Across the street from the MOMA store in SOHO (see post below) is Balthazar, one of New York’s top restaurants—certainly one of its best bistros. I’ve been there before with my family and I accused it of being an emperor “with no clothes.” Maybe I got a little ahead of myself…
Anyway, tonight after the MOMA store, I peered into the Balthazar windows. It looked empty. I looked at the menu outside. Looked tasty. A maitre’d opened the front door. “You want to eat?” he said. “Party of one?”
I looked around me. Should I proceed? I did get that check from Google last week from the ads you so kindly click on my website. I wasn’t meeting my friends until later for the Halloween parade. And plus, I was hungry.
So in I went.
You know, one of the most beautiful shows I’ve ever scene is Cirque Du Soleil’s “O” in Las Vegas. The way it begins is gorgeous. A red curtain is on the stage. A white-gloved hand comes out and gestures a man forward. He comes (I may be getting some of this wrong, it’s been a long time–but the essence is correct) and the hand grabs him and sucks him in. Suddenly the curtain gets sucked in too and we’re transported into this fantastical mystical world.
That’s how I felt tonight at Balthazar.
I sat at a table near the bar. The waiter greeted me and treated me, throughout the meal, in such a wonderful way. It was is if he said to himself, “Why would this young man be eating here alone on a Sunday night? He must really like food. I like food! We have great food here! I must encourage this young man and steer him through the menu!”
So he recommended wine. I wasn’t planning on drinking wine. He pushed me. I said yes. I chose a white. I wrote down what it was: Graves Chateau Magnear ’03. It was delicious. It was really the first time I noticed the subtle understates in wine–here was definitely the presence of fruit. Apricot? Peach? Hard to tell.
Then, on with the menu. I was only going to order an entree. The waiter pushed me to order an appetizer. (Hey, maybe he wasn’t so kind after all–maybe he just wanted a big tip!) (Umm, duh, Adam). I ordered the beet salad and he looked pleased. “Excellent choice,” he said.
This salad was so perfect. The beets were like jewels. I’ve never had beets this good. And the cheese that went with it—”fourme d’ambert” according to the menu—was magnificent. (“Fourme d’Ambert is one of France’s oldest cheeses (dating from the Roman period)” according to fromages.com). There were also leeks and haricots vert. Everything in perfect harmony. Just excellent.
For my entree, the waiter urged me to try the special: Pork Belly.
I know the squeamish might go “ewww” “ugh” “groan,” but I wasn’t bothered by the prospect of eating belly. I was actually looking forward to the promise of the rich decadent flavor. When it was brought, it looked like heaven on a plate. (Well, if heaven is a belly in a pig):
Sadly, though, the texture bothered me. Here’s the thing. If I’m going to indulge, the indulgence must be worth the years said indulgence will scrape from my life. Here, basically, was just a big lump of expertly prepared fat. And, I’m afraid, that’s what it tasted like. Fat. It tasted like the part of the prime rib you cut around. Gelatinous and just, well, fatty. The outsides were terrific–as you can see from the picture, perfectly caramelized. And there was excellent flavor. But the essence of the belly was just, well, too belly-like.
The lentils, however, were terrific. I ate them greedily.
“Come,” said the waiter, “you must have dessert.”
Ugh. How could I? I just ate a BELLY for crying outloud.
But how many times do you eat at a French bistro by yourself on a Sunday night? Not many. So I said yes. He urged me to try the day’s fresh tart: pear poached in white wine with frangipane. Of course, it was delicious:
By the time the check came, I didn’t want to leave. I really truly felt like I was in Paris. And the best compliment I can pay my Balthazar experience is that I began to adopt a European sensibility. That idea of savoring your food, of lingering at the table. Of no GUILT when it comes to eating. Of not shaving your armpits.
But, alas, the bill came and I paid it. I walked out glowing.
The mark of a great film or play or book, in my opinion, is that it changes your worldview. You emerge transformed, seeing the world through a new filter. That’s how I felt about my Balthazar meal tonight. It was an education; edifying and soul-satisfying at the same time. And expensive. But well worth it!
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