Breakfast at Balthazar

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:10

    My affection for Balthazar's brunch was why I was so intrigued by the restaurant's breakfast service, which begins on weekday mornings at 7:30. Getting up early's an excruciating act that nonetheless works proactively to redeem your entire day, because it grounds you in the hyperreality of the early hours, when the gates of perception are jammed open wider than they usually are, the borders of objects define themselves with an hallucinatory clarity and even music impacts your senses with a weird precision. One day last week I jolted awake at 5:30 and lay there a while in the darkness as the radio alarm clock blared out Metallica. Jesus, I thought, these guys can play, hearing for the first time in my life the band's lumbering glory, my mind registering as it awoke the nuances of syncopation and stress and harmonics that I'd been missing for years. Then I rose, went for a bit of a run and stood in the bathtub dumping kettles of hot water over my head, because we still lack hot water, not to mention heat, in my dingy little building and it never ends. Finally I hopped on the train to Manhattan to eat breakfast with a friend at Balthazar.

    But breakfast at Balthazar is disappointing. Part of that has to do with the ontology of the restaurant. Balthazar's mere existence is a function of the exuberant American genius for marketing and for the manipulation of appearances; it's a culinary-world expression of the gloriously vulgar and outrageous American conviction that you can make anything disintegrate under the solvent effects of enough money, even Time itself. The melancholia of a Parisian or Middle European cafe?paint faded from decades of smoke, brown cafe light refracted against cold, ancient mirrors?gets evoked here simply to be reconstituted as a dream environment in which meats and poultry might be consumed by the most moneyed representatives of a populace that knows little of melancholia, little of loss, nothing of history, nothing of tragedy. Balthazar, in its own small way, represents the exuberantly American colonization of Europe's past. It's as if Martha Stewart started teaching her student body of suburban matrons how to fashion petunia planters out of shell-dented old Tommy helmets.

    But on a freezing morning the restaurant appears less the charming simulacrum of a vast Parisian brassiere or Middle European cafe that it is, and?this is weird?somehow more the real, gloomy thing itself. No longer realer than real, but simply real. Walking into Balthazar that morning I was seized by the same weary sense of sere pastness that I associate with being in places like Prague or Lvov or even Paris, wandering around at dawn, looking for coffee, feeling the weight of things, the profundity of Europe's experience. No more than a dozen people, each of them alone, sprawl at tables in that cavernous space, their sour faces pinched over their newspapers as if about to suck the matter out of the gray pages like bees suck the remaining nectar from autumn-corrupted dandelions. A stark ochre light floats beneath the high yellow/brown ceiling and what seemed to be the saddest fluorescent lamps in the world. The place resembles a European train station in which citizens wait over their newspapers for trains, and everywhere within lurks the memory of moving people, of human beings boarding sleepers to carry them across a weary civilization's landscape. Baggy old women shuffle in transit, bound to see their civil servant sons in Lodz.

    More critically, though, the breakfast food's just not that great. As opposed to the luxurious brunch menu, the breakfast card's just that?a card, bearing on it things like oatmeal, Belgian waffles, orange juice and varieties of coffee. You can get a basket of assorted breads for 10 dollars, which struck us as exorbitant, and that we therefore avoided. A Belgian waffle covered with fruit was light and fun enough to eat, but it's just a Belgian waffle. At brunch Balthazar serves sausage. Why can't I get a serving of scrambled eggs and sausage there for breakfast, as well? Oatmeal was a drag, too. It resembled a watery, relatively tasteless rice pudding and, while it contained banana slices and was accompanied by a little pitcher of maple syrup, there was no provision made for the accouterments necessary to the vulgarly decorated oatmeal to which Americans are accustomed from their sugar-saturated childhoods. Where were the walnut chunks, the currants, the raisins, the heavy cream? Where was the little bowl out of which, while eating oatmeal, you spoon heaps of brown sugar? Oatmeal's supposed to be a calming drug, like a hit of NyQuil, not something that aspires to severity and elegance, as it seemed to do here. Even our cappuccino, which comes in either cups or bowls, wasn't so good. Balthazar Bakery, right next door, serves excellent coffee, so the middling cappuccino was that much more surprising.

