Full Complement

Balthazar, NYC: “That was the most charming and endearing excuse for infidelity I’ve ever heard.”

WHAT a glorious weekend!  Philadelphia hosted its second annual Philadelphia SketchFest, we had our first snowfall of the season, and I was honored by brunch with both Win and Nan!  Because I was busing up for just the day, and because Nan was heading out for a weekend in Baltimore, and because Win is ever hungry, we decided to do an early breakfast/brunch and nowhere would do except Balthazar.

We had a plan, sort of.  Win had called earlier in the week to make a reservation for the 10AM brunch, but was rebuffed.  Apparently, they only take so many reservations and they were all filled.  (When distressed, Win talks in intense italics.)  But, proposed Win, what if we showed up at 9AM, ostensibly for breakfast, and then lingered into the brunching hours?

So that is exactly what we did.  We convened around 9AM outside the MOMA store; by 9:15 we were seated at a small table with a carafe of water and menus before us.  Win and I started with coffee, Nan with a ginger-lemon iced tea.  As we waited for the clock to tick on, we ordered a pain au chocolat (we couldn’t resist) and a donut.  Win was inspired to ask the maitre d’ about a brunch table and, at 10AM on the dot, Ian — our effective and amazingly hospitable maitre d’ — walked over to inform us that a table had been prepared for us.

We relocated.  We gasped over the expanded brunch menu.  Our waiter brought Nan’s bag from the other table.  We finished the donut.  We debated Eggs Benedict versus Eggs Norwegian (the difference being in the meat: salmon instead of ham).  We finally gave up and asked our new waiter for his input: as we intended to share the Scrambled Eggs in Puff Pastry (complete with mushrooms and asparagus) and the Sour Cream Hazelnut Waffles with fruit compote, which version of the eggs benedict would be best suited as the third dish?  And per Winston’s advice, we happily (and very chattily) ordered the Eggs Norwegian.

I loved it.  I loved the entire experience.  From the boulangerie to the wall of wine bottles; the tiny-tiled floors to the wooden tables; the immense menus to the quaintly formal aesthetic; the bowed stairs to the restrooms and the glass bottles of tap water… It was all so perfect!  I see why people make plans around going to Balthazar; I’m already planning my next trip up, specifically for a seat by the window and another round of that amazing Eggs Norwegian.  La, but that was heavenly!

Win had brought her camera so we spent a good while snapping shots of each other and miming rapt conversation.  Nan is a natural in front of the camera — she makes the best confused and slightly un-mollified looks of anyone I’ve ever encountered.  One day, I’d love to get her hair blown out by a pro and then shoot her in front of a giant fan, white chicken feathers fluffing into the air around her.  She’d make the best exasperated faces ever.

I think we amused the waitstaff at Balthazar.  We were so clearly there for the laughter and the joy of meeting up after a long time away from each other, and we couldn’t do much of anything without shrieking for a camera to document the moment.  Whether it was Win rhapsodizing about her life, Nan reminiscing about the mother-daughter brunch dates of her childhood, or me getting excited over the prospect of driving a truck in Tennessee at Christmas time, we all brought such grand, photogenic verve to the meal that I think Balthazar will forever be linked for us to a time of great joy exuberance.

Like the incomparable Gigi, Balthazar is a poser.  It may claim to take itself seriously — it may seem top-lofty and oh! so staid — but inside those beautiful beveled glass doors is a world of laughter and delight and wonder and “youthful zeal.”  Like any satisfying romance, the lead in this production comes off one way but soon grows in the eye of the beholder into something infinitely more precious: in the case of Gigi, she casts off her youth to become the one woman who won’t  bore Gaston.  In the case of Balthazar, the restaurant destroys its own aura of hoity-toitiness to transform into a place of exultant stories, ribald laughter, and fantastic imaginings.

Balthazar, by way of Colette, I salute you.


Full Complement

Freemans, NYC: “I was half in love with her by the time we sat down”

FreemansSOME things in life are unfathomable. Why is today only Wednesday, when by all rights it really ought to be Friday? Why do humans have appendixes? Why is a gall stone not at all like a ruby, but more like an Egyptian olive? (There’s a story here, but I refuse to share on a public forum.)

And why is it that Freemans, tucked into a Lower East Side alleyway, is entirely staffed by gorgeous young twenty-somethings?

Not that I’m complaining. As distracted as I was by the decor (taxidermized animal heads and a wasps’ nest?), I was equally enchanted by the lovely cheekbones of our hostess, the fanatic lipstick of our waitress, the rugged swath of carefully maintained five o’clock shadow on our waiter, and the off-hand physical grace of one of the other waiters. Not to mention their outfits! If this was a fashion blog, I’d look no further for inspiration.

However, Nan and I had convened at Freemans not to ooh and ahh over beautiful hipsters (which we did anyway), but to get to the business of trying out a new brunch spot, testing New York magazine’s profile and finding a quiet moment in the middle of a busy city.

In Nan’s mid-week planning email to me, she wrote:

i’ve also long had a hankering after (and never been to) this uber-pretentious hipster brunch place off of rivington, but the reviews are mixed, so i think we’d be going for the “exclusive” factor and the atmosphere, which can also be humorous and fun.


We also agreed, by phone this time, that brunch should (at times) be an occasion that is at once terrifying and awe-inspiring. As in, “we’re terrified of real-life hipsters and their stronghold on urban cool” while yet being inspired to try different styles (not skinny jeans! no, never those!) and, apparently, new brunch haunts.

Tucked into an alleyway populated by graffiti, lightbulbs strung up on the overhanging fire-escape, and a small flower-box, Freemans is at once urgent and complacent. Serving such homegrown classics as “stone-ground cheddar cheese grits,” they have nonetheless transformed the alleyway into a haven for aloof twenty-somethings with their giant plastic glasses and baggy-elbowed sweaters. But somewhere between the amazing cheekbones of the wait-staff, the taxidermied duck hanging above our heads and the ultimate coolness of the people at the tables surrounding us, Nan and I did find that quiet haven in the middle of a bustling city.

Our conversation was brief; Nan was distracted by the waiter, and I kept looking at the constant parade of hipsters in the small plot in front of the restaurant door. Between the lapses in conversation and quiet sips of our coffee, we managed to polish off their waffles (with creme fraiche, bananas, and ample syrup) and the skillet eggs (with spinach, gruyere, and bacon). Nan, the vegetarian, flicked off the bacon and scooped the cheddar cheese grits into its place.


If we’d had room, we would have sampled their desserts, too. But our appetites–both visual and gastronomic–were well sated. We did share a Southern Belle, a champagne cocktail with an orange garnish, but were too filled to even consider dessert or a third cup of coffee. The entire meal came to $56, and included a trip to their very cute washroom.

The experience was delightfully refreshing. Being hidden from view in Freemans Alley gives you the sense of being secretive, of indulging in something blissfully new and somehow vital to the evolution to the city. It’s a facade, of course, but Freemans is, at its core, an actor. Much like the hipster crowd who frequent its quaint shadows, the true Freemans experience is at once a pose and a vulnerable request for acceptance. And I’ll say this for its effectiveness: I’ll certainly be back, if only to see if that cute waiter is still employed and still confusing “plums” for “waffles.”


NOTE:  On November 11, 2009, the NYTimes ran an article on the reemergence of a Victorian fashion aesthetic, and referenced Freeman’s as “one of the trends most active petri dishes.”  Did I not call that?  One point to me!