It’s getting near Christmas so it’s nice to be able to review a book with a seasonal ring to it. No it isn’t a book of holiday recipes. Balthazar was said to be one of the Three Wise Men, but it’s also the name of a rather smart New York restaurant frequented by the likes of our own voluptuous kitchen goddess, Nigella Lawson.
Keith McNally is the guiding star behind this celebrated establishment. He has been involved in the restaurant world in New York for around thirty years, and during that time he has opened Odeon, Cafe Luxembourg, Lucky Strike, Nell’s, Pravda, Balthazar, Pastis, Schiller’s, Morandi, Minetta Tavern, and Pulino’s. Balthazar opened in 1997. Keith is a transplanted Brit but da boy dun good, it seems.
The Balthazar gives no clue, from its name, to the style or ethnic origin of the food on offer. One might expect some Middle Eastern fare served by waiters in flowing robes, with perhaps a bar designed to do double duty as a cow-shed. Alternatively one would not be surprised if this was a themed New York diner with meatloaf and a selection of extravagantly-topped hot dogs – this is the Big Apple after all. Not a bit of it. Balthazar is an authentic French brasserie, or at least as near as you will find on the left-hand side of the Atlantic.
Not all the recipes here are French but they are, by the same token, exactly the dishes that one finds all over France in city bistros and brasseries – a collection of European favourites and standards – and Balthazar has pushed the boundaries a little further east to include Russian Koubliak, which is a take on a traditional fish and rice pie.
The recipes here are the sort used by home cooks in France. The French have an appreciation of good food but they, like their British counterparts, have full lives and don’t want to be chained to the oven and hob. Everything here can be successfully achieved by any home cook. The preparation is not onerous and the ingredient lists are mostly short. These are proper classic dishes that rely on freshness of produce as much as cooking skill.
Anyone who has enjoyed eating out in France will want to cook and devour every recipe here. The small items and starters will transport you back to the Boulevard St Michel quicker than the waiter can say “We don’t ‘ave your rezzerrvation”. Chicken Liver Mousse is found on every respectable menu and a warm salad of Frisée aux Lardons should never go unsampled, but the weather is cold so the Onion Soup Gratinée will be the first recipe to persuade readers to dust off the chopping board.
There is a raft of typical Parisian dishes such as steak in a pepper sauce, but remember those other delights. Rabbit Moutard is regularly available and should be tried by anyone wanting to taste this much under-utilised meat. Don’t think bunny but rather tempting and flavourful supper.
The Balthazar Cookbook is a beautifully presented glimpse of what has made French Brasseries so popular with not only the French but all who have had the chance to savour their renowned dishes and their quirky charm. It’s a restaurant in the heart of New York but its soul very definitely belongs to Paris.
The Balthazar Cookbook
Authors: Keith McNally, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson
Published by: Absolute Press
Cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018