I never thought my Soft Shell Crabs in Black Bean Sauce recipe would have serious competition, but the rave reviews of Soft Shell Crabs Balaban's, e.g. "These might possibly be the best soft shell crabs ever!" are going to give the black bean sauce version a run for the money.
Poking around for inspiration, the Googles unearthed an ancient reference to the storied St. Louis Balaban's restaurant's soft shells topped with a enticing melange of fennel and saffron. Just a a fleeting Reference, the snippet was really a wine review with a mere mention that it paired well with their crabs. With these starter ingredients as my Adam and Eve, the recipe grew with the addition of shallots, plum tomatoes, capers, lemon and some fruit of the vine. Soft Shell Crabs Balaban's are Garden of Eden-worthy indeed.
Still to this day a favorite dining destination in St. Louis's celebrated Central West End with its huge limestone mansions on lining shaded, gated streets, Balaban's in the late 1970s and '80s was the ne plus ultra hot spot. There was never a chic as chic as the chic of Balaban's, every night a raucous party of the beautiful people, madcap revelry and frenetic table-hopping, with not-infrequent group trips to the bathrooms for little sniffs of pick-me-ups. Smart cocktails like the French 75 (gin and Champagne with some lemon juice if memory serves) and authentic Parisian Bistro fare.
Of the many tales of dissolute nights spent at Balaban's, this particular tragedy/farce is one for the books. At the time I tore around town in a mint condition '65 Mustang convertible. In my early 20s, I was, as my friend like to say, a "highly paid model," appearing regularly in department store newspaper ads and TV commercials (Levi's! McDonalds! Bissell's hand-held vacuum "perfect for house, houseboat or mobile home"). Oh I was highly impressed with myself.
One summer night I departed Balaban's with a lady date. We'd parked directly across the street from the front door. Now's the time to mention the glass fronted café with windows opening onto the street, perfect for keeping tabs on the comings and goings along fashionable Euclid Avenue. The night was warm, as was the afterglow from an elegant dinner.
Leisurely strolling out to allow dinners ample opportunity to envy our youthful beauty, we breezily slipped into my chariot, our carefree laughter leaving admirers to wonder what fun awaited us next. Maybe I should have wondered the same thing.
A turn of the ingnition key set off a loud poof! accompanied by a bright flash of blue sparks that shot from under the hood.
Within seconds the engine was fully ablaze. The paint on the hood crinkled up like an alligator's skin in a special effect worthy of an action film. Good thing I was only a few years out of my tour of duty in the Boy Scouts. The Marines have "Semper Fidelis." Boys Scouts are ingrained to "Be Prepared."
I dashed into Balaban's kitchen, snagged the fire extinguisher and returned to the escalating inferno. A pile of towels providently stored in the trunk served as protection for opening the hood while yellow flames licked the clear night sky and burning blobs of rubber hosing dripped onto the street below. .
My fast action reduced the conflagration to faint wisps of foul-smelling smoke by the time fire engines arrived.
Incredibly, the car was restored to its pristine glory in only in week or so, and life moved on, I was back in the saddle at Balaban's in no time, but from then on I always parked in the lot down the street, just in case.
Fast forward to Christmas that year. At my best friend Peter Croce's parents' home, his glamorous elder sister S., a tall, elegant single mother in a time when this still carried the frisson of scandal in proper society, S. lived a luxe life in Belgium as a high-ranking executive for a major chemical company. Feigning but not successfully achieving innocence, S. asked, "By any chance might that have been you in the Balaban's car fire this summer?"
Evidently on a swing back home she was there that night and witnessed it all unfold. Why hadn't she come over to console me in my shame? At the time she said she felt that it would have only caused more distress. Seemed a fishy answer, but whatever.
Now, some 30 years later, I asked again about that night. The truth came out: she had been on a hot date and felt her chances of scoring would have been lessened by any association with the combustible convertible. She claims that my response that long ago Christmas was "Oh that was nothing. Happens all the time!" That, I assure you, was not said by me. But she also rightly points out that "Balaban's was always so wonderful that it was difficult to pay attention to anything for more than a few seconds besides the fabulous food." True enough, and at long last, closure.
Fabulous food indeed. With the original recipe lost to the sands of time, these Soft Shell Crabs Balaban's are a loving tribute to the glory days of yore. A soak in a milk bath (so Grace Jones, no?) plumps them up, and the sauté of fennel and saffron creates a lustrous golden-hued delicious topping. A splatter screen is handy here for the inevitable pops and splashes when you cook the crabs.