Ever since culinary school, I’ve been bragging about having studied under Balthazar’s artisan bread baker, Sim Cass. It’s not because Balthazar’s separate bakery supplies its excellent baguettes, seasonal tarts and pastries to gourmet markets and other restaurants, or how the place has consistently done well in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York. It’s not even because of the reputation celebrity chef Keith McNally has amongst culinary professionals: of providing consistent quality in Patis and Odeon, amongst others, and of cooking up not just a damn good French Onion soup, but creative solutions to financial issues in the kitchen.
My pride for having studied under Sim Cass is the devotion to craft I saw when I worked with him, his sense of humor, his love of the way bread smelled, crinkled, and comforted as it was made and consumed. There’s a whole spirituality to bread, a ritual of preserving and transforming grain into first a paste, then a crinkly, pillowed substance, which when broken into, emits a smell that can only be described as… home. Entire religions have been created with bread as its center- sacrificed to, revered, and treasured. It was my first introduction to love of a craft. I assumed this was the way all chefs of his caliber operated, and after working in the kitchens of NYC, I haven’t been disappointed.
Understandably, I’ve been frothing at the bit to try NYC’s #2 French brasserie for years now, so for a special occasion this month, I got my wish. Finally, guys- a fancy French restaurant!
Oh, where to begin? Balthazar has been around for a long time now, but as always, the details jump out at me as signs of the spirit of the place. The cracked tile floors, the yellow bistro lighting, and the space trick of mirrors and floor-to-ceiling windows are old hat. What’s special and comforting comes from the waiter willing to stop by with the cheese plate after seeing your lusty stare, or the big rounds of bread stacked sky-high, cut fresh on huge wooden boards right by your table (in sourdough and white), and the authenticity of everything, from practical bistro paper for tablecloth to the speed and brusqueness of service. Magnifique!
Then there’s the food. Oh dear, the food. I haven’t eaten this well in a very long time, not since I traveled like a Gypsy and ate like a bear about to hibernate. Ravage me, oh inch-thick steak au poivre, and bring me back to the little crowded bistro in Paris where a burly Frenchman tried to hijack my gentler traveling companions. Everything was very delicately flavored, but oh-so-satisfying, from the silky-smooth chicken liver and foie gras mousse to the last bite of strawberry financier, cleverly infusing light pastry with fruit scent from no obvious source. Later, we discovered a honey pot of fresh berries in the middle. Portion sizes were surprisingly large, for the price point and quality; the goat cheese tart in particular scratched a long-standing itch for my vegetarian companion. Even the usually salty duck confit featured a thin, crisp skin and tender, sweet flesh, usually reserved for a Canto-style roast duck. At Balthazar’s level of competence, cultural culinary differences become a moot point.
Now, now, it can’t be all good, can it? I honestly can say I have difficulty finding something bad to say about Balthazar. Maybe my milk stout wasn’t in a perfectly chilled glass, but such things are nitpicky, and can be chalked up to my foolishness in not getting wine with French food. For practicality’s sake, the price is a little prohibitive for anything but a special occasion- 13-21 for an appetizer, and up to 43 for an entree. The presence of plates for two, like baked fish or roast chicken, and the daily specials make up for the price a lot, though.
If you’re looking for a special French dinner, without all the interruptions of 8 different courses and gabbing with the waitstaff, I highly recommend Balthazar. It’s a taste of France without all the pretentiousness, a cuisine that evolved from hungry, appreciative people making the most out of a very fertile culinary pallet. Does it represent skill and devotion to craft? Hell to the yes. You’re paying for top-notch, textbook dishes, straight out of Escoffier’s wildest imagination. I just have one piece of advice: wear stretchy pants.