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Balthazar restaurant reviewed

When Chancellor George Osborne clumsily branded us an ‘aspiration nation’ was he talking about getting a reservation at Balthazar? Red Carpet takes a table. Sat Bal (25 Mar’13)

Certainly, it’s been a while since any London restaurant launch has opened with such anticipation and hype. So what’s all the fuss about?

 

The background

When a restaurateur like Keith McNally opens a venue people take notice. Especially when the launch is a joint venture with Richard Caring, boss of Caprice Holdings (The Ivy, Le Caprice, J Sheekey et al).

Londoner McNally built his name in New York with the renowned Odeon in 1980 followed by a string of bar and restaurant openings leading to Balthazar restaurant and bakery in 1997 and then Pastis which chic'd up lower Manhattan's Meatpacking District. No surprise then that London’s homage to the fêted NY Balthazar brasserie has caused near hysteria with reservations akin to acquiring Charlie’s Golden Ticket.

Ambience

Stepping into the golden warmth of Balthazar on a cold March night is a theatrical experience, as befits the venue’s Covent Garden location. Brass fittings, expensive red leather banquettes, soaring ceiling and outsized mirrors render it indistinguishable from its Manhattan counterpart. We see first-hand why securing a reservation could be challenging; the place is packed to capacity on this Thursday night. Eclipsing the recession in this dramatic way is, per se, an achievement.

The meticulous attention to detail is evident, from the fragment flooring to the just-so lighting. The coveted table section lies towards the left upon entering where the comfy banquettes sit under the huge mirrors and where celebrities are likely to converge. But even here, the place starts to feel somewhat claustrophobic despite being faux screened off. It's purely because of the thronged tables tonight lending the air of an overactive school dining hall, albeit a very sophisticated one.  

 

The menu

The food is good, but the hype is better. The Manhattan factor dominates proceedings to the extent of muting the otherwise rather good grilled var salmon over a warm spinach, walnut and lentil salad.  Dessert of baked cheesecake with warm cinnamon and apple doughnut was a rich choice that all but silenced our table. The menu traverses breakfast, lunch and dinner and other dinner dishes include duck shepherd’s pie, pork belly, pithivier with spinach and pine nuts and the Balthazar hamburgers and cheeseburgers. An interesting seafood selection includes crab salad, ceviche and oyster du jour. And don’t forget the excellent bread basket from master baker Jon Rolfe whose wares can be picked up from the boulangerie next door.

The comprehensive wine list is a real feast and will deservedly inflate the bill. A half bottle of Pouilly-Fumé “Les Cocques” is £24 while the £300 Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame” ‘90 is sure to bolster any celebration.

 

Service & people

Keith McNally’s genius is to make an international business function with small- business attention. Like so many successful small business owners he’s often patrolling the floor to ensure that the vision works and that customers are content. This ethos is evident among his staff, from the courteous reception at the door to the legion of smart waiting staff. Despite Balthazar’s customer volume everything was done efficiently and attentively and we received several goodbyes from several staff when we left the table for the exit.

Executive chef is Robert Reid (ex-Marco Pierre White at The Oak Room) and Brian Silva (formerly of Rules bar) runs the extensive cocktail bar. Byron Lang (former maitre d’ at the Ivy, the Wolseley, St. Alban and Savoy Grill) is general manager and greeter.

The bill

Circa £135 for two diners, three courses including wine.

 

Don’t mention…

Giles Coren, whose harsh criticism that it’s "the best restaurant in London, and the worst food in Europe” was swiftly met by Keith McNally’s riposte that Coren’s review was “…written so clearly for controversy's sake.”

 

Others…

Brasserie Zedel 20 Sherwood Street, London W1

Bar Boulud Mandarin Oriental, 66 Knightsbridge, London SW1

Electric Diner 191 Portobello Rd London W11 2ED

Balthazar 4-6 Russell Street, Covent Garden, WC2E 7BN

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