Saturday, 3 August 2013

New York Series - Balthazar

Almost everyone who gave me their New York list of places to see or do included Balthazar in their list.  This is not much of a surprise, Balthazar is pretty much on the top three of everyone's food list and is by far one of the most popular restaurants in New York.  For Brisbanites that's not a complete surprise, inside it looks almost exactly like on of our best restaurants, Tartufo.  There is a pretty good chance that the team that established the restaurant before Tartufo took over, Belle Epoque, used the popular New York dining spot as the inspiration for the interior.  It's uncanny.

Balthazar is located in one of the coolest streets in SoHo, which is one of the coolest districts in all of Manhattan.  There are so many great restaurants and shops in SoHo that you could spend a whole month just in that one area and still not see everything.  It's also bordered by other great districts, Little Italy to the east, Greenwich Village to the north west along with burgeoning suburbs like TriBeCa nearby.  It's often compared to London's SoHo and with good reason, both places attract a certain type of person that brings colour and excitement to an area.

We had spend quite a bit of time wandering around and exploring Soho and had thought about going to Balthazar a few times, but each time we went it was so packed we decided to go elsewhere.  I finally decided to bite the bullet and make a reservation for dinner, thinking that if we went a little earlier in the evening it would be a bit less hectic.  Boy, was I wrong.  We turned up for our 5:30pm reservation and the place was still packed and crazy, with barely a table available.  Even though it was busy our reservation ensured we had a great corner bench spot, even though out table was only a little bit bigger than a postage stamp.

Balthazar is a French restaurant with a menu that stretches to both contemporary French cuisine, as well as modern American fare, which includes the humble hamburger.  The menu is split into Hors d’œuvres, Entrees and Plats Pour deux or share plates and there was a large amount of oysters and other shellfish on offer too.  Looking over the menu, there seemed to be quite a few items that looked interesting but I really wanted to have the more traditional French fare.

To start, I ordered the quintessential French starter, the Escargot in garlic butter.  I have eaten quite a bit of the French delicacy over the years and have developed quite a liking for snails, when done well.  This was the first time that any escargot that I've ordered actually still came in the shells, usually they come in a littles pots or mixed in with other ingredients.  I have to say it was a little confronting to begin with, but I managed to adjust OK.  The most difficult part was using the little curved fork provided to get the snails out of the shell, without cracking the shell.  I managed to master it after the first couple.  I found the escargot to be just a little over cooked, they were a little chewier than I normally like.  The flavours were great though, with the garlic butter helping immensely.  

After contemplating a few options herself, SC ended up going for an old favourite, the steak tartare.  Usually when you get a steak tartare, its a relatively small amount of raw meat that has been carefully prepared placed on a plate, and if its a good one, has an egg yolk on top for you to mix in.  The plate that SC received was massive and had a large amount of tartare, already mixed.  This was the entree size but could easily have been main course size.  Despite being extremely large and fairly rustic looking on the plate, SC really enjoyed it and the sample I had was creamy and full of flavour, especially with the chopped up gherkin.

SC went for another traditional French classic with her main when she selected the duck confit with yukon gold potatoes, cipollini onions wild mushrooms and frisee salad.  We were hoping for and expecting quite a refined looking dish and were taken aback but the very rustic plate that was presented.  There was a confit duck leg visible amongst a large and messy salad.  The plate looked as if it had been put together with very little care, so if rustic is what they were going for then they certainly achieved that.  The duck was cooked really well and fell off the bone and was matched pretty well with the accompaniments, but there was just too much food on the plate and SC left most of it.

The rustic dishes continued when my pan roasted chicken with chanterelles, crisp spaetzle, beet greens and riesling jus was presented.  This was really a hectic looking plate that lacked any finesse at all, it was just a heap of food piled into a bowl.  The chicken was cooked well, with lovely crispy skin.  There was an abundance of spaetzle in the bowl, which is like a type of egg noodle and while it was OK, especially when mopped up with the riesling jus, there was just too much of it crowding the plate.  This was a case of way too much going on in the bowl and it really detracted from what could have been a great dish, if only the textures and colours were not pretty much all the same.

Even though we were both stuffed from such large mains, we decided to give the desserts a go, after all it was a French restaurant and a couple of classics sounded great.  SC went for the apple tarte tatin, which is usually one of our favourites.  Some of the best desserts we have had have been beautiful looking and superb tasting tarte tatins, but this was certainly not refined looking.  It was huge and went beyond rustic, it was actually fairly poorly made, with the caramel that should have been oozing having the consistency and texture of jelly.  Add to this a massive scoop of ice cream and it was pretty average overall.

I fared much better with my creme brûlée, which was lovely and creamy and had a wonderful sugary crust that was burnt to perfection.  The only issue I had with the brûlée was its massive size, it was gigantic and while not overly sweet in parts, by the time I finished it off I was suffering from a bit of a sugar buzz.  There was enough in both desserts for a two, so having two desserts for the table ended up being just too much.

I'm really not too sure what all the buzz is about for Balthazar, apart from the fact that it's a really cool name and it's in a fantastic location.  It was so busy in Balthazar you would have thought that the food was the best in town.  I found the food to be fairly average and a little bit over priced for what you get.  I normally associate a more refined cuisine when thinking French, especially at the prices on the menu but what we received was really rustic fare that was just overpriced.

However, I was really surprised with the service on the day, which was amazing considering how busy the place was.  The wait staff always came back and checked on how we were going, made great suggestions about the menu and wine list and our water glasses were always filled up.  While I have found the wait staff in general to be a cut about in New York, the service we received at Balthazar was impressive.

It's possible that I was lulled in to a false sense of expectations by both the reputation of Balthazar and it's uncanny resemblance to Tartufo (formerly Belle Epoch) in Brisbane, which both produced some amazing and refined food.  It's also possible that this place is just really popular due to its great location and fantastic service, however it's not a place that I would rush back to if I lived in New York.

@Food Me up Scotty

Almost completely full at such an early time, the tables were turning over quickly too!
An uncanny resemblance to Tartufo & Belle Epoch 
I could easily have been eating in Brisbane here (its just a bit smaller inside though)
I usually love escargot, at least they looked authentic

Balthazar on Urbanspoon


  1. Great post. How weird is the likeness to Belle! Will be sure to consult you pending our NYC trip.

    1. Thanks, it was pretty weird being in there as well..... Back in Aus now, suffering jet-lag :(


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