Despite rumours to the contrary, McNally is married. He also has 5 children. But on weekend's there's nothing McNally enjoys more than to get away from them.
Balthazar is a New York restaurant that has come to London and by the roll call of the great and the good of the food world who have eaten there in the few days since launch, he's clearly a man held in high regard (Jeremy Lee was just one of many spotted eating on our visit). The press release describes the food style as 'traditional French brasserie & classic bistro menu from breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, weekend brunch and Sunday roast', with the restaurant opening on a weekday at 7am and on both Saturday and Sunday from 8am.
Whether it is the prime location, it's right on Covent Garden, or whether more people than I know who Keith McNally is, despite being just days into the opening, the place was packed and remained so throughout the afternoon. Not for the first time this week, we pose the question 'what did it use to be?' though no one in our party is quite sure, it's suggested a museum, but whatever it was, it looks every inch the modern brasserie right now.
Where does it sit in the restaurant scene? We all agreed, in the middle between Brasserie Zedel and The Wolseley, while two of our party thought it showed a clean pair of heels to Les Deux Salons (the third member didn't have a view here).
The team staffing the venue has a first class combined pedigree, and my greeting on the door is exceptional as Sam, formerly of The Ivy, identified my booking before I even said who I was (have we met I sheepishly asked? No, we hadn't. I'm still baffled how he did this). Staff throughout the day were extremely friendly and service was excellent, nothing seemed too much trouble.
Massive choice on the menu, all appealing, much classic brasserie food, little that is that healthy (that's not a complaint). We saw three starters, onion soup, lobster & black truffle risotto, and prawn cocktail. The soup was a hearty dense portion while the risotto came in a similarly generously quantity: there's a bigger bowl available as a main course also, though for many, the starter portion would be ample even as a main. The prawn cocktail was mostly prawns on ice with a make your own Marie Rose sauce. Without anything green on the plate, I was somewhat baffled but it didn't seem to bother my well educated (food-wise) dining companion, who was full of compliments for the dish. With most starters priced below £10, it's good value, though prawns at £16 are a little steeper and puts in on a par with posh nosh Scott's where Shellfish Cocktail is £17.50 and Griddled Prawns are £16.75.
Meaty seemed the way forward with mains and the menu is rich in comforting food to choose from: grilled lamb T-bone, beef stroganoff, pork belly etc. Duck was a full house winner at our table with two orders for the Duck Shepherd's Pie and one order for Duck Confit with roasted potatoes, cipollini onions, wild mushrooms and frisee salad. The latter dish unanimously won the battle of the duck and fortunately it was mine. The Duck Shepherd's Pie was nevertheless awarded 7/10 by my companions (one a professional food critic) but ultimately lacked a bit of depth, so losing the diner's attention around three quarters through. The confit leg meanwhile was just perfect, so if that was what you were in the mood for, it's hard to be less than fully satisfied (and again, there's a lot of it).
Desserts offered up a choice of classics such as profiteroles and choosing between such riches is the hardest part. Priced universally at £7, they're good value while a souffle, billed as for two people at £10, achieves better economics yet. Our souffle of choice, a rhubarb crumble, was competently done and satisfyingly demolished.
Unanimously, Balthazar was declared a success by our table, and we all agreed that we would be happy to return. The food is good for anytime, it's pretty much open anytime, and the price is pitched at just the right level for where they are and the quality of offering. It's a big space, as the trend seems to be these days, pushing 200 covers, but I can imagine this place always being full. Whatever expectations I might have had on entering Balthazar for an established restaurateur entering the competitive London brasserie market, on both food and service, they were exceeded, and that is guaranteed to make me happy.