Thursday, 11 April 2013


Balthazar London interior
One question often asked of best-TV-series-ever-made Buffy The Vampire Slayer was how the citizens of Sunnydale, a town unusually prone to attack from vampires, demons and the occasional robot, seemingly experienced collective amnesia after each new massacre. Die-hard fans however know that this was neatly explained very early on (Season 1, Episode 2, 'The Harvest') when Giles - Buffy's 'Watcher', or guardian - tells the Scoobies that, "People have a tendency to rationalise what they can and forget what they can't."

So with Giles' advice in mind I am writing this as quickly as possible - the morning after the horror of the night before - so that if, as I truly hope I shall, I forget everything that I can't rationalise about dinner at Balthazar, there will at least remain some record of it to warn others away from this Hellmouth of a restaurant.

Balthazar, a huge brasserie occupying the site of the old Theatre Museum just off the piazza in Covent Garden, is a near-carbon copy of the original Balthazar in New York. Why it was thought that what London really needed in 2013 was its own branch of a restaurant that was very fashionable when it opened in 1997 but nowadays is, by most accounts, strictly one for 'out-of-towners' is beyond me, but so are cooking rice and why people find Ricky Gervais funny - I don't pretend to understand everything.

I certainly don't understand what all the fuss is about the room at Balthazar, or the fabled 'buzz'; you will recognise the decor immediately if you have ever been somewhere like Bofinger in Paris, or Cafe Rouge. I am about the thousandth person now to compare Balthazar to a Cafe Rouge, but the comparison is inevitable when the shared 'I've-been-designed-to-look-like-I've-always-been-here' ersatzness is so stark. As for the 'buzz', fill a cavernous room with people and blast middle-of-the-road jazz over the speakers and of course they'll raise their voices to be heard. You say 'buzz', I say 'racket', tomato, tomato.

The menu at Balthazar, London
Already at our table when I arrived early for our booking, dinner-date Matthew explained that he had fled the adjacent bar because of over-crowding; an unwelcome import from New York is the notion that herding diners cheek-by-jowl into a holding pen before being allowed to have their dinner builds excitement, a theory as flawed as the belief that administering fear-hormone adrenaline to veal calves before slaughter will make the meat taste better.

To the eating. I cannot rationalise how a restaurant jointly operated by Keith McNally - a man who in countless, angst-soaked pre-opening interviews stressed how much of a 'perfectionist' he is - and Caprice Holdings, a company whose restaurants, almost without exception, I love, could allow such mediocre (and in the case of one dish genuinely inedible) food to be served. 

A basket of bread, from Balthazar's own bakery in Waterloo, had been brought thence so slowly or long ago that it was stale and flavourless. My starter of dressed crab was fine, likewise Matthew's chicken liver and foie gras mousse, although presentation was rather forlorn, my crab on a bed of tired lettuce with a tin pot of entirely superfluous Marie Rose sauce, Matthew's mousse a cone plonked on the plate straight from a catering mould. Accompanying red onion confit at least appeared to have been lovingly spooned from the jar.

But the main courses - oh dear, oh God. I ordered whole grilled dorade with Romesco sauce and herb salad, Matthew steak tartare with a side of frites. The fish had been grilled so long that all moisture had been obliterated, and the lemon and herb filling was so over-powering that the dorade tasted - the one mouthful I had before sending it back - as if it had been marinated in Toilet Duck. It was truly horrible, and swiftly changed for a salad Nicoise, which was OK. Matthew's anaemic, undercooked fries, too, had to be replaced and once done properly were far more enjoyable than his meagre portion of dull, dry tartare.

Unsurprisingly, we had no interest in desserts. Nor did we fancy ordering anything from the cheeseboard our waiter presented; would you want to pay £10.50 for brie or roquefort shown to you sweating under their clingfilm wrappers? I thought not. We did at least enjoy the perfectly pleasant mini cookies that came with our coffees. That at first an espresso was served instead of a macchiato came as no surprise; that our bill, for two courses (my replacement for my awful main course was still charged for), coffee, one cocktail, one glass of wine and service came to £92, did.

To give credit where credit is due, our waiter and most of the staff we came into contact with were delightful, but it is humiliating for them and for Balthazar's owners that an army of floor-walking management - from New York, I'm guessing - are trying to train them on the job. If I felt embarrassed that a manager came to the table with our waiter when he was serving our main courses and hissed, "Position 2 for the fish" out of the side of her mouth, how must he have felt? I have heard rumours of a power-struggle between the New York side of the operation and the London team over how things should be done; I didn't expect to see it played out in front of me table-side.

Never before have I left a busy restaurant - and for reasons that cannot have anything to do with the food or atmosphere Balthazar and its veal-truck bar were packed - so inclined to stand at the door and implore people to go somewhere, anywhere else. The Delaunay is just round the corner and doing the grand brasserie thing a thousand times better; hell, Tuttons bang next door is superior by several powers, and that's saying something. 

Would that London were Sunnydale and Buffy could come along and plunge her stake into the heart of this blood-sucking horror of a restaurant; then it would crumble into dust and, not being able to rationalise the sheer dreadfulness of what we had experienced, we could all just forget it had ever happened.

Balthazar, 4-6 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HZ Tel: 020 3301 1155

Balthazar on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Posted by +Hugh Wright


  1. Thanks for the warning - and the Buffyness. I'm resisting temptation to make further Tabula Rasa references as my inner geek hasn't been allowed out since season seven ended.

  2. Aah Buffy. Once More With Feeling.


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