Have a Ball at Balzem!

On a rollicking block populated by numerous restaurants and little shops between Spring and Kenmare, Balzem’s dark and glassy storefront seems to cast a shadow over Nolita, a neighborhood that sometimes feels like it’s becoming too trendy for its own good. Upon stepping inside, one finds the restaurant’s atmosphere starkly different from anything in the area as deep orange lighting from chandeliers and the rugged charm of Balzem’s brick walls set a moody, dusky scene.

Drawing upon classic Mediterranean dishes (some family recipes) and an eclectic selection of tapas and mezzes, Chef Balahan Bobus has carved a unique niche in a competitive section of Manhattan, and I was enormously satisfied with what I sampled of the menu at the press dinner—11 dishes in total!

The chicken orzo soup was a sparkling broth of red and gold and that drew its hues and flavors from both tomato and lemon in a swirl of tang and salt with fresh slices of light chicken breast.

Chicken Orzo Soup - Made from a family recipe

Chicken Orzo Soup – Made from a family recipe

Secondly, I tried the Prosciutto Wraps with Burrata. Combining two of my favorite Italian delicacies I was not surprised to fall in love with the dish, which stuffed an avalanche of gooey goodness within the cured and salted slices, which were sprinkled with a splash of sweet balsamic. This was definitely my favorite of the tapas on the menu!

Prosciutto Wraps with Burrata

Prosciutto Wraps with Burrata

Our third tapa was the  Bronzing Ceviche (Raw European Seabass), served over arugula and dill. The sliced fish had the texture of cooked and tender meat and until Chef Balahan explained what I was eating, I am almost embarrassed to write that I mistook it for a chilled chicken dish—a pleasant one at that.

Branzini Ceviche

Branzini Ceviche

Next, we enjoyed two grilled and spicy seafood courses in the Shrimp and Octopus. I found the shrimp a tad too spicy though it was very well-cooked and complemented the salad nicely. Of the two, I found I enjoyed the octopus more. It was charred with a smokey aftertaste with the insides remaining moist and delicate.

Crevette Grille - Grilled Shrimp

Crevette Grille – Grilled Shrimp

Pulpo - Spanish-style Octopus

Pulpo – Spanish-style Octopus

The last of the tapas was the zucchini pancake which tasted like an Graeco-Italian Latke. If you’re a vegetarian or just love something crispy and just bursting with the strong flavors of fresh herbs, then I wholeheartedly recommend this one. Each pancake was covered in a light spoonful of cream infused with dill, feta, and scallions.

Zucchini Pancakes

Zucchini Pancakes

For the main, we were offered Grilled Brochette (Rib Eye Skewers served with Pita). It was a substantial portion with plenty of juicy, grilled beef. I didn’t really eat much of the pita, but by that point my belly was close to bursting. It might seem like a less exciting choice than the tapas, but it’s a solid and filling one. I usually find meat of this nature to be too dry or greasy, and was pleasantly surprised to find it neither which way.

Grilled Brochette - Rib Eye on Skewers with Pita

Grilled Brochette – Rib Eye on Skewers with Pita

The meat was served alongside a trio of side dishes: Truffle Macaroni and Cheese, Potatoes Au Gratin, and Sauteed Spinach. Of these I adored the Macaroni and Cheese the most. It was breaded perfectly with just the right pinch of spices and copious amounts of cheese—everything you could want out of a side dish and a worthy incarnation of the American comfort staple.

Potato Au Gratin with Truffle Oil

Potato Au Gratin with Truffle Oil

Sauteed Spinach

Sauteed Spinach

Truffled Macaroni and Cheese

Truffled Macaroni and Cheese

By the time dessert came around, I felt so full, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to go on—just kidding! From the Tiramisu to the Napoleon to the Chocolate Mousse, Balzem had its bases covered for sweets. I was particularly impressed with the Napoleon, which was baked in the French style with layers of creamy cake and raspberry syrup. Each dessert was garnished with a ripe strawberry.

French Napoleon

French Napoleon

Tiramisu

Tiramisu

Chocolate Mousse

Chocolate Mousse

Be sure to ask Chef Balahan for his recommendations on wine pairings. He knows good matches for every stage of the meal (special distinction must go to the fragrant Cotes de Provence Rose that accompanied the Prosciutto Wraps). From 5 to 7 PM, he’s offering a happy hour with such joys as $6 glasses of wine and $5 tapas.

Balzem features an extensive list of Mediterranean wines as well as specialty and themed cocktails. There is also a full-service bar.

Balzem features an extensive list of Mediterranean wines as well as specialty and themed cocktails. There is also a full-service bar.

The next time I’m with my friends in Nolita, I’ll be sure to direct them to Balzem, though I’m not really sure if I’ll be particularly charitable when it comes to sharing my tapas.

