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The Early Word on Keith McNally's Balthazar London

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Photo: Xavier Girard Lachaîne

New York City's unstoppable restaurateur Keith McNally brought his brasserie staple Balthazar to London earlier this year, opening in mid-February amid an insane amount of hype. In the months since, Londoners who have been able to score tables have been filing reviews left and right — Balthazar London already has 85 reviews on TripAdvisor and an average rating of four of five. But it also has attracted plenty of flak from critics such as the Times' Giles Coren, who wrote that it was "the best restaurant in London, and the worst food in Europe."

Now McNally is biting back at a London food community that he says "is a petty, self-regarding, back-stabbing bunch of narcissists." So, uh, what is it that these members of the London food community are saying about Balthazar? Let's take a look at the early word:

The Evening Standard's Nick Curtis takes a side-by-side look at Balthazar and Covent Garden's other new brasserie The Delaunay, both of which he says "are towering above the rest." Curtis elaborates, "Covent Garden is the place to eat out again, and it's thanks to the new twin colossi of the London restaurant scene, the Delaunay and Balthazar, where you can't get a table for love, money or at least quite a long wait." [ES]

Time Out's Guy Dimond gave Balthazar London five stars in a review that points out that the restaurant is already booked for many weeks out. Of the dishes, he notes that "The duck shepherd's pie, served in a cast-iron gratin dish, was over-seasoned, but a gratin dauphinois would comfort any French grandmère." And, he adds, the bread basket is "outstanding" as well as the service. Apparently Dimond and his fellow diners "deliberately put [the staff] through their paces, but every glitch was handled with genuine bonhomie and hospitality. Bravo team, you were marvelous." [TOL]

The Evening Standard's Grace Dent had a difficult time getting a table at Balthazar, but was really pleased when she did: "Damn them — after all the hype and trouble, this place is very good. Oh how convenient for this column would it have been if it was a big dull dud. But as I'm writing this I'm imagining the perfect — teensy-tiny suggestion of al dente — lobster risotto with truffle, which I had as an hors d'oeuvre but when I return I'll eat as an entrée." [ES]

Bloomberg's Richard Vines — whose taxi driver leaving the restaurant turned out to be none other than Keith McNally's brother — writes that he found the food "uneven in the opening days." But, he adds, that's a problem he suspects will be fixed. Vines wasn't a fan of the ceviche or the hamburger, but writes that the desserts are all great. And, he writes, "My own favorite dish is the duck shepherd's pie (17.50 pounds), which is packed with flavor. The steaks are not bad. Order steak au poivre or Balthazar bar steak and you should be happy enough once you have slathered on the appropriate sauce." [Bloomberg]

The Spectator's Tanya Gold goes after Balthazar London, though doesn't spend much time on the food. The service is great, she writes, but is a place meant for tourists: "I will not linger on the obvious reference, which is, of course — Café Rouge! It's just like a big Café Rouge! ? But I like typing the words Café Rouge. Every time I do it, I imagine McNally banging his head against a wall and crying because Balthazar is a Parisian brasserie wrought for Legoland, and he probably knows it." [The Spectator]

Also for the Evening Standard, Fay Maschler — who disclosed a friendship with McNally — was pleased with much of what she tried aside from the fries, Brussels sprouts and a lemon tart that "lacked essential asperity." Of the criticisms that pegged Balthazar London as just another Café Rouge, she writes, "Why it is most definitely not, let me count the ways." [ES]

The Independent's Tracy MacLeod only found one dish that "fell short of superb" among otherwise hits such as the "explosively juicy" T-bone and "shimmering, silky rhubarb soufflé." All in all, MacLeod concludes, "There's been so much pre-publicity about this long-awaited opening, it could easily have fallen flat. But though the London branch may be a pastiche of a pastiche, there's nothing brash about it – in fact it has that touch of mystery and magic that characterises all great restaurants. As a theatrical showcase of the restaurateur's art, it's a hit." [The Independent]

The Telegraph's Zoe Williams awarded Balthazar 2.5 stars out of five. She describes the restaurant as "drop-dead-but-eat-first gorgeous" but doesn't seem too pleased with any of the food, including a spinach pithivier with bland spinach and salty mushrooms to the point "that the entire thing functioned like a taste-bud extremity torture." She concludes, "The food, I'm afraid, is simply not that good. Bizarrely, the rest of it is so likeable that even thinking about it has put a smile on my face." [The Telegraph]

Balthazar London

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

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