I remember when Keith McNally opened Balthazar. It was the Spring of 1997. And even though I was no longer living in New York, word of this ultra-hip, retro-chic, uber-trendy and neo-traditional French bistro reached me in Hong Kong. The NY press went wild over SoHo’s hottest new restaurant, dedicating several column inches to cover its opening. Several friends also emailed me, telling me about it while also very slyly asking if, perhaps, I had or knew anyone who had Balthazar’s secret reservation phone number. You see, when this very sexy bistro first opened, they had an interesting reservations policy. Basically, as far as the public knew, they didn’t have one. Which meant, given the typical New York frenzy among punters to be among the first to try any new restaurant, you could end up waiting from around 1-2 hours for a table. Fortunately, the bar was long and the drinks good, so waiting for your table also meant getting sloshed while also chatting up fellow patrons. Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Now, here’s the kicker. Balthazar did indeed take reservations. But you had to have their very special reservation number, which was only given out to a handful of very carefully selected and cool people, and which most of these people guarded preciously. Armed with this number, you could call, get a table and then walk in without so much as a glance at the throngs of black-clad wannabes elbowing for space at the bar. (Of course, there was an amusing story in which one magazine Editor, who was given the number, decided to print it, which both caused a flood of calls and a forced change of the number… but that’s not my story to tell.)
Fortunately, thanks to some of my parents’ friends who were pretty well-known patrons (i.e. big-spenders) in the NY food scene, I did, in fact, have the phone number. But there was no way I was going to email it to friends unless I was going to be dining with them. Knowing them, they’d pass it around to anyone and everyone they knew. Fortunately, I had made plans to be back in the Big Apple that year and arranged with my buds–some of whom had sucked it up and waited in line for a table–to gather for a feast at Balthazar.
The restaurant blew me away (and still does). While not entirely authentic, it has cool, fantastical retro-French stylings akin to sets in Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge. It was glam, kitsch, sexy, retro, ultra-stylish, loud, crazy, mad, intimate and comforting all at the same time. And the food was good. Very good in fact. After just one meal (with lots and lots of wine), I was a fan. And I’ve tried, on every trip back to New York since, to grab at least one meal there or at its sister restaurant Pastis.
(On a random side note, when a good buddy of mine, who was helping to run the Raffles Hotel here in Singapore, asked me what the hotel should do with its Bar & Billiards Room, I told him immediately, “You should open an ultra-chic bistro just like Balthazar.” Sadly, he didn’t take my advice and opened a pretty blah buffet restaurant instead. But recently, I’ve heard rumours that the management is now considering converting the space into a bistro. If that’s true, I hope they go the Balthazar route and don’t opt for something cheesy and touristy.)
S and I both, in addition to loving the restaurant, also love The Balthazar Cookbook. It’s both a nifty souvenir of one of my favourite restaurants and also filled with good recipes for classic dishes. While we cook from the book frequently, the one item we make the most is a simple lentils side dish, which in the cookbook is prepared to go with a mustard-crusted salmon. We serve it with the salmon dish, of course, but we also serve it with a dozen other things, from roast chicken to lamb chops. It is a great, easy to make side has become something of a constant on our table. We hope you like it as much as we do.
Adapted from The Balthazar Cookbook
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup lentils du Puy
2 slices of bacon, finely diced
4 sprigs of thyme
½ medium onion, finely diced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 celery stalk, finely diced
¼ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 cup chicken stock
Make sure that you prepare all the diced and minced items before you start cooking the lentils. You will need to cook them as the lentils simmer. We find that if we try to prep the ingredients while the lentils simmer, we tend to end up with overcooked lentils and undercooked vegetables. Feel free to ignore this tip if you move with the swiftness of Superman in the kitchen.
Rinse the lentils and place them in a medium saucepan. Cover the lentils with 4 cups of water. Bring the water to a gentle simmer and cook for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a small saucepan over a medium flame. Place the bacon and thyme in the hot pan and cook until some of the fat has rendered from the bacon (about 2 minutes). Next, add the onion, garlic and salt, and cook until the onion is translucent (about 5 minutes). Add the butter, carrot, celery, white pepper and chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes.
Drain the lentils and return them to the saucepan you cooked them in. Add the bacon-vegetable mixture and simmer gently for 7 to 10 minutes, until the lentils are very tender. We often simmer the dish for a shorter period of time (about 5 minutes) and leave it to stand until we need to serve it. Just before serving, we simply heat the lentils. By slightly undercooking them earlier on, we avoid ending up with mushy lentils when we reheat the dish before serving it.