Friday, 17 May 2013

Kat about town: Balthazar

Tarte tatin - really?
A little while ago I had the pleasure of reading Malcolm Gladwell's thought provoking book 'The Tipping Point' in which he eloquently explains how small changes can have worldwide impacts; how the opinions and influence of a few key players can cause revolutions and be the difference between make or break. This evening then I was, at least intellectually, glad to witness first hand his theories in practice. Such is the hype around the London opening of NYC's Balthazar that the waiting list to visit is a month long, unless you happen to be famous, royalty or on one of those very confusing fake reality shows for which there is now inexplicably a BAFTA category (clearly The Apprentice was robbed).

I'd read many an esteemed restaurant reviewers' criticisms and yet I had arrived determined to make up my own mind and have my own experience; how naive of me. Giles Coren of The Times dubbed the hype "the greatest mass delusion since Nazism" (while comparing it to McDonalds) and Jay Rayner, who as far as I am concerned is the leading food critic in the land, if not the planet, had clearly warned me off the proposition. Even Trip Advisor, with its finger on the plate tectonics that form the cultural zeitgeist ranks the place as 2334 of 11655 in the index of London restaurants. Think about that for a moment.... There are month long waiting lists, yet there are 2333 other London restaurants in which you can get better food, service and ambience. So why then the hype?

Determined to find out I strode through the doors (in improbably high heels that were later to fling me to the pavement) at 5.30pm and was greeted at the door. One charge that has been levelled against Balthazar is the the service is akin to being stalked, albeit by hundreds of people all at once. This might go some way, along with the prime location, to explain the exorbitant menu prices, because it sure as hell isn't the food you're paying for. After dinner I went to the opera to see La Boheme and during the second Aria I was amused to see a crowd scene outside a modest French Brasserie - I wrongly concluded given the comparison that everyone wearing a trilby or flat cap must be serving staff, outnumbering the patrons as they did by about 3-1. I am fairly sure one woman's sole employ was to stand by the door to the stairs that lead to the toilet, to confim that indeed the unmarked door was in fact the one you were looking for.

We ordered cocktails to start. I was excited. Brian Silva has been brought in from Covent Garden staple Rules so I expected great things. I went for the "Two to Four" champagne cocktail at £11.50, containing champers, gin, pear and lemon. At that price I don't just want a cocktail to get me shitfaced, I want it to bloody sing to me. Sadly what I got was flatter than the Posh Spice without her autotune. In fact the closest thing I can compare it to was Robinson's lemon squash. My friend had an Aperol spritz as we'd been laid on a beach in Sardinia a couple of weeks ago drinking them and she was feeling nostalgic. Presumably topped from the same bottle as mine but with a hefty dose of water and very little by way of fizz content, it tasted like slightly bitter orange coloured water. The conversation was flowing although as the restaurant filled up it became necessary to lean further and further over the modestly proportioned tables in order to keep up.

Altogether then £20 down already and feeling a bit dejected the bread basket arrived. I have read in many places that this is the highlight of dinner and yes, it was bloody good bread. You should't really be walking away with a bill of over £100 thinking that a bit of baguette and fresh butter was the highlight of your evening though. The Beaujolais that accompanied it was, in fairness, a nice drop and at £23 didn't break the bank. The wine list however is ridiculous. I'm sure many a man has come unstuck on a date here. It is sorted by region and even then doesn't even begin to resemble price order. No chance of choosing the second cheapest and hoping for the best. In the end I chose something that wouldn't cause me to remortgage the flat and that I had at least heard of. Who knows, it was probably a completely contemptible choice to go with our mains, the waiters were probably huddled in groups exclaiming dieu de Ciel into their fougasse but they at least kept their contempt private.