Balzem

Address: 202 Mott Street (Between Spring and Kenmare)

Website: http://www.balzem.com

Phone Number: (646) 837 7033

Lunch: 11:30 AM to 5:00 PM on Mondays to Fridays

Dinner: 5:00 PM to 12 Midnight All Week

Brunch: 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays

Ponty: A French Bistro with African Roots

As Spring bathes us in warmth and light and a desire to walk, I find myself increasingly able and willing to leave my home downtown and traverse the streets above 14th. Located in the Gramercy area on 19th and 3rd, Ponty Bistro is an excellent reason to do just that.

Owing its namesake to an avenue in Senegal (a country in West Africa), Ponty was dreamed up by cousins and culinary duo Cisse and Chekh, who have cooked together since their formative years. Trained in the classical French tradition of cooking, the two aimed to imbue their dishes with their African roots through the addition of certain fruits, vegetables, spices, and other creative accents. After several years of success, the two expanded to a Harlem location with Chekh overseeing management and executive chef duties uptown.

Chef Cisse and his cousin, Chef Chekh

Chef Cisse and his cousin, Chef Chekh

Chef Cisse was actually a contestant on Season 3 of the Food Network reality show Chopped, and a finalist. His high placement in the competition is a testament to his creativity, improvisational skills, and ability to work well under pressure. On his home turf and free of TV’s limitations, Cisse’s artistry is even more evident!

We started off with a small taste of the Lobster Bisque in a tea cup. Despite only being a sample portion, there was plenty of lobster. Garnished with red caviar, it left a dazzling impression on me. Despite a saffron color and aroma, Chef Cisse tells me he whipped up the decadent, silky bisque with a simple blend of onions, celery, and carrots–known in more refined circles as a mirepoix. I feel that this one is a must order if you enjoy seafood. Lobster Bisque

Lobster Bisque

Next we had the artichoke and green bean salad. Dressed up with parmesan cheese and truffle vinaigrette, the greens were quite easy for me to devour. If you’re expecting something super healthy for your salad, you’ll probably find the huge amount of parmesan off putting, but it’s a deceptively light extravagance that rolls off the palette nicely.

Artichoke Salad with Shaved Parmesan

Artichoke Salad with Shaved Parmesan

Our first main course was the Saint Jaque du Che –  A Seared Sea Scallop with roasted beets and asparagus in orange marmalade sauce–a dish that seemed so colorful and creative, it might have been something crafted on Chopped! Like a splash of fruity sorbet, the citrus sauce cleansed the palette, allowing for even greater appreciation of the crispy and savory seafood. This dish exemplifies what sets Ponty aside from other bistros as it takes a French seafood staple and mixes it up with a kaleidoscope of fruit, color, and flavor from Africa. I was thrilled to taste one of these, though normally you get five per order.

This was definitely my favorite thing on the menu, and if a guy named Otter says the scallops are good, you know they are good!

Saint Jacque du Chef - Pan Seared Scallop

Saint Jacque du Chef – Pan Seared Scallop

The second main course was the Poulet Tagine (chicken cooked in an earthenware pot), the most African of the dishes that night. On a bed of sweet and filling couscous and served alongside celery, carrots, and onions, it was a spicy, hearty dish, and Cisse’s take on North African cuisine and curry. If aromatic spices and desert heat make you drool, this is definitely the dish for you.

Poulet Tagine

Poulet Tagine

The final main course was the L’onglet A Echalotte, a tender slab of hanger steak in a bordelaise (my sources tell me red wine and onion with bone marrow) sauce. It was an all-around charming and tasty French steak. The accompanying Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and sautéed greens also rounded out the rest of the dish nicely. Perfect for anybody craving standard French bistro faire or just a really juicy steak in a sweet wine sauce! Chef Cisse took that Bordeaux wine and glazed it into a pool of deep red velvet.

L'onglet A Echalotte

Anyone who watched Chef Cisse’s Chopped episode will know that the panel of judges was most blown away by his desserts, and I was impressed with the two he brought out for our table : A Creme Brûlée and a Tiramisu! Adorned with ripe strawberries, the desserts showed off Cisse’s talents as a pastry chef. The Tiramisu in particular was divine for me as it remained light and summery with only the tiniest trace of liqueur beneath the fresh clouds of cream.

Creme Brûlée and Tiramisu

Creme Brûlée and Tiramisu

In terms of drink offerings, there is a variety of global wines and other beverages, though it is Ponty’s unique martinis that seem to be the most popular with tropical accents like Lychee and Hibiscus!

Lychee Martini. As sweet as it sounds!

Lychee Martini. As sweet as it sounds!

Ponty Bistro is an excellent choice in a neighborhood known more for its luxury housing at the moment than its restaurant offerings. Whether you’re looking to pick up something Senegalese or fancy a more familiar French dish, it’s certainly deserving of a visit!

Ponty Bistro

Address: 218 3rd Avenue (Between 18th and 19th)

Website: http://www.pontybistro.com

Phone Number: (212) 777 1616

Hours: Lunch is from 11 AM to 4 PM from Mondays to Fridays, Dinner is every day from 4:30 PM to 11:30 PM, Brunch is 10 AM to 4 PM on weekends. Happy Hour is 5:00 PM to 7:00 PM and offers 2-for-1 Martinis.