The line of cars waiting for valet parkers stretched northward on Euclid Avenue for more than a block. Cheerful noise escaped when the front door opened, waves of warmth accompanying people on their way out, welcoming those arriving. A hostess juggled names and faces, checked her reservation book and her watch in what seemed like a series of continuous movements.
Covering the few steps from the front door to the bar was like traversing a New York subway platform. Servers struggled through the mass, holding plates and trays high to avoid collisions while the hum of conversation came from all directions. The faces behind the bar were unfamiliar; the faces in front were similar but not quite the same as those we had seen, drank with, talked with for the last decades of the 20th century.
It was Saturday night at Euclid and McPherson, and the room was familar though the sign on the front door was not. It said Herbie’s Vintage ‘72 and not Balaban’s, but it was a beacon into the Central West End night once again.
We ate and drank at Balaban’s on a more-or-less regular basis since it opened in the spring of 1972 . It, with four other restaurants Joe dubbed the Class of ‘72, changed the face of dining in St. Louis. Coincidentally that also was his first year as a writer about restaurants for the Post-Dispatch, and in that restaurant vintage of the century, Anthony’s, Balaban’s, Duff’s, the Jefferson Avenue Boarding House and Yen Ching were born and led St. Louis out of the second-division dining rut in which it long had been mired.
When Balaban’s was young, it was exciting even though it began with a limited menu that featured crepes. But soon, with Adalaide, Lady Charles Perrine, David Guempel and others in the kitchen, Jack Rinaldi, Ray Sweeney, John Forrester, John Newhouse and an even longer list behind the bar, Bryan Young and Sean Gallagher in the front of the house, all under the leadership of Herb Balaban, born to be a boniface, the restaurant grew and changed. It took a toddler’s first steps, gained balance and grew strong in its adolescence, moved into the grace and style of adulthood
Balaban’s was more than a restaurant. Its informality made it a beacon of warmth, its lengthy hours made it a welcoming place to take out-of-towners. Shad roe, morel mushrooms, pheasant, other specialty items arrived seasonally. I met Zero Mostel there for lunch one Saturday while he was in town for "Fiddler on the Roof" at the Muny. Herb Balaban was speechless, the lunch was delicious, Mostel performed for an audience of a dozen or so, relished in a very small star turn as much as he did in the night-time standing ovations of nearly 12,000 people in Forest Park.
Slowly, the class of ‘72 grew older. The Jefferson Avenue Boarding House was the first to close. Anthony’s turned into the new Tony’s but lost some of its glitter, some of its dramatic lighting and New York aura. The death of Herb Balaban started a downward spiral at his namesake restaurant, compounded by the death of Tommy Flynn. Yen Ching was outnumbered by imitators and competitors, many of whom took Asian cuisine to higher levels. Only Duff’s remains as a standard-bearer, now wearing the title of president of the class.
And now the restaurant has re-opened. The light level is higher, the carpets have been cleaned, the (rearranged) French posters shine from the walls. Jeff Orbin and Aaron Teitelbaum, whose Monarch is a jewel of Maplewood, are in charge, with the skillful Teitelbaum also holding the title of chef for the time being. They left the Monarch kitchen and management in the extremely capable hands, respectively, of Joshua Galliano and Matt McGuire. Maplewood is secure. They declined to pay the asking price for the Balaban’s name, received sufficient recognition from the use of Herbie’s, brightened it by adding "Vintage ‘72," which pays tribute to the original opening date and with even a brief nod to the city’s senior restaurant writer.
And the dining experience?
Too little "Wow!" factor. Superior safe choices of comfort food, well-prepared and well-presented. Courteous, efficient, well-trained servers, though there is an occasional tendency to be condescending and a constant use of the future tense ("We will serve this with. . . ."), which has become full-fledged restaurant-speak. Let’s return to the simple elegance of the present tense, and let’s remember that experienced restaurant diners do not like to be talked down to.
The wine list is first-rate with some well-priced choices and a good selection of offerings by the glass. A Cabernet Franc from Cosentino was excellent, and a Joel Gott cab and an Estancia Pinot Noir worked well.
Enough classic Balaban’s dishes – beef Wellington, cucumber bisque, firecracker shrimp, smoked Missouri trout, Ligurian shrimp pasta, chocolate fritters – remain on the menu and have been properly re-created. The bisque is beautifully balanced, the tingle of dill on the tongue, the texture perfect. The Wellington (below) has a delightful puff pastry crust, tender beef properly cooked, mushrooms diced so fine they’re practically ground, filling the area between beef and crust, all topped by delicate, slightly sweet Marsala wine sauce dotted with golden raisins. Fritters arrive hot enough to sear the tongue, rich with deep, dark chocolate flavor.
We dined very well on a couple of visits. Blue Point oysters were large and succulent, a little briny and with a choice among three toppings, a sharp cocktail sauce, tangy fresh horseradish and a delicate mignonette. Pleasing as the sauces were, Joe still prefers a couple of drops of Tabasco and a squirt of lemon on each oyster.
Escargot arrived with a splendid garlic-parsley butter; shrimp dumplings, with tender crust and tasty filling, benefitted from a gingery soy sauce. Carpaccio was delicious, the beef tender and with a pleasing flavor and the shaved fennel salad a dandy side dish, the hint of licorice a neat addition to the crunchy vegetable.
Speaking of salads, Herbie’s chopped was disappointing, with greens chopped into odd sizes and wearing a buttermilk dressing that didn’t show much flavor.
Another disappointment was the Balaburger, served on a brioche bun that was too sweet to accompany well-grilled beef, and making things worse, this was too well-grilled, ordered medium rare and arriving with its inside barely pink here and there. Fries were disappointingly ordinary.
Other entrees, however, were superior, displaying excellent raw material, proper cooking and fine presentation. Flavors were right, the plates looked good and were a pleasure to eat. Duck duo, a delicious breast and a fine cake of confit with a cauliflower puree on the side; short ribs, perfectly cooked, tender and delicious with blue cheese-laden mashed potatoes, asparagus and a fine sauce that began with Schlafly ale; a wonderful yellowfin tuna, cooked to the point of perfection, encrusted with peppercorn and coriander, accompanied by tempura-battered bok choy, edamame, shiitake mushrooms and a wasabi-soy dressing. A truly outstanding dish. Pan-seared chicken breast, wrapped in bacon for a little extra flavor plus some delicious roasted brussels sprouts, also was a success.
The chocolate fritters were a success at dessert, but the tasty bread pudding was the smallest eight-dollar dessert portion we’ve ever seen, and the cinnamon ice cream from Serendipity that came alongside needed more sharpness of flavor.
Herbie’s remains an elegant, tasty destination. A few tweaks here and there, a touch more imagination in the menu and it soon will – in the best possible terms – take its place with the class of 2008.
Herbie’s, 405 North Euclid Ave.
Dinner every night; Lunch, Mon,-Fri., Brunch Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessibility: Poor
Entrees: $18-$28 (1 ½-pound lobster, $37)