Balthazar

When I tried to get a table a few weeks after Balthazar’s eagerly anticipated opening last year, I felt like Patrick Bateman trying to get a reservation at Dorsia. Not a chance was the response I got. Not this weekend, and not for any of the weekends in the foreseeable future. They might as well have let out that shrill laugh down the phone. Well almost a year later with the hype having cooled off, or rather people realising it really didn’t deserve half of that hype in the first place, my perseverance has paid off and I managed to land myself a table.

With it’s huge premises just off the central arcade in Covent Garden it has the feel of a destination restaurant, and so it was the ideal place to take visiting family from Newcastle who wanted a taste of somewhere grand in London. Inside it is easy to see just where that £14 million investment went. A lot of effort has gone into making this feel autentic. Whether that’s authentically French, or authentically New York’s imitation of French, it is difficult to say.

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The clientele reflects the location, as it seemed to be filled up predominantly with people attracted to the area rather than actually caring too much about the restaurant. This is obviously a wining formula given the endless stream of people who pass through Covent Garden, and given that the competition isn’t strong, it was no surprise to find the restaurant full on a Sunday night.

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Once we were seated in a booth with a great view of the dining room it was hard not to be seduced by the place. The warm glow of the lighting, the French jazz playing and the infectious buzz of diners really gives it an infectious and romantic atmosphere. Our waiter was quickly on hand to bring us wine, and throughout his service was professional, without ever really being personal. Many grand brasseries have a similarly impersonal approach, with the staff rushing between tables giving it the feel of a well-oiled machine. It is the top brasseries like The Delaunay that can work on this scale whilst still offering perfect service.

To start things off a plate of Langoustines (£24 for 6) served on ice with a Marie Rose dipping sauce, reminded me why I don’t usually go for langoustines. They are the Russian Dolls of the crustacean world- they seem so big to start with but as soon as you start to peel away the outer shell, you end up with a tiny little bite. And £4 a mouthful is a little on the steep side.

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The Onion Soup (£9) was as rich and fattening as you could ever wish for. It quite easily could have been labeled a cheese soup, which is only a good thing.

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The Escgarots (£10.50) were not overloaded with garlic butter and this allowed the lovely nutty earthiness of the snails to shine through.

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The Saffron Risotto with Scallops and Roasted Courgettes (£11) was cooked perfectly and a generous portion for this price. More saffron would have been appreciated though, as I was hoping for that lovely burnt red colouring in the rice.

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For main course, the Duck Shepherd’s Pie (£19) took French food being rich to the extreme. It was so rich that it was difficult to enjoy more than just a mouthful.  The sauce was had the darkness and sweetness of hoisin sauce. A side of Pommes Frites (£5) were criminally soggy and under-seasoned.

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The Beef Fillet Stroganoff (£19) was also incredibly rich, but there was enough saltiness from the bacon to cut through and give a balance to the dish. It was a good stroganoff, although admittedly there was a lot more sauce than beef.

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The Grilled Var Salmon with Spinach and a Walnut and Lentil Salad (£18) was easily the most disappointing of the mains. Firstly, it didn’t come pink as asked for and instead was cooked right through. The main problem was the sauce/salad dressing that it came with, which was far too sweet and didn’t work at all with the fish. It tasted like a sweet honey glaze and wasn’t at all pleasant.IMG_1943

The Moules Frites (£15) were another let down. A dish this simple and this much of a French classic should be routinely good. The fries were again soggy and the real disappointment was that the sauce which was in desperate need of some more garlic and white wine. The best part of this dish should always be mopping up the sauce at the bottom, but this was just too bland to even tempt me.

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For dessert, the Apple Tarte Tatin and Vanilla Ice Cream (£8) looked boring and flat sitting in the middle of the plate. The caramel had a lovely richness, but there just wasn’t enough apple or pastry to really call this as a Tarte Tatin.

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The Profiteroles (£7) had vanilla ice cream wedged in the middle instead of cream. The chocolate sauce came on the side and and there was no denying its dark intensity, but it was just a shame that it was cold, as a hot sauce here would have worked brilliantly with the ice cream.

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After eating here it is difficult to see just what all the hype was about. It certainly couldn’t be about the food, which after the strong starters, was all a bit of a let down. And it isn’t exactly the most impressive of grand brasseries in London, I’d leave that to The Delaunay which is only a few minutes walk away. I had expected this to be a really high-end meal, but instead I saw it for what it really is, a fairly solid restaurant in Covent Garden that is a step-up from the crap tourist traps surrounding it. This isn’t enough to merit going back, and at over £60 a head for three courses with wine, it rules out nipping in for a quick fix if you are in the area.

Food: 6/10

Service: 7/10

Atmosphere: 8.5/10

Value: 6.5/10

Overall: 6.5/10

4-6 Russell Street, London  WC2B 5HZ

Balthazar on Urbanspoon

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