You may remember the first in a line of disappointing brownies I had about a year back at Balthazar’s Bakery (if not, see here). Since then I have walked by Balthazar many a time and looked through the tall windows to watch a floor full of bustling waiters attend tables of glowing customers, while I knew directly next to it all was the small bakery (or boulangerie, as the French-styled restaurant labels it on its doors) which had disappointed me so. Despite this disappointment, I was always curious about the continual laurels bestowed unto the restaurant side of this establishment. Was it deserving of NYC Institution status because of their table service with dishes that cannot shine in a pickup from their grab-and-go bakery? I continued to walk past with curiosity despite having supposedly put my review to rest, always with the itch to take a walk in to the other side.
It was this video courtesy of bon appetit (a, of not the, powerhouse of Food YouTube) that convinced me it was time to give Balthazar another go, but this time for a full meal. And so, for the very special occasion of my sister’s 25thBirthday, we ventured up to Spring St. for a second-chance brunch. The sun pooled on the empty streets of Sunday morning Manhattan in that short window of time in which NYC can actually be a little magical. We approached the quiet corner of Balthazar, with its red awnings set up in preparation for winter weather and stepped in from the brisk morning air to the warm hum of the beginnings of brunch.
Throw a stone in NYC and you’ll hit a brunch place with succulents hanging from the walls and ceilings, light wood tones accompanied by clean white ceramics. Light, thin, metal accenting the chairs and shelves. The wait staff is donned in attire less of this city and more in line with LA’s beloved “casual nice” (a phrase that continually causes a crinkle in between my eyebrows as I tighten my bow tie and button up my sweater vest).
Balthazar is none of this. This is old world New York. The kind of city you saw in an Audrey Hepburn moviethat made you say “That’swhere I wanna live”. The dark wood tables and chairs have clearly stood the test of time to be dined on again today. The almost golden walls tower high, giving an illusion of space that is often missing from the cramped, get-out-as-soon-as-possible dining spaces I have come to accept as a necessary discomfort to eating out here. Even though the tables are so close together that certain ones have to be moved by the staff to let those sitting in the booth seats enter, it does not feel like it’s an inconvenience to be there, or that you’re imposing on the other guests’ space. The wait staff is buttoned up in clean white shirts and aprons, always prompt with a water refill and a well-timed check in. The “toilettes” and “boulangerie” and “fresh bar” (featuring a beautiful array of oysters that I, unfortunately, did not try) were marked by classy gold lettering in a bold and brassy font. The classical music played in the background in a manner that was not austere, but a simple, pleasant accompaniment just loud and vivacious enough to be listened to and enjoyed when tuned in, but inoffensive when tuned out to enjoy conversation.
The brunch menu at Balthazar is truly a cross between breakfast and lunch. An egg section sits next to the oyster sections, all below a main course containing everything from hazelnut waffles to beef stroganoff. I was stupefied by not only the number of options, but all the types of routes I could go. But I am a creature of ritual, and we were brunching on more of the breakfast side of the time table, so I kept my eyes to the more classically breakfast options. And while my food history here might cause one to assume that I was carb-inclined, I was ready to test their egg poaching. My family tested this out in pretty much every possible way: I ordered the classic eggs Benedict, my sister got the eggs Norwegian (a benny but with salmon instead of ham, which I do actually prefer but I try to avoid getting the same dish as someone else, and was not averse to seeing if Balthazar could get me just as excited for ham), Dad got the eggs Florentine. Mom got us the taste of the sweeter side with the brioche French toast, and we all could not resist sharing a chocolate croissant and a slice of toast topped with Nutella, banana, a crumbly crunchy topping with a twist – mint. There was nowhere to hide. A little bit of everything breakfast was getting the Swonger Family test.
