Londoners on the whole have a raging hard-on for Manhattan. Many of us, given the choice, would happily flounce off to NYC permanently if we ever had the opportunity. It makes us feel slightly guilty for our native city, that we would cheat on her so brazenly. But many of us share that pipedream, and it’s a powerful thing. People even like our accent there.
They also have things in New York that we will never have: flavoured cream cheese, proper bagels, delis that are actual delis, pizza with heritage and integrity, a White Castle, and of course all of the high-end “It” restaurants that are so legendarily difficult to get a reservation at.
We wouldn’t dream of eating French in NYC though. There’s just no point. I remember passing Bourdain’s place in a cab and audibly scoffing at its kitschy faux-Frenchy exterior as it flashed past. It looked ridiculous. I’m sure all of the dishes are well-executed, but contextually it's not what NYC is to us.
A New York State of Mind
It’s very orange.
That’s the first thing we noticed after sitting down. Orange lighting. Night-time driving down the M4 orange. It takes a good few minutes to get used to it. It’s a huge expanse of a room with energetic rumble of clatters, clinks, and chatter reverberating around it. It is impressive: from the huge, slightly tarnished mirrors to the mosaic tiled floors, leather-clad bench seating and brass railing separating the booths, it's easy to be reminded of the Wolseley and others of the same ilk.
When at the Minetta Tavern, the co-proprietor of a certain highly successful group of London steak restaurants was there at the same time. We remarked on the sheer volume of waiting staff and he said it wouldn’t be possible to replicate that same server-heavy bustle at home. Minimum wage and that kind of thing. Wouldn’t be possible, let alone profitable.
This was weighing on our minds as we propped up the bar at Balthazar.
We can’t remember seeing such a swarm of well-turned out staff. Dozens and dozens of them. They’ve also got the NYC standard-issue clipboard despot, clad in black. This is London though, so we didn’t have to awkwardly palm a $20 bill in her direction, and once our intention of sitting at the bar was understood we were promptly sat at the bar. We couldn’t help watch her turn away group after group of reservation-less tourists who clearly had no idea that Balthazar is A Big Deal.
The thing is, we did waltz in, reservation-less, and ended up sitting at the lovely bar, cooing at the orange hue and stunning-looking bar.
It must be a strange job that, telling people to fuck off as politely as possible for hours on end.
All the classic staples from both sides of the Atlantic make an appearance: Steak Frites, Croque Monsieur and Coq Au Vin on one side and Macaroni Cheese, Hamburgers and Chicken Clubs on the other. We’ll leave the French stuff up to our more esteemed peers who write about real food. It was the last two of these that we thought we'd give a go.
And the only thing that really underlines the Franco-Unamerican is that all the draught beer is from the Camden Brewery. We were hoping for something either French, or East Coast, or both. Not another spendy pint of Hells.
And There Lies The Rub
As for the burger itself, it’s a standard $ to £ conversion cheeseburger that costs £16.
It is fine. Not bad, not exceptional, thankfully not over-franglicised. It’s served up much like what you get at Joe Allen, round the corner - all the burger basics splayed out. Meat 'n cheese on one side of a grill-line charred bun, and veggies (full slice of red onion included) on the other. You get the standard ketchup and mustard (cue banter whether it’s French or American) condiments placed in front of you, but make sure you ask for a pot of the in-house made mayonnaise - it's thick, rich and buttery goodness for the accompanying fries, but also adds a creamy contrast to the crisp lettuce and tomato in the burger. It's slightly over done for the medium rare we asked for and a tad dry.
The notable thing though is the salt they’re using to coat the patty. We don’t think it’s pre-salted, but the patties are cooked very, very hot. There is also some kind of crack-like salt mix which forms small dark blobs of oversalty flavour. A densely seasoned, slightly bacon-y, slightly sweet paprikaness. It a decent, fulfilling sandwich, but it's not a-Myrrh-zing.
The brioche bun is a great effort, with an airy, cushy feel, it squashes down without compacting and holds the meat comfortably. And the best bit about this? You can buy them in the bakery next door (where everything is half price half an hour before it closes FYI). They’re not mean with the fries, and they were perfectly fine but the oil they’d been cooked in tasted a bit well-used.
The star of the show was the club sandwich. A comparative steal for £10, it had a wonderful proper French mayo with just enough filling sitting inside two perfectly grilled slices of St. John-style sourdough.
Ultimately, Balthazar has a problem. What we want from NYC imports is genuine NYCness. Not French Brasserie by way of New York. Everyone has commented on the Cafe Rouginess to it all, but there actually is a Cafe Rouge that is right across the street. It’s empty though.
Balthazar doesn’t belong on any best-of lists. Apart from Most Convincing Manhattan Transplant Until Shake Shack Opens.✪
- Simon & Rob.