Matthew Norman, The Daily Telegraph, May 21, 2013
In terms of lacerating savagery, a recent attack on British restaurant reviewers by the restaurateur Keith McNally fell narrowly short of the gold standard set – as perhaps you would expect – by Gordon Ramsay. Filming in a Far East meat market, the crocodile-skinned superchef illustrated his feelings by timing the recital of various names to coincide with the strokes of his cleaver as he chopped a bull's penis up into discs. "Michael Winner" thwack; "A A Gill" thwack, "Giles Coren" thwack; "Matthew Norman" thwack. Hardline feminists may regret the phallocentricity, but otherwise it is hard to imagine an improvement on that.
This is not to disparage Mr McNally's description of my professional brethren as "a bunch of petty, self-regarding, back-stabbing narcissists who should be put through a meat grinder and dumped into the Indian Ocean". The only quibble is with the "back-stabbing" part. It was into his front that the massed Sabatiers of the commentariat recently plunged – and it was just one lone aspect of Balthazar, his new Covent Garden brasserie, that occasioned the plunging.
One understands his sense of betrayal. Raised in Bethnal Green, Mr McNally departed for New York as a young chap and did incredibly well. Indeed, he is credited as "the man who invented Downtown" (not the Petula Clark song: that was Tony Hatch) with an armada of star-magnets, of which his original Balthazar remains the flagship.
French favourite: snails at Balthzar (Pic: Martin Pope)
Here in the psychogeriatric ward of the international community, nothing thrills us like one of our own making it big in the U S of A; such conquering heroes often expect a triumphal reception when they return to Blighty's bosom.
However, the ticker tape parade stipulated by tradition that has been withheld by my so-called rivals will today also be eschewed by me, and for the same, unitary and singular reason: that the food at Balthazar is no bleedin' good.
That does not make it a restaurant I would deter anyone from visiting. In every other regard bar the food, it is superb, and – despite being a clone of a New York take on a grand, classical Parisian brasserie – ringingly authentic. Mr McNally and his partner Richard Caring spent a reported £14 million on recreating the original in every detail, and it was worth the expense. Gigantic scuffed mirrors are tilted to facilitate gawping in the hope of glimpsing celebs at distant tables. Huge rectangular pillars lend a little intimacy by splitting this vast space into nooks and crannies. The floor is handsome mosaic tiling; the banquettes a deep carmine red.
The standout feature, though, is the superlative lighting, which envelops the room in a warm, romantic, almost sepia glow. It is a gorgeous, enchanting space which generates a fantastic buzz, and the service from slick, white-aproned waiters (all of whom look as if they, like Rick's émigré staff in Casablanca, have a tale to tell) does it justice. The charm with which a sommelier replaced three consecutive bottles of Margaux – all rancid, though all, strangely, in slightly different ways – was a delight. Yet given the rarity of encountering even one duff bottle of wine, this unholy trinity seemed to presage what followed, once we had ordered from an enticing roundup of all the usual brasserie suspects.
Unspectacular: Matthew Norman's profiteroles (Pic: Martin Pope)
In the way of people instantly smitten with a restaurant and desperate to continue the affair, the three of us resisted the dawning realisation for as long as we could. We enthused maniacally about a shared brandade with garlic croutons, when in fact it was pretty average. One of us raved about her half-dozen oysters of three varieties. Her old man tried to enthuse about a chicken liver and foie gras mousse, but it was so lacking in body and flavour that he soon ran out of gas. My snails in their shells (the first part of my childhood dream meal trifecta, to be followed by steak au poivre and profiteroles) were undersalted, overcooked, short on garlic butter, and had a suspicious twang as if pre-prepared then popped into a very hot oven to warm them up.
The main courses were little better. Dover sole meunière was accurately cooked but the basic quality of the fish was mediocre. The same went for a grilled sirloin, which was well seasoned and generously proportioned, but looked curiously like seared tuna and had no bovine savour. The pepper sauce with my streak would have been fine without the weird hint of orange rind. All three puddings – the longed-for profiteroles, a rosemary-flavoured Bakewell tart and a crème brûlée – were decent, but unspectacular.
With a restaurant such as this one, which exists to offer elegance, in-crowd glitz and a dash of theatricality, the cooking is not the paramount thing. Yet at these prices, there are basic standards of competence which must be observed. Too many dishes were either sloppily executed or suggested that the profit margins are being inflated by chopping the butcher's bill with the brute force of Ramsay.
So – before the plankton of the Orient gorge themselves on the last of my brunoised remains – let me offer you some advice. Cut some costs yourselves. Stick to a mid-afternoon croque-monsieur, and enjoy this magnificent room on the cheap.