This review of a New York restaurant is a break from The Picky Glutton’s usual London-based coverage.
A London-branch of New York favourite Balthazar is due to open in Covent Garden in the next few months. I therefore decided to visit the Manhattan original during my recent trip to the Big Apple, if only to see what we can expect from its eventual arrival on our shores.
Balthazar’s menu is French (accompanied by a suitably snooty, sarcastic maître d’), so the decor is reminiscent of a Parisian brasserie with its sandstone-coloured walls, ceiling fans and dimmed lighting. There are at least a few dozen covers, but the tables are closely packed together which not only makes getting up for a toilet break a bit of a struggle, but also contributes to the loud, buzzy atmosphere.
Although the rotating menu is predominately French, I was intrigued by one of the non-French items, the lobster risotto. I ordered a small portion as my starter and was pleased by the large chunks of fresh, firm lobster complimented with liberal slices of nutty-tasting fungus. The large grained rice was neither too soft nor too hard and wasn’t excessively creamy either. Overall, a good start.
Yeah, I know it’s a rubbish photo. I blame the jaundiced lighting.
Branzini seems to be a popular fish in New York restaurants. It’s closely related to sea bass and it’s served chargrilled here, with a very distinct smoky finish that goes well with the meaty flesh. The juicy, fruity olives add a nice sweet note, but the rocket and fennel were uninspired choices for rounding out the dish and didn’t successfully complement the smoky, chargrilled flesh.
Branzini. It’s a lot like sea bass. If you can see it underneath all that rocket.
Unfortunately the meal was let down by an uninspiring and disappointing dessert. A caramelised banana and ricotta tart with banana ice cream sounds promising, but the tart was served cold indicating that it was merely an upstart cheesecake with ideas above its station – and not a particularly good cheesecake at that. The bananas seemed to have barely been cooked with the intense taste of caramelised sugars almost entirely absent. The ricotta cheese was soft, but bland. At least the banana ice cream actually tasted of the fruit and the crust of the tart was pleasingly buttery, but none of this could rescue a poorly executed dessert.
Apart from the maitre’d, service was polite and efficient in a fake I’m-being-nice-to-you-so-please-tip-me-lots kind of way. The service also became a little rushed when the packed house during my weekend visit became even busier as the night progressed.
Apart from the dessert, my meal at Balthazar was generally pleasing. Overall, the entire experience resembles a slightly more upmarket Cafe Rouge, but with food that actually tastes of something. However, although competently executed and tasty, the food generally lacked creativity, flair and, in the case of my branzini, a well-rounded character. If the London branch charges similar prices as its Manhattan mothership, then hopefully it will find those much-needed qualities before it opens, otherwise it will have a hard time standing out from other similarly priced restaurants. If you’re in New York, you could do worse than dine at Balthazar, but you could also do a lot better.
Address: 80 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012
Phone: 212 965 1414
Opening Hours: so unnecessarily complicated I’ll just refer you to the relevant page on the website
Total cost for one person including soft drink but excluding tip: $70 (approx. £40 at time of writing)