80 Spring St, New York
Tel: 00 1 212 965 1414
Cost per person without wine: £45
In the late nineties and early noughties, New York’s Balthazar was the very definition of an “it” restaurant. Renowned as one of the hardest places to get a table in the city, it was beloved of fashionistas, business bigwigs and celebrities. It would be quicker to name the A-listers who avoided it than those who have been spotted on one of its leather banquettes.
There may be more tourists at the tables these days but, fifteen years after it opened, Balthazar has become an institution. And its reputation still pulls in the big names – David and Victoria Beckham were papped there a couple of days after I went along to see what all the fuss is about.
It’s this kind of buzz that Richard Caring – the man behind the Ivy, Le Caprice, J Sheekey, the Soho House group and the Wentworth golf club – hopes to recreate on this side of the Atlantic, when a London incarnation of the restaurant opens in Covent Garden. Anticipation among food bloggers and restaurant nerds has been building since 2010 when Caring gazumped Jeremy King and Chris Corbin – his arch rivals and fellow restaurateurs – to snap up the prized old Theatre Museum building on the corner of Wellington Street and Russell Street. The opening was originally slated for this autumn, but has been pushed back into the new year.
The interior of the original, situated in Manhattan’s bustling Soho, is designed to invoke the faded grandeur of the archetypal French bistro. There are neat tiled floors, rows of bottles above the bar and fresh lobster, crab and oysters painstakingly arranged on a bed of ice. A hundred conversations reverberate from the vaulted ceilings as huge fans churn above your head and yellowish lights cast the place in a hazy glow. Apart from the expanse of mirrors, which appear to be faux-distressed, it all looks quite convincing – not the gross pastiche of some American establishments.
But then Balthazar isn’t exactly American. It is the brainchild of Keith McNally, a 62-year-old expat Londoner who has had a string of hits with his eateries in the US and has teamed up with Caring for this venture.
By anyone’s estimation, the food in a “sceney” place like this is never likely to be the main draw, but the dishes at Balthazar never disappoint. My starter of seafood ceviche was a cornucopia of squid and prawns that was enhanced by peppers and punchy citrus juices. It was entirely satisfying but didn’t scream “Fresh!” in the way the best examples can. My main was a perfectly adequate linguine, with Italian sausage meat, cockles and rapini. It fitted together nicely, but I was left a little envious of my dining partner’s choice of pork belly. The sweet and sour peaches that accompanied the tender meat worked beautifully, though it must be said that of the two cuts of pork, one was chewier than the other.
Desert was a dreamy mango cheesecake, served at a temperature that rendered its texture smooth, not stodgy. The soft base was a continuation of the same, cohesive whole, rather than the unappealing separate layer of biscuit crumbs that one sometimes encounters. The service was delightful. Simultaneously friendly, busy, bright and relaxed: totally in keeping with the atmosphere of a place that welcomes a huge variety of people through its doors.
Our waitress told us that, these days, about 50 per cent of the tables are taken by out-of-towners, but she was adamant that the rest were still accounted for by locals, business people taking breakfast over Powerpoint slides and, of course, the celebs.
On the day of my visit I brushed shoulders outside with a blonde lady sporting a pair of round-framed sunglasses and a pronounced pout. On the second take it turned out to be Meg Ryan, a friend of McNally’s. You suspect that she can get a table at pretty short notice, but I wouldn’t like to bet on how she ranks according to the restaurant’s notorious ratings system. Diners are categorised as triple-A, double-A or A. Below that, there’s the hoi polloi. Not many make the top grade, but McNally’s fellow New York Brit, the legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour, is said to be one of the chosen few.
For now, both the Caring and McNally camps are tight-lipped about the London opening. In the past, McNally has been quoted as saying that he has “an intense dislike of chains and sister restaurants,” and until recently there was still speculation as to whether it would be a Balthazar, or take a new direction entirely. However, a stencilled spray-painted sign on the London premises confirms that it will also carry the name of the Biblical Arabian scholar.
A little snooping reveals more. Although there has been no official announcement yet, back in New York our waