Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Travel log: Balthazar stands the test of time

The iconic French bistro retains its relevance
Maxwell Zaleski/Collegian

What more can be said of Balthazar? I asked myself that question countless times last week as I watched an endless stream of people line up to try their chance at getting a table at the legendary restaurant while I dined at a booth near the bar. It is a New York institution, as ubiquitous as the New York Yankees or a pack of subway rats. It has been an immutable eatery in SoHo ever since it first opened its doors in 1997. Last year, more than half a million people dined at the restaurant. It is one of the few restaurants where any group of random tourists (or broke college students) could find themselves dining shoulder to shoulder with the likes of David Beckham or Anna Wintour. In a city where many establishments serving the most innovative and sought-after dishes are nearly inaccessible to those who are not members of a select, wealthy elite, Balthazar is the great gastronomic equalizer.

Perhaps this relative blindness toward the identities of diners is the reason that Balthazar continues to thrive in such a cutthroat and trend-dependent industry. Upon entering the restaurant for the first time last week, I strangely felt like I had been inside before. Its mirrored walls, close-quarters seating and glowing golden lighting has been imitated thousands of times by French bistros across the country. Yes, there were other stylistically similar restaurants in New York before Balthazar (and many are still continuing to emerge), but few have lasted as long or have remained so consistently delicious.

Balthazar’s menu has stayed relatively static for the two decades it has been open. For returning diners, the restaurant feels like putting on a beloved jacket. The choices for dinner contain little surprises – the menu reads like a bistro’s “greatest hits.” Appetizers include escargot, steak tartare and onion soup, and entrées run the gamut from duck confit to steak au poivre. A choice of daily specials rotates every seven days. As I learned from the seasoned Balthazar veterans at the table next to me, the dish that any new entrant must order is the steak frites. It is far and away the restaurant’s most popular dish and, at $41, it is one of the most expensive on the menu.

The steak in the dish comes from the rump of the cow, which is the traditional cut of meat that is used in steak frites. Rump steaks tend to be leaner than their rib eye or sirloin counterparts, but the meat itself was no less flavorful or succulent than any other cut of superior marbling quality. Cooked to a perfect medium rare, it is a simple but beautifully executed piece of beef with a subtly spicy black pepper bite. In an era where diners are demanding intensely fatty steaks dry-aged for so long that they look like they need haircuts to take care of the mold, it is a welcome reminder that the most elegant dishes needn’t be overwrought.

A large pad of garlic compound butter rests on top of the steak, intensifying the heaviness of the dish. Next to the steak sits a heaping pile of some of the crispest French fries one can find. Also fantastic is the mushroom risotto, a creamy helping of al dente rice that is buoyed by salty bits of bacon and a savory assortment of fungus. A smattering of fresh herbs helps the rice retain some semblance of lightness.

The pace of the meal is the only detractor, as it doesn’t facilitate the most relaxing dining environment. The restaurant is sublimely chaotic. A gaggle of servers dart around pillars and maneuver from table to table bearing bottles of Beaujolais and towers of assorted shellfish on ice. The volume can become cacophonous at times: The high ceilings create the perfect echo chamber in which conversations bounce around the room. After bread, entrées and dessert, my partner and I were in and out in just over an hour. Judging by the perpetual line at the door, this sort of high turnover rate is necessary to accommodate all who wish to partake in a meal.

At 22 years old, Balthazar has exchanged its cool factor for well-worn culinary mastery. It will undoubtedly remain safely harbored in SoHo for years to come. Next time you find yourself in New York, make a trip to Balthazar your dining priority. It is a landmark in the vast and intimidating New York City restaurant scene, and one that can inspire a love of the distinct strain of French cuisine that has been appropriated and transformed into something that is emphatically “New York.”

Jacob Abrams can be reached at [email protected].

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