Dining out with Moira Hodgson

Five Years Later,

Soho Brasserie Is Still Abuzz

Following Sept. 11 last year, Balthazar closed for three days. The staff joined the relief effort and cooked for the rescue workers, delivering food to Ground Zero. Business was slow for the next two months, as it was for all restaurants downtown, where many have since closed. But by Christmas, Balthazar had bounced right back. And now, five years after it first opened, it’s still one of the hottest restaurants in New York. What’s the secret? After all, it’s just a knock-off French brasserie, isn’t it?

“It’s a theme park for sophisticated people who want to pretend they’re in Paris,” said a friend who says he likes to go there late at night to read the Herald Tribune and have a steak tartare.

My husband disagrees. “That’s not it at all. It’s the place you want to go to when you go out.”

Other restaurateurs must lie awake at night trying to decipher the formula of owner Keith McNally’s success so they can make their places the ones people want to go to when they “go out.” Mr. McNally opened his first restaurant, the Odeon (which he sold in 1993), over 20 years ago in the then up-and-coming Tribeca. He followed with Café Luxembourg (which he has also sold), Lucky Strike, Pravda and Pastis, his ever-popular French bistro in the meatpacking district. And next spring he plans to open a small restaurant in another recently gentrified neighborhood, the Lower East Side, on Rivington and Norfolk streets.

Balthazar is the most polished of the McNally ventures. It’s also one of the loudest restaurants I’ve ever been in-aside from Pastis, which perhaps takes

the prize in this category (a general conversation among four people at the banquette in either place can strain your vocal cords for a week). But there’s something exhilarating about Balthazar, and it hits the moment you walk in. The room is beautiful. With its red leather banquettes, high yellow ceilings, distressed mirrors and intricately carved woodwork, it looks as though it’s been around for at least a hundred years. The long mahogany bar is always packed, and the gleaming shellfish display next to it-with the names of the oysters scrawled on the mirrors above-rivals anything I’ve seen in Paris. And even when Balthazar is sort of quiet in the middle of the afternoon, there’s still a faint buzz.

Mr. McNally has always been shrewd when it comes to hiring staff. The people at the front desk aren’t snippy, as they are in some trendy restaurants; they actually look pleased to see the customers, and the wait staff is both efficient and friendly without being overbearing. The crowd here on Labor Day weekend was not particularly hip. Many of the people were from out of town (such as the three blond Southern heiresses staying at the Soho Grand, one of whom was dressed in a black satin suit with pants embroidered down the side with little white martini glasses). Across from me one night were two elderly couples; at a nearby banquette, a sun-tanned model in a low-cut, skin-tight white dress drank champagne. In many ways, Balthazar is like La Coupole: It has a democratic attitude and a wide audience of all ages.

So what do you order? Don’t expect any homilies from the waiter about

the chef’s morning visits to the green

market or his “ingredient-driven” menu.

Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson know what their audience is looking for. The menu is much the same as it was when Balthazar opened five years ago-fare that the average Parisian brasserie has been turning out since the 1950′s, with a few updated dishes. But it’s done extremely well. Start with snails: They are absolutely what they should be, loaded with butter and garlic. Or try the coarse country liver pâté with a rich, dark onion relish and green peppercorns. A warm tart has a delicate filling of goat cheese and caramelized onions, and the brandade morue is thick and creamy, served with sourdough croutons. The bread, of course, is first-rate. It comes from Balthazar’s small bakery next-door, which now supplies restaurants around the city.

One of my favorite meals at Balthazar is the plateau de fruits de mer, and I expect it’s responsible for setting a trend. (Five years ago, how many restaurants in New York served this dish? Now it’s all over town.) I could eat just this and a side order of the terrific French fries, which come in a tin scoop wrapped in paper, and go away happy. The shellfish makes a dramatic presentation on a three-tiered platter-shrimp, clams, oysters, crab, conch and lobster at $56 for two or $98 for four. One evening, when our waitress unflinchingly reeled off the names of the nine different oysters of the day, I was reminded of the young man who impressed me by boasting that when he lived in Paris, he could tell the different kinds of oysters blindfolded. Up until then, I had thought oysters were just oysters. I was 18-the same age when I unwittingly ordered steak tartare and, to my horror, was presented with raw hamburger. Balthazar’s steak tartare arrives already mixed. It is perfectly seasoned and as good as anything the “21″ Club ever turned out. The duck confit, with a frisée salad, house-made potato chips and wild mushrooms, is also excellent, crispy and golden, and the steak frites and grilled lamb T-bone are top of their class. But the skate, which in the past I’ve loved here (it used to come with red wine sauce, instead of the hazelnut brown butter they now serve it with) was disappointing. It was spongy, with a faint ammonia aura. I ate just one bite, and the busboy took the plate away without asking if anything was wrong.

The wine list gives me pause. At the lower end, it’s unimaginative. The Muscadet by the pichet is poor. There are interesting wines in the low three figures, but at the high end are dubious choices such as a three-year-old La Tache for $950. “I would love to have someone prove to me that a three-year-old bottle of claret is delicious,” said one of my friends, looking over the list. It’s as though they went to the liquor store last week looking for name brands-not a wine list that suggests much passion, or that tempts you into a choice pricier than your budget allows.

For dessert, the crème brûlée is absolutely perfect, lovely and creamy under a light crunchy topping. The tarte Tatin is too sweet, but the airy lemon-soufflé tart scores high marks.

One night, my son took a taste of warm chocolate cake and raised his eyes heavenward to signal his pleasure. Then he looked puzzled. “Why are there playing cards on the ceiling?”

Indeed, there was a surreal sight: three cards-a four of clubs, a five of hearts, a two of hearts-attached to the pressed-tin ceiling. Was there special significance in the numbers? How did the cards get there, and why? Were they concealing some defect?

“A magician doing magic tricks got them up there five years ago, where they have remained ever since,” said Mr. McNally over the telephone. “I don’t know how he got them there or why they haven’t fallen down. But I decided to leave them up there.”

Given Balthazar’s success, I’m surprised the magician hadn’t thrown a royal flush.