Once a dead zone for serious dining, Covent Garden has recently been transformed. In the past couple of years, the big boys have moved in Polpos Russell Norman with his Jewish-style diner, Mishkins, Saltyards luxe-tapas offshoot, the Opera Tavern, and MEATLiquors takeaway burger little brother, MEATMarket to name a few. And now, Manhattan dining scene stalwart, Keith McNally has sealed the deal with a London branch of Balthazar, his outrageously cool, all-day French brasserie. Thats a UK version of a French restaurant opened by a Brit in New York. Got it?
The provenance may be confusing but the concept isn't. Exquisite location + charming service + menu you want to eat ALL of = instant hit. So much so, that the phones rang off the hook for bookings when it opened last month. Luckily, a good proportion of the tables are available each day to walk-ins.
First: the room. Housed in what was formerly the Theatre Museum, the ceilings are soaring, but yet the noise never gets above an ambient buzz (despite the fact that, when we visit, every single table is taken and a throng of well-dressed patrons hover around the bar). Reviewers have described it as a posh Café Rouge, and although thats a tad unfair, youll recognise the Gallic-style awnings, gold-and-red, brass-buttoned banquettes and oversized, foxed mirrors that characterise the chain. But this version looks WAY more expensive. Oh, and the lighting makes everyone look like either Jennifer Lawrence or Ryan Gosling. If you closed your eyes and imagined your perfect restaurant, it may well look like this.
The menu, too, is near-faultless. All of the Gallic classics are here, plus some additions for the British palate duck shepherds pie and the pork belly with Brussels sprouts and black pudding hash are clearly meant to be new signatures. There is also a glistening seafood bar the £90 seafood platter looked more than enough to feed four people.
We opted for the sweet and unctuous onion soup (£6.80), which came topped with a giant plug of cheese croute, plus the impressive and artery-hardening - chicken liver and foie gras mousse (£7.75). Two bar steaks (£16), with a giant pile of crunchy shoestring fries and a dollop of béarnaise, were faultless but so large that the doughnut-sized onion rings we ordered as a side were left untouched. The wine list is long and well-priced we chose a carafe of white and then another of red.
McNally himself was flitting from table to table while we dined, keeping a fatherly eye on a stellar chorus line of waiting staff. Covent Garden has a new restaurant king.
The ELLEuk Score
Style of food: All-day Brasserie
Good for: Special occasion, first date, group dinner, work lunch/dinner
Prices and Other Details at Balthazar
Address: 4-6 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HZ, 0203 301 1155, balthazarlondon.com
Opening times: Mon-Fri 7am-12M (Fri until 12.30am) Sat 8am-12.30am; Sun 8am-10.30pm
Average price per person for two-course meal without wine: £30
Set menu: None
Price per carafe (500ml) of house wine: Chardonnay-Roussane VDP DOc, Felines Jourdan 2011, £15, Muscadet La Haute Ferrie 2011, £17 (both white); GRENACHE VDP Comte de Grignan, Bois Vieux 2010, £15; 15.00 Beaujolais Ferraud 2011, £17.00 (both red)
Price of glass of house wine: VDP doC Bergerie de la Bastide 2011, £5 (white); VDP doC Grenache Villa St Jean 11, £5.00 (red)
Price of bottle of house champagne: Gaston-Chiquet Brut, £60
Price of glass of house champagne: Gaston-Chiquet Brut, £11 .00
Private dining: No
Garden/al fresco dining? No
Best table? Almost any although the corner banquette near the door will give you pole people-spotting position
Bar? Yes, you can wait there for a table, or eat there if theres space
Who goes? Anyone lucky enough to have bagged a coveted table a celeb-spot is almost guaranteed
Nearest tube: Covent Garden