Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A CULINARY TRIFECTA: Del Posto, Balthazar and Philippe

Friends enjoying the lunchtime break at Balthazar.

A CULINARY TRIFECTA: Del Posto, Balthazar and Philippe
by Carol Joynt

Here’s the thing about dining out in New York’s top restaurants: it’s not a game for amateurs. But there are restaurant moments that can make even a seasoned diner feel like an amateur: sticker shock, for example, or a lost reservation. A couple of New York restaurants recently proved that having an “A” game is a relative thing. On the other hand, a third, the class of the field, did what the best restaurants always do: provided the same excellent food and service to all, and with rational prices.


My timing was impeccable: I made a reservation at Del Posto a week before the lux Italian received 4 stars from The New York Times. After the review, reservation requests skyrocketed to 2,000. Our dinner occurred five days after the review appeared.

It would be my second visit. The first was when it opened in 2006, when I went because I love Babbo, and Babbo and Del Posto have the same owner, Mario Batali. Our 2006 dinner, the tasting menu for two, was delicious and about $300. In other words I knew the room, the food and the expected price tag.

It can be risky to go to any restaurant within a week of a rave review because sometimes the gold rush overwhelms the staff. But when a friend and I arrived, Del Posto was as calm, lush and romantic as I remembered, with gentle piano music in the background.
Del Posto as viewed from the balcony.
Our table was against the wall, side by side seating, which was grand for watching arrivals and to appreciate the deft ballet of well-trained front of the house staff as they served food, poured wine and attended to every patron’s needs. At an adjacent table were Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, her husband, daughter and son-in-law.

We sipped sparkling wine and looked through the menu. A charming manager arrived to say “hello” and to explore our culinary interests. The day had been spent in cool air, wind and sunshine and I was thinking autumn. Pasta, for sure, and maybe lamb or beef and a Barolo. Otherwise, my mind was open. When I glanced at the table one over, where a waiter shaved layers of white truffle onto steaming risotto, the sight and scent were a knock out.
Del Posto's robust bread basket. Spreads for the bread.
At Del Posto, a plate of palate teasers.
“Perhaps you’d let me put together a menu for you,” the manager said. He asked if there was anything in particular to avoid or include. I leered at the table to my left. “I’m open to anything,” I said, “but please, one dish with truffles.” On reflection, maybe what I should have said was “one shave of truffle, please.”

Thus began a parade of plates with wines to match. The antipasti course was ideal: cured tuna with fresh Burrata, baby basil leaves, poached skinless cherry tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil. It was light and easy on the palate. There was another light dish of wood-grilled lobster, followed by the restaurant’s famous and substantial 100 Layer Lasagne al Ragù Bolognese. It is fortunate that the portion is slight because the100 layers make for a heavenly but rich course. Duck breast was the entrée, fulfilling any duck lover’s fantasy of gently gamey fowl matched with a savory sauce.

In the midst of all this a bowl was brought to the table. In it, sitting on a bed of rice, was a truffle as big as Mario Batali. Talk about temptation. Could I pocket it and bolt? Should I chomp into it like a juicy apple, just to say I did? Instead, it was soon shaved over two plates of risotto. Flavor, smell and texture merged in earthy harmony, a steam bath for the senses.
A white truffle as big as Mario Batali. Shaving the white truffle on steaming risotto. White truffles have a heavenly scent.
Burrata, poached cherry tomatoes, baby basil leaves and tuna.
A light dish of wood-grilled lobster.
As we lingered with dessert, dessert wine, coffee and chocolates, the check arrived. I’m not sure what I expected, but I didn’t expect a tab of $533.49, before tip. I was ticked at myself for not voicing a budget at the get go, and peeved that no one asked. So, buyer beware: when a manager says, “let me put together a menu for you,” by all means say “yes,” because the adventure is exciting, but set a ceiling, too. If I’d been told the risotto with white truffles ran $150, I would have been content to admire from a distance.

Del Posto is well worth a visit, but go with one of the global rich.

Del Posto, 85 10th Ave., (212) 497-8090.

(Unfortunately, Del Posto forbade me from taking pictures. The photos above do not do it fair justice).
Balthazar on a rainy afternoon.

When I tell New York friends how much I love Balthazar they are often dismissive. “Too touristy.” Oh, balderdash. I think its perfect and, at the tender age of 13, practically a Manhattan classic. Besides, in more than a dozen visits over the years the people on either side of me have been New Yorkers, happy New Yorkers, enjoying consistently good bistro fare in an atmosphere that’s supercharged with New York chaos and Euro flare.

At Balthazar the bread is fresh from their own bakery.
I’ll say this, too: In all those times, as just another patron, I’ve been treated well. I make my reservation on the phone, it is always honored, I’m seated promptly, have never had a bad table, the servers know the menu and keep an eye on their tables, and there’s never been sticker shock. I’ve also sat alone at the bar for lunch and enjoyed a relaxed and delicious meal.

If there’s any flaw with Balthazar it’s me. Even with a menu of many excellent choices I tend to order the same things: champagne, bread, the Balthazar salad, plates of oysters, and either the Pavlova or the Lemon Mille-Feuille. I depart vowing, “next time I’ll do Mussels, or Steak Frites, or Bouillabaisse, or Roasted Chicken, or Duck Confit, or the Omelette with Frites and Fine Herbs!” But then I arrive the next time and follow my pattern, knowing I can’t get this menu, with the same finesse, back home.

