I was recently invited to a press dinner at Balzem, a little Mediterranean spot near the corner of Mott and Spring in Nolita that opened in the Spring of 2014.
The dining room is rustic, with an airy 12-foot beamed ceiling, old mirrors, iron hanging light fixtures, and lots of reclaimed wood.
The surprisingly roomy bar offers a wide selection of Mediterranean wines (40 different wines!), imported beer, and even some wine cocktails like the Hot Cab Manhattan, the Balzem Fizz, and the Ginger Ride. I tried the Efes beer (Turkish pilsner), which was nice, light and refreshing.
The bar crowd definitely picked up at around 8:30pm, and it was actually getting pretty crowded by time we left at 9:30pm. Also worth mentioning here is the fact they they offer happy hour specials EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK from 5:00pm-7:00pm, where they have $6 Mediterranean wines, $5 beers, $1 oysters and $5 tapas/mezzes. That’s freaking amazing! I’ll definitely be back on weekends, for sure.
Here’s a quick shot of Mehdi (left), wine director and general manager, and Balahan (right), owner and executive chef.
The menu features lots of tapas and mezzes, even some pizza, in addition to a smaller selection of entrees. Here’s the tasting menu we had for the press dinner, along with the wines that were paired with each course:
The table bread was a nice crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, country style loaf, sliced and served with olive oil (with a variety of olives swimming in the dish):
The chicken breast and orzo soup was really tasty. Made from a light tomato broth with Turkish red pepper paste, it packs a great flavor that you can accent with a squeeze of lemon. This dish was based on a family recipe that Balahan’s mother used to make.
That red pepper paste, by the way, is not made from bell peppers, but a different kind – more like a Cubanelle – that’s red instead of green. It’s something that Balahan made as a kid growing up in Turkey, when his family would retreat to the mountains to cool off during the hot months. There, they made red pepper paste, pastries and breads. Sounds like a great way to spend the Summer – sign me the fuck up!
Next were the prosciutto wraps, which was my favorite item of the night. The meat was thin and perfectly cured. It was soft, and not too salty. The burrata cheese was perfection as well. High quality ingredients presented in a very un-fucked-with manner so that they shine.
Basil leaf, balsamic reduction drizzle and some roasted red peppers is all they added. The green you see beneath the wraps are actually flattened pieces of pepper. Very nice, especially when paired with the clean rose we were served.
We jumped out of order here to try the other cold dish; the branzini ceviche. This was really mild, despite being cured in lemon vinegar. This is the first time I’ve seen branzino prepared in a ceviche. I really liked how it wasn’t a soupy bowl of tart citrus, like you get in most joints. It was cleanly presented with some arugula and dill.
Next up was the grilled shrimp dish. These were beautifully presented on a slice of grilled zucchini with parsley and garlic dressing, and accompanied by an arugula salad with tomato and lemon vinaigrette. There was a swipe of chipotle sauce too, so this dish was spicy. The sweet white wine we had with it was the perfect compliment to balance out the spice levels.
The shrimp were cooked just right.
My next favorite dish, after the prosciutto, was this octopus fucker. It was braised for 45-50 minutes in white wine that was spiced with lemon, bay leaf and black pepper. Then blasted on the grill for a nice charred and crispy outer edge, and finished in butter. So soft and light, yet meaty and satisfying.
These zucchini pancakes were fucking great. Part of me wanted a more crisp texture, but when I got down on them a little more I didn’t mind. They’re made with feta, mint, scallions, parsley, dill, eggs and flour, then topped with a yogurt cream sauce. I could actually go vedge (vadge) with food like this. Awesome.
Last of the small plates, and my least favorite of the small plates, was the Italian meatballs dish. The garlic tomato sauce was nice; velvety, smooth, sweet yet tangy and spicy… but the meat was a little dense for my liking, and I wasn’t a big fan of the pine nuts and raisins within. The ball itself was made from good quality veal, worked with thyme and basil. I just have a very picky sense when it comes to meatballs: it’s very difficult to compete with my mom’s. I did really like the sleepy-time red wine that was served with the meatballs (Nero D’Avola, Mortilla 2013).
Now for the entree – lamb skewers with flat bread and some sauces. Yes!
The sauces were mint, parsley, garlic, oil and vinegar (left) and yogurt (right).
The lamb was cooked perfectly. It was light, flavorful and soft. No overly gamey flavors, no chewy sinew, nothing. Nice and simple, but well executed.
We sampled three sides with the entree. First, and by far the best of them, was the truffle mac and cheese. It wasn’t over the top like some “truffled” items are these days. This was a gentle and proper use of the truffle, with perfectly cooked fusilli pasta and quality cheeses.
Same goes for the presence of truffle in the potato gratin side – not too aggressive. I liked this dish too – it just needed a little pinch of salt as you went down into the deeper layers of potato.
The last, and least liked of the sides (and probably our least favorite overall) was the wheat and veggie rice. It had good texture, but the flavors were a little flat, it was a bit dry, and it just didn’t seem to go well with our entree.
And just when you thought you tried too much food, along comes dessert. All ye fat men rejoice, for there is chocolate ahead in thy future:
Chocolate layer cake (this ended up being my favorite of the three despite my usual hatred of chocolate cake). The cake itself was a slight bit dry, but the hint of salt really made it work in terms of flavor.
Chocolate mousse cake. Nice texture, creamy and flavorful.
And finally, tiramisu. You could taste the rum in this bad boy, but it wasn’t overpowering. It was moist and flavorful. The others liked this dessert the best (I was outnumbered).
That about wraps it up for Balzem. Highlights of the meal were definitely the prosciutto wraps, the octopus and the ceviche. Those would be absolute must-try items, especially if they’re only $5 a pop at happy hour. That shit’s a no-brainer. The ambiance is also killer here. Really nice inside. And when you go (you will), you should chat with Balahan and Mehdi. Both guys are really awesome, friendly, and hands-on. In fact, the service in this joint is top notch and classy. It makes a great date spot, a great pre-game spot for food and drinks, and it has that amazing happy hour. I will definitely be back as a paying customer. Most likely I will head down for happy hour, but the brunch menu looks enticing, as well as the lunch deals ($12 for soup/sandwich or soup/salad).
202 Mott St.
New York, NY 10012