In what has been one of the most eagerly anticipated (not to mention longest) restaurant launches of recent years, Keith McNally brings his famous New York brasserie to London.
Balthazar London has stayed pretty true to the original design, looking much like the bustling brasserie over in the Big Apple. The result is authentically appealing – for a just-opened restaurant it already feels like it's captured a sense of history. Dark red leather booths and sofas lend an air of sophistication and comfort, set against flashes of dark wood and gold railings between seating areas. This is a place where every detail has been carefully looked at, from the pretty tiling on the floor to the bubble lighting and decorative mirrors. Yellow walls keep the setting muted, and the overall effect is very smart; no wonder they kept it so close to the original incarnation. Next door is Balthazar Boulangerie, a takeaway bakery and sandwich shop that might just have enough about it to placate those who can't get into the restaurant proper.
The foodie world has eyes firmly glued on Balthazar and as such the bloggers, reviewers and general food-loving public are heading here in their droves. There’s certainly a lot of interest in this place, though it’s not quite as busy as some reports would have you believe (the availability only of unsociable tables two months down the line is a little obvious, to say the least). The fact that there are tables free is in no small part down to the sheer size of the space, and the fact that it’s open all day. The waiting staff are very well turned out and look as much a part of the décor as the tables and chairs. White aprons, smart trousers, slicked-back hair – it’s very old school. The service is American in style as well: attentive, sometimes overly polite, but ultimately very efficient.
The menu moves through breakfast, lunch and dinner pretty smoothly, and is bolstered by that pretty impressive bakery next door. The focus is firmly on French brasserie fare and the prices, though not astronomical, aren’t exactly cheap. You’re looking at £6-£10.50 for a starter or £13.50-£29 for a main course from the dinner menu, though portions are generous.
For starters, the oysters are a good, easy-on the palate way to begin. A half dozen rock oysters are £12 and the platter is well presented with the large, shiny and well-cleaned oysters sitting atop a bed of crisp white ice. Fresh, cold and incredibly light they are clearly good specimens, and correctly free of broken bits of shell or grit. If you're not a fan of the bivalve then there is a large selection covering French favourites such as escargot, onion soup and steak tartar.
Main courses (entrées) cover a wide range of choices to suit most tastes, though butter, cream and red meat make a big mark on the menu - it’s not really one for dieters. The lobster and black truffle risotto is a good choice, and at £14.75 offers very good value, given the premium ingredients. The lobster is broken up and mainly absorbed by the risotto but the flavour the creamy rice gains is fantastic, and everything is impressively underpinned by the earthiness of the black truffle. This is classic French food so of course it’s also incredibly rich and creamy - perhaps too much so, in fact. Cauliflower cream and black truffle butter are also thrown in for good measure, adding a heavy edge to the dish that does tone down the truffle somewhat, and helps to complement the delicate sweetness of the lobster.
It's not all traditional French fare, though. The pork belly with roasted Brussels sprouts, black pudding hash and smoked apple puree (£15.50) has a distinct feel of Ol Blighty to it. The pork belly is fatty and sweet with crisp crackling adding a pleasant salty dimension to the rich piece of meat. The Brussels are hardly like those served on a Sunday; here they're crisp and lightly cooked. The black pudding hash is rich, meaty and almost too much for the pork, though the sweet apple puree tempers it nicely. It’s an incredibly filling dish and is almost too much after a starter – even a starter as light as oysters.
A restaurant so ensconced in a love of France, should boast a wine menu with a Gallic skew, and so it proves - in spades. Consequently there are some incredible examples of great bottles on the menu, including some excellent Champagnes and Bordeauxs. The only downside to French wine is the price tag – you typically pay more for what you get in these regions. It’s a shame that Balthazar – and many restaurants in London – don’t offer more wines from unusual (and burgeoning) wine-producing regions such as Ukraine, Moldova and Israel as you usually get better tasting bottles at lower price points.
The Last Word
The buzz around Balthazar is already sufficient to attract the kinds of famous faces frequently frequenting the tables of its Transatlantic cousin. Thankfully, it's a lovely restaurant for us mere mortals, too.