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Giles Coren on Balthazar, London, and NYC Imports

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Last week, Times UK restaurant critic Giles Coren caused a bit of a flap with a review of Balthazar London that called it "the best restaurant in London, and the worst food in Europe." In the review, he was complimentary of the service and decor, but gave it 0 out of 10 points for food, eliciting a pointed response from restaurateur Keith McNally accusing Coren of writing the review "for controversy's sake." Here now, Coren talks more about the trend of importing New York restaurants into London, why no one should go to New York for the food, and the difference between UK and American critics.

You wrote about being fed up with London being treated as a dustbin for replica restaurants. Tell me more about your frustration with these imports.
Well, I think this is something Keith McNally also hasn't fully grasped because he's been used to the kind of restaurant writing you get in America, which is very plain, very bland, very grown-up, very even-handed, very on one side or the other. The Ruth Reichls of the world, they dress up and they go in 19 different disguises on 48 occasions and eat the menu forwards and backwards and write this leaden, desperate prose which is very fair but terribly boring. I think Keith was just surprised by my piece because it was so emphatic and I was saying, "best restaurant in London, worst food in Europe." You don't get that in America. You get a much more level-headed way of expressing yourself.

So when I say I'm frustrated with these restaurateurs, some of them are good. I included Daniel Boulud, whereas Bar Boulud is London is very good. I'm just talking generally. I wouldn't be including particularly Balthazar in this. We've got this terrible thing, Bo London. And we've been going wild for it. And it's just sort of soulless and deathly prefabricated rooms that have been literally pre-packed in some terrible warehouse in Bangkok and made on the cheap by slave labor and then flown in, put up, and the menu rolled out. I just think it's a shame because we ought to be in Britain putting on with our own. We have a very good kind of restaurant. And Balthazar's doing such amazing business from people who are enslaved to this notion of New York's pre-eminence. I think it's kind of unpatriotic and a bit desperate and defeatist.

You mentioned these are drawing the attention away from home-grown London restaurants. What is it we're not paying attention to then?
It's not that you can't have a foreign restaurant. It's that — and this is not a thing that Balthazar is particularly implicated in — but we've put the names of these ridiculous men, we've put the names of Robuchon, the name of Daniel Boulud, the name of Hélène Darroze, we put their names over the door as a branding thing, but the fuckers never come here. They come for a couple of opening parties and then they go home. And the people who eat in them are just ridiculous international businessmen. And it's all just sort of mendacious and pointless and sick. It's the kind of thing which has always happened in other cities in the world and it's just not a thing we need.

We've done it to the rest of the world. I'm a good friend of Gordon [Ramsay]'s and he's a very good cook, but you go into restaurants all over America, Vegas, Los Angeles, and then Bangkok and Tokyo, and Gordon Ramsay's name is over the door, and it's nothing to do with Gordon Ramsay. It happens in spades in reverse to us. That's all, really. I was only looking for stuff to say ahead of the review, which said that I think Balthazar isn't any good at cooking. They're kind of no better or worse at cooking than I am. They'll cook you a good meal one day and then it's shit the next. And that's fine, but I just think it's terrible to make a big song-and-dance about it coming to this country.

Well in his response to your review, Keith McNally said he heard you went into Balthazar with this idea that you were going to go for a broader dig at New York.
Did he? Well I can't imagine why he'd think that. I went in desperate to have a lovely time like I always do. I love New York. As I mention in the piece, I have a better time in New York than I ever have anywhere. Historically, I've always had a wonderful time because you have fantastic cheap cocaine and girls who want to sleep with Englishmen. So what on Earth there isn't to like about New York? I don't know. But what you do also have is a load of very ordinary restaurants which you make a terrible fuss about which are really only very average. Which is fine. One doesn't go to New York for the food. And then when it gets exported to London, it's not of any great interest to me.

