8 PALL MALL, SW1Y 5NG
Cost per person without wine: £XX
The Balcon is not somewhere you’ll have necessarily heard about. It’s not a buzz-generator. This, I suspect, is for two reasons: one, its location in the gentleman’s club hinterland of Pall Mall (which is to say: not Soho) and two, for being part of the Sofitel St James hotel, and so the preserve of – largely – French tourists.
It shouldn’t be so, for four main reasons. One: a little marble-topped charcuterie bar serving wonderful freshly-cut meat from a farm in Monmouthshire and one in Cantal, France: smoked, cured, terrine; lamb, rabbit, duck, pig; you name it, it’s here and it is delicious. (An added bonus on our visit was the dark-eyed charcuterier, Arnaud, who was as friendly as he was knowledgeable). Two: instead of a sommelier, the Balcon has a “champagne angel” – a wine wizard across still and fizzy vintages. (You can just have wine, of course, but Christina Larsson’s expertise and the Balcon’s open emphasis on French bubbles is a treat. Note that the choice on the menu is limited, so ask about what else is on offer). Three: the foie gras and truffle cottage pie. And four: the interior, a sweeping, curvaceous room of high ceilings, shiny wood, gleaming brass and a spiral staircase leading to a champagne fridge.
We started by combining pleasures one and two. Perched at the charcuterie bar I had my first taste of Andre Clouet Grande Reserve: Larsson thought we might like it and she was right. Bursting with energy, this fizz began with a tart fruit burst and mellowed into a honeyed biscuity nectar. “I wonder if I could get hold of this for my wedding,” murmered my companion, slurping hers down with uncommon gusto. We both had to have a refill promptly. The second glass dovetailed perfectly with the parade of delicately served meat we’d ordered. We particularly liked the air-dried pork loin and game salami from Trealy Farm in Wales – lamb lovers should have air-dried Welsh lamb leg. Mas Le Rouget provided us with Parisian-style ham cooked in broth (extra silky) and some outstanding saucisson. The brave might find garlic pig’s head terrine a nice counterpoint to the Champagne, but we opted for a fibrous and earthy rabbit and wholegrain mustard rillette, which paired perfectly and packed a lot more punch than mayonnaise-loaded rabbit rillettes often do.
Feeling a slight wrench as we were called away to our table, Larsson helped us through our charcuterie bar loss with a glass of Ruinard Blanc de Blancs – one of the throughbreads of the Champagne region and a refined, elegant, sharply structured fizz. It’s a fancier Champagne but I preferred the Andre Clouet – still, with the starters, Larsson thought it best. Indeed, shunning wine entirely for the Ruinart was a good move where my – wait for it – pike custard with King’s Lynn brown shrimps, crustacean velouté and sourdough toast was concerned. Sticking with bubbles kept us fresh and our palates zingy where the hollandaise-esque custard (actually very delicious, a bit like omelette Arnold Bennett, a creamy egg dish with smoked mackerel) could have cloyed and thickened the taste buds. My friend had indecently rich Herefordshire snails (with garlic jus, parsnip purée, Mas air dried ham and country croutons), also benefiting from the Ruinart’s sophisticated, lean zing.
For our mains, Larsson proffered 1998 Veuve Cliquot La Grande Dame. Before this visit, I’d have said that Veuve was my least favourite Champagne: crassly acidic, like being punched in the face or having lemons squeezed in your eyes. Post-visit, I have new respect for it, as the 1998 was a Champagne as big and rich as the best of them – strong and muscular but rounded and rich, too. It was a fitting counterpoint for my drop dead gorgeous Scottish beef and foie gras cottage pie, served with chanterelles (when I visited, it was the end of black truffle season: imagine). Be sure you order this – it’s as rich and fantastic and naughty as it sounds. There are other tempting Gallic dishes: cassoulet, lamb stew and so on. But – judging from my companion’s pan-fried black bream with braised fennel – they’re not nearly so exciting. Following the Grande Dame we had a showstopping sweet Champagne: a wondrous encore from Veuve in the form of the demi-sec. Whatever else you have, try this.
Le Balcon lacks Soho cool or Mayfair snobbery. But by God it’s good for a hair letting-down session – just don’t expect to feel slim when you leave.