    Actually, Balthazar Bakery serves excellent fruit focaccia and dried cherry scones as well, so my advice is to skip the sit-down breakfast in the restaurant and pop in next door and brown bag it to work.

    Balthazar, 80 Spring St. (betw. Crosby St. & B'way), 965-1414.

    Black & White & Red Black & White's the name of a new East Village bar/restaurant that's mostly neither. There's a black and white striped awning, true, on a quiet street washed with rain that spills in torrents off eaves and flows in clear cataracts through the gutters, leaching the leaves of pigments. But then you're skidding over the treacherous sidewalk and descending a short flight of stairs to enter a room the walls of which glow with deep reds. Votives flicker from black tabletops. Okay, so all the wood is black. But where's the white? Black & Red is what they should have called the place. Black floors at once absorbing and reflecting light, just like the rain-lacquered street outside absorbs and reflects the light that drifts down from streetlights and out from townhouses' lit windows. Reds, blacks. To the right there's a long, comfortable bar at which sit the quietly sinister representatives of the tribe I find creeping up on me more every day, infiltrating my life, colonizing my environment: married guys in their early 30s with their slim wives either present or not, still wearing the rags and boots of their early 20s. But they're quieter now, these guys, they're trying to put something together as they age, their band days, or whatever, are over and they collect in small groups at night in taprooms. They're humbled, I guess, by the burdens of forced human interrelationship. To the left, and in the room's middle, are a number of tables at which people eat quietly, and a couple of women are even actually alone, a phenomenon of which I never seem to see much downtown. And, in the back of the room, near the kitchen, a couple of booths?well, yes, that is Serena Altschul, who's sitting with another woman in one of them. A glowing little thing, Altschul, with a face so severely sculpted it appears as if she assembles it every morning from perfectly forced plates of flesh and bone?an analytically cubist face, a physiognomy that's a study in small-scale tectonics.

    I've already heard Black & White's described as a "bordello" atmosphere, but that's nonsense. Deep-glowing black and jewel red: there's nothing cloying about it, and the large, square, plain room's as stripped down and unsentimental as rooms come. You sit at the bar amidst the soft hum of music and gentle early evening voices and the rain washes down outside in clean sheets, scouring the sidewalks, and Black & White's a nice place to be. The inevitable friendly hipster lug works behind the bar; the inevitable pretty blonde waitress drifts between the tables with her wide eyes.

    Black & White's a utilitarian addition to the neighborhood (the western East Village, right before it diffuses into the drab, cockeyed grid of streets around 4th Ave., with its ghosts of used bookstores and of wayward Union Square communists). It's exactly the sort of place at which you'd meet people for a drink without a second thought, because there seems?at least on the several early evenings when I've been there?to be always room at the bar and there's none of the social energy that makes patronizing so many downtown bar/restaurants such a wearyingly self-conscious extreme occasion.

    And, appropriately for the variety of establishment that it is, Black & White serves food that requires absolutely no thinking, even as it transcends bar food's limitations. The lasagna's good, as are the hamburgers and the crabcakes. The vegetable burger, as elsewhere, should be avoided at all costs. Roast chicken breast's about as stark and unadorned an example of its genre that you can imagine: a piece of...roast chicken, pale and unadorned, lacerated by grill marks and tender enough. Salads are salads, even when they're dignified by elements like goat cheese and walnuts or whatever.

    Nothing costs much, which is good, because for many patrons the eatery's food will be an afterthought, ordered just to pad a stomach geared toward drinking. No one hits on the women eating alone, and if you want to talk to the guy on the next stool, he'll talk back. A good neighborhood place, quiet and suffused with the camaraderie of people who, on some level, are in it all together.

    Black & White, 86 E. 10th St. (betw. 3rd & 4th Aves.), 253-0246.