But I went along hoping to have a lovely time. And as I wrote in the piece, I did have a lovely time. But the food I had was rubbish, terrible, inedible, shocking, shameful, and disgraceful. So because so many other critics had enjoyed it, I went back because I thought I must try it again. But I realized that the other critics had said they liked it because they want to be friends with Keith and they want to get tables there in the future, and they want to hang out in this fantastic scene. And I understand that. I've done it before. I used to be a kind of mendacious, corrupt, buyable critic 15 years ago when I used to work in magazines. But since I've been at the Times, I am compelled to be honest. And so I desperately wanted to pretend I loved Balthazar, I had to be truthful and say that the food wasn't very good.

I'm amazed that Keith doesn't know that the food isn't any good. It's okay. It's just inconsistent. I totally believe that some people have had good meals there, but I'm just surprised that Keith is so upset. He's mostly got a restaurant there with a terrific staff that looks great with a good wine list. And then he's just got an okay food being sent out. I just think Keith has gotten so used to having smoke blown up his ass by New York restaurant critics who can't tell their ass from their elbow that he was surprised to find himself on the receiving end of an honest critique for the first time in 15 years.

You say the food is okay and then you also say it's despicable. Do you find it just not living up to the hype or is it really so bad?
There isn't any hype about the food. We've got this thing in London that we've got off you in New York, people say, the restaurant is a great restaurant. You don't go for the food. And I'm sorry, but I do go for the food. All the chefs and critics telling me that they weren't enjoying their meal and then pretending they had because they don't want to upset Keith because he's famously a lovely man. That's got him a lot of credit, and that's quite right because being a nice man is much more important than being a great chef. When I say it's sort of disgraceful, I ate personally twice very, very bad meals which I'd be ashamed to serve. Then it's okay sometimes. It's not poisonous or anything.

Going back to New York, there's plenty of people who would argue that New York dining is overrated, but probably not a lot who would say you can't get a decent mouthful of food there. Why go that far?
Because that's how I write. Of course you can get a decent mouthful of food in New York. You can get a decent mouthful of food in Nairobi. You can get a decent mouthful of food in Warsaw or Chad if you look hard enough. It's just I wouldn't actually go there looking for the food. I'm just saying go to New York because it's great fun. Go to a country with a serious culinary heritage if you want actual food, that was all.

I'm just a bit frustrated that in London we make such an effort to ape the New York restaurant scene. I have good friends who ape the New York restaurant scene and do it brilliantly. None of them would claim that the primary reason for going to their restaurant was the food. It's the buzz and the vibe and the girls and the atmosphere and the interesting menu and some quite good dishes if you order right.

My only point really about Balthazar is like, calm down everybody. This is just another fun place to be with reasonable cooking. Maybe it'll calm down. All the critics went too early. You should never do that. But everybody here did. And I'm as guilty of it as everyone else, but I am the only one who went twice. Everyone else did it on one visit and they all just got drunk and had fun and had kissy-kissy with Keith and went and wrote nice things. And that's fine, but that's just not how I roll.

I live in DC and we import a lot of New York restaurants, too.
Do you?

Yeah, especially in the last few years. Everybody gets excited about it.
Yeah, they shouldn't. That's the thing. I think that's because Washington has always been too humble about itself. Washington has always felt like the boring ugly sister which has the government and all the fun goes on in New York. This New York thing, you'd never get that in San Francisco or Los Angeles. They'd never start having ripoff New York restaurants there. If anything, Per Se, that is California exporting to New York. It happens that way round. I think Washington should get some good London restaurants. That's what you need.

So you're not opposed to all of this kind of expansion?
No, no, no. World cross-fertilization is fantastic. Immigration across the world has led to all kinds of fantastic new and exciting kinds of food being available. And there's all kinds of different kinds of restaurants. But the specific thing, the New York party joint with average food and a load of celebrities kissing each other's butt, I think we can manage without. Or at least we can do it for ourselves.

Giles Coren's book How to Eat Out is recently out in paperback.

· All Giles Coren Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Critics Coverage on Eater [-E-]

[Photo: Colin Thomas]

Balthazar London

4-6 Russell Street London, Greater London WC2B 5HZ, United Kingdom