80 Spring Street
Posted in the run-up to the US release of this.
by Malcolm Eggs
Breakfast at Balthazar, which turns up on listings websites when you Google 'best New York breakfast', is probably meant to be a bit of an event. For Seggolène Royal and I it was just opportunism. We stumbled across it – oh, that's Balthazar – on the way to eat eggs somewhere else and I argued that we needed to seize the moment, that here was an unmissable chance to gain credibility amongst my peers. A breakfast writer who has never tried Balthazar, I reasoned, is like a film critic who has never seen Titanic.
When we left the restaurant about an hour later, I felt less like I'd been watching an important blockbuster than had been skipping through a CD-Rom labelled 'what people say when they free associate about Paris'. There had been dusty old bottles of wine on out-of-the-way shelves and meticulous waiters in black and white uniforms. There had been backlit Art Deco panels and the recorded sounds of melancholy violin quartets. Everything had been dark red, dark brown, goldy yellow or yellowy gold.
A large part of the atmosphere in Balthazar is to do with the height of its ceiling. Few things make a person feel more instantly wealthy than breakfasting in a place where you can't imagine how they change the lightbulb. When my companion told me that the clientele generally consists of "tourists and powerbrokers" it made perfect sense, both categories tending to value high ceilings, along with pomp in general and a sense (real or synthetic) of history, above food.
The food in Balthazar was forgettable. I feel about it as I feel about normal journeys between one mundane place and another, journeys in which nothing in particular happened and of which I have no recollection. I had brioche French toast with bacon ($18). My companion had sour cream waffles with warm fruit ($18). It wasn't bad (that would be memorable) and it wasn't good. By the twenties I will have no mental impression of it at all. I might remember that they had toilet attendants complete with one of those trays of aftershave and boiled sweets, an unexpected echo of the terrible nightclubs I'd go to in the nineties (right up to the pang of guilt I felt when I left without paying for the privilege). I will also remember the fascinating and admirable way with which the waitress took on the task of defining 'granola' and then 'oats' to a quizzical couple from Germany. But I won't recall the tasteless bowl of cafe au lait or the French toast with applewood smoked bacon that came within a few minutes and without maple syrup.
I'd been looking forward to visiting the new London branch of Balthazar but now I'm not so sure. If the original is such an underwhelming homage to a sort of fantasy version of a Paris bistro, do I really want to try a copy of that homage? The answer is yes, I do, but only because a breakfast writer who has never tried Balthazar London… etc, and so on.