seems to work at cross-purposes to the restaurant's aim. Those of us with no connection to the original Balaban's are bound to start wondering whether the Balaban's imprimatur is worthy of all the tributes.