Living on an editorial assistant’s salary in Manhattan in the late 1990s left little room for luxuries, but one treat I allowed myself was the occasional restaurant visit. One such destination was brunch on Sundays at the city’s famous Balthazar restaurant for mimosas (the US answer to Bucks Fizz) and salads or burgers and fries, depending on what we’d got up to the night before. The 1997 creation of legendary restaurateur Keith McNally, day or night Balthazar was packed for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner – the French style brasserie menu had something to offer noon and night.
Indeed, one of my first meals in Manhattan in the mid-1990s, (a restaurant booking made by a savvy photographer friend) was at Odeon, McNally’s famed Tribeca eatery, whose neon sign screamed out from the cover of Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney’s 1984 classic. During those Manhattan years, there were a number of McNally openings: Pravda, Lucky Strike and Pastis, and plenty more since I left the city 10 years ago. This New Yorker had cracked French brasserie dining better than the French themselves.
I was thrilled to hear that McNally had returned to the city of his birth (he’s originally from Bethnal Green) to launch Balthazar London – an outpost of the legendary all-day brasserie – on Russell Street in Covent Garden, in a partnership with Le Caprice Holdings, owner of, among others, The Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey.
And so it was with excitement that a friend and I headed to Balthazar to relive our glory days as footloose and fancy-free early twenty-somethings in the big smoke.
In appearance, the restaurant is almost eerily identical to its New York brother – red awnings, plush red leather banquettes, giant mirrored walls and beautiful mosaic floors. Just a week or so after opening, the evening was packed with the great and the good – from our red leather banquet we had clear views of Nigella Lawson, Michael Caine, Nicole Farhi and David Hare to name a few.
Chef Robert Reid has included the old favourites such as the frisée au lardons (perfect) and French onion soup (a Gruyère lid is grilled over a substantial bowl of mouth-wateringly good onion broth with thick country bread), along with the regular offerings of steak frites, moules frites and the Balthazar hamburger (also with frites), which was just as good as it was all those years ago. Sadly my pregnancy meant I had to dodge their healthy seafood offerings of rock oysters, lobster, langoustine, crab salad and ceviche. To the disappointment of our startlingly efficient waiter, our full stomachs meant that puddings were an impossibility, but that didn’t bother us too much, as we know we’ll be going back. And if I can’t get a booking (the reservation line has been legendarily busy), there’s always Balthazar’s Boulangerie next door.