Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Balthazar, London

I'm heading to New York in May and have been asking everyone for restaurant recommendations and the one restaurant that keeps getting mentioned is Balthazar. But I didn't have to wait till May to try this much loved brasserie because it opened in London just last Monday. According to sources, it was supposed to open last year but it kept getting pushed back for one reason or another. Whatever glitches they were ironing out, they sure weren't to be found when I went last Friday.

As I waltzed through the glass paned doors into the brasserie, I was greeted by the faintest hint of paint/saw dust, testament to how recent and fresh on the scene Balthazar is. Situated on the corner of Russell Street and Wellington Street in Covent Garden, it occupies a huge space that boasts ridiculously high ceilings that took my breath away. It is quintessentially a brasserie but one with grandiose and elegance. There were ginormous mirrors on the walls as well as smaller ones on each side of the pillars, reflecting the warm yellowish hue emanating from the lights; Add to that vintage red leather, dark wood and brass and you feel like you've stepped back in time-- a time when there weren't fast food chains, when people ate good affordable food at swanky but relaxed brasseries instead.

While I waited for my dinner companion to arrive, I studied the menu and found lots of dishes interesting. For starters, there were Lobster and Black Truffle Risotto, Pumpkin Agnoloti (type of Ravioli), and mains of duck shephards pie, duck confit and beef stroganoff. So I asked the waitresses a ton of questions, starting with "What's your top three choices?" a question I ask every time I visit a new restaurant. I absolutely loathe answers like "everything's good" or "I like everything". Answers like that tell me that the waiter thinks I'm wasting his/her time and that they have absolutely no interest in whether I enjoy the dining experience I'm about to have. On the other hand, I take it as a sign of a good restaurant when a waiter gives me his/her opinion and backs it up with reasons. Balthazar scores top marks on this front, we received amazing service from everyone but my waitress of the night Edina deserves a special mention. She patiently explained the dishes in detail, mentioning textures, flavours, how it compared with other dishes and so on. I found her so charming that I ended up taking her recommendations for everything. Throughout the night she continued to impress, so much so that I had asked her for her name so that I could request to be seated in her section when I next visit.

Chicken Liver and Foie Gras Mousse to start, creamy and indulgent.

I had the Grilled Whole Dorade as a main. It came as a whole fish but expertly deboned. Never before have I had Dorade but I was impressed with how silky and meaty it was. It came with a tangy romesco sauce which complemented it well.

 For dessert, I picked cheese and was particularly taken with the Beaufort d'Alpage, a strong flavoured hard cheese (hidden underneath the grapes and dried apricot on the right)

I missed the closing time of Balthazar's bakery, next door to the restaurant, so instead I asked if I could buy one of those oversized loafs (with the capital letter "B") instead. Manager was super generous by giving that and another peasant loaf to us, for free! 

In the past few years, there have been many noteworthy brasseries that have popped up-- Delaunay, Colbert, Brasserie Zedel, but none compare to Balthazar in style, food or service. 

A bottle of wine and countless cocktails saw us through the night and when we got up to leave at 1 am, I realised that I had spent 7 hours in Balthazar! You know the saying "Time flies when you're having fun".

Balthazar second visit

2 weeks after my first visit I couldn't resist going back. Again I went without a booking but only because they said all the bookings had gone and that my only option was to rock up and try to get one of the tables reserved for walk ins. As I arrived at 6, the restaurant was jam packed with more than 10-15 people waiting around the bar waiting to be seated. I had half expected to be turned away but the maitre d was accommodating and we landed on our table after a 15 minute wait. 

For starters we shared the Pumpkin Agnolotti which is house made ravioli with a pumpkin filling, topped with pancetta, toasted pumpkin seeds and sage oil. Before biting into it I  half expected it to taste heavy but it surprised me in how un-heavy it was. I say un-heavy because it's definitely not light, it's somewhere in between, which makes it so satisfying and moreish. I would have this as a main, someday, after I've tried everything else on the menu!

Pumpkin Agnolotti
Coquilles St Jacques
Wednesday's special is Coquilles St Jacques, which before that meal, we had no idea what it meant. As we found it, it's scallops with a cream sauce and Balthazar's version features some shaved black truffle. The scallops were meaty and cooked perfectly. 

We also ordered the Lamb T-bone with beans, merguez sausage and carrots. Lamb was tender, juicy and the combination with beans super tasty, so much so that we forgot to take a picture of it. It definitely left us wanting more. We also had a side of fries which came with a creamy mayo, all were gone in minutes. 

My verdict after my second visit is that I love this restaurant. Service was just as good as my first visit, and the food kept up the standard. I've already got my third and fourth visits booked!

Balthazar third visit

With a friend in town, I decided to take her to Balthazar for brunch, having heard such wonderful things about the menu. I opted for the Eggs Royale and she the French Toast. My eggs were splendid, poached to perfection, smothered in creamy Hollandaise sauce and set atop smoked salmon and english muffins. I was a bit disappointed when "home fries" instead of "french fries" accompanied my eggs, they're definitely not as good as the french fries I had last time, they just weren't crispy enough. 

As for my friend's french toast, it was a bit lackluster. The toast itself was too doughy, served with two pieces of streaky bacon and some maple syrup, the dish was just "meh". 

But the biggest disappointment of the meal were the sour cream waffles we thought we'd have for dessert. Our forks poked at the limp and lifeless waffles and we lost our appetite so we sent them back. How can waffles be limp! If I had wanted something limp, I would have ordered the pancakes (apple and cinnamon was on offer, my favourite combo). Waffles are supposed to have a crusty exterior, so that when I wrap my teeth around it and bite down, there's crunch! I asked our server why the waffles were in such a sad state and after some investigation at the kitchen, she apologetically said the kitchen didn't have an explanation. Oh well. I guess no restaurant is perfect and it was a matter of time that I found Balthazar's weakness. On a more positive note, service and atmosphere was still as good as ever. 
Balthazar on Urbanspoon

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