There’s no doubt about it Balthazar is drop-dead gorgeous. You only have to see the golden lights winking through the windows to be drawn through the door like a moth to a candle. But how does the food stack up?
I managed (with considerable difficulty) to get a table for dinner this week and found it already heaving with almost as many waiters as punters. Oddly that didn’t make the service especially responsive. They had a knack - as waiters do - of looking round the room to see if anything needed doing but managing to avoid your eye in case you actually wanted anything. It took a while - and a reminder - to get our order taken and a further prompt - after we spotted a basket on our neighbours' table - to be given some of the very good bread.
The menu is French in the way the Americans do French - i.e. with supersize portions, lashings of frites and a wildly indulgent dessert menu.
There was plenty to tempt so I suppose I shouldn’t have ordered a very un-French lobster and truffle risotto. It sounded too good to be true at £10.50, and indeed was with a strong taste of truffle oil and a mound of pallid rice that managed to be both sticky and underdone. My daughter’s frisée aux lardons was a better bet though the bacon shallot vinaigrette was bigger on vinegar than on bacon.
Her cheeseburger though was strangely gamey (the burger, not the cheese) suggesting very well hung beef - an odd way of handling a menu option that would be chosen by conservative eaters. And my steak au poivre, which I am embarrassed to admit I remember fondly from its '70s heyday, was disappointingly unpeppery with a rather dull gravy-like sauce. Top marks for the frites and the perfectly cooked spinach that came with it though.
Desserts were much better - a really gorgeous moussey, New York style cheesecake with a slick of apple purée and a light-as-air cinnamon apple doughnut and some pretty good profiteroles though with a not-quite-chocolatey-enough chocolate sauce.
Wines by the glass - a slightly tired aligoté and a very good 2009 Rasteau that was perfect with my steak - were on the pricey side at £9 a glass.
I’ve never been to the original so can’t comment on how it measures up but the obvious comparison here is with the equally glam but rather more authentically French Brasserie Zédel which is ironically run by Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, former owners of the Caprice group which has now taken McNally’s Balthazar under its umbrella. I prefer Zédel (not least for the pricing) though others in search of more of a scene might well not.
What struck me forcibly though is how curiously old-fashioned the food seems by London 2013 standards. That might seem an odd thing to say of a restaurant that pays tribute to a classic French food tradition but it harks more back to 1997 New York (the date Balthazar was founded) than the 1970s Paris that Zédel apes. There are better casual French restaurants in London - Racine and and McNally's adopted compatriot Daniel Boulud's Bar Boulud among them - and better burger joints (Honest Burger comes to mind). And the portions seem ridiculously large by today’s standards.
What was McNally’s aim in coming to London? A faithful reproduction of his New York restaurant for ex-pats? I’m sure he’ll have achieved that. A new beacon restaurant for London? I’m not so sure.
That said it already feels as if it's been there for months, never mind days. If you want a bit of New York glitz without jumping on a plane, Balthazar is for you. And knowing McNally’s reputation as a restaurateur I’m sure he’ll get the food and the service right. In the meantime stick to a couple of starters or a main course and a pud and you’ll be able to walk out feeling a little lighter than we did and with a slightly lesser hit on your wallet.
My bill at Balthazar was £115.31 for 2 for 3 courses, 2 glasses of wine, 2 lemonades and a mint tea.
Balthazar is at 4-6 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HZ (just off the Covent Garden piazza) and is currently only open for dinner. Lunches start on March 4th and brunch and breakfast in due course. There is a rather gorgeous-looking bakery next door.