March 9 (Bloomberg) -- “How was the restaurant?” the taxi driver asked after we pulled away from Balthazar, the large and buzzy celebrity brasserie that has just opened in London.
I explained that it was the new outpost of Keith McNally, the restaurateur whose New York establishments include Pravda, Pastis, Schiller’s, Morandi, Minetta Tavern and Pulino’s.
Born to a working-class family in London’s Bethnal Green, McNally, 61, went on to become an actor. He appeared with John Gielgud in Alan Bennett’s “40 Years On” at the Apollo Theatre and was a film maker before he moved into restaurants.
“I know,” the driver said. “He’s my brother.”
Peter McNally is a fine cabbie. He took the most direct route, driving firmly without aggression, quickly without excessive speed. He posed for a picture after our ride.
Oh, and what did I tell him about Balthazar?
If you are in any doubt about the importance of this brasserie, it’s worth noting that visitors in the first week included several restaurateurs and chefs, including Jason Atherton and Alain Ducasse, who describes McNally as a genius.
The room is among the most beautiful in London. It’s a recreation of the New York mothership, which in turn pays homage to the grand brasseries of Paris. It’s dominated by large, distressed mirrors. The lighting is just right. No detail is too small for McNally, who will obsess over everything from the beautiful tiled floor to the faux-nicotine stained ceiling.
There’s a huge bar where Brian Silva -- the Bostonian who previously presided upstairs at Rules -- will discuss your cocktail requirements and then exceed them.
You will probably be greeted by Byron Lang, former maitre d’ at the Ivy, the Wolseley, St. Alban and Savoy Grill. He became group front of house manager for all Gordon Ramsay’s London restaurants.
There’s a great atmosphere in the place, with seats 175 and is a similar size to the Wolseley. The menu is traditional French brasserie with a few modern additions. The wine list is all French. Most starters are priced below 10 pounds ($15) and mains at less than 20 pounds.
(McNally’s business partner in London is Richard Caring, who owns Caprice Holdings Ltd.)
It’s great fun dining at Balthazar and I recommend it, with one proviso: The food was uneven in the opening days. There’s good reason to believe this is just a teething problem. The chef is Robert Reid, an industry veteran who worked for Joel Robuchon and other Michelin-starred chefs in France before heading the kitchen at the Oak Room in London, under Marco Pierre White.
Some of the dishes are excellent. There’s a reasonably priced starter of lobster and black truffle risotto, with cauliflower cream and black-truffle butter at 10.50 pounds, or 14.75 pounds as a main. OK, you are not picking out great lumps of lobster at this price but it is fine.
The unusual prawn cocktail is enticing: Plump prawns come unadorned on a bed of ice: you mix in Marie Rose and tomato sauce yourself. The onion soup is a meal in itself, so thick with bread it’s like a big, wet sloppy sandwich.
My own favorite dish is the duck shepherd’s pie (17.50 pounds), which is packed with flavor. The steaks are not bad. Order steak au poivre or Balthazar bar steak and you should be happy enough once you have slathered on the appropriate sauce. Both come with huge portions of well-cooked fries.
Wander off piste, to the ceviche for example, and you may wonder why you bothered. The biggest disappointment is the hamburger. It’s got some nice color but not much flavor. There are now such fabulous burgers in London, Balthazar has to get this right. As things are, I’d rather eat a horse.
The desserts (all at 7 pounds) are strong. They should be, because the head pastry chef is Regis Beauregard, who previously held that job at the Ritz. Balthazar makes all the breads and cakes in its own bakery and the boulangerie next door to the restaurant is well worth a visit.
While Balthazar is going to get better in coming months, I wouldn’t hold off trying to make a booking. It’s been a while since any London restaurant opened with such buzz and now is the best time to catch it.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Most starters cost less than 10 pounds and few mains are more than 20 pounds, yet the place is so jolly it is very easy to reach 100 pounds a head after aperitifs and wine.
Sound level: Somewhere between buzzy and noisy -- 75 to 80 decibels. It’s the sound of people having a good time.
Date place: Yes.
Special feature: The 26-foot pewter bar.
Inside tip: The VIP tables are the banquettes below the large mirrors to the left and ahead as you enter. (The tables to the left are 60-62.) These are also the tables for celebrity-spotting. The bar tables are Siberia.
Will I go back? Repeatedly.
Balthazar, 4-6 Russell Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2B 5HZ. Information: http://www.balthazarlondon.com/ or +44-20-3301-1155.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham on history and weekend guides for London and New York.
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