Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Balthazar - Spring Street - New York - NY

First Impression: Le French Brasserie de mes rêves...

Balthazar 80 Spring Street New York, NY 10012

photograph picture Balthazar in New York City and dishes including asparagus fricasse with garlic flan, bar steak and frietes plus delectable duck confit

Dishes from Balthazar, Click to enlarge

Whilst I was reading Garlic and Sapphires, it's author, Ruth Reichl, surreptitiously as her disguises were want to make her do, pinned Balthazar somewhere on my cerebral map. So when the time came to pay my first ever visit to New York, I could hardly ignore the presence of the restaurant that Gawker suggests is over. Over-hyped, over-mentioned in the New York Times and over-exposed. Determined to make up my mind for myself rather than fall prey to the critiques of others, I called Balthazar sufficiently far in advance to secure a table for myself, my mother and the bona-fide Frenchman who could share his perspective too.

On our way to the restaurant in a taxi, I received a call from a well-travelled San Francisco-based friend who did not realise I was vacationing in the Big Apple. When I told her I was on my way to Balthazar, excited, jealous-sounding exclamations escaped from her mouth. "You absolutely have to have the steak", she insisted, "they do the best steaks ever, I always get the steak when I am at Balthazar". The call piqued my expectations and increased my level of excitement so as the taxi pulled up outside Balthazar's inviting, warehouse-style brick building and I swiftly said my goodbyes to the Bay Area, I could hardly wait for the dinner to commence.

Walking into the lively, busy room, we were expected, we were welcomed by a friendly hostess, and we were asked to wait just a few minutes. I began to soak up the atmosphere as we started to wend our way to the bar. For all intents and purposes the place looks as French as any stereotype would have you believe. On the walls hang huge panelled mirrors that magnify the sense of bustle by repeating the action at every angle. The tables are divided into sections by long banquettes and staid panels with glass screens that separate one dining area from another. Rows of shiny glasses glisten on shelves next to the door. Throughout the restaurant enormous, beautiful displays of fresh cut flowers accent the view. Seafood menus are chalked on giant blackboards. Dozens of bottles of wine are arranged well out of reach on shelves that snug under the high ceiling to the side of the bar and the signs beneath them, for the Toilettes, are spelt out in French which make them almost sound charming.

Before we had even managed to attract the attention of a bartender, the hostess came to inform us that they were ready to seat us and we were led to a table in the centre of the restaurant. Simple white table cloths and close proximity with our dining neigbours were the order of the day and not too long after we took our places our friendly French server for the evening arrived to see if we would like to start with a drink. Fred quickly established his own Frenchness during a tête a tête en Francais avec le waiter and soon a genial relationship for the evening was set.

Over a Scotch and two Kir Royales, we perused the menu. Fred and and my mother displayed a great sense of decorum in choosing only to have an entree. Not me, oh no. I was on a Birthday-week bender and was determined to fit in as much of the menu as I could possibly manage And anyway, who in their right mind could possibly resist the allure of an hors d'oeuvre dish called Fricasee of asparagus and morels with a sweet garlic flan? The thick, tender spears of asparagus in a thin creamy sauce accented with a few morels and plump cloves of garlic then crowned with a light, delicate flan garnished with tender chervil leaves was a satisfying start to my dinner, that I was loathe to share.

Had I not taken the steak-recommendation call from San Francisco in the taxi on the way to Balthazar, you can be absolutely certain that I would have chosen the Duck Confit with crispy potatoes, wild mushrooms and frisee salad as my entree. As it was, I left my mother to experience her first rendition of this classic French dish instead. She could not have chosen a better place for a duck confit inauguration. I have eaten literally dozens of versions of this dish in both Paris and San Francisco, but never have I come across one so absolutely perfect. The crispy, crunchy skin cloaked tender, flavoursome meat that just melted on the tongue. "Where can I get this in Bristol" my mother implored of me, hopelessly, imagining her Provincial English home town would be able to provide her with such a treat. The crispy potatoes, surprisingly, actually turned out to be crisps or potato chips which made a less heavy accompaniment than more traditional duck-fat roasted potatoes would have done.

There are no less than three steaks on Balthazar's menu. Steak au poivre at $36, Steak Frites at $29 and Balthazar Bar Steak, pommes frites and bearnaise sauce at just $22. Whilst I was grappling internally over whether price was any indication of quality, the waiter arrived and I asked his advice. "Ze Bar steak, a bavette, eez my personal favourite, it az a lot of flaveur", he announced with confidence. One Bar Steak, sold to the girl with the long brown hair. Sure enough, it was perfect. I am usually hesitant to order steak when dining out because so often it turns out to be a bad choice. Not so at Balthazar. I couldn't fault this tender piece of juicy, tasty meat and the wonderful fries that came with it. So what if Balthazar's food is not adventurous, challenging or particularly creative? Sometimes we need comfort to make us content. The Balthazar experience made me extremely happy and everyone of my plates went back to the kitchen clean.

And what about the Frenchman? Why on earth would a man who 99% of the time migrates towards the beef option on any menu, suddenly decide that he wants Spaghetti Carbonara when dining at what must surely be one of the best, classic, French-style brasseries in the United States? I afraid I can't answer that, but I am going to put money on him not making that mistake the next time.

We finished off our meal with a perfectly-baked, warm, fresh, moist blackberry financier and then ambled a while over after dinner drinks before disappearing into the humid New York night. It doesn't take much for me to realise why the New York Times keeps on mentioning Balthazar. I think if I lived in New York, I would too.

