“I just crashed into Michael Palin,” says Sarah rising from the deep lipstick red leather banquet to greet me. Not to be outdone I reply “Did you notice Giles Coren?” cocking my head to the booth behind me where the restaurant critic is tucking into his lunch.
Celeb spotting is par for the course when you manage to snag a table at a hot restaurant, particularly if that restaurant is Balthazar, the new London edition of the legendary Manhattan brasserie. After a colleague ate there for free during its soft-opening, Sarah suggested we try for a late lunch. “Count me in!”, I said, and so we fixed a date and – miraculously, given its instant popularity – a booking was secured.
When a restaurant has so much hype, plus glowing reviews (five stars in this week’s Time Out), there’s a lot to live up to. On initial impressions, Balthazar didn’t disappoint. The location – a prominent Covent Garden corner steps from the Royal Opera House – is suitably prime. Impeccably dressed both inside it and out, it looks like it’s been a fixture of the area for decades rather than a few weeks.
Predictably, it’s very busy but also buzzing along with calm grace. This is thanks to a crack team of staff who have clearly been hand picked and expertly trained – everyone is upbeat, courteous and helpful without being in your face. Our wobbly table is fixed in a trice. Service is speedy and friendly. The oo-la-la faux-Parisienne atmosphere is enhanced when our principal waitress (there’s at least five other wait staff, plus a floor manager who attend us during our stay) speaks with a French accent.
“Monsieur, are you done?” she asks with a cheeky glint, spotting the remains of the super rich onion soup, in my bowl. Yes I am, thank you; it was delicious and I’d have scoffed the lot but I am saving space for my main course – the interesting sounding duck shepherd’s pie.
Sadly, this is the one bum note of the meal – an uninspiring, school-dinnerish concoction. Sarah’s choice of the pithivier – a golden puff pastry spinach pie sitting atop a flavoursome puddle of mushroom sauce – wins back out praise and is sufficient for both of us to share along with the generous basket of freshly baked breads that teeters on the edge of our mini-table.
My half-eaten main is noted by the manager who comes by to offer me a complimentary dessert – it’s also taken off the bill without me asking. He admits that they are still fine tuning the menu, which offers a range of lighter dishes at lunch than at dinner.
What’s impressive about all this is that given the restaurant’s rep and its location in one of the most touristed areas of the city, Balthazar could probably afford to make much less of an effort. Instead, it aims to exceed expectations by ladling on the service and atmosphere and making everyone feel like they’re an essential, special part of the theatre of this grand brasserie experience rather than just another paying customer.
My tip is try it for a late lunch midweek – the crowd was certainly thinning by 3.30pm when I left. Also – cannily – there’s an boulangerie next door serving superior take-aways and the same baked goodies available in the restaurant. I couldn’t resist a pain au chocolat for a Balthazar-at-home breakfast tomorrow 🙂