Balthazar: Le Good, Le Bad, Le Ugly

In food on 06/10/2009 at 1:49 pm

It’s taken me over a week to process the disappointment that was the other half’s graduation dinner. Plus we’ve both been attempting to study for our respective boards and bar exam. But enough time has passed to permit this procrastination break.

I’d always noticed people loitering outside this fancy looking restaurant on Spring Street. It’s across from the MoMA Design Store, which we tend to loiter ourselves. That, and the Sur La Table. Wanna see beautiful ennui? Go peek at the Balthazar crowd. Lots of Euro types co-mingling with hipster wannabes (read trendy yuppies), taking a cancer stick break.

chic chic

Turns out Balthazar is a fake! You’d think it was a French bistro from the looks of it, but it’s merely a chunk of an restaurant empire born from the mind of a British ex-pat, Keith McNally, who was never even a chef. Famous people are rumored to dine here, though in recent years, Waverly Inn has surpassed it in terms of cache and ambience.

It was raucously noisy inside. Sound bounces gleefully off 25 ft tall ceilings, and everything is faux old, from the dirty pieced-together giant mirrors to the  paint treatment on the walls. It’s all supposed to evoke old European Impressionist paintings in the era when absinthe was all the rage, and what a dramatic a set piece it is, all dark woods and incandescent lighting. There’s insider’s details, like playing cards stuck on the painted tin ceiling tiles, with signatures emblazoned on them, probably marking the tables of certain celebrities. We had a large party of seven, so we had our own section along a long baquette booth, otherwise you sit elbow to elbow with other diners.

The other reason I know of Balthazar and initially had a good impression prior to eating there was their Pain de Seigle that I get at the cheap cheese store in the East Village; it goes for $2.99 per pound, which amounts to about 5 thick slices. It’s a “chewy-crusted loaf in the tradition of rustic French breads, a blend of organic whole-wheat and organic rye starters with some dark ale to achieve a deep and complex character.”

good F-ing bread

In fact, their whole selection of breads is so well-renowned there’s a bakery attached to the restaurant, and then it was so successful they opened a bread factory in Englewood, NJ to keep up with the volume of wholesale orders. Recently they even allowed regular shmoes to go to the factory store and buy by the loaf. It’s that good.

The woman running the show in the bread department is Paula Oland, who’s a genius in the bread circles. For what they charge for anything there, the bread is really about the only good thing about Balthazar, unfortunately. The restaurant is all about pomp and circumstance, whereas the bread is about the taste, texture, and the unbelievably satisfying QQ. A trip is in order to this bakery up north. The other half used to live in a building on the Upper East Side next to Orwashers. We miss those days.

We all ordered an entree, but I came mainly to order Le Balthazar, an appetizer, but because of the recession, I settled for Le Grand, a selection of delights from the raw bar.

le wow

It contains two types of oysters, large cooked shrimp, crab and mussels, clams: razorback and otherwise, a scoop of ceviche nestled in a cabbage bowl. The two standouts were the roe in the crab shell, and the periwinkle, which tastes like a poor man’s abalone, more meaty, less snail-y. Compared to Le Balthazar, this one had one less tier, and no lobster. A good deal for $65. But what you get in terms of quality does not compare to anything at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central. The ceviche was ‘overcooked,’ as if they threw in leftovers that were sitting in the brine at the bottom of the barrel too long. There was an accompanying sharp balsamic vinagrette that cleared my sinuses nicely. I wish the shrimp had been raw. Raw shrimp is delightfully buttery and soft.

While eating, I never felt really comfortable coming just to enjoy/investigate the food. I snuck several glances at my fellow diners and they were not really of the foodie guise. They were mostly middle-aged or older, on business or a date. The guy at the next table was focused more on making lame come-ons to the girls in the party next to him. Having a matron in the bathroom and being guilted into tipping is always an off-putting experience.

Everything else we ordered was a salt lick disguised as duck shepard’s pie, French onion soup, soft-shell crab, spinach ravioli, and pork milanesa (the only exception to the salt fest). Dessert was creme brulee and a scoop of house chocolate ice cream. I requested a taste of some cookies I noticed a guy order extra of to take home for his girlfriend. They were toasted coconut biscuits in the vein of the other half’s Meltaways. A little on the hard side. How do they get away with serving such mediocre, small-portioned food? Someday the reputation will be out-stripped by the unimaginative and poorly executed cuisine. But for now, I’m happy to be back outside, not looking in.

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