A Bistro at Full Tilt Where the Kitchen Means Business

Balthazar

** 1/2

80 Spring Street, between Broadway and Crosby Street

965-1414

Dress: Chic

Noise level: High

Wine list: French, with good prices and selections from lesser-known regions

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Breakfast $3 to $6, lunch main courses $9 to $22, dinner $16 to $24

Hours: Daily 7:30 A.M. to 2 A.M., Friday and Saturday to 3 A.M.

brunch menu: Saturday and Sunday 11:30 A.M. to 4 P.M.

* Good

** Very good

*** Excellent

**** Outstanding

no star Poor

El Niño was in full throttle the night I arrived at Balthazar. I checked my raincoat, hid my umbrella as far back as I could behind the large stack already piled by the door, and looked around. I was meeting an English friend, an actress I much admired whom I hadn’t seen for 20 years (we go back even further than that; at our girls’ boarding school, where the Shakespearean tradition of having boys play female roles was cunningly reversed, I had played the Archbishop of Canterbury to her Richard II). We had planned to catch up on our lives over an early drink before our husbands arrived.

But if bars have traditionally proved congenial settings for life stories, Balthazar’s is not one of them. As everyone knows, since the day that Keith McNally first opened it nearly a year ago, Balthazar has been the hottest restaurant in town. There wasn’t a seat available anywhere near the bar (nor, as far as I could see, in the entire restaurant), so I made my way through the crowd and ordered a drink. A few minutes later my friend appeared, having already, as is inevitable any night at Balthazar, run into people she knew. Tall, slender and dressed in black, she was looking very glamorous in a pillbox hat tilted rakishly to one side. She could not have fitted in better with her surroundings.

Balthazar looks like a French brasserie that has been around for the better part of the century, with tilted peeling mirrors, mosaic tile floors, intricately carved woodwork and walls that look yellowed by decades of smoke. My friend reminded me of those mysterious women in old French bistro photographs, toying with a glass of wine and a cigarette. I told her I liked her hat.

“Darling, when you get to our age, it’s the only thing to do with your hair in this weather,” she said airily. “Cover it up.”

She had left a pile of money on the long zinc-topped bar. It was still there, and she bought a round of drinks.

At school, my friend and I had shared, along with a mistrust of team spirit and organized religion, an intense dislike of the headmistress, who was a great beauty but a bully and a hypocrite. When the light bulb outside her office turned from red to green, the door would open and inevitably disgorge a weeping child clutching a handkerchief embroidered not with her own initials, but with the head mistress’, white on white: D.R.H. (R.I.P).

We had not got far with our reminiscences before our husbands arrived and we were shown to a booth. It was so noisy that general conversation was virtually impossible (but we did have an eyeful of the Donald with a bevy of beauties at the next table).

Our waitress, whose neat braids would have met with D.R.H.’s approval (but whose dangling fish-shaped earrings would have merited a little talk with the red light on over the door) brought the menus, and we turned our attention to food. With all his restaurants, starting with Odeon (when the late, much-lamented Patrick Clark was in the kitchen) through Lucky Strike and Pravda, Keith McNally has always been serious about the food. Baltha-zar’s chefs, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, were previously at Daniel, and it shows. The wine list is impressive, too, with selections from little-known regions in France.

You know the kitchen means business if you order the plateau de fruits de mer. Three tiers arrived shaped like my friend’s hat and higher than one of the Donald’s buildings. They were laden with shrimp, clams, several kinds of oysters, crab, lobster and even whelks (it’s not cheap-$55 for two, $98 for four-but worth it). We passed around the steak tartare, which was also delicious, and a plate of snails in garlic butter. The brandade de morue, smooth and creamy, is also good here, as is the country rillette of rabbit and the warm goat cheese tart with caramelized onions. This is bistro food the likes of which you don’t find often in Paris these days.

Coulibiac “should be appetizing, shameless in its nakedness, a temptation to sin,” Anton Chekhov wrote, a trifle breathlessly, in a short story called “The Siren.” At Balthazar it is a special on Mondays (on other days there is choucroute, pot-au-feu and bouillabaisse). It was not exactly shameless in its nakedness but looked rather cozy in its flaky pastry wrapping, cut in a generous slice, the salmon perfectly cooked inside. (Another night, I tried the seared salmon, which was also good, with porcini mushrooms on soft polenta.)

“Duck shepherd’s pie!” exclaimed my friend, who had been raised like me on this dish at school, where it was made with leftover roast lamb.

“While shepherds tend their ducks by night,” I thought to myself, remembering the carol we used to sing in the Nativity play and how D.R.H. had turned me down for the role of the angel Gabriel (“Bless you, my dear, but you look a bit too feminine”). I did not ask why I wasn’t too feminine for the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I liked the idea of shepherd’s pie made with duck, but it was rather skimpy on the mashed potatoes. The dish I ordered, pappardelle topped with a rich sauce made with braised rabbit, was a better choice. The skate is wonderful here, too, cooked in a delicate crust in a red wine sauce, and the dark, glistening lamb shank is falling off the bone and scented with orange and rosemary.

The wine flowed all too freely, and we went on to the assiette de fromages, four different kinds of cheese all nicely ripened, and to desserts which include a wonderful lemon mille-feuille with sorbet and a creamy crème brûlée.

As we went out into the night, passing by the small bakery with its painted glass ceiling brought in by Mr. McNally from Burgundy, we agreed that Balthazar would be around for a long time. As I got into a cab, I remembered the opening lines of our school song, which used to produce titters:

“When Mrs. Digby first conceived,

A school was surely needed …”