Ah Balthazar. If there’s a restaurant that sums up my old fashion editor life in Manhattan, it would be this one, where I ate breakfast at least thrice weekly and knew that if I walked to a table at the back of the room, I would pass half the fashion publicists of New York pretending to eat. So, of course, when Mr McNally’s Balthazar mark two opened up in Covent Garden a few weeks ago, I was keen to get my bottom on one of his leather banquettes, if only for nostalgia’s sake. (The rooms were rumoured to be nigh on identical on both sides of the Atlantic.)
Unfortunately, lacking the number of the top secret VIP booking line that I presume exists over here — it certainly does in New York — the only offer for a table was either in a month, or at 530pm, a time an American tourist in London may cherish, but one which no self-respecting Londoner would accept. So I must confess that I rang someone with connections and a table for four at 830pm a week hence magically became available.
There’s nothing worse than a blog post full of blurry photos of food, so I’ll spare you the pain (by giving you blurry photos of me and my friends instead), and note that on the whole everything we ate was good but not brilliant (and we ate a lot: troughing through three courses each and most of the sides). In the main it’s classic French food, with a far more sophisticated execution than most Parisian brasseries.
There’s the odd leftfield throw on the menu. We didn’t try the shepherd’s pie made with duck, clearly meant to be the signature dish, but we did order the house salad, an American-style chopped affair, which had too much truffle oil fighting against a lonely floppy triangle of ricotta salata, which would have been better crumbled. There’s plenty to order under £20, which is a miracle for a central London operation at this level.
Stand outs were the chewy bread from the in-house bakery, an unctuous gratin Dauphinois, and the absolutely a point rhubarb soufflé, a work of art both on the plate and in the mouth. Near misses were C’s just the wrong side of medium-rare steak, the salt slick Brussels sprouts, and my dry spinach and squash hockey puck of a pithivier, rescued however by its accompanying pool of deliciously artery-hardening mushroom & cream sauce.
But over and above the unambitious menu (because it is what it is), the seamless service is what makes Balthazar London a benchmark for excellence that the city’s watching restaurateurs are going to have to emulate if they don’t want to appear to be slacking in comparison.
The entire operation runs on rails, most notably in that it appears deftly effortless. Everyone front of house is on a charm offensive, cossetting service is the order of the day, and smiling good humour greases those rails admirably.
Of all the staff, Brian Silva, the head barman, is perfection in a dapper white jacket. Whilst waiting, propped against a pillar, for our table and feeling slightly lemon-like, (because you can’t sit with a drink, as the stools are reserved for people eating at the bar), he appeared as if by magic in front of us, having walked all the way around from behind the bar to offer us drinks. And, later on, he came by our table to check how Ayla had liked her virgin cocktail.
Now that is what I call immaculate service. Just as immaculate as the Old Fashioned he made me.
What Mr McNally understands so well — as do his London counterparts Mr Corbin and Mr King — is that atmosphere and excellent service are as important a part of the eating out experience as the food itself. It sounds blindingly obvious but, given that so many restaurants get it all so hideously wrong, I’m all in favour of a restaurateur who knows exactly what his clientele want. (Edible food and good drink, served with celerity in a comfortable, buzzy room at a reasonable cost.) In an ideal world, we’d be aiming for higher than edible, but you can’t have everything…
NB. Tables are kept aside for walk-ins and, from what we saw, I should think there would be a fairly high chance of being seated if you try after 9pm. If you don’t mind eating at the bar, I managed to snag two seats on the off chance at 645pm last week, and turnover seems pretty rapid.
Breakfast service starts on Monday (the 18th), and it’s surely a given that the fashion circus will add Balthazar to the Cecconi’s/Wolseley/Dean Street Townhouse/Delauney/Claridges/Riding House Café morning meeting merry-go-round. I suspect that I will be eating there as often as I did in Manhattan.