Balthazar, the French brasserie that has played to full houses since it first opened on Spring Street, Manhattan in 1997, has finally opened a sister restaurant in London’s Covent Garden, and it boasts an intriguing cast.
First and foremost is English-born restaurateur Keith McNally, 61, who has spent more than half his working life orchestrating not just Balthazar but other successful restaurant openings in Manhattan including Pastis and Schiller’s.
McNally explained that he initially decided to settle back in London for his children’s education. But as he talked about his other interests – walking, theatre, Arsenal football club – he admitted he felt disappointed with himself that he had fallen yet again into this habit of opening popular restaurants.
Two companies that contributed to McNally’s return are Richard Caring’s Caprice Holdings and Capital and Counties plc, the property company that controls most of Covent Garden. The former has financially underpinned the long and complex transformation of the building, formerly the Theatre Museum, while for the latter Balthazar represents another step in its development of this area.
Then there is Robert Reid, the executive chef, whose career has mirrored Londoners’ approach to French food over the past 20 years. In the early 1990s, when haute cuisine was à la mode, the South African-born chef was at the helm of Marco Pierre White’s kitchens. Now he has turned to cooking more bourgeois French food.
As in Manhattan, Balthazar comes with its own bakery, a 3,000 sq ft site just south of Waterloo Bridge. The bread and viennoiserie served in the restaurant and in the takeaway café next door are excellent – although the recent cold weather has been affecting the way the yeasts rise, and seems to have given Reid as many headaches as coping with the demand for tables.
It is easy to see why this production has got off to such a flying start. McNally’s eye for detail and high-quality interiors is evident in the compact bar; the red banquettes; the shellfish counter; the distressed mirrors that hang at just the appropriate angle so that every customer has a view of the room. All successfully conjure a Parisian stage set that will only get friendlier with wear.
Reid, having spent time in the kitchens in Manhattan, reports that New Yorkers and Londoners order food differently, though the menu is much the same at both restaurants: “Here we seem to be serving three courses to most tables, and far more desserts, while fewer customers order the combination of onion soup followed by steak and chips that is so popular over there.”
In the space of a week, I managed to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at Balthazar. The restaurant is already serving up to 960 customers a day, with 20 staff on the phones downstairs handling reservations, but each meal I had there reinforced my impression that the food has room to improve.
Breakfast was underwhelming. Perhaps it was the sight of those awkward-to-open, miniature pots of Tiptree jam that I found particularly disappointing. But the situation was not helped by tea from a tea bag, an overcooked omelette and a desultory salad in place of the pommes frites I could not face so early in the morning.
At lunch, the toast alongside the excellent mousse of chicken liver and foie gras was cold, as were the mashed potatoes that came with the generous serving of Thursday’s special, coq au vin. But even as I noted these details I was taking in how engagingly the room has adapted to its new role.
Five of us returned, without a booking, for a pre-theatre supper. A caramelised cheese and onion tart and the Balthazar salad were good, the lobster and truffle risotto oversalted. The pumpkin agnolotti, macaroni cheese, grilled Dover sole and steak were tasty, though the frites were disappointing. The long, all-French wine list is cumbersome and certainly not the best value in town. My bill, without dessert but including a bottle of Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs NV champagne (£90 here but much less retail), was £250.
My personal regret is that Covent Garden in 2013 is not Manhattan in 1997 but London’s Balthazar is certainly fun.
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0203 301 1155; www.balthazarlondon.com