If you have lived in New York City for at least a couple of years, you’ll start recognizing all the classic tourist trap establishments in the city. I try to stay away from tourist traps but there are so many in the city that you inevitably visit one or two every once in a while. Nowadays, with the influx of information on all the hottest places in the city for food and drinks, the line on what constitutes a tourist trap has somewhat blurred. It is safe to say, however, that restaurateur Keith McNally’s French brasserie in SoHo has been an enduring institution where hundreds of tourists flock to on a daily basis. Despite the number of restaurants in the city I’ve been to, Balthazar has somewhat evaded me, and probably for good reason. I don’t really hang out in SoHo in the first place unless I’m visiting a restaurant that sits on the quieter side of neighborhood that I’ve been meaning to check out for a long time, and Balthazar clearly doesn’t fit that category, and I wasn’t sure if the dining experience would be worth all the noise coming from tourists. Recently, a friend of mine who had a friend visiting New York City for the first time thought we should take her to a classic establishment instead of some hot place that opened recently, and that’s how I stepped into Balthazar, which was absolutely packed on a Thursday night and I can already tell probably not more than a quarter of the crowd is from New York. Well, is the food at least worth all the hype?
The menu at Balthazar is mostly classic French brasserie food. It doesn’t pretend to add any fancy ingredient, technique or plating to the table, and that’s fine with me as long as the execution is consistently there. At Balthazar, though, the consistency seems to be an issue. The oysters were certainly fresh, but the texture of escargots in garlic butter was somewhat off based on my expectation of how snails should taste like. I did like the frisee salad with warm bacon shallot vinaigrette and soft-poached egg, showcasing a classic touch that you should have at the beginning of your meal. On the other hand, warm goat cheese and caramelized onion tart, despite its smooth texture, wasn’t nearly satisfying enough.
Slow-roasted Atlantic cod with soft polenta, ramps, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and bordelaise was another boring dish that I could remember nothing about after a couple of days, even though I vaguely remember the fish was nicely cooked. The steak frites, a classic French dish that everyone seems to be ordering at Balthazar, had juicy, tender steak cooked medium rare, but the uneven seasoning somewhat undermined the texture of the meat. The desserts fared better. The strawberry rhubarb tart that our server highly recommended was delightful, as was the caramelized banana ricotta tart with banana ice cream that had nice touch of sweetness without overpowering my palate.
As noted above, Balthazar is perpetually packed, especially with tourists, so if you’re inclined to check it out, either make a reservation in advance or shoot for quieter times like in the morning for breakfast. The restaurant has an extensive wine list from which you should select a bottle or two to complement your meal. If you want to show your out-of-towner friend what a dining scene in New York City is like, Balthazar may be a nice introduction; if you’re a serious foodie looking for serious dining experience, however, it may not necessarily be the right fit. In a way, you can’t really blame the restaurant since I’m sure the kitchen is constantly facing the pressure of mobs looking to cross off their New York tour checklist.
- Creativity: 7.0/10
- Execution: 7.5/10
- Ingredients: 7.5/10
- Flavor: 7.0/10
- Texture: 7.5/10
Address: 80 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012
Telephone: (212) 965-1414