While Chesterfield is a far cry from the Central West End, the new Balaban’s Wine Cellar & Tapas Bar there is, oddly, a fitting legacy of the original. Steve McIntyre, longtime Café Balaban’s co-owner, has brought to the new spot many of the original recipes, a comprehensive wine stock and, of course, the Balaban’s name.
In the same way as the old CWE cafe, the new establishment is a true gathering place. The energy is palpable as diners stand among the rows of wine, waiting for one of the dozen or so dining tables. Reservations are accepted only until 6 p.m.
The space is one large room with a huge bay window where tables offer diners money views of the lively bar, the wine aisles and the outdoors. And while this is no Euclid Avenue, the space is nicely set back off the street (Clarkson and Baxter roads), and the funky interior makes you forget you are basically in a strip mall. A long bar sits under an enormous art poster, a paean to the original Balaban’s, and an adjacent wall of stone has an arched opening to the busy kitchen, where chef Kevin Sthair oversees the action.
The menu is all tapas and divided into ‘Classic Balaban’s,’ recipes from the original adapted for small-plate nibbling, and offerings newly created for the restaurant. A handful of flatbreads is also available, and about four house-made desserts. Prices are reasonable, considering the intricacy of the dishes and portion size, which overall was generous.
We started with cucumber bisque from the classic list and butternut squash from the other ($6 each). Both were excellent. The cucumber was a cold soup, lightly creamy with a hint of lemon and the slightest bite. The butternut squash soup was warm and very dense, almost a puree. It had a thick, sweet flavor thanks to mashed Fuji apples, and was tinged with cinnamon. Its presentation—in a large, deep bowl and drizzled with balsamic vinegar and walnut oil—was especially nice.
From the classic menu, we also sampled Smoked Trout Pancakes ($9), BBQ Salmon ($9) and the legendary Balaban’s Beef Wellington ($18). The latter was every bit as good as I remember from the old days. The miniature serving (about a 4-ounce filet) was divine, a medium rare filet surrounded by chicken liver pâté and rich, buttery puff pastry. The trio of decadent foods melts in your mouth, enhanced by Madeira sauce. The accompaniments—roasted Brussels sprouts tossed with browned garlic and tiny cubes of cooked carrot—served as a good, earthy complement. For a small plate, it was a surprisingly generous portion.
The trout was brined and smoked in-house, and tossed with horseradish dressing on top of field greens. A hearty corn and potato pancake sat next to the fish, which, here again, was a generous portion. The salmon was nothing short of beautiful: three large chunks of the fish—dusted on all sides with a pungent rub of spices and sugar and drizzled with oil—sat on a narrow plate. Beneath each was a thick dab of black bean ‘hummus’ (puree) and on top, a few slivers of fried tortilla. The salmon was delicious, soft in the center, and its natural fat cut by the bean hummus.
From the new items menu, the achiote fish tacos was a standout: three small house-made tortillas piled with salsa verde, chopped tomatoes, mouth-watering sea bass, crema and avocado. A single cilantro leaf topped each tower. An Autumn Salad ($8) was the only dish that fell short of expectations. The promise of shaved fennel, crisp apple and butternut squash turned out to be a large plate of field greens with too little of those enticing additions.
Two flatbreads, Spinach Pizza and Bianco Verde (each $9), were good, with paper-thin crusts. The former was my favorite, as it was more flavorful, dominated by its sweet caramelized onions.
Our desserts, Apple Blossom and Blueberry Fruit Tart (each $7), were good, but not as impressive as the savory foods. The apple dessert had a puff pastry tart shell filled with diced apples tossed in cinnamon sugar. And the fruit tart consisted of two tiny pâte brisée shells filled with tangy lemon curd, one drizzled with blueberry puree, the other with raspberry.
This Balaban’s is clearly a new hotspot. The food is exciting—and attractively priced, given the caliber and quantity. If you don’t like waiting around, get a reservation, but just as at the original Balaban’s, sipping wine and chilling out is part of the experience.
RECIPES FROM BALABAN’S WINE BAR AND TAPAS RESTAURANT
BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP
Note: Balaban’s serves the soup with a garnish of extra virgin olive oil, balsamic reduction, sour cream and fresh chives.
2 medium butternut squash, diced
3 Fuji apples, diced and peeleds
½ onion, diced
1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, diced
3 cups chicken broth
2 cups heavy cream
8 leaves fresh sage
1 oz honey
1 oz sherry vinegar
1 tbsp nutmeg
1 tbsp cinnamon
1 tbsp smoked paprika
Cut the squash in half lengthwise, spray with oil, season with salt and pepper and roast in the oven on high heat until soft.
Sweat the apples in a large stock pot with the vegetables. Add the squash and chicken stock and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the cream, sage, honey, vinegar, nutmeg and cinnamon and simmer for another 5 minutes.
Puree the soup in the blender and season.
FISH TACOS WITH SALSA VERDE
Serves 3 as an appetizer. Note: Balaban’s makes its own tacos using masa harina (corn flour), which can be found at any grocery store. Follow the instructions on the label, mixing the flour with water and a little butter and salt. Balaban’s portions the dough in a ball the diameter of a quarter, then uses a tortilla press to flatten it. Finally, the flattened dough is cut into rounds with a cookie cutter, which are placed in a dry skillet on medium high heat until just browned on each side.
3 cooked tortillas
3 (1 ounce) portions of grouper
Salt and pepper
Achiote powder (found in Latin markets)
1 poblano chile
¼ red onion
1 clove garlic
Skinned, seeded and finely diced tomatoes
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roast clove of garlic for 15 minutes, then chop.
To create salsa verde, mix roasted garlic with chopped poblano, tomatillos and red onion and season with lime, cumin and cilantro.
Season the grouper with salt, pepper and achiote powder. Sauté in a skillet with olive oil until cooked, 3 to 4 minutes.
Place grouper on tortillas and top with tomatoes, avocado puree, sour cream, lime wedge and cilantro leaf.