Restaurant Review: Balthazar, Covent Garden

It’s been the most hyped-up opening in London restaurants for many years – it’s as if someone has invented some new way of eating or dining. Yet despite its big names of Keith MacNally and Richard Caring and despite having a highly accomplished chef in Robert Reid, who got Marco Pierre White his three Michelin stars, Balthazar ain’t all that.

Balthazar, Covent Garden

Balthazar, Covent Garden

A full-on brasserie like this is supposed to be about theatre; hustle-bustle of people and trays of food rushing by, servers everywhere, high ceilings and high octane conviviality. It’s got all of these – people not just saying hello to friends at other tables but sitting down and having a drink with them (my poor guest – this happened to me three times during the evening. It seems impossible to go to a west end restaurant and not know someone at another table).

The menu has all the right dishes, set out in the right fashion yet what was it that didn’t seem right? Oh yes, the food. Given that theatre is everything in a brasserie, what would have possessed such seasoned operators to neuter the experience of the classics I ordered? Half the fun of Steak tartare is to watch it being made and indeed participate in its construction. Whenever I’m in New York I’ll make sure I visit Rosa Mexicana and have guacamole made to my taste by a guy who wheels his trolley over and manages to make it whilst holding your eyes in conversation. Now that’s theatre.

At Balthazar it came out cold straight from the kitchen where who knows how long in advance it had been made as the beef was grey on one side and a weird brown on the other. You need ownership of a dish like this and instead I felt like the end process of a conveyor belt machine.

Then things got worse. Bass en Papillote is a classic dish of fish steamed in parchment paper, which is theatrically cut open at the table to oohs and aahs. Yet somehow these incredibly clever and successful folk decided not to do that. It was served “pre-opened” resembling and tasting like a rather dull fish stew. The wait team are exceptionally friendly and so when I had a moan about missing the fun bit of the dish, they rushed to the kitchen to tell the chef who despatched them back to show me the bag it had indeed come out of. A bit like Exhibit A in a murder case.

I think I must be missing the point of places like Balthazar and The Wolseley because they are after all about style, beautiful people and rubber-necking. And on those criteria, both are exceptional. The Wolseley folk, incidentally, were gazumped on this site, a former museum in the heart of Covent Garden, by Caring and so instead they camped in Delaunay where much the same happens.

Balthazar can live with my forgettable experience – they will no doubt be full for years to come on the back of the hype. The cheese was nice, though.

Iqbal Wahhab OBE

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