France - - Bon Appétit - Lara Dunn

Lo­cated within a very half-hearted stone’s throw from Covent Gar­den’s main mar­ket­place build­ings, and just across from the Royal Opera House, Balthazar is fre­quently packed with din­ers, both ca­sual and other­wise. With a healthy homage to the New York orig­i­nal, which opened in 1997, the four-year-old Lon­don coun­ter­part is set up as a glam­orous, clas­sic French bistro, com­plete with dark wood, red leather ban­quettes, brass rails and im­pec­ca­bly dressed wait­ing staff. There is a time­less­ness to the at­mos­phere that may be a cliché, but nonethe­less a pleas­ing one.

The menu is sim­i­larly packed with French clas­sics, guar­an­teed to ap­peal to any Fran­cophile palate. With an em­pha­sis on fresh seafood as well as bistro fare, oys­ters, caviar and lob­ster fea­ture reg­u­larly on the menu, both in their own right and as part of more elab­o­rate dishes. There are also plenty of op­tions for both meat eaters and vege­tar­i­ans to en­joy.

I started with de­li­cious gar­lic prawns with Espelette pep­per, served with warm fougasse. It was one of those rare dishes elic­it­ing a de­sire to can­cel the main course and just ask for a larger starter all over again. My com­pan­ion se­lected the half dozen Fines de Claire oys­ters and was very sat­is­fied with her choice.

My main course of duck con­fit with wild mush­rooms and but­ter­beans was hearty and flavoursome; it had just the right level of pi­quancy and rich­ness added by the sherry vinai­grette, and was el­e­gantly ac­com­pa­nied by a half-bot­tle of Pomerol. If pressed, I think I would still have pre­ferred an in­dul­gent re­play with the gar­lic prawns. On the other side of the ta­ble, a gen­er­ous por­tion of moules marinières was en­joyed at leisure. The meal was com­pleted with a silky crème brûlée and an espresso, while my friend en­joyed her rasp­berry and vanilla vacherin. The ser­vice was at­ten­tive, friendly and just the right side of the for­mal/ca­sual di­vide, with no sense of be­ing pestered, yet no wait­ing ei­ther. The at­mos­phere was wel­com­ing to all, whether suited and booted or other­wise, and sur­pris­ingly re­laxed and so­cia­ble, with plenty of buzz.

Open Mon-thurs 7.30am-11.30pm (Fri 12pm), serv­ing break­fast, brunch, lunch, af­ter­noon tea and din­ner menus. Sat 9am-12pm, Sun 9am-11pm. Mains from £13, desserts from £6.50. 4-6 Rus­sell Street, Lon­don WC2B 5HZ Tel: 0203 301 1155, balt­haz­ar­lon­

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