I'm not sure how it was that I first decided to go to the Brasserie Balzar in Paris, but I remember it clearly. It was October, 1996 and I'd spent the week with my mom at an apartment she'd rented. To thank her, I took her out to dinner at Balzar. It was the first time we ever ordered a bottle of wine at dinner together, and we imagined ourselves quite French when we finished our meals with digestifs of Armagnac and Cognac. Though our French was minimal at best, the waiters were friendly and helpful and it was a magical evening I remember fondly.
I returned a few days later with my parents and had my first plate of escargots, and at the end of the meal as we left, I stopped to tell the maitre d' — in my really bad French — that his restaurant was my favorite restaurant in the whole world. He gave me a little postcard picture (in B&W) of the restaurant with all the waiters out front from what looked like a long time ago. I thanked him and smiled a lot, and I still have that card.
Fast forward to many returns to Paris, each with a requisite visit to Balzar. And each time, good, but somehow fading. Reading Paris to the Moon a few years ago reminded me of my love for Balzar and heightened my expectations upon return visits, but the Balzar never seemed *as* good as it had during previous trips.
Last week I met a colleague for lunch at Balzar and left deflated, and a little sad. The meal itself wasn't bad, it just wasn't great and the magic, it seemed, was gone. Perhaps, given all my culinary experiences in the past nine years, I had outgrown Balzar. I'd told Jason this sad state of affiars when he'd arrived, and so the other night while walking in the neighborhood, we decided we'd give it another try, for old times sake.
"Was it possible to take two for dinner without a reservation?" I asked the mustachoed gentleman in a black suit at the door.
"But of course!" he replied happily, and he lead us to a little table in the corner. I ordered my aperitif (kir vin blanc) and we began to discuss the menu when Jason asked what andouillete was. Before I could really answer, the waiter appeared at our table.
(The following dialogue occurred in French, yay!)
"Have you had andouillete before?" he asked.
"No," I said.
"Then you cannot have it! It is not for those that have never had it before. It is a specialty, but a specialty 95% of people do not like. I am sorry."
Since we had no intention of ordering it, I wasn't upset to hear this. And of course, our waiter went on in detail to explain just why we couldn't have it: its smell and, using his stomach, explained where it came from. Too many people, it seems, order the andouillete and then are quite unhappy when it arrives. He was very nice about it, said he wouldn't eat it either, just too strong for him. And he pointed out other specialties on the menu.
It was reminded me of my first trip to Balzar, when the waiter, upon hearing my mother and I both order Cognac, asked whether we knew Armagnac. When he found out we didn't, he said we must have one Cognac and one Armagnac. At Balzar I find this behavior by waiters to be very considerate, almost paternal. They are concerned that you have a good experience while dining, whether experience means trying something new, or avoiding something new because it might be too much.
Throughout the meal, the waiter continued to impress. He was very sweet, continuing to speak with me in French (he helped me correct my pronunciation of raie and told me it was la when I asked), and was happy to bring two forks when we ordered the tarte aux fraises for dessert. My warm feelings for Balzar returned as we ate. And by the time our meal was over and the check paid, I felt happy again in my favorite restaurant in the world. I headed to the bathroom and Jason waited for me at the door. We said good night to the maitre d' and as we exited, I asked if he'd said good bye to our waiter, since I hadn't seen him.
"No, I didn't. I didn't see him." he told me.
"Drat!" I thought. I had wanted to say good bye.
We walked down the street, past the front of the restaurant, and I looked in through the windows, towards where our table had been. Then I caught site of our waiter! He was in the back by the kitchen, looking across the room towards our table and seemed to notice we'd left. I waved good bye from outside. He saw me and smiled a big smile and then waved back. My heart warmed; I loved our waiter. I loved our dinner. I loved Balzar once again.
49, rue des Ecoles