Would it have hurt to present it nicely?
 What to have for mains had been paining me for many days and I eventually settled, if not completely convinced, on a medium rare Lamb T-bone with flageolet beans, merguez sausage, chanterey carrots and side of pommes frites that set me back £5 and would not have been out of place at Colonel Sanders' table. My friend had the duck confit with roast potatoes (few and far between) mushrooms and frisee salad. My lamb was okay, one steak was bloodier than the other but it was pretty flavoursome. The problem overall with both our meals however was the unforgivable amount of salt they had been cooked with. I couldn't even finish my dish. The sausage wasn't to blame as it wasn't exactly plentiful, for some bizarre reason the chef had instead decided to drown my beans and the duck skin in toxic levels of saline. As an avid fan of Masterchef I know the number one rule of cooking is to taste your food as you cook and adjust the seasoning to suit. I can only assume the person tasting this absconded for treatment and it was therefore served without the proper quality controls (this did at least help the Beaujolais to flow).

Well, I reasoned, this has not been a great success by far but on to dessert I charged, determined to find something to praise. I chose the Tarte Tatin as I adore apple desserts and more importantly I was in a French brasserie and was determined to have an authentic experience. Well, Raymond Blanc would be having a Gallic fit by this point. At one stage during the opera a woman sang out "my God, this is torture" and it turns out she's on about her shoes, but she summed up my feelings fairly succinctly. It didn't look right and one mouthful confirmed my fears; it was completely burnt. The ice-cream resting on top (reminding me somehow of eggs benedict) wasn't a patch on the homemade stuff I whipped up a couple of months ago and the caramel sauce, which looked like it had been spooned on by Shrek, could easily be out of a carnation tin.   The pastry needed a kind of hammer action to crack through it. This really was a crime against desserts. Sadly my companion had the same and we both soldiered through, being incredibly British about the whole affair, in fact I am in retrospect completely ashamed of myself that I didn't send it back, God knows there were enough staff to complain to, I could have taken my pick. How any chef who has earned his whites let this food out of the pass completely escapes me.

My (oft-hilarious) best friend once complained that her main beef with Dans le Noir, the dining in the dark experience in Clerkenwell, was the lack of linen tablecloths. For the price you pay for the menu she reasoned, you could at least be offered a quality table setting. At first I thought her mad, but then repented given no one would even see the stains. It is the little touches that make the experience. Even the smallest  family run French eateries I have been in while over the pond have offered up this luxury, I did feel a bit cheated by the hastily whipped away paper sheets adorning the tables, and in fact by the lack of candles. The entire restaurant is bathed in an unearthly orange glow and although in some ways sumptuous (the leather banquettes are pretty special) it was completely lacking the romance of its authentic French counterparts. Brasserie dining is in its ascendency in London at present and for a cheaper, more authentic experience and a shorter waiting list (with some tables held back for walk ins),  you should try The Delaunay (I've had the chicken schnitzel sandwich from the counter and it was to die for), or (I'm reliably informed) The Wolseley or Zedel. In fact the back of my opera ticket offered two courses at Cote Brasserie for £11.70, a place I have happily dined before and while a fairly homogeneous experience, at least a tasty and satisfying one.

A painful lesson
So there you have it, one large bill, two unhappy diners and two bouts of painful indigestion later (we didn't overeat, in fact we didn't finish all of our two courses) and we rolled out of the restaurant never to return. Please heed my words and don't fall prey to the bout of The Emporer's New Clothes that seems to have infected the restaurant going public at the moment. Listen to me, listen to the critics and listen to the man in the street, as mentioned already there are 2333 other places for you to try out first and life is short, go and find somewhere that will make your soul smile.

Balthazar on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

That tarte Tatin does look a little - ahem - over-caramelised doesn't it.
Thank-you for saving us time, money & moreover a nasty bout of indigestion.


Katharine Balyuzi said...

Phew! If even one person is put off visiting then it was worth staying up half the night and angrily stabbing out words into my laptop :)

Adam said...

I'm sorry you wasted precious time and £, but I'm afraid this made for amazing reading :-) In fact I think I narrowly evaded being sacked for literal LOLling during a particularly tedious conf call at "looked like it had been spooned on by Shrek"

Is that 2nd picture somehow the lamb and flagolet beans?? Cate makes that at home sometimes these days and it looks very much the opposite of the pre-used complimentary Holiday Inn Express baked beans and hashbrowns that somehow what they served you appears to have turned into.

I have gained immediate desire to come to London for some restaurant review action! Always enjoyed a bit of Kitchen Nightmares.

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