Posts Tagged ‘brasserie balzar’

Back to Balzar

November 10, 2011

A votre service. Our waiter at the Brasserie Balzar

The Experienced Travelers will try most anything once — and some things twice.  When Melinda and I visited Paris this past April, I knew I had to revisit the Brasserie Balzar near the Sorbonne.  Fans of Balzar are numerous and steadfast.  But after my lackluster visit in 2009,  I was mystified as to why Balzar commanded such fierce fidelity.  (Read about my 2009 visit here)

Is it the homespun ambiance of Balzar that makes true believers?

Online reviews cite Balzar as “the best brasserie in Paris offering hearty traditional cuisine” and  “THE single meal a first-timer in Paris should experience”.   So, dear Readership, what did I miss?  Are Balzar believers entranced by the potted palms and mirrored walls behind the banquettes?  Are they loyal to a favourite waiter who knows their preferences by heart?  Or is it the homey decor that utilizes spare surfaces for storing cutlery, straws, cheeses, bread knives, petit-fours, salad bowls and spare linens.

We prepare to embark on a careful ET scientific experiment

Melinda was  the perfect unbiased dining companion with whom to unravel the mystery of Balzar.  We ordered a light lunch and inaugurated our exploration with a chilled rosé and a basket of french bread which was, I must say,  just superlative.  Perhaps my star and Balzar’s were about to have a happy collision at last.

Is this onion soup the best in Paris?

Melinda’s soupe gratinée à loignon Balzar was the subject of an ET controlled comparison to see how it stood up to the onion soup from Au Pied de Cochon, which we devoured earlier in the trip.  Well, dear Readership, Balzar’s soup was hearty and gooey with cheese,  but it wasn’t as flavorful as its competitor across the Seine.

And just to be perfectly clear – there was no bias based on our consumption of rosé .  We were very careful to drink just as much at Balzar as we enjoyed at Au Pied de Cochon.  The ETs are completely scientific in our methods.

This salad could make me a Balzar believer

My salade gourmande au foie gras de canard et magret fumé, figues séchées was actually spectacular, with generous slices of smoked duck, plenty of foie gras, a light dressing and lovely dried figs.  I began to warm toward Balzar over this salad and hoped it would elevate me to the brasserie’s holy anointed.

Our meal was satisfactory – actually better than my 2009 excursion – but not truly memorable, or inexpensive by ET standards (about 40 euro for two of us).  Again, I am left wondering what makes this brasserie so dear to so many.

I clearly have a secret desire – nay, an obsession –  to belong to the select group of  Balzar fanatics.  But it is not to be.   The ETs must find their own Alsatian hideaway – a Parisian brasserie that inspires loyalty and devotion.  It could take years to accomplish, which is all the better for the Readership who so loves to read about food!

The Legendary Brasserie Balzar

February 26, 2011

Tout seule. Solo-traveling ETs are challenged to get into the picture.

Occasionally,  ETs  make solo trips to Paris under the guise of attending a conference.  I did this two years ago and despite Nurse’s suspicions, the conference was real and I actually did attend.  I dutifully reported in on a regular basis so she could advise on itinerary and meals.  Nurse was a very good sport about this trip.  And trust me, she has cashed in on her generosity ever since.

The Legendary Brasserie Balzar just happened to be nearby….

I did some early ET research at the Brasserie Balzar on the Rue des Ecoles near the Sorbonne.  Since 1886, this Paris institution has sustained neighborhood academics with mainstay dishes like steak au poivre, poulet roti, and potatoes dauphinois.  Leagues of devoted locals swear that the Balzar alone embodies the true egalitarian spirit of dining that forms the foundation of the modern French state.  People are very, very serious about Brasserie Balzar. 

Paris to the Moon, a collection of New Yorker columns by Adam Gopnick sent me to Balzar

I was inspired by Adam Gopnik’s “The Balzar Wars” in his book Paris to the Moon*.  In the mid-1990s, the mega-corporation Flo Group bought the Brasserie  Balzar.  In true French style, the brasserie’s habitués organized a secret résistance to preserve their beloved Balzar from corporate evils like brief 90-minute meals and prepared food.

Gopnick reported the whole story.  In a gourmand expression of taking to the barricades they organized a “dine-in’ — sort of  a 1990s version of a flash mob.  All the regulars reserved for the same Thursday night and “occupied” the restaurant. They used “slow eating” strategies to ensure the tables didn’t turn over, like ordering foie gras because it took time to spread on toast.  Once everyone arrived, their spokesman gravely rose and delivered a challenge to the new management:

“We are here to demonstrate our sympathy with the waiters, clients and traditions of the Balzar.  Is this merely a place to eat, or is it something more?  And if it is something more, what is it?  We are here… to defend the spirit and staff of a place that we believe offers a respite from time itself.” (Gopnick pp. 234-235)

Drawing on the revolutionary fervor of their ancestors, they won the day and the Balzar continues. I recalled this inspiring story as I wandered the Maubert neighborhood, thinking of a lovely, perfect steak.  By mysterious coincidence, I found myself on Rue des Ecoles.

It all looked so inviting, even though it was late afternoon when jetlagged Americans get hungry.

Fortunately the Balzar serves all day, because it was an off-hour when I arrived. The ambiance was unassuming and comfortable with the requisite banquettes, mirrors, potted palms and desert trolleys.  In true ET fashion, I relied on a glass of house wine to bring clarity to the menu.

Steak frites with herb butter

I ordered the steak-frites.  It was passable, but not memorable.  The presentation was uninspired and the service was just adequate.  I was devastated.   Why didn’t I experience the magic of the Balzar that captivated generations of Parisians, and made its regulars call to arms to protect its traditions?

Is the Balzar fairy dust kept at this waiters workstation? The ET wants some!

For two years, I’ve analyzed everything about my Balzar experience.  Where did I go wrong?   I want the joy and the contentment; the thoughtful service and excellent traditional cuisine; the feeling that I am part of an historically significant experience.  I want to be willing to take to the streets in defense of Brasserie Balzar!  Dear Readership,  there just one solution to my dilemma. The ETs must return to the Balzar. 

I did get one of my favourite pictures at Balzar. The ETs *will* return.

* Gopnick, Adam.  Paris To The Moon.  Random House, 2000.

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