Before we knew it the starters arrived and my parents dexterously cut the croissant and toast into four pieces. It’s hard to go wrong with Nutella and banana. Give me a banana, Nutella jar, and a knife and I have a perfectly acceptable dessert. What was really getting tested was the bread and their interesting addition of mint. Especially as I have never been a fan of mint in my desserts (what is up with everyone’s mint chip obsession? That’s your primary ice cream choice? Really?) I was not totally on board. But it was not so much flavorthat the sprinkling of mint added, but as my Mom said, a sensation. I didn’t feel like I was eating a minty hazelnut banana. The gooey, sweet Nutella/banana combo was lifted up just a bit with a lightness that concluded the bite. It was a toast with a little bit of everything, smooth spread, crunchy granola topping, chewy bread, sweet hazelnut, bright fruitiness, and a unique savory hit to round it out. I could easily have eaten a whole one for my main course, and I hold that it is a must-order item for anyone who finds themselves in the situation to do so.
The chocolate croissant was less surprising with its flavors; your typical pastry with two sticks of chocolate running through it. No crazy herbal twist. But it was satisfying nonetheless. Light and airy with nice bubbly pockets of air throughout, and good quality chocolate to pair with it. Though it was not particularly flakey as I expect a croissant to be, it was definitely a sweet step up from your local chain coffee shop croissant.
Then came our main courses. It was a rather stunning sight to see – the stark white eggs, perfectly poached, sitting atop a slice of ham with a caramelized edge and dark pink inside blanketing an English muffin toasted to perfection. Flowing atop it all a golden yellow hollandaise to complete the idyllic brunch image. Beside it sat the compulsory side salad (Which is always just greens with the best vinaigrette. Seriously, why do brunch places always have the best salad dressing? Is it because their salads are only ever leaves?) and the most tender home fries I have ever been served, for when asked which one I would like on the side the server saw my indecision and suggested I get half and half, a suggestion that will solve 99% of any problem I have.
There are few things so great as breaking the yolk of a perfectly poached egg. And there are few things more disappointing as going to break a yolk and finding a fully cooked, chalky center. Luckily, I had the former. The wispy white separated and let forth a pool of dark yellow yolk, primed to mix with the hollandaise to make the best liquid ever to be soaked in an English muffin with all its nooks and crannies. One of the best things about eggs benedict is that there is the ability to make every bite a perfect bite. Everything is proportional, and even if the top is only lightly sauced, the egg is self-saucing, ensuring no lack of moisture! What brilliance! When each component is executed as expertly as it was by Balthazar with quality ingredients and technique at each layer, it is then that the dish found on every brunch menu which is so easily brushed aside as typical shines and reminds one why its popularity persists. With an occasional break for fresh greens or an oniony potato, it was un repas complète, to pull out some of my French from last year.
Such was the case all around. Replace my well-crisped ham with paper-thin smoked salmon and Jen’s eggs Norwegian was just as fulfilling. Place the eggs atop a bed of perfectly wilted spinach and artichokes with béchamel (which, as my Dad noted, cannot compare with hollandaise in sauce ranking, but was still tasty nonetheless) and it’s a success.
Perhaps the one I was least excited by was the brioche French toast. My Mom and I split our dishes, trading plates halfway through, which left me with the second, thick slice of brioche for my tasting. This was on the more plain side of French toast, adorned with but a slice of banana or a berry on each corner and a cup of maple syrup on the side. And while the custardy middle was tasty, it was not rich with anything special. I would have loved some more fruit to give it a bright contrast, or a little bit more spice in the custard mixture in which the bread was dipped. There was also a substantial amount of crust that was more of a wall I had to get through to get to the French toast insides. A good slice of brioche, across the board the bread quality did not disappoint, but not a special French toast. While perfectly good, I would say the eggs are the way to go.
Ultimately, Balthazar redeemed itself in my eyes. How they could serve such a good brunch but fail miserably on that brownie of last year I do not understand. But for a special brunch I will be quick to recommend it. Whether you go alone for a solo treat or with a group of loved ones to show them the best New York life has to offer, Balthazar is sure to give you exceptional service and a meal worthy of the silver screen.