24 July 2015
I heart Balthazar. So much so, I want to scribble its name across exercise books, and practice my new signature (in the event that we marry). Granted we had an excellent meal, but it was more than that; something majestic happened when we skipped up the stairs, past the doorman and through its tarnished golden gates. The tourist hell/hen armageddon that is Covent Garden’s Piazza simply melted away, leaving in its place a spectacle with all the trappings of a London institution.
It attracts a mixed crowd, but finds equilibrium between any restaurant snobs, deal-closing high rollers and clued-up tourists. Vibrant chatter erupts from each leather banquette, with an atmosphere that is buoyant, bustling and super animated. Bookings during peak are still elusive, but the room was already buzzing during an early Wednesday sitting. (Corner booths proved to be the sweet spots, so worth requesting in advance of dinner a deux).
We’d perved at the menu ahead of our visit, so were mentally prepared for (very) steep prices. It takes some chops to charge a tenner for buttered asparagus and a fiver for fries, but - bafflingly - we both felt okay with it, given the whole experience was such an unadulterated pleasure. (It's worth noting that the £22.50 prix fixe menu bags you steak tartare followed by seabass and dessert; the veggie alternatives are less grand, but remain a bargain).
I was gutted to miss out on 'schnitzel Thursday', but the menu was lust-worthy nonetheless. I’d recommend starters on the lighter side as mains are rich and ducktastic. My friend flagrantly disregarded this, plumping for a ballsy chicken liver parfait followed by the day’s special of saffron scallop risotto. Within minutes, there wasn’t a grain left, so I’m guessing the latter was pretty dreamy. I sampled the lauded shepherd’s pie; a fiercely bubbling duck ragu topped with gloriously browned mash. Resolutely French puds included a tarte tatin with obscenely buttery pastry and luscious caramel, then a voluminous raspberry soufflè with an accomplished degree of wibble. Both were delicious but - lordy - I do hope the Gascon paradox was at work… we must’ve knocked back eight pats of butter between us, so a glass of medicinal red should’ve been on the cards.
Which brings me to the wine list: exclusively French and manageable in scope, with plenty by the glass or carafe. Having been seduced by our surroundings, we splashed out on sparkling wine. Non-vintage Champagne starts at £61, but here’s a tip: scoot down the menu to the lesser known regions, and you’ll find bubbles in the form of Blanquette de Limoux for 40 quid. Très bon! As for staff, there was never a downturned mouth, with beaming faces in all directions and pitch-perfect attentiveness. Our verdict? Management has the formula right, and then some.
I’m astonished by anyone immune to Balthazar's charms, as I’m already plotting excuses to return. Ahead of our visit, my friend asked if it was merely a 'jumped-up Cafe Rouge’, having heard that the tablecloths are made of paper. Moments in and any regrets concerning starched linen (or the absence thereof) had disappeared in a flurry of child-like glee. This place already carries a sense of gravitas akin to the Ivy, so I’d be inclined to chime in and endorse the considerable hype; we couldn’t recommend it highly enough.