Balthazar, Covent Garden, London WC2
There’s been a lot of talk about how difficult it is to get a table at London’s hottest new restaurant – Balthazar, in Covent Garden, situated in a prime location right near the Piazza. When Annie and I had an unusually long break between meeting up – 5 weeks – something prompted me to think, I wonder if I can get a table at Balthazar for next time. So, 5 weeks ago, I rang them, asked if I could have a table for 2 on 15 April and they smoothly replied that I could and what time would I like. Now it’s fairly normal when booking an early evening table in central London – 7 pm was my requested time – that this will be followed by a warning that the table might be needed back a couple of hours later. But no. No mention of this. Nor when they rang to confirm my booking the day before. And, as it turned out, there was never any suggestion of us vacating the table, despite all those dire warnings of it being difficult to get to eat there (so a time limit wouldn’t have been a surprise) and in the end Annie and I sat at our nice table for three and a quarter hours!!
Once I’d booked my table, I noticed reviews starting to slide through newspaper and bloggers’ pages and they were largely good. Then on Sunday, the day before I was due to go, I read a scathing review of Balthazar by Jay Rayner in the Observer. Mmm. What to make of this? I forwarded a link to the review to Annie and we thus arrived pleased to be there at last but slightly less certain that we were in for an evening of good food.
Restaurateur Keith McNally has brought his legendary New York Balthazar to London. Partnered with the Caprice’s Richard Caring, no expense has been spared to recreate the restaurant’s French ambience: you could almost believe that you have been temporarily transported to Paris with its high ceilings, red banquettes, huge mirrors and sepia-tinted walls and lighting. There was a slight delay when we arrived as we waited for our table to be cleared but we were encourage to sit at the bar and order a drink. It wasn’t a long wait and we were fairly soon taken through the huge and buzzing restaurant.
Menus were brought, a carafe of water requested and we were able to look around and take in our surroundings. At the table next to me a couple were tucking into a fabulous display of fresh seafood.
I asked if I could take a photo of their plateau de fruits de mer. They happily obliged and said they’d already eaten quite a bit of it. Annie and I often choose the same food but we branched out yesterday and went for different things. While we waited for our starters, a bread basket and nice slab of cold butter came with our wine – a 500ml carafe of very good French grenache (£15).
Annie’s starter was Pumplin Agnolotti: a kind of ravioli served with pancetta, toasted pumpkin seeds and sage oil. She said it was very good; the filling in the little ravioli delicious.
My starter was the Balthazar Salad which came with asparagus, haricot verts, fennel, ricotta salata and a truffle oil dressing. Crisp and wonderfully fresh it was delicious and I loved the salty slice of ricotta on top.
Annie’s main was Grilled Lamb T-bone with flageolet beans, merquez sausage and Chantenay carrots. It was enormous! And looked wonderful. Annie said it was excellent.
My main choice was Grilled Whole Dorade served on a romesco sauce. I’m sometimes (lazily!) wary of ordering whole fish but sea bream is one of my favourite fishes and easy to bone. It looked fantastic on arrival and as I cut into the flesh it broke easily away from the bone and tasted marvellous: so full of flavour and fabulously tender and moist. The sauce was delicious too and nicely complemented the fish as did the slightly bitter frisee salad on the side.
Portions were large but we were nicely pacing ourselves. There was no sense of hurry. We loved the buzzy atmosphere: there were plenty of people and plenty of talk but it wasn’t too noisy so we didn’t have to struggle to hear each other talk, which can be a problem in large restaurants like this sometimes; the tables were close but not too close together. The service was very friendly and efficient. There were slight time lapses or occasional problems getting a waiter’s attention but nothing that pressed the irritation button. Annie felt she couldn’t manage pudding but when the waiter suggested the hot souffles were good, said she could manage a mouthful or two if I wanted one. So I ordered hot chocolate souffle with chocolate sauce. It was quite a large souffle and arrived perfectly puffed up and proud of itself, not even collapsing as I made an indentation in the middle to pour in the sauce. At which point our waiter rushed across and did the sauce pouring carefully for me. It was warm and light as chocolate air, just as it should be. The rich chocolate sauce added delightfully to the taste.
It was an indulgence, I was already quite full, but how to resist a sweet hot souffle! After that we had an Americano each and talked on, surprised when we suddenly realised how late it was and how long (obviously happily!) we’d been sitting there. We paid. The total bill for the two of us was £96.75 including tip which wasn’t cheap but we thought a good price for what we’d had. As we made our way out I asked a waitress where the cloakrooms were and she said, I’ll show you, and took us across the room to a door and pointed up some stairs. I thought that was a nice added friendly touch, rather than just telling us where to go. Heading out into the cool night air, Annie and I said our goodbyes and I headed across Waterloo bridge to the station, stopping briefly to admire London’s skyline and embankment and thinking how great it was to live here in this vibrant city.