Transported at Balthazar

November 1, 2004 | By | COMMENTS

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.

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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):

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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:

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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!

Categories: Manhattan, New York, Restaurant Reviews, SoHo

  • laura

    Last year for my birthday my parents took me to Chez Panisse where I had duck braised with rose wine and pork belly (along with fantastic sides of mashed potatoes and snap peas)- I love that place… The pork belly there was really as a small side and flavor component rather than the main, but in such a small quanitity my brother, my dad and I found it to be extremely rich and tastey! It was really a unique and enlightening(I was a little creeped out at first) experience, however I could see how a slab of pork belly would be too much. Mayhaps that is the way pork belly should be eaten in a small portion that you can barely split three ways.

  • gab

    exceptionally long story very very short. i happened upon your snazzily written blog on a different quest – then read your post about balthazaar. i wasn’t able to read about your first experience there but, i must tell you – it is now a place i truly love in NYC. the first 3 times i went i was terribly disappointed, then all at once, not unlike your story of being lured in, i suddenly went again. i had about ten great experinces in a row (& one late night stinker) but there is a soul about the place i really love.

    at this time in my life where my work has got me up to my elbows in a different kind of food (i’ll have to tell you about that some other day – do you like gelato?), it was nice to be transported back to my last meal there -

    thanks! keep up the great eating!

  • Ally

    I love experimental food. I would try belly just so I know I wouldn’t die wondering what belly tasted like.

    I love “O.” Not my favorite Cirque show, actually, but I love it still. Did you stay at the Bellagio when you went?

  • http://www.girlinblack.com Josette

    wow, it’s like you fell down a rabbit hole and ended up in the best restaurant ever. very nice.

  • Lebowskiachiever

    Streaky bacon is essentially Pork Belly. Y’all know that, don’t you?