The Balthazar salad is the diverse mix a meal salad should be: a base of assorted lettuces, paper thin fennel for a shot of contrasting flavor, haricots verts and asparagus for texture, a thick shaving of ricotta salata for salty balance, a slice of avocado for creaminess, and topped with a delicate but confident truffle vinaigrette. Again and again and again it is excellent.
A tray of cheeses.
The Balthazar salad
Balthazar's excellent fries. Balthazar's Grand Plateau of shellfish.
A half dozen briny oysters.
I love oysters, and I particularly love small and briny oysters. Balthazar reliably has a great assortment of East and West Coast options. When I arrive, after getting settled at the table, I visit the oyster bar to ask the shuckers for their recommendations. They are agreeable and accommodating and always point me to what I’ll like. I order them by the half dozen, sometimes as many as three orders.

One of these visits I will order either or both of Le Grand Plateaux de Fruits de Mer. Le Grand, at $70, is all oysters. Le Balthazar, at $115.00 is a shellfish extravaganza. It’s a sight to watch one of the towers get brought to a table. On my visit last week a delighted couple who ordered Le Balthazar encouraged me to take a picture. We all laughed. They had no idea “grand” meant THAT grand.
Enjoying late lunch at Balthazar.
Bistro fare at Balthazar.
The choices for dessert include bistro basics like Profiteroles, Apple Tart Tatin, Chocolate Pot de Crème, a Tarte du Jour from the Balthazar bakery, and Chocolate cake – all well prepared. After a feast of oysters, though, I crave something tart and fruity, which is why I’m drawn to the Lemon Mille-Feuille and the Pavlova. The Pavlova combines the sugary crunch of meringue with a creamy center and a drenching in berries. The meal for two, with cocktails, champagne, two salads, lots of oysters and dessert, came to $206.

When it comes to a meal at Balthazar, the French have the perfect expression: ooh la la.

It’s worth noting that Balthazar is the creation of a Brit, Keith McNally, whose first New York restaurant hit happened in 1980 with Odeon, followed by Café Luxembourg, Nell’s, Lucky Strike, Pastis, Schiller’s Liquor Bar and Morandi. I haven’t yet been to Morandi, but I’ve enjoyed the others. Still, I like Balthazar best. It could be the best French bistro in the U.S.

Balthazar Restaurant, 80 Spring Street, (212) 965-1785.

Philippe on East 60th Street.

During three days in New York I knew I’d be eating formal French, bistro French, formal Italian, and American. How to round that out? Chinese seemed the way to go. I get plenty of good Thai and Japanese in Washington, but there’s really no artisan or frankly stylish Chinese. So, from many options, I chose Philippe because it had compelling reviews, was convenient for me on East 60th Street, and had an interesting narrative – the chef, Philippe Chow, though no relation to Michael Chow, was at Mr. Chow’s for 26 years. There was even a lawsuit after he departed Mr. Chow for Philippe.

My visit was a comedy of errors but not without charm and mostly tasty food. Some of it was too starchy and sweet for me, but the Peking Duck saved the evening.

Nonetheless, even though I made my reservation on Open Table and confirmed it by email with the owner, Stratis Morfogen, when we arrived there was no reservation in my name. We cooled our jets in the packed and raucous bar for 30 minutes until a table became available. We were taken to the back dining room, which was loud but less loud than the middle room and the bar. Beside and above us was a skylight and flowers, adding some color and character to an otherwise stark room.

There were three of us and we decided to eat family style, meaning one dish and lots of sharing. We started with the Dumpling Sampler, which included delicately steamed chicken sieu mai, jade shrimp, and vegetable dumplings. They were fine. Nothing remarkable, but fine.
Philippe from the inside: the din inside drowns out the sounds of the street work outside.
At the waiter’s suggestion we followed the dumplings with Chicken Satay “prepared in chef Chow’s famous cream sauce.” It was more like “drenched” in the sauce, which I found tasty and creamy but overwhelming. It tasted like chicken candy. The next two courses were more winning: Nine Seasons Spicy Prawns, which were sweet and salty and addictive, and a whole Peking Duck that showed lovely preparation. It was crispy, not too greasy, had good taste, and was beautifully carved and served at the table.

Vegetable fried rice arrived in a steaming pot from which we helped ourselves. I find with fried rice I never know when to stop and this time was no different. Oh, my bursting waistline.
Bartender at Philippe. The Philippe signature chicken satay.
Steamed dumplings.
Irresistible nine spice prawns.
Vegetable fried rice.
Steamed mixed vegetables.
We did not order dessert - Fortune Cookies were enough - but a flaming tray of desserts was brought to us nonetheless. The array included Red Velvet Cake, a plate of melon and pineapple slices and grapes, and three different ice creams.

Then the sweet waiter announced, “There is no check. Dinner is on the house!” Well, we thought, that’s a splendid way to make up for a lost reservation. “Thank you.” We gave him a big tip.
Well-prepared Peking Duck, ready for carving. Carving the duck.
Freshly carved Peking Duck.
Wrapping the duck in delicate pancakes with scallions and Hoisin sauce.
Ready to eat.
Fifteen minutes passed as we finished our coffee. The waiter returned, but now his expression was morose. We would have to pay for the meal, after all. “But you will get a friends & family discount.” We handed over our credit cards. Split three ways it was $100 per person, which in addition to food also covered cocktails.

We wondered what would have happened had we departed before the decision was made to not treat us but to charge us. We’ll never know.

Philippe, 35 E 60th St, (212) 644-8885.
Fortune cookies. Flaming dessert.
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