Editor's note: Balcon closed in february 2019. From June 2019 it is the new location for Wild Honey.
The Sofitel in Pall Mall used to have Brasserie Roux as its main restaurant, but has now gone its own way and has also refurbished the dining room, the new Balcon opening in late 2011. The chef is Vincent Menager, who was the sous chef under the previous management. The menu is firmly is bistro territory, with an extensive charcuterie section, some from French butcher Mas le Rouget Cantal, some from Trealy Farm in Wales. Starters were £7 - £19.50, main courses mostly around £19 to £24, side dishes at £3 and desserts £5 - £8. The dining room is very pretty, with a soaring ceiling, marble pillars and lots of dark wood and brass in evidence. Tables are well spaced, with no tablecloths but the tables themselves of high quality, ours having an attractive black marble top. High marks for the room.
There is an extensive champagne list, with no less than 74 champagnes on offer, eight by the glass (the cheapest at £12). Indeed there seemed to be as many types of champagne as other wines combined on the list. On the champagnes, Bollinger NV was £85 compared to a high street price of around £33, a bargain (relatively) was the excellent Jacques Selosse Initial at £150 for a wine that actually retails at £144, and Cristal 1990 was at £750 for a wine you can find at £300. There was plenty of choice under £50 on other wines, examples being Tinpot Hut Syrah 2007 at £42 compared to a high street price of £12, Grand Puy Lacoste 1998 at £126 for a wine that retails at £55 while at the upper end of the list mark-ups were erratic e.g. Chatuea Margaux 2004 was £1,159 for a wine you can find in the shops for £316. Bread is apparently supplied part-baked from a baker in Lyon, and finished in the kitchen. There are some truly superb bakers in Lyon, so I would suggest the chef seriously considers looking around more, since the rolls that emerged here were decent but ordinary (14/20 at best). A 75cl bottle of Evian was a ridiculous £6.
Steak tartare (£19.50) was, in retro style, prepared at the table, the waiter mixing in the various condiments (mustard, shallots, tomato sauce, capers etc) to the minced beef and allowing the diner to specify the degree of spiciness of the dish. The beef was Scottish, and the dish worked well enough, though if anything it seemed too much beef relative to the other ingredients, while the beef for me would be better minced a little finer; still, very pleasant (14/20). This came with a little frying basket of crisp, thin chips on the side. As a starter, this was too large a portion, which sounds an odd criticism, but I would rather have had half the volume of food at half the price, leaving room for my main course, which I was unable to finish tonight.
French onion soup had properly caramelised onions, though the bread used for the croutons and the cheese used lacked taste, seasoning was a little light, and the stock itself could have had deeper flavour (13/20). Brill (£24.50) from Cornwall was served on the bone, with butternut squash puree, brown shrimps and capers. This was pleasant enough, but the fish itself slightly overcooked and did not have much flavour, and I thought the seasoning could have been bolder; on the positive side, the butternut squash had good flavour, and the capers and shrimps added a useful extra taste element (13/20).
Cassoulet (£21) was the best dish of the night, a served in a cast iron skillet and with a very well made base of tender haricot beans and smoked pork belly with Toulouse sausage, with a leg of Gressingham duck served on top. Here the flavours came through well: a comforting winter dish (15/20). Woodland mushrooms (“woodland” as distinct to what, those pesky tundra or arctic mushrooms?) and potatoes had distinctly more potato than mushrooms, though this was pleasant enough as a side dish (13/20). Mash was better, not over-creamy and with good texture (15/20).
My chocolate soufflé (£8) with pistachio ice cream had good ice cream, but the soufflé itself was poor: it has barely risen, and inside was not fully cooked, so essentially it was a chocolate fondant. This tasted OK, but I had ordered a soufflé rather than a fondant (12/20). Madeleine trifle (£6) was made with poached pears and quetsche (plum) compote. There were a lot of flavours going on here, and the spicing of the pears came through too stridently, though the caramelised hazelnuts were good (13/20).
Service was good. The bill came to £97 a head, with no pre-dinner drinks, a modest (£40) wine and a couple of additional glasses of wine. This seemed to me just too high for the quality of cooking displayed, for all the attractiveness of the room.