Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Balthazar: The New York Brasserie Debuts in London

On the corner of Russell Street and Wellington Street in the heart of Covent Garden, Balthazar made its London debut about 3 weeks ago. Perfectly located around the corner from The Royal Opera House, it's almost an exact replica of New York's wildly successful SoHo original, right down to its brass-buttoned red leather banquettes, mosaic-tiled floor and enormous Belle Epoch mirrors. Like New York, the French brasserie-inspired menu includes an abundance of fruits de mer as well as a wide selection of classical French brasserie and bistro dishes, but being Angleterre, some plates have a decidedly English twist, such as Grilled Lamb T-Bone, Dover Sole Meuniere and the curious sounding Duck Shepherd's Pie — since when did Shepherds herd ducks?

London's Balthazar Bar is almost identical to Keith McNally's New York original

Arriving a little early for our 1:00pm luncheon reservation, we decide to have a cocktail at the bar, which is almost identical to McNally's New York original, except that this bartender has some attitude. I order a Spritz with Aperol and Prosecco and am informed that quite obviously that is a Spritz. Thanks for that. Even New Yorkers have more charm than this fellow. Thank goodness the Maitre D' came over not too long after, and graciously offered to carry our glasses to the table for us. It's a shame good manners aren't contagious.

Spritz with Aperol and Prosecco

London's Balthazar interior

The Fruit de Mer counter

Banquette seating, mosaic tile floors, bistro-style tables and Belle Epoch mirrors
all echo the design cues from the McNally SoHo original

Traditional French dish clothes double as napkins for a true Brasserie touch

Fresh bread is baked next door at Balthazar's Boulangerie

A generous slice of butter kept cold on a chilled piece of marble 

Balthazar's lunch menu is similar to the New York version but with a few English twists

We're seated at a large table for four on the far side of the restaurant, in almost the same location we sat during one occasion at Balthazar in New York. However in this case, there's much more room between tables and the waiters appear to be less hustle-bustle and more genteel than their American brethren. If it were't for these visual cues, one might be convinced we were in NYC.

Homemade Pumpkin Ravioli with walnuts, sage and brown butter

Looking over the menu, with its familiar design and Brasserie-inspired dishes, I remember how much I love Balthazar, and how pleased I am that we secured one of the 'hard-to-get' reservations while we're in London. We start with some Homemade Pumpkin Ravioli with walnuts, sage and brown butter, an order of Chicken Liver and Foie Gras Mousse with red onion confit and grilled country bread, and one of my Balthazar favourites, Frisée aux Lardons Chicory Salad with a warm bacon shallot vinaigrette and a soft poached egg, otherwise known as Salade Lyonnaise.

Frisée aux Lardons Chicory Salad with a warm bacon shallot vinaigrette 
and a soft poached egg

The Frisée aux Lardons Salad looked good, but the frisée was chopped into small little pieces and the perfectly poached egg was cold in the middle. When I had this dish at Balthazar in New York, the frisée was left more intact, the poached egg was warm and the dressing was tangier. The lardons at least were perfect: rich, warm and chewy. When I asked the waitress for some salt other than the iodized salt shaker on the table, she brought a bowl of damp sea salt — now I understand why Nigella Lawson travels with her own box of Maldon!

The egg was perfectly cooked but cold inside

Chicken Liver and Foie Gras Mousse with red onion confit and grilled country bread

For our entrées we chose two Brasserie classics: Steak Frites with maître d’ butter and béarnaise sauce and Omelette with pommes frites and fine herbes. Our french server asked how we wanted the steak and when we responded medium-rare, she said "Medium well?" We said "No, medium-rare." She apologized that her English was not too good, so I said "A point," a French term for cooking to the ideal degree of doneness — when applied to meat, refers to cooking it medium rare. She then understood, "Ah bien!" However, the steak ended up arriving medium-well. The perfect omelette should be just tinged with gold on the surface and very soft and squidgy on the inside. This omelette was firm and overcooked — a trait that seemed to be consistent in this kitchen.

Steak Frites with maître d’ butter and béarnaise sauce

Omelette with pommes frites and fines herbs

Ah, and the Duck Shepherds Pie, or shall I say soup. Where shall I begin? My husband adores Shepherds Pie, but this dish featuring duck was an odd combination, or so he said. There was very little duck meat and the sauce, which should have been rich and luscious was flat and mushy. He said he'd never order it again. Details. But then, Brasserie food is all about the details.

Duck Shepherds Pie


Next door to the restaurant is the Balthazar Boulangerie serving its own home-made artisan breads, as well as a wide selection of homemade pastries, salads and sandwiches for take-away throughout the day. All in all, I'm glad we made it to Balthazar in London. I adore the one in New York and have had my weatherworn Balthazar cookbook for years. But as faithful and authentic as the interior details were to Keith McNally's SoHo original, there are some things that cannot be replicated. With so many outstanding restaurants in London, opening Balthazar in London, seems to me like bringing coals to Newcastle.

I've had my copy of the Balthazar cookbook for years
and love the design, the photography and of course the recipes

Balthazar Boulangerie, next door to new London incarnation of the New York original

House-made artisan breads, as well as a wide selection of homemade pastries, 
salads and sandwiches for take-away throughout the day

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