This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Balthazar, the French brasserie that has played to full houses since it first opened on Spring Street, Manhattan, in 1997, has finally transferred to London's Covent Garden. It boasts an intriguing cast.
First and foremost is the English-born restaurateur Keith McNally, 61, who has now spent over half his working life orchestrating not just Balthazar but other successful restaurant openings in Manhattan, including Minetta Tavern, Pastis and Schiller's.
McNally explained that he had initially decided to settle back in London for his children's education. And as he talked about his other interests, walking, theatre and Arsenal football club, he admitted rather poignantly that he felt somewhat disappointed with himself that he had fallen yet again into this habit of opening popular restaurants.
Two companies that significantly contributed to McNally's return to his roots have been Richard Caring's Caprice Holdings and Capital and Counties plc, the property company that controls most of Covent Garden. The former has financially underpinned the long and complex transformation of the building, formerly London's Theatre Museum, while for the latter Balthazar represents another step in their development of this area into one that will be as popular for those who live in London as those who visit it.
Then there is Robert Reid, the Executive Chef, whose career has mirrored Londoners' approach to French food over the past twenty years. In the early 1990s, when haute cuisine was à la mode, South African-born Reid was the chef at the helm of Marco Pierre White's kitchens. He has now turned to cooking more bourgeois French food, attracted by the opportunity of working alongside McNally and in a kitchen that is next to, rather then underneath, the restaurant.
As in Manhattan, Balthazar comes with its own bakery. In London this is spread over 4,000 sq ft on Hercules Road just south of Waterloo Bridge. Consequently, the bread and viennoiserie served in the restaurant and in the take-away café next door are excellent. (London's croissants even come in bags printed in Chicago!)
While an integral aspect of the Manhattan bakery business is supplying other restaurants, the London bakery caters only to the needs of the other Caprice Holding restaurants such as Scott's and The Ivy. The recent cold weather has been affecting the way the yeasts rise and seems to have given Reid as many headaches as coping with the demand for tables.
It is easy to see why this production has got off to such a flying start. McNally's eye for detail and the almost obsessive quality with which he chooses a restaurant's interior are here all on display: the compact bar; the red banquettes; the shellfish counter; the large, intentionally distressed mirrors that hang at just the appropriate angle so every customer can see the room; the lights; and the tiled floor all successfully contribute to an apparently Parisian stage set and one that will only get friendlier with wear. The laminated menus are an almost copy-and-paste replica of New York's, with the biggest difference coming in the fish section.
The two major physical differences are that in London the lavatories are upstairs rather than downstairs, and there is no door through to the bakery. Reid, having spent time in the kitchens in Manhattan, also reported that his customers are using the place differently. 'Here we seem to be serving three courses to most tables, and far more desserts, while fewer of my customers are ordering the combination of onion soup followed by steak and chips that is so popular over there.'
I managed in the space of a week to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at Balthazar and my notes reinforced what McNally and Reid opined: that despite, or because of, the fact that they are serving up to 960 customers a day with 20 on the phones downstairs handling the reservations, the food has to improve.
Breakfast was underwhelming. Perhaps it was the immediate sight of those awkward-to-open, miniature pots of Tiptree jams that I find mean that was particularly disappointing. But the situation was made worse by tea from a tea bag; an overcooked, under-seasoned omelette aux fines herbes; and a desultory salad in place of the pommes frites I could not face so early in the morning.
Lunch demonstrated two noticeable kitchen faults. The toast alongside the excellent mousse of chicken liver and foie gras was cold, as were the mashed potatoes underneath the generous serving of Thursday's special of 'coq au vin'. That is what my notes say but my eyes were taking in how engagingly the room has now adapted to its new role.
Five of us returned, without a booking, for a pre-theatre supper. A caramelised cheese and onion tart and the Balthazar salad were good, the lobster and truffle risotto over-salted. The pumpkin agnolotti, the macaroni cheese and the grilled Dover sole were very good, as was the steak, but not the disappointing frites. The large, all-French wine list is cumbersome and certainly not the best value in town. My bill, without dessert but including a bottle of Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs NV champagne (£90 here but £25 retail), was £250.
My personal disappointment is that London in 2013 is not the same as Manhattan in 1997 and McNally has not yet done enough editing with the menu and the wine list to adapt them to their new home. But London's Balthazar is certainly fun.
Photos by David Loftus.
Balthazar 4-6 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HZ; tel 020 3301 1155