Byline: Kevin West
NEW YORK — “I like putting together places,” says Keith McNally, the restaurateur who since the early Eighties has put together such Manhattan places as Odeon, Nell’s, Cafe Luxembourg, Lucky Strike and Pravda.
Last week, the genial host threw open the doors on a place called Balthazar, a 160-seat restaurant he describes as a “French railway station brasserie.” Located in an expansive ground-floor space that once housed a leather tannery, Balthazar looks as if it were plucked from Paris and dropped wholesale on a dark corner in SoHo.
Except, perhaps, for the crowd.
Each night last week, Balthazar, which is at Spring and Crosby Streets, was filled with a gold-standard cross section of the New York style industries. There were Anna Wintour — two nights in a row — Kal Ruttenstein, Amy Spindler, Christy Turlington, Ed Filipowski, Bret Ellis, Ted Meuhling, Andre Serrano, chef Alfred Portale, Eric Fischl, Lorne Michaels and Tracee Ross.
One heat-seeking publicist booked a table every night. McNally’s opening-week guests are not necessarily household names in all households, but they are the kind of influence-brokers who will create the great buzz.
“The most powerful ally is word of mouth,” says Lee Hanson, who along with Riad Nasr, is the co-chef. By midweek, they were already serving more than 270 covers a night.
“It’s not really a celebrity place,” insists McNally, looking a little tired around the eyes, but sounding buoyant about the first week’s turnout. “I don’t care about that.”
Chances are, most of these early guests know McNally personally or are fans of his previous restaurants. He doesn’t work with a publicist, choosing to make his own well-placed phone calls to promote the “soft” opening.
Nor does he employ an architect. McNally has always had a knack for giving new spaces the moody patina of age. For Balthazar, he relied on a project manager, but consulted directly with the artist who created the glass ceiling downstairs and the painter who used acids and stains to put “water damage” on the walls.
“I had a photo of a bar from the south of France,” says McNally, “which I found in a flea market. This space is inspired by that.”
During the construction, McNally kept the photo — along with reams of sketches and notes and proposed logos — in the tote bag that served as his portable office.
Although almost all the interior details at Balthazar are new — from the pressed-tin ceiling to the plaster walls to the mosaic floor — the room looks worn, scuffed and smoke-stained.
Vast mirrors hanging over the room — essential to predinner rubbernecking — actually are old. McNally sent a truck through the Midwest to buy up fogged and fading mirror glass.
In a sense, the real twist at Balthazar is the food.
“Keith wanted to do something more food-oriented,” explains Nasr, who, along with Hansen, met McNally when they were both working as sous-chefs at Daniel. The two had considered opening their own restaurant together, but the right project never materialized. When Nasr got a phone call from McNally, he brought in Hanson, and the three sat down to sketch out a vision for the new restaurant.
“When we began to pick his brain about what type of restaurant he wanted,” Hanson says, “he said he wanted to bring the kitchen up to his level of success with the dining room — not just do another Lucky Strike. In hiring us, he moved the restaurant to another level.”
“I wanted a large downtown brasserie that would be everything if the food were exceptional,” McNally adds, “not something that would detonate in six months.
“I knew they both had reservations about working in a big place that’s open so much,” he replies when asked about hiring two chefs. Besides lunch and dinner, on weekend nights the restaurant serves a late-night menu until 3 a.m.
The adjacent bakery, which supplies bread for the dining room and opens to the public for coffee and patisserie at 7 a.m., is run by Paula Oland, the original baker at Ecce Panis.
“A brasserie is essentially where you can come in and eat whenever you want,” offers Nasr. “It’s a place where you can have dinner three times a week.”
McNally also insists that reserving a table doesn’t necessarily require ordering a multicourse dinner.
“You won’t have to spend a lot,” he says. “It’s not snobbish in that way. There isn’t a minimum.”
Be that as it may, getting a table is no small task. The guardian of the reservation book brings an all-too-Gallic attitude to her work, and the reservations line is frequently busy.
To get in the mood for the task of creating a menu from scratch, Nasr and Hanson took a two-week eating tour of France last fall. By and large, they have stuck with traditional brasserie fare — simple but robust food. And they bring to the work the attention to detail that comes from their training under one of the city’s premiere chefs, Daniel Boulud.
“The food is almost the easy part,” says Nasr with a laugh. First courses cover savory tarts, chicory salads and pan-seared foie gras, which is the most expensive starter at $14. Main dishes include fricassee of rabbit, steak frites and grilled fish. Friday night is for bouillabaisse. And then there’s the fruits de mer.
“Brasseries in Paris are built around these beautiful seafood stands,” Nasr says. The extensive raw bar at Balthazar offers everything from a simple plate of oysters on the half shell to a three-tiered platter called a “Balthazar” for $90.
“New York is feeling good again,” says McNally.
Other downtown restaurateurs seem to share McNally’s optimism. Small restaurants such as Quilty’s and Scully on Spring have popped up in the past few months; Savoy recently added a dining room on its second floor; Matthew Kenny is poised to open in SoHo, and Nicola Kotsoni of Il Cantinori is a partner in a large Moroccan lounge and restaurant called Chez Es Saada.
While some would say that after his string of successes, McNally is practically a brand name in New York, he says he isn’t interested in going nationwide or franchising his formula.
“I could have done that with Pravda,” he stays. “Somebody offered, but I’d rather not do that. I’m not interested in repeating myself.”