Monday, 29 April 2013
Balthazar, Covent Garden
I just wish Balthazar had been cheaper, or better. Or both, of course - that would have been nice too - but I still could have lived with either cheaper or better. Because if it was cheaper I could have enjoyed its straightforward French food in the same way as I enjoyed Brasserie Zedel, where you're never likely to have the meal of your life but can generally get away with spending less than £15 for a very passable steak haché, frites and a salad, or if it was better I could have rated it alongside the Wolseley or Delaunay, where you can see where you money goes.
"But it's not about the food" you'll hear people say. "People go to Balthazar for the room and the service and the atmosphere. It's about the experience". Well, I'm all for a nice experience but I'm afraid no matter how great the surroundings and atmosphere, once I've paid £9 for a very ordinary goat's cheese tart I start to enjoy such marginal factors as lighting and nice mosaic floors that much less.
We didn't, thank the heavens, have quite as disastrous an evening as some. Nothing was inedible, we didn't have to send anything back, and we didn't see any cling film. We liked the house bread (particularly the sourdough), the butter was soft, the red leather banquette very comfortable. But even so, Balthazar did not do anywhere near enough to justify the £50 a head bill, or the frankly baffling difficulty of getting a table.
The aformentioned goat's cheese tart suffered from a slightly runny mixture (undercooked perhaps) but was seasoned well and was still just about edible. It came with an underdressed - in fact practically naked - salad and instead of a chutney or something that would have offset the creaminess of the tart, a pile of salty tapenade. None of it was awful, but it was an unsatisfying, worryingly amateurish plate of food for £8.25+service.
Chicken liver & foie gras mousse was better; again basic to the point of homely but with a good rich amount of foie and a lovely smooth texture. This may even have been worth the money we paid for it.
Linguini wasn't a disaster either, although I'd had a much better seafood pasta dish at Osteria Antica on Northcote Road the weekend before, and it cost a fiver less.
You can do a lot worse for £17 elsewhere - in fact you can do a lot worse at Balthazar by the looks of things - than this "bar steak", which had a great charred flavour and was cooked exactly as requested. Chips were a bit strange - oily and orange and so tiny it looked like they had been chipped both horizontally and vertically, and I wasn't too keen on the vinegary bearnaise, but the steak was the main event and it was good. Not very good, not brilliant, but good.
Service veered between over-attentive and bizarrely inept. A request for lemon with our water was met with an astonished look from our first waiter, who scurried off for someone more senior to confirm that actually yes, we did want lemon with our tapwater. A few minutes later, two glasses arrived each with a quarter of fresh lime in. I ordered a Negroni Finis and was brought something that looked suspiciously like a standard Negroni. When I questioned whether this drink really did contain the advertised passionfruit and Byrrh I was told that yes, it did. Fairly sure it didn't. Something called a Big Easy was lovely, thankfully worth every bit of the £12.50.
That the cocktails are worth the investment though is not a surprise - God amongst barmen Brian Silva is responsible for the output of the bar, and even with him not there in person that evening the drinks were great. But you can't just go in for a drink, you need to order food too. And being forced to order, say, a ersatz burger or a £10 plate of uninteresting cheeses just for the license to sit at the bar with a negroni (as I did on two previous occasions) seems terribly unfair, like being forced to order the complete Sky Sports package when all you ever want to watch is the cricket.
So no, I can't recommend Balthazar. There is better food elsewhere, there is cheaper food elsewhere, and there are ways of spending your time and money that will give you a much happier return. We didn't suffer an unmitigated disaster that others did; it just felt anachronistic and awkward, like a 90s-themed restaurant for tourists to go alongside the other novelty cash cow joints of Covent Garden. And I wonder, once the buzz has died down and the tourists and bloggers have each tried it once then got on with their lives, how long it will last.