“And tell me what street, compares with Mott Street in July?” Line from the 1925 popular song, “Manhattan” by Lorenz Hart & Richard Rogers
When I was growing up, Mott Street was part of Little Italy. Today, about the only thing left of Little Italy on Mott and Spring Street is Lombardi’s, a shrine to coal-fired, thin-crust pizza, beloved by tourists and those who remember a vanishing New York. Like every other neighborhood of Manhattan, Mott Street is in the midst of transformation, otherwise known as “gentrification.” That’s the bad news.
The good news is that Balzem, a cozy shrine to what New Yorkers are craving today, lies diagonally across the street from Lombardi’s. In business less than a year, and already with a following, it serves very reasonably priced, easily shared, Mediterranean dishes, with an emphasis on mezzes and tapas. It also stocks an unusual selection of small-estate Mediterranean wines and imported beers.
At a recent press dinner, we began with a light and refreshing Rosé wine from the coast of Provence – quite special – which paired beautifully with Balzem’s soft and sensual Prosciutto Wraps. The combination of slightly salty prosciutto wrapped around a hefty portion of meltingly delicious Burrata, layered on top of a roasted green pepper, was perfection. ($15 for 3)
Wine director Mehdi Mokrani prides himself on his by-the-glass wine pairings and I suggest you place yourself in his hands.
Next came one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, slices of raw Branzini, marinated in lemon, vinegar and oil, stuffed with arugula and dill. A sophisticated variation on the traditional Peruvian ceviche, it perked up with an extra spritz of lemon but, to my taste, remained a bit on the bland side. Others in our group liked it just as is. ($15 per plate)
I much preferred Balzem’s version of grilled Octopus, although in this case they cook it with red wine then pan sear it and serve it on a healthy serving of arugula salad. The tender octopus was extremely tasty and contrasted well with its bed of arugula. If you love octopus, as I do, you can’t go wrong. ($15)
To go with the mezze, request the restaurant’s delicious olive bread which comes with a ramekin of oil and chopped olives as a dipping sauce. It’s unusual and memorable.
The Zucchini Pancakes were everyone’s favorite mezze. Light and perfectly seasoned — with dill, parsley, scallion and feta cheese – topped with a dab of yoghurt, they may well have been the best dish of the evening. And a bargain at $9 a plate. I would have been happy to wolf down a few more. They went extremely well with a Viré-Clesse Chardonnay, which is also a sustainably-produced wine.
A close second, and absolutely delicious, was the house Truffle Mac & Cheese ($12). Labeled a side dish, I’d call it a main dish, given its generous portion, and a perfect sharing dish. If you are looking to load up on your carbs, this is a great place to start.
As an entree, the Grilled Lamb Brochette — pieces of lamb on skewers served with an herb and yogurt dip – was terrific. I might have liked the meat slightly rarer but otherwise I found it tasty and satisfying.
There is much more on Balzem’s menu, from burgers ($18) to Flatbread Pizza ($18), and most of it geared to the kind of healthy, tasty food that diners now want at the price they can afford. That includes a $12 lunch special of soup and sandwich or soup and salad with choice of meat.
Of course, no hip restaurant would be complete without its assortment of delicious desserts. My two favorites are the Chocolate Soufflé – an excellent version of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s classic – dripping with molten chocolate in the middle ($10), and an equally first class Chocolate Mousse Cake ($10). I found myself scraping the plate.
Balzem is a quiet, comfortable place, with flattering lighting and a full-service sit- down bar. It’s a perfect casual restaurant to bring a date or, if you are in the neighborhood, to stop for a lunch/brunch before or after a stroll through Soho or the Lower East Side.
Considering New York’s escalating prices and noise levels, it’s a great find and will be a perfect people-watching hangout, circa May or June, when it opens it’s sidewalk café on ever-changing Mott Street.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
202 Mott Street (Between Spring and Kenmare Streets)
Hours: Lunch 11:30 – 5 p.m., Monday through Friday
Dinner 5 p.m. to Midnight, Monday through Sunday
Brunch 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Happy Hour – 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Sunday ($6 wines; $5 beers, $5 mezzes/tapas and $1 oysters)