Paris and New York. My two favourite cities, two great rivals. Can you think of anywhere that inspires love-hate relationships like these two? Or tops as many bucket lists? Or inspires as many books? Their similarities and differences have even inspired a book of their own! Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that they’re a power couple. When I was in New York, one of my favourite restaurants was Balthazar in Soho, which manages to walk the fine line between them both.
The French restaurant oozes an unmistakable New York charm. I love French food, but I rarely go to French restaurants. It’s the classic go-cuisine for white table cloth joints, which makes French food all too easy to find and menus too predictable. The culture which invented the restaurant is drawn upon time and time again, so much so that it’s rarely exciting outside of France.
So why did we choose Balthazar?
It exudes a brassy old-world elegance, setting itself apart from the other slick, ultra-modern restaurants we considered. Living and eating in Melbourne for a year has set my standards sky high, and for me, eating out is no longer just about the food. It’s about the whole production from start to finish. After nearly two months in New York, a little escape from the typical New York dining scene was tempting.
When we visited, the restaurant’s facade was obscured by scaffolding. New York is frantically under construction during summer and autumn, only adding to the chaos of Manhattan.
Stepping into the restaurant’s antechamber, you have a chance to shake off the chaos of downtown Manhattan before stepping into the restaurant. Once inside it is hard to know where to look. The cavernous restaurant is always busy. Your eyes are drawn across the room to the bar lined with a towering shelf of wine bottles, distracted by the enormous mirrors covering most of the walls making the restaurant seem even bigger. It is busy, but never frantic. Popular, but never overrun.
We booked two weeks in advance for an 8 pm seating. The menu is mostly French, but Balthazar is distinctly American – a New Yorker, to be precise. The tables were squeezed in close together, but unlike in Paris, the New Yorker response is to shout above the noise, rather than whispering across the table. Conversations between American travellers can often be heard word-for-word, somewhat ruining an otherwise nice meal in Paris, Venice or wherever you happen to be dining outside the states. In America, it had a very different effect – here, it created a surprisingly convivial atmosphere.
The clientele was well dressed, a handful of which opted to leave their oversized sunglasses on while dining – famous, hungover or post-cosmetic surgery? That was the question of the evening.
Unlike 99% of my hospitality experiences in New York, the service at Balthazar was outstanding. The wine list was an eclectic mix of unusual varietals, so I asked the waiter for his suggestion for a red wine to match my food, since he looked like he’d know what he was talking about. I couldn’t actually hear his suggestion, but he was not wrong!
I don’t know whether wait staff at high-end restaurants are paid better wages ( read: living wages) in order to attract high-quality staff, or whether they’re snagged on the promise that their tip will be a slice of a much bigger pie, with better chances of receiving more generous tips from wealthy customers. From my experience with the U.S., I’d guess the latter, but I’d love to find out – if anyone has any insight, please let me know!
I can’t remember the last time I ate a three course meal at a restaurant. Does anyone eat three courses out anymore? Even in Australia, most serving sizes are too big for me to finish my main, so three courses is out of the question. It’s always dessert that misses out. This time, I was determined to reach the French dessert menu, so I skipped the entree and went straight for the main. Confusingly, in America, mains are called entrees. It seems that no one has a clear answer as to why this is, but most everyone agrees that it defies logic. This is a recurring theme in America, as we found out. It keeps you on your toes.
It was lucky I skipped the entree, because I could not resist the bread basket. Unlike the stale, day-old bread they plop in front of you in Europe, which tastes like cardboard and adds to your bill, in America the bread basket was a real temptation. It was always warm, fresh and there was often a variety of bread offered.
I ordered my favourite French dish, duck confit. It’s delicious mostly because it’s cooked with a lot of duck fat, which is why I only order it out and never at home, so I never have to face just how artery-clogging it is. It was served with Yukon Gold potatoes, wild mushrooms, and a token French salad. I ate it since I wasn’t going to skip half of my $33 dish, and I was surprised that the chefs at Balthazar didn’t treat it as a token salad, like they tend to in Paris. It was delicious!
I’d ordered a French favourite for dinner, but I refused to believe that a creme brulee could be quite as satisfying outside of France. I was in New York, so I went for an American dessert. The strawberry shortcake, served with chantilly cream, mint and lemon was light, sweet and fruity – the perfect way to end a heavy meal.
The real darkhorse of the dessert menu is the humble warm chocolate cake, which David ordered. Served with a simple scoop of white chocolate ice cream and a sprig of mint, it doesn’t look particularly exciting, but it had me sneaking my spoon onto David’s plate more than once. Compared to the main courses, the desserts were as reasonably priced as at any mid-range New York restaurant, all at $12.00.
In New York’s version of Paris, the restaurant is warm and ambient but still noisy, the salads are edible and the bread is piping hot, straight out of the oven. Paris in New York is not a bad place to be.