Nathan Frye, our first Ask a Waiter, sat out Balthazar’s tenth-anniversary last night, but it was a grand ole time — much Champagne was spilled and a total stranger tried to crawl onto our table. Of course, Balthazar wasn’t the first of Keith McNally’s restaurants to turn ten — last year Pravda had an equally boisterous birthday celebration. To be fair we thought we’d get the straight propaganda from Rania Haditirto, bass player for the rock band the Kelly Affair, who has been a server at the vodka den for half of its life span.
Do partiers really order Russian specialties like beef stroganoff and borscht?
Not too many. People are shy about eating because they’re with groups or friends; you don’t want to be the only one eating chicken Kiev.
Did the ban on Beluga caviar affect business?
There was a big record producer who’d show up in a Hummer limo with a different girl every night. His tab would be $1,000 in two minutes. He stopped coming.
What do actual Russians make of the place?
Sometimes you get Russians that are like, “Why are you dressed like that? Because you think Russians dress like that?” I say, “No, this is just a Russian-themed place. This isn’t Brighton Beach.” I do get people who start speaking to me in Russian and are disappointed I’m not Russian.
How well do you know the dozens of vodkas on the menu? Any favorites?
The bartenders have loved Stoli Gold forever. Then there’s Zubrowka — it’s infused with bison grass. I’d recommend it with apple juice. We all love Cristiana, it’s very smooth, and Reyka from Iceland. We have a premium vodka called Jewel of Russia Ultra for $16 a shot. That’s several times distilled and very smooth.
If someone asks for more booze in a cocktail, or to tweak it somehow, will you take it back to the bar?
If you can tell that they’re going to give you a hard time, I’ll just do it. But if you feel like they’re open to it, if they say “I want it with vodka instead of gin,” I’ll say, “Hendrick made it the way he made it and he’s proud of it. It was made with gin for a reason.”
Is there a drink that makes you cringe?
We don’t make Long Island iced teas or anything like them. We don’t want this to be the kind of place where you go to get drunk and that’s your only goal.
Do people ever feel obligated to “drink like a Russian” and go too far?
We have a vodka bottle that’s eight ounces. After three, you’re on a roll. If we can tell people have gone too far, we can tell the manager, “Let’s cut them off.” Ana will also let us buy them French fries on the house [to sober them up].
Do drunk folk ever leave anything behind?
People call the next day saying, “Oh, I left a pair of pants there.” People have left purses and coats in the middle of winter. We’ve found bras, panties … on the floor, under the table …
What are the tables where people invariably end up canoodling?
My friends are always like, “Can we sit at table 69?”, because it’s kind of in the back. Table 60 is around the corner, hidden behind the stairs — if you walk in, you can’t see who’s sitting there.
Have you seen anything scandalous?
I walk by men fondling women, and I’m like, “I know where your hand is.” The other day our manager was like, “Look at Table 72, he’s breast-feeding.” And he was!