Balthazar: A Magnificent Feast
by Catherine Shannon Ballman
“Restaurants last no longer than Broadway shows,” said Keith McNally, the dreamer who created fabled NYC restaurant, Balthazar, in another context. What was he thinking about, Cats? Almost 20 years on, this restaurant continues to enchant and to satisfy.
Some say po-tah-to, some say bistro but, according to my Larousse Gastronomique, Balthazar is more properly a brasserie, serving food not just at meal times but also offering a limited menu throughout the day and deep into the night. What it shares with a bistro is family ownership.
Pop out of the cab on a rainy night, hoof it to shelter under the red canopy and step inside. The greeting is warm, the light – oh, the light. Somehow that magical, soft golden light that drenches Paris bathes the entire room. And the laughter from around the zinc-topped bar gathers you into the evening. The stage is set.
But Balthazar is no imitation game. It doesn’t ape the brasseries found in every town in France but employs the elements for a particularly stylish Manhattan experience. The menus list all the reliables of the French kitchen. Chicken liver and foie gras mousse ($20) and steak au poivre ($47) and moules frites ($28) and steak frites ($41), all the vieux amis discovered the first time you prowled the streets of Paris from the heart of the menu. Posted alongside on the carte are American classics, such as an heirloom tomato and watermelon salad ($18), eggs (any style) with home fries and toast ($17) and, because this is New York and you must have them at breakfast, bagels ($5).
Le petit dejeuner, something of an institution deep in this Soho neighborhood, goes beyond a roll and caffe latte. Tattling on McNally’s London roots, the menu offers a “Full English Breakfast” of eggs, bacon, beans, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes and fried bread ($23, a steal by NYC restaurant standards). Cumberland breakfast sausage ($7.25), rarely found in the US, is listed as a side. Prized by the English for its lightly herbaceous flavor and chopped, not minced, meat, Cumberland sausage was honored with Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in 2011.
Le bar à huîtres takes center stage, both on the menus and in the room. All day and all night, the briny, crisp, clean-flavored oysters from the cold Atlantic waters and the sweet, less briny oysters from the Pacific waters are steeped up with all things crustacean. Oyster Mary ($16), cataloged with the Morning Pick Me Up’s, has probably been an NYC cure for what ails you from 1763 when a saloon at nearby Broad and Wall Sts. started serving up oysters to the local workers.
The elegance of an afternoon spent eating oysters and drinking champagne makes for a slap-up meal when feeling peckish. Le Grand, at $120, and Le Balthazar, at $175, Plateaux de Fruits de Mer offer a mix-and-match of 12 kinds of shellfish, 20 kinds of oysters and two kinds of clams. Pour a glass of Taittinger, Pol Roger or Gonet Rosé and enjoy the sparkle of the day. Too much, too . . showy? This feast might be an occasion to ponder M.F.K. Fisher’s observation,“…for me there is too little of life to spend most of it forcing myself into detachment from it.”
Dinner would be made eminently easier if you just ordered the entire menu. Unless there are a passel of teenage boys at the table, this is probably not practical. A sensible way to dive into the menu is to order the plat du jour. Each day is a classic French preparation, a daube or a grillé or a braise. And what could be more French than Sunday’s Coq Au Vin?
Or, order from the Hors d’Oeuvres collection. Sometimes all you want for dinner is a bowl of onion soup. Sometimes all you want is to kickstart your dinner with escargot bathed with garlic butter before you move on to the entrées. Balthazar has a lovely habit of letting the customer order what the customer wants; there’s no pressure that, if it’s dinner time, dinner must be ordered. Customers can wander through the menu at their pleasure.
Find yourself at the entrées and almost as one, people will almost rise from their chairs to advocate for their favorites. There are two types of people who go to Balthazar time and time again, the people who order the Roast Chicken for two ($73) or the people who order Steak Frites with béarnaise sauce or maitre d’butter ($47). Partisanship coalesces over the Pommes Frites ($11.50). The waitstaff sells so many orders that two prep cooks are required just to do the peeling, chopping, and three soakings to ready the potatoes for frying and then refrying.
For the rest of us, the Sautéd Skate with summer beans, radish, toasted pistachios and onion soubise ($30), Duck Shepherd’s Pie ($31) and Homemade Linguini, studded with morsels of Maine lobster, slow-roasted tomatoes, basil bread crumbs and lobster jus ($35) are among the attractions.
While you wait for dinner, the room puts on a show. To the left, an impossibly beautiful couple from London married just hours before at City Hall. To the right, professors from New York University arguing some academic point, laughing as they do. Around the bar, hordes of young, shiny new New Yorkers with all their dreams. Later, after the shows close, that table must be actors from some Broadway play, right? Or, at that table, maybe reporters and journalists still chatting about the day’s political scandals and triumphs? And about the newly-weds? Balthazar staff doesn’t miss a beat; their waitperson had overheard their chat and a bottle of champagne from the house was on its way over before the end of dinner.
The staff is too well-trained to ask that most annoying question, “Did you save room for dessert or are you still working on that?” But let’s hope room was saved for the Pavlova with warm seasonal berries or the Apple Tart Tartin or all the rest of the luscious closers (all $13) coming out of the pastry kitchen.
Still hungry? On weekends, an After Hours menu serves until 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday and midnight on Sunday.
Balthazar is a big business. It makes millions every year. It employs hundreds of staff, from dishwashers to executives. But the magic is that it still feels like the cafe around the corner that we all wish we had in our neighborhood.
And perhaps the most startling thing about Balthazar… There is a parking garage for guests located on Lafayette & Kenmare Sts.
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80 Spring Street
(bet. Broadway and Crosby)
New York, New York 10012
M – F 7:30 AM – 11:30 AM
S – S 8:00 AM – 9:00 AM (Continental only)
S – S 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM
M —F 12:00 PM – 4:30 PM
Dinner and After Hours
S – Th 5:30 PM – 12:00 AM
F – Sa 5:30 PM – 1:00 AM