With more than 700 labels and a “wine library” of aged, rare and special-occasion wines, the sipping options at the legendary Café Balaban feel nearly limitless. The Chesterfield hotspot has taken a baker’s dozen Wine Spectator Awards for its extensive list over the years, as well as some 40 or so other kudos for its wine list and service.
Lest one assume the accolades come with a hefty price tag, Wine Manager Tom Bush stresses that part of the bistro’s appeal is its accessibility to all budgets. “We’re also a retail store,” Tom says, “so we offer the best deals in St. Louis because we sell the wines at retail and only charge an $8 corkage fee.” More than 200 of those labels retail for less than $20, making for a memorable night of Spanish-French cuisine and pairings.
And that’s where the collaboration between Tom and Chef Philip Stemmler shines, particularly during monthly five-course dinners, when wines and the innovative and classic creations from the kitchen bask in each other’s light.
“The wine comes first,” says Tom, who kicks off the planning. He prefers to stack the deck heavily with the domestic wines his customers most often request. “I’ll get with the distributor to see what they have and pick five — two whites, two reds and maybe a port or a dessert wine. I’ll suggest what foods or preparations will go well with them and the chef creates the menu.”
Philip zeros in on the proteins and plays around with combinations to find the perfect match. “Anything lamb is a favorite,” he says. “It’s my wife’s background. She’s Middle Eastern, so she likes lamb.” Lamb shanks, “lollipop” lamb chops and porterhouse lamb — a miniature steak cut from the same area a beef porterhouse is found — is easier to prepare than its cattle counterpart, but just as delicious.
The menu changes with the seasons, with lighter fare like the spring morels, seafood and caprese salads in the temperate months, and heavier, more satisfying comforts such as beets, lamb and tubers in winter. The fresh, seasonal specialties are an ideal way for newbies to experience what Philip does best and get some guidance on wine from the staff. The monthly wine dinners are reasonable splurges for anyone who wants to dive into a little of everything.
“Come in and start with a special, usually a seafood dish or steak or pasta. Then, if you like that, I’d say come in for a wine dinner,” Philip says.