May 5, 1997 | Vintage Insatiable
    Balthazar: Kiss Kiss Before Dining         
       Photo by Steven Richter

        It's hard to believe Keith McNally didn't dig up a corner of Montparnasse and ship it  directly to Spring Street, bringing a jolt of life to a moribund block and swiftly extending SoHo eastward. Voila, Balthazar. The scarred mirrors (tilted for optimum tittle-tattling), the scuffed tile floor, the vintage wooden bar with its pewter top and custom-carved caryatids, the crusty dark rounds of bread incised with a giant B, the fruity scent of yeast in the adjacent bakery with its romantic painted ceiling from Burgundy. Lobsters, giant shrimp, and oysters spill over the raw bar.

        "Aggggh," cries Le Bernardin's Maguy LeCoze, with a characteristic wiggle of excitement. "I am in France." As Balthazar's one-week old kitchen struggles to keep up with the frenzy of table turns, the food is already better than what you'll eat in most Paris brasseries. But the crush is barbaric.

        Art world and Seventh Avenue swashbucklers, media grandees and the restless rag tag, nightsmart kibitzers: the air fairly crackles with insecurities. Rotating in and out of the power seats, certain trendetti seem to be in virtual residence. Bob Collacello and Ross Bloechner suffer worshipful table hoppers while waiting for Bianca, Susan Sontag a bolster away. Ian Schrager and wife Rita Norona with Peter Morton and Elizabeth Salzman. Restaurateurs' pet Steven Greenberg who drinks Petreus and pays in cash. Anna Wintour. Amy Spindler. Gotham Bar & Grill's Alfred Portale.  Jean-Georges Vongerichten with Kerry Simon, signed to take Vong global. Dean and Deluca at separate tables. Calvin and Kelly each in their own corner too. He stops by to greet her. The room draws a breath. What theater.

            But even this full gallop herd and the chatter it will provoke is not enough to guarantee longevity. I remember Cafe Tabac, 150 Wooster and the doomed La Coupole whose brilliant trail was almost as short-lived as Hale-Bopp. The flighty mighty gather and the rejected slink away in shame. Till the cooling. But Keith McNally's places -- Odeon, Cafe Luxembourg, Lucky Strike, are notorious for their great legs. Even as the fireflies swarmed his Pravda -- the very image of an underground bar in Moscow -- he was planning his brasserie, a modest reverie in the beginning. "I thought I'd leave it rough," he says. "But then I got caught up." He shudders, cataloguing the obsessive compulsions. The mirrors: "We built the frames." A truck scoured the Midwest collecting peeling mirrors. And workmen pieced them together like a jigsaw puzzle. Artful water stains splotch the walls that look aged by a million Gauloise exhalations. And clever lighting casts that golden glow that McNally loves, the glow that works like a facial.

          For sure the serving crew has been chosen by resume rather than by looks. The spaced out sylphs and unprogrammed beauties one expects in a McNally time warp have been traded for waiters with balding heads, pot bellies and oenophilic asides, as well as waitresses in bistro black with little white aprons dress who were not found under a cabbage leaf but actually look human.

        Still McNally seems anxious. Rumpled and bleary-eyed (friends say he's a congenital brooder), he steps in himself to clear a table. Perhaps he's gobbled too big a crowd too quickly. The phone might be busy all morning and the place is already booked weeks ahead. By 11 p.m. supplicants are five deep at the bar. With no reservations, 250 drifted in for the first lunch at a point when the kitchen had still to master the computers. A week of tastings for friends had been both rehearsal and showcase for the chefs, Riad Nasr and Lee Hansen, a twosome from Daniel. A judicious meld of art and fashion, hypemeisters and gossipistes, joined the chosen to be wowed by startling skyscraper riggings of shellfish, two and three platters high -- lobster, clams and crab, feisty whelk to wrestle from their shells, pink singing scallops that flap on the stand and a quartet of sauces. 

        The food, simplified for the expected rush but not dumbed down, shows its pedigree, the Balthazar salad with an ingredient for each letter in its name. Goat cheese flan in a pastry tart shell. Sprightly salads. Rich Chilean bass on toasted country bread in a broth with Swiss chard, onion and tomato. Startlingly lush duck shepherd's pie, with meat and skin folded into root vegetable puree. Lemon curd mille-feuille with lemongrass granite. And an almondy strawberry financière with chopped rhubarb.

        Just two days later the doors open and the mob sweeps in. Folks tuned to the floorshow might not mind the dawdle but the hungry are complaining. Sure the bread may be sliced too thin -- we're eating too much of it anyway. But once dinner finally finds the table, the food is remarkably good. It's judiciously priced too, entrees $14 to $23, though a shellfish orgy costs $24 or $45 a person. Now and then a hit of salt or a squeeze of lemon is needed. And the flavorful prawn and field mushroom risotto is a tad overcooked.  But you're safe with morel-studded artichoke soup or  baby artichokes and tortellini in a pungent broth to start followed by  the  excellent steak au poivre and seared salmon with porcini in a dark chicken jus on soft polenta  Rabbit fricassee with gnocchi gets a nod from not one but two fussy French pals. The  fixed plat du jour is available at lunch and dinner: Lobster in a fennel-carrot-sweetened nage on Wednesday. A small tub of old fashioned cassoulet on Thursday. Marvelous beef short ribs on Saturday.  Not much of this is designed with a thought for washboard midriffs or free-flowing arteries, but as Chef Nasr points out, "Daniel bends over backwards for his customers. We can do it too. In France I made hamburger and haricot verts for Christian Millau's dog."

        I rush uptown from jury duty for lunch, rediscovering the room by soft daylight. Vivacious salads and sandwiches -- tuna bagnat, lamb with vegetables, grilled portobellos, and a plump burger on a parade of breads from the bakery -- are so satisfying I am back again two days later. Suddenly menus elsewhere seem too precious. I'm finding food that's abused and exploited, women too blond, too overdressed. I find myself craving the soap opera and the splendid côte du boeuf.

        It's late one evening and we reluctantly abandon Balthazar, helping ourselves to the bagged rounds of bread left in the vestibule for the taking when the adjacent baker closes. We trudge along the darkened, seemingly deserted block speculating how rents there have surely doubled overnight.

80 Spring Street at Crosby. 212 965 1414.

Patina Restaurant Group