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|Address:||4-6 Russell Street, London WC2E 7BN|
|Tel:||020 3301 1155|
|Price: £56.00||Wine: £20.00||Champagne: £61.00|
|Opening Hours:||Mon-Fri 7.30-11am 12N-3.30pm 6.30-9.30pm|
2 of 2 people found this review helpful.
There seems to be a rash of faux French brasseries popping up across London. Balthazar is not one of them. No, Balthazar is not a London take on a French institution, it is a London take on a New York take on a French ideal.
Oh yes, from the misuse of French on the menu (entrees means starters, not mains), those stupid half doors on the loos, the waiters (servers?) whisking individual plates away as finished (rather than politely waiting until the table is finished) and interrupting when you are trying to talk, it is clear that this is many stages removed from Paris or Lyon. OK, you could get that whole waiter interrupting thing in Paris, but nobody quite does it like a New Yorker.
The building is gorgeous; high ceilings, red banquettes, mosaics on the floor and mirrors on the walls. The buzz is reminiscent of the “original” in SoHo. The booking is difficult, the anticipation is high. Alas, it could really only go one way from here.
Having only booked on the day bookings open (30 days before bum meets seat), we didn't get a banquette, just a (too small) table. These are perfectly fine, if a little cramped, stuck as they are between the banquettes and the passage way down which the waiting staff carry huge trays of fodder.
The dinner menu (dissected by the Guardian the other day, to show how one is more easily separated from one's hard-earned) separates the oyster bar from the starters (hors d'oeuvres), mains (the absurdly titled “entrees” section) and a smattering of “Plates Pour Deux”. Why don’t they go the whole hog though, either US or French, listing dishes in American or in French? Instead, there is a mishmash of each, presumably taking the more common (escargot) and putting them in French, and the more esoteric (braised pork cheek) and leaving it in American (the poor lobster gets both: American as a starter and French as a main). It is pretentious in the extreme.
The oysters were really nice, the onion soup satisfyingly scalding, dripping with gruyere, the asparagus cooked well and the onion tart crisp and tarty. Mains too were perfectly fine; the dourade (sea bream in American) came boned and cooked well, the temptation to overcook not having been given in to; duck shepherd's pie (surely that is Parmentier? Or at least duck herder's pie: I mean, how many shepherds do you know who keep ducks?) a nice example. Steak was cooked as asked and as perfectly acceptable as you will get in any number of less fashionable places. Sides of frites and spinach were likewise perfectly acceptable, if nothing special. Where though is that staple of the Parisian brasserie; Choucroute? Why is roast chicken available only on a Monday and rabbit in mustard on a Sunday? The piles of steaks and hamburgers tell all you need to know: this is a tourist trap: get the Bridge and Tunnel crowd in, make them feel that they are tasting the real deal, and fleece them.
It is what Balthazar in New York has become: a safe destination; an uninteresting, middle of the road restaurant, with a great buzz but no pretentions on the food. If you want to spend twenty notes on a burger, be my guest. I'd rather go to Burger + Lobster for that, or MEATliquor and get three.
The constant free topping up of the mineral water is a very nice touch, but it is not cheap at over £40 a head without alcohol or coffee: for that, I certainly expect a lot more, as free water alone does not a cheap meal make.
Do go for the atmosphere though; go for the gorgeously designed space: whilst Balthazar may well become the new Ivy, it is never going to win any awards for the quality of the food on offer, so don't expect great things on the culinary front. That said, and to paraphrase the Daily Telegraph theatre critic when he panned that other New York invader this spring (the Book of Mormon), it doesn't really matter what I say about Balthazar; it is destined to be a huge success.