On January the 1st 2010 I again woke early despite being up quite late the night before – and I woke up to find out that the Long Island busses were running on some asinine “Sunday Schedule” that didn’t start until around noon – having reservations at Momofuku Ko at 12:10 this was hardly acceptable so I decided to start the day with a 2.5 mile walk from my friend’s place to the train station – making good time on the recently fixed sidewalks I arrived moments before the train and actually found myself standing in Penn Station at exactly 8am. Deciding to make my way south to browse Soho and Tribeca for a bit I guess I didn’t really think about the day – almost nothing was open, although the still-hung-over crowds in the street were admittedly entertaining. Wandering past many stores, shops, galleries while listening to The Antlers album I suddenly happened upon a long line at a red awning.
To be fair, given the fact that most gourmands are not at all impressed by Balthazar I’d never really paid attention to its location – but there it was, and it was opening at 9:00, so I figured I’d stop in for at least a pastry and a coffee. Hopping in line minutes before the doors opened I was probably the 20th person in the restaurant – and it was bustling and full within 20 minutes of me taking a seat, a line stretching down the street. Greeted quite promptly by my server and handed a menu I was offered a cocktail, water, coffee, juice – selecting a coffee I was asked if I wanted bottled or tap water – tap would suffice. Seated at a cramped little table (even for one) I have to admit I liked the feel of the room – very “French Bistro” with the long bar serving chilled seafood and drinks and a menu focused largely on bistro/brunch fare.
Returning shortly with the first of many refills of coffee – a deep and nutty blend, possibly the best I had outside of Daniel in New York (saying a lot as both Per Se and Picholine had excellent coffee) – I was offered the pastry basket with the words “Can I bring you our basket of fresh baked breads?” which I declined (I later realized this was offered to everyone, at $18, and most people did not expect it to be charged for because of the manner in which she offered it – there was quite the scene at the table next to me regarding this, actually.) Instead asking for a single almond croissant and the Brioche French Toast to accompany the coffee my server quickly disappeared to give my order to the kitchen – returning within moments to manage 4 other tables with impeccable skill – honest to goodness one of the most effective servers I’ve ever seen anywhere.
Returning shortly with my Croissant – still somewhat warm from the oven (or rewarmed) I was impressed by its girth and fluffiness – it stood tall with a nice crisp shell. Unfortunately the interior of the croissant was largely doughy and most certainly not up to par with Madeline, Payard, or Petrossian. Not that the croissant was bad – not by any means – but for $3.50 and Balthazar’s famous breads I guess I expected an exemplary croissant while this was merely average.
Merely moments after finishing the croissant I was brought my French Toast and my coffee was refilled yet again – while they were certainly trying to turn tables due to the growing line, I still must note how impressed I was with my server’s cordial and professional behavior despite being very rushed (as it turned out I overheard her speaking to a colleague noting that the two of them were covering their own tables plus the tables of a server who was running late – even more impressive.) Tasting the crispy bacon first I liked the smoky flavor a lot and found it to be well balanced between fatty/supple and crispy – while I’m not a big bacon eater, this was excellent. Next pouring the chilled (should’ve been warmed) maple syrup over the toast I first taste the syrup – certainly not pure maple like Maialino, but certainly not Mrs. Buttersworth either, for the price I’d rather expected better syrup. Tasting the buttery brioche I will note that the bread itself was sublime with essences of cinnamon and vanilla very pronounced – unfortunately while the outside was crispy and delicious, the inside was again doughy – a combination, in my opinion, of using too hot a griddle and not allowing the bread to soak long enough. Again decent, but most certainly not worth the $18 price-tag.
Receiving the bill and another coffee, this time in a paper cup to take with me, I have to admit I was a bit annoyed by the price – more than $30 when including the well deserved tip. Obviously I don’t mind spending good money on good food, but this was a case where I definitely felt like I was paying more for a name or hype than for quality or quantity. Bill paid I made my way downstairs to the restroom and in the less than 2 minutes I was downstairs they had already taken down my table and seated the next couple – impressive. Great service, a nice setting, decent food and high prices - in the end I have to say Balthazar was a nice touristy experience, but not someplace I’d return.