In this clubby portrait, a novelist and journalist seeks to understand what makes one of her favorite restaurants a New York institution.
Opened in 1997, Balthazar is notable for both its longevity and its function as a kind of buzzy community center for a certain strata of Manhattanites. A Balthazar regular, Nadelson (Manhattan 62, 2014, etc.) brings her fine observational skills to an investigation of what makes it the quintessential New York restaurant. Her method is to accumulate detail, and so we learn everything from the biography of the immigrant owner of the SoHo building to what the kitchen served neighbors in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In between, we get fleeting profiles not just of restaurateur Keith McNally, but of the Mexican busser who refills morning coffee, the chef who oversees the 1,500 meals a day that come out of the kitchen, the reservationist, the bartender, and even the farmer who grows the potatoes for the restaurant’s renowned pommes frites. We listen to celebrity regulars like chef David Chang gush about the oysters and watch the painstaking work of Balthazar’s servers, cooks, porters, and pastry chefs. However, this is not a Kitchen Confidential–style exposé of the sometimes-rollicking, sometime-harsh realities of restaurant life. At Balthazar, it seems, the frisee aux lardons is always delicious, the customers are unerringly sophisticated and considerate, and the employees—all 250 of them—are uniformly gracious and unflappable. Yet the mises-en-scène never fully come together in a coherent story. Although the Balthazar that Nadelson describes seems like a lovely place to eat, the net effect of all that gentle characterization and warming praise is to make both restaurant and book seem self-congratulatory and insular. Without a strong narrative arc or clear argument, the book doesn’t offer much sustenance to readers who haven’t dined there.
A glowing homage best suited to patrons of the esteemed New York restaurant it portrays.