As I planned my trip to New York, Balthazar — a restaurant named for having the best fries in the world — was at the top of my list. ”80 Spring Street, please,” I said to the cab driver, through a smile I couldn’t contain.
I had been told I would never get in without a reservation, but those famous red awnings beckoned. Asking the cab to wait, I peeked in the front door. I was greeted with an overwhelming warmth and charm. “I’m sorry I don't have a reservation,” I explained apologetically. “Would you have a table for one?” After a brief glance around the room, the maître d’ winked, replied, “Absolutely,” and walked me through the crowded aisles to a seat in a corner. I quickly spotted a single stool up at the bar that looked much cozier and would give me a better view. I squeezed onto the stool with elbows touching both people beside me.
The energy of Balthazar was electric. It was huge inside, with tables jammed together and every inch of the space used. With everyone chatting and clinking and laughing, the restaurant had a fantastic New York feel. My placemat was set before me and the menu arrived. Although I was tempted by chicken liver and foie gras mousse with red onion confit and grilled country bread, and the salt-roasted fish with saffron-almond basmati rice, bok choy and Meyer lemon vin blanc, I had specifically come for that classically simple dish, steak frites.
And there it was: STEAK FRITES with maître d’ butter or Béarnaise sauce, $36. I placed my order, steak frites, medium-rare.
I was almost overcome with anticipation. World-famous French fries. I couldn’t imagine what they might be like… and I know French fries. Twenty minutes later, my dinner arrived. The fries were glistening gold, the steak looked plump and darkly charred. I dipped a French fry into the Béarnaise sauce and popped it into my mouth. Heavenly! Velvety inside, crispy outside. Perfect! Sadly, when I cut into my steak, it was completely overcooked. I was crushed. I felt so disappointed that I just sat for a moment.
I pondered over whether I should keep quiet and just live with it. Hmmm, what would Ruth Reichl do? What’s the etiquette in SoHo, at Balthazar about this sort of thing? The gentleman on my left seemed to know. “Overcooked?” he sniffed. “I always say Americans don't know how to cook a steak!” It didn't take a second to decide I wasn't into his advice. I decided instead to take a deep breath, lean over the bar and whisper to the waiter so no one else would hear. “Sorry, I hate to tell you this,” I said quietly. “I think my steak may be a tad overcooked.” With a friendly smile, he whisked my plate away and said, “Oh my goodness, let me have this corrected for you. Your steak should be perfect.” A minute later the manager came up behind me and apologized, saying my steak was being re-cooked, that it would be perfect, and that they were very, very sorry.
I was quickly put back on my path of anticipated greatness.
No more than five minutes and my dinner was delivered. And it was perfect! I savoured every single bite, as the ruby-red juices of my now faultlessly cooked steak mingled with the exquisite emulsion of the buttery Béarnaise. Meanwhile, my waiter behind the bar said with a smile that modern etiquette dictates that wine should be continually topped, as he poured my third glass of strong, deep red.
I came to Balthazar expecting to be amazed. I was — and not just by the steak frites. What really impressed me was the way this supposedly “exclusive” restaurant combined sophisticated food with welcoming warmth. And the steak incident confirmed something I’ve always thought. When you’re not sure about etiquette–the codes of behaviour that govern a social group–why not just fall back on being kind? Whatever the etiquette of a situation might be, the fundamental rule of manners is to treat others the way you want to be treated yourself. Getting huffy about an overcooked steak just isn’t worth it. And in the end, I found that politeness was answered by politeness. Kindness met kindness. And the steak was unforgettable.
Back home, I tried my hand at Pan-seared bone-in rib-eye.