BALTHAZAR COVENT GARDEN, LONDON
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, balthazarlondon.com