Balthazar in New York is a highly popular brasserie, so iconic that it was even in a scene in the TV series Sex in The City. Its owner Keith McNally is actually British, so his version of Balthazar in London was much anticipated, finally opening in late February 2013. McNally owns not just Balthazar but a host of other well-known New York spots such as Minetta Tavern and Café Luxembourg, so clearly knows a thing or two about running a successful restaurant.
The dining room seats 170 people at one time, and has the expected red banquettes and art-deco styling and pretty mosaic floors, though lighting was rather odd, casting a vaguely orange glow over proceedings even at lunchtime. Starters were priced from £5.50 to £15, main courses £11 to £29 and desserts £7.
The very French wine list was printed on a large laminated card. Examples include Chateau Croix de Rambeaux 2008 at £28 for a wine that you can find in the high street for £12, Chateau Bernadette 2009 at £69 for a wine that retails at £20, and Gerin La Loye 2010 Condrieu at £98 for a wine that will cost you around £31 in a shop. Bread was from Balthazar’s own bakery, which is actually near Waterloo, though you can purchase the bread from a shop next door to the restaurant. Baguette was pleasant (13/20), but sourdough slices were very good indeed, with nice crust (15/20). It was good to see them making an effort with the bread and not buying in cheap baguettes, as many bistros do.
Risotto of lobster with black truffle butter and cauliflower cream (£10) was quite good, the little pieces of lobster tender, a hint of truffle coming through. This was not made in the classical way but was pre-cooked and then finished prior to serving so did not have the texture of the best risotto, but the stock used had reasonable flavour and the rice was cooked properly (14/20). Less good were scallops with celeriac puree, julienned celery, and salad leaves. The vegetable elements were fine but the scallops, though correctly cooked, entirely lacked sweetness and just tasted cheap and bland (11/20). I had a little of this dish and then gave up, and to be fair the staff were very good: they asked what the problem was and insisted on removing it from the bill without my asking.
Better was apple tarte tatin, the pastry at the bottom reasonable, the apples not caramelised as much as I would have liked but still entirely pleasant, the vanilla ice cream having good texture and with plenty of vanilla flavour coming through (13/20). I was impressed with the waiters, who were very attentive and enthusiastic. My bill, with no main course and just water to drink, came to just £21, but this is hardly typical. If you had three courses, coffee and a modest wine then the bill might come to around £65 a head.
The food at Balthazar, scallops aside, was of a decent brasserie standard. Why it was full, apart from a skilled marketing campaign, is I think down to the service, which is clearly unusually well drilled. For most people that dine out the service is at least as important as the food, and they have clearly recognised that at Baltahzar. At the end of the day the food is merely decent, but the service above average and pricing not excessive, so doubtless it will continue to prosper.