20 April 2007

Balthazar's Loud Late Lunch

Silly me thought my late lunch at Balthazar would be a quiet affair in a near-empty restaurant, but the actual situation couldn't have been further from my expectation when E. and I arrived for a 2:30 PM reservation, which I thought I was being anal to make the week before.

Controlled chaos, organized disorder, clear confusion. The atmosphere in Balthazar was all those things through the afternoon, so upon reflection I'm surprised our meal went so well and the service was so good.

My powers of eating bi-vials are exceptional. I can consume a bucket of steamed clams or mussels meant for two at any seafood shack on either Coast, West or East, with little exertion and still have room to finish whatever entrée I ordered: fish 'n chips, Maryland crab cakes, soft shell crab sandwich, lobster roll etc.... But Balthazar's moules were my undoing. For the first time, I failed to finish a bowl—a low point in my long eating history. Even now, I replay the situation in my mind and try to analyze the errors that cost me the last 1/2 dozen mussels.

Were the mussels not good? No, not true. While they weren't the best mussels I've ever had, they were still passing and a popular dish all around—many tables nearby also ordered moules frites. However, I felt the flavors a bit too mild for my full enjoyment. If I were in the kitchen, I would have probably pushed the parsley in the dish, so it tasted fresher; the leeks and celery needed help to amplify their aromatics.

Was it the Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli appetizer I shared with E.? Maybe, that's a possibility. Those ravioli were divine, soft pillows of tender spinach and luscious ricotta that to eat was like wrapping my mouth in a plush down comforter. Ravioli aren't French, obviously, but Balthazar worked the pasta on the level of a fine Italian restaurant.

Did carbs sabotage my meal? Yes, I think so. First, there was the bread, wonderfully crusty sourdough that was brought warm to our table. It's the little touches that make a big impression on me; I give bonus points to any restaurant that warms their bread before dropping the basket on the table. I ate two slices slathered with butter right off without thinking. My excuse: I needed to neutralize the free glasses of champagne the gallant maitre de gave E. and I while waiting for our table in crowded conditions at the bar. The alcohol running in my blood was wrecking havoc with my rosy completion and making me flush boiled lobster red. I've already talked about the ravioli, but then there were also the French fries, or pommes frites, that came with the steamed mussels. I couldn't even finish those either and I shared them with the table, too. For me not to be finish my fries is also rarity, and I don't think it's ever happened ‘til that Friday—Balthazar happily undid me on many levels.

Then to add insult to my under performing stomach, E. and J., who met us at the restaurant, were able to polish off their entrées with aplomb. Granted E. ordered salad, the Roasted Beet Salad, but it was still a substantial plate of veggies with two wedges of rich blue cheese and walnuts to boot. I had a taste and it really was a wonderful salad, well-constructed with many different flavors and textures for one's palate to play with—slightly smoky bitter greens, crisp haricot vert, and lots of sweet red beets. But J. got the Duck Confit, which is anything but light, and she cleaned her plate, too. Once again, I had a bite; it was the kind of dish you would have on a cold winter's night after working the good earth on your French farm—hearty and fortifying. Now J. only had a few of E. and my ravioli, so I think she might have been hungrier, but her achievement needs to be weighed with the several fistful of fries she had with her meal to admire her efforts.

One not to admit defeat without a fight, I gamely encouraged the table to go in for desert. Together we shared Profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. What is not to love about ice cream doused in chocolate, and we got a gravy boat full of sauce to pour, liberally, over the pastries. Cleaning the plate was a messy job, but someone’s got to do the delicious chore. For me, it was gloriously lush work.

In the end, I had a pleasant, if not quiet, lunch at Balthazar. And the length of time I took to enjoy the meal would make a French person proud—a very solid 2 hours and maybe a half more.

80 Spring St.
(btw Broadway & Crosby)
New York, NY 10012
ph: 212-965-1414

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