Where to start? Well, my dearest husband and I had had quite the perfect Sunday. Brunch with a friend in the morning (more about that restaurant later this week) and then a day of aimless wandering in the London sunshine (read: almost sunny) window shopping, drinking tea, and acting like we are almost grown ups. We had barely thrown off the chill of the day back at home when my phone binged and I had a fantastic text. My friend Kate was offering me her Balthazar reservation that she couldn’t keep – 8pm for 2! The day just kept getting better and now I wasn’t going to have to scale and gut the 4 sardines in the fridge that were waiting for me.
So, with a quick change and a little freshening up, we were back out on the streets (now properly cold since the sun had set) heading towards Covent Garden. I have to say, I had never been in the Market there at night (especially a chilly Sunday night) when the halls echo and only a few groups of youth hostelers sit around drinking wine at the permanent tables. You’re able to see the architecture without being bummed out by the group of Japanese tourists stopping short right in front of you to snap pictures and there’s a lovely eerieness that harkens back to a long time ago.
Enough with the musings, let’s get on to the food! If you remember my earlier post about the confectionary delights of Balthazar Bakery, http://chefsallyjane.com/2013/02/14/balthazar-has-landed/, I had my menu choices for the restaurant all planned out long before I actually sat down in the red leather banquette. Yes, I did give the menu a good looking at and considered other options (especially since I had grilled rib eyes the night before not expecting to have back-to-back steak dinners), but the lure of a proper steak frites tugged at my taste buds and I stuck with my original plan.
To start, the frisee salad with lardons and a poached egg. The egg burst open at the slightest poke, spilling its golden yolk all over the salad leaves. The lardons were perfectly smoky, crisp and not too big (I hate it when they aren’t cooked down enough and are still chewy and fatty). The little croutons were uniform in size and golden and crunchy. The dressing just warm and sharp enough to make me almost pucker but not quite. Darling husband ordered the baby beetroot salad (just plain old beets to you and me) with mache, toasted hazelnuts and fourme d’Ambert cheese. The beets were served in a rainbow of colors with the mache piled high. There was just a small scattering of the toasted hazelnuts and little triangles of the blue cheese dotted around the outside of the plate. Yummy.
What this first course reminded me of, and what I will take from this meal as a chef, is balance. What elevates the food at Balthazar is the perfect balance of ingredients and seasoning and these two salads are a perfect illustration. So often I have been served (or even made myself) a beet salad that’s teeming with blue cheese or there just a bit too much bacon into a dish (thinking that bacon’s delicious, why wouldn’t more make it better?). Here the beets were the star of the salad with just hints of nuts and cheese adding to the earthiness of the dish, not detracting. This reminds me of culinary school when we cooked spinach and had to add a hint of nutmeg to it. Nine times out of ten our chef instructors would shout at us, “Is this a spinach dish or a nutmeg dish?” A little of something can go a long way. In my frisee salad, not one thing was overpowering to another and that’s what makes Balthazar, Balthazar and not just another brasserie- the most anticipated restaurant opening I can remember since arriving in London.
Both of us ordered the steak frites. There was much debate over one of us getting something else because shouldn’t we? But no, steak it was. The rib eyes were perfectly cooked, literally just a minute or so per side, strongly tasting of the grill. The fries were my only quibble with the entire meal as mine seemed a little over-fried, borderline old tasting, but my husband loved his and even remarked about how good they were a day later in a kind of Balthazar reverie. A small tub of bearnaise sauce came on the side, probably the best I’ve had in London, sharp and tarragonny and shallotty. Bravo!
Finally, our waiter approached us bearing a tray of stinky cheeses, which was really just a bridge too far for me on this particular evening, but I was hoping that perhaps they’d be able to bring me my favorite raspberry macaroon, lemon creme delight from the Bakery next door. Alas, it was closed and apparently they don’t just have those sitting around overnight (however they will be able to bring things from the Bakery during lunch when they’re both open at the same time). A lemon creme meille feuille was the dessert of the day and I told monsieur to bring one right away. Now, again, I reiterate, desserts are not my thing. However, after my first bite of this lemony creamy confection with cylinders of macaroon on top, candied lemon zest, flaky layers of puff pastry and a raspberry coulis, I went absolutely silent as I carefully and reverentially ate. I would have lifted up my plate and licked it clean if it was socially acceptable.
Throughout it all, the cavernous room is a joy to sit in. There’s a pleasant buzz with fantastic people watching and no matter where you sit you can see most of what’s going on around you. The middle banquette section ensures that no one is sitting staring at a wall. Huge, antiqued mirrors provide a view into the room behind you, no craning your neck to see the fabulous outfits saunter by. The bar is stunning and I love the proper bread and fruits de mer outposts on the outskirts of the room. There’s nothing fussy (really including the prices, which are reasonable) and the staff is beyond friendly and helpful without being overbearing (a nod to good American service standards, if I can be a little patriotic). Even the doorman out front is terrifically cheerful.
A big shout out to Kate who kindly thought of me when she was about to relinquish her reservation….it was worth the trip back out on a Sunday night. I will be back to this place as often as our budget allows. They begin lunch service tomorrow, March 6 and I would guess breakfast and afternoon tea aren’t too far behind. There’s nothing like this in London (if I’m wrong please enlighten me) and I’ve been desperate for it! So thank you, Balthazar, for hopping the Atlantic and bringing a few of your time-tested culinary lessons along with you.
4-6 Russel Street, WC2B 5HZ
t: 0203 301 1155