Links, Resources and Further Reading

A previous Becks & Posh post | highlighting the service at Balthazar
Ruth Reichl | NYT review of Balthazar, 1997
Orangette | on Brandon's bastardized Balthazar Salad
Tasting Menu | LOVE Balthazar rating
The Amateur Gourmet | Breakfasts at Balthazar with my friend Fatemeh
Balthazar | on Flickr
Michael Bauer | Perennial Favourite

Archive Alert! On this day in 2005: Baking Bread from the Avoca Cookbook

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Balthazar - Spring Street - New York - NY


  • At 20/6/06 13:05, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    What a lovely and lively post to read Sam. It is almost as if I could have been there and witness the ambiance! I loved your notes about how your Frenchie set up the friendly atmosphere and how he went for des spaghetti. I think we all deserve an explanation! L'esprit rebelle des frogs, ca!
    I once saw a very nice documentary about Balthazar and although close enough to NY, rarely goes. I am such a country girl! Big cities make me tired! ;-)

  • At 20/6/06 14:14, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi Sam reading your account of our evening vividly brought back my duck "experience' I have been raving about it to anyone who asks me about eating out in NY.

  • At 20/6/06 14:26, Blogger Unknown said…

    I loved reading "Garlic and Sapphires," I finished the whole thing in one weekend! Totally hilarious and fun. She's almost as fabulous as the Restaurant Whore (almost...).

  • At 20/6/06 15:08, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I eat there every time I'm in NYC and always get the skate, which is perfect perfect perfect.

    I often dine there alone and as a single woman traveller this is not always the best experience in many restaurants - it never bothers me to eat alone, but sometimes the waitstaff can be snooty (especially in New York). At Balthazar they are always unfailingly solicitous and wonderful with their service.

    I love this place - who cares if it's not as "hot" as it once was. It does brasserie food like no one else. Yum!

  • At 20/6/06 16:55, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Sam, do you and Fred have a favourite bistro in SF? And, are you officially going to a smaller font?

  • At 21/6/06 05:58, Blogger virtuallyeric said…

    I actually nearly bought Garlic and Sapphires this weekend, but instead went with The Man Who Ate Everything. I'll have to add that one on to my reading list. Balthazar has always been on the dining list - perhaps if I make it to NYC for my birthday...
    Then again, it could just as easily be SFO...
    Last time there I ate at Zuni...(? I think?)... Is it still good?

  • At 21/6/06 08:51, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I have been wanting to get Garlic and Sapphires for a while now but have never gotten around to doing it...I definitely will now! Your narrative was entertaining and wickedly craving-inducing! I also love duck confit and your mum's reaction is making my tummy rumble:)

  • At 21/6/06 10:09, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I've only been to Balthazar proper once.
    it was for a movie premier that my boyfriend at the time was asekd to DJ at
    i was standing next to him, drinking a cosmo, when Michael Stipe walked over to me and began talking to ME!
    it was wonderful! i was so excited! and then, someone hit my elbow, and BOOM! there went my entire cosmo all over famous Michael Stipe's white linen suit
    i almost cried, but he was so gracious about it
    oh, and i remember the fries being delectable too

  • At 21/6/06 10:47, Blogger Sam said…

    Bea - I will have to leave it to the man to make the explanation, I am not sure what his excuse could possibly be!

    mum - i am going to have to try my hand at making duck confit so I can pass on the recipe to you. I am loathe to tell you it does contain one large amount of fat - not sure if that really goes with your detox plans, if you have any!

    garrett - no one could possibly be as fabulous as our Joy.

    diane - ooh, i love skate too, now i wish i live in new york so I could try that as well

    tejal - i think i may have fixed the font problem - it wasnt intentional

    eric - zuni is a favourite, if you decide on SF, then don't hesitate to email me for recommendations

    Joey - I was so pleased it made my mum so happy - I thinkit may have been her top eat in NY

    Ann - lucky you, but sorry to hear about the spill. I got to rub shoulders with Kevin Spacey at a party once but luckily I didn't lose control of my drink!

  • At 22/6/06 14:23, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I love Balthazar. Everytime. The only thing I don't like about the it is the incredibly long wait if you don't have reservations.

  • At 6/7/06 23:46, Blogger G said…

    Well thank god it is "OVER" bc now you can finally get a table and I LOVE BALTHAZAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I used to get my breakfast and coffee there everyday on my way to work up to the Metropolitan Museum on the subway. I would just get a simple baguette with butter and Jam and delicious coffee.

    I also am a big fan of their steak. I actually much prefer a steak at a French Bistro than at a big steak restuarant usually.

    so when I go "home" I get to go there with my husband.

    You made me very very very very homesick. Did I say very? yes, good bc I am very homesick.

  • At 16/1/09 16:05, Blogger Rebekah said…

    My sister-in-law use to live right around the corner from Balthazar, so when we moved to Brooklyn, it was at the top of our "must try" list. My husband first took me there for brunch, and it was HEAVENLY. It is MUCH more quiet and less crowded in the morning, obviously, and allowed for the most relaxing, romantic soaking-in of the surroundings (and food!). We returned a number of times over the years we lived in NY, and it never disappointed. If you ever go back, I highly recommend trying their brunch menu.

    Also, we are moving to San Francisco next week. What would you put at the top of your SF "must try" list?

  • At 11/10/09 14:37, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I am a new devotee of your blog and was drawn to your New York section as I used to spend a lot of time there. I heard all about how Balthazaar was over too, but I was still curious to go as so many of my friends in London love it. If you go again, I feel duty bound to tell you to have the onion soup gratinee. Two of my friends here in London made me promise to order it and I did not regret it - perfectly caremilsed onions,salty rich stock and the big crouton covered in melted cheese....I would go back just for that!

  • At 18/10/09 11:46, Blogger Sam said…

    Sigh - I would *love* to go again!


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