Balthazar Covent Garden
4-6 Russell St, Covent Garden, WC2B5HZ
020 3301 1155/www.balthazarlondon.com/
Bethnal Green Boy Keith McNally is one of New York’s top restaurateurs and is now making his London debut with the backing of Richard Caring, opening Balthazar, an all-day 150 seater Grand Brasserie in the refurbished London Transport Museum site in Covent Garden. It shares the same name as his New York flagship and there is a bakery attached to the restaurant overseen by Regis Beauregard, ex-Ritz head pastry chef.
There is no pretending-Balthazar is the hot table du jour. To get a table I had to go on repeat dial for an hour as the booking line opened and the restaurant was packed to the gills with food bloggers like moi and celebrities such as …Heston Blumenthal wearing specs that somehow made him look like Atom Ant. Now London is not short of faux French Brasseries and with Zedel, Colbert, The Wolseley and The Delaunay at the top end of the market there is definitely competition for McNally. However Covent Garden is undergoing something of a rebirth as a gastro-destination and there is nothing quite like this in the area and certainly nothing that has McNally’s transatlantic pulling power.
The room is dark wood and red leather, distressed walls and Art Deco flourishes. It’s a Hollywood set designer’s Brasserie wet dream and feels a bit fake compared to Zedel or the Wolseley which seem to be natural extensions of the pre-existing spaces. It’s also the doppelgänger of the New York room. None of this really matters except is there something a bit weird culturally about an Englishman opening a French brasserie in New York and then transplanting it to London? However none of this will matter if the food and vibe are great.
McNally has put together a crack team to realise his vision. Behind the bar is Brian Silva who had made a name for himself running the upstairs bar at Rules around the corner on Maiden Lane. He has put together a drinks list that combines classics with some house cocktails.
I ordered a Negroni Finis (£9.50) from the bar-a classic Negroni comprises equal measures of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. This version replaces the sweet vermouth with Cinzano Orancio-an orange tinged vermouth-Byrrh, an aperitif made of red wine, mistelle (a part fermented grape juice), quinine, and passion fruit. The result is lighter and more fragrant than the original but retaining the complexity of flavour and delicious bitter Campari aftertaste. This was a great drink and perfect for pre-meal. So far so good-would the food stand up? The kitchen is overseen by executive chef Robert Reid, a man with real form, who had been in charge at Marco Pierre White’s 3 Michelin starred Oak Room in the Hyde Park Hotel.
Bread soon arrived-Poilane style brown slices and a small white baguette from their bakery next door. The brown was excellent with a wonderful malty crust.
For our starters we decided to share the Lobster and Black Truffle Risotto (£10.50) with cauliflower cream and black truffle butter. The rice still had plenty of bite and was encased in an unctuous sauce with plenty of lobster chunks and a deep rich truffle and lobster flavour. This was a very well executed dish showing a sense of care and precision from the kitchen.
By this point I was drinking a 2011 Daniel Chotard Sancerre (£10.50), an elegant manifestation of the grape with citrus and floral notes.
Roasted Fillet of Cod with crushed potatoes, olive tapenade and pistachios (£18.50) was a really well balanced plate of food. A good piece of fish presented Provençal style, not in any way showy but in some way recognisable as something put together by someone who constructed those amazing plates at The Oak Room and now working at a much lower price point in the context of the much larger turnover of a brasserie.
My friend Catherine ordered the Balthazar Cheeseburger (£16). Since this is the London iteration of a New York restaurant why not? It came encased in a brioche bun and garnered the comment that it ‘was not the best that she had eaten. ‘ However the real point of interest on her plate were the frites. The Balthazar frites had already been the subject of negative critical comment and in a joint like this should be perfect. Properly done they should be limp- these were hard and crisp all the way through and not in a good way. Sort out your frites Balthazar! However our garlicky side of Sauteed Spinach (£4.50) was impeccable.
At this point our waitress (who was tres jolie et agreable) forced dessert upon us. We shared a chocolate souffle (£10) which wobbled delightfully but was a bit too Hershey Bar in flavour for my liking. To help it down I drank a glass of Banyuls, Cuvee Leon Parce, Domaine de la Rectorie 2009 (£7 for 100ml). Banyuls is a fortified wine from Roussillon which drinks rather like a young port and it was a pretty good match for the souffle as neither of them were carrying the burden of intensity…
Balthazar is the hottest room in London at the moment. Go and enjoy that-and there’s some pretty good food there as well. And for the echt New York/Paris/London experience there is nowhere to beat it!