Does an average diner reach the same conclusions about restaurants as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised?* John Torode and reader Hannah Tesfaiohannes compare notes on Balthazar London.
John Torode is a broadcaster, chef, author and restaurateur who set up London restaurants Smiths of Smithfield and The Luxe.
Hannah Tesfaiohannes is an accountant from London who eats out around twice a month. Her favourite cuisine is Italian and her best eating out experience was at Hawksmoor.
Keith McNally’s famous restaurant has opened an outpost in Covent Garden. This New York institution is an American take on the French brasserie. Like its Manhattan cousin, Balthazar London is sleek, with red leather banquettes, brass fittings and deco detailing, and the largely French-inspired food is served all day. The breakfast menu has everything from brioche French toast with smoked bacon to apple cinnamon pancakes with maple syrup. The dinner menu is hot on brasserie classics such as platters of fruit de mer chicken liver and foie gras mousse, and duck confit. Desserts include an apple tart tatin, rum baba and baked cheesecake.
After many failed attempts to book a table, on many different nights, at many different times, I attempted a walk-in. A friend arrived before me and put their name on the list; the wait, we were informed was two hours long – and it was. Had there been a place to stand that was not in the main thoroughfare, and where you could get a drink easily it would have been fine. After a bottle of wine (and a beer) we were finally moved to a table. *If I was recognised, I didn’t know anything about it.
The doorman and greeters make it easy to see how Balthazar has become a New York institution. Although getting a reservation was impossible, and the walk-in tables for the evening were gone by 6pm, we were able to wait at a rather awkward space at the bar. The bar maître’d looked after us during our hour-long wait, taking our coats, getting us drinks, and giving us regular updates on the expected wait time. On being seated the service continued to be slick, personal and never stuffy.
The place was awash with the who’s who of London (not necessarily a good thing as there was lots of prancing and preening) and all anyone was talking about was the bread. Although I had given up bread for Lent, my friends say it was fragrant with a lovely crust and plenty of soft crumb. Of the dishes we tried, the best was the chicken liver and foie gras mousse sweet and soft. The little tower of parfait was served with a few accompaniments but nothing exciting. The goat’s cheese tart was a bit of a cheat, and a touch on the small side, it was more a slice of cheese with some onions in it – from a local bakery it might have been decent picnic fodder. My salad of baby beets was fine but a little seasoning would have helped. The Balthazar salad was a typical chopped salad and had a good sweet dressing. It reminded me of a salad my aunt would serve with her lasagne. As for the mains, I was the winner with a bowl of succulent and sweet delicious rabbit from the daily specials, although the sauce could’ve done with more mustard. The roasted cod was OK, the fish soft and flaky, but the skin should’ve been crisp and wasn’t. A side of gratin dauphinois was delicious, heady with strong cheese – I loved it. I would like to tell you about dessert but we had to leave our table as it had been booked at 10.30 by which time I was tired anyway and had little room left.
A lip-smackingly fresh and spicy bloody mary and a disappointingly watery margarita kept us going while we waited. The menu was typically French, with a large choice of fish and shellfish and prices that reflected the Covent Garden location. There were a number of vegetarian starters, but only one main. I started with the escargot which were soft, juicy and drenched in a lemony garlic butter. My boyfriend had the lobster and black truffle risotto which was huge, but still crunchy and lacking in truffle. The wine list is varied, with a good choice of wine by the glass, carafe and half bottle.We went for a half bottle of sancerre to complement our starters and a half bottle of fleurie to follow. My duck confit looked dry, but was actually crisp on the outside and moist and melting in the middle. However, the potatoes were not the crisp roast potatoes conjured by the menu, but oven-cooked new potatoes. My boyfriend had the enticing lamb T-bone cooked as recommended but served with an under-spiced merguez sausage.We were also given a complimentary portion of creamy garlic-infused gratin dauphinois, usually as there was a delay with our main courses. As the portions were incredibly generous we shared the crème brûlée. It was light, creamy and not too sweet, and although it did contain real vanilla, the seeds had all sunk to the bottom of the dish.
the bottom line
The staff were lovely, and although they were under a lot of pressure, they made our night. I have always enjoyed Balthazar in NewYork for brunch, although I think Lucky Strike (also owned by Keith McNally) is better, because, as beautiful as this room maybe, it is like a slightly better run Café Rouge.
FOOD 7/10; ATMOSPHERE 5/10; SERVICE 7/10; JOHN’S TOTAL: 19/30
The dark wood, distressed mirrors and cosmopolitan crowd make Balthazar seem to have been there forever. We’ve had better, less expensive French food in London, so it’s unlikely we’ll return. If we did it would be for the bloody mary, or to try the fruits de mer, and we’d make a reservation.
FOOD 7/10; ATMOSPHERE 8/10; SERVICE 9/10; HANNAH’S TOTAL 24/30
Balthazar Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) rating:
Balthazar has done well in sourcing locally, seasonally and conscientiously. The menu features free-range chicken from Norfolk and seafood landed in Brixham. The head chef is keenly aware of sustainability issues and aims to ensure that no unsustainable fish appears on the menu. However, Balthazar does use some beef from the USA, which, although reared to good standards carries more carbon miles than herds closer to home. It can be hard to pin down the origin of every ingredient in extensive menus, so it is important for diners to ask questions and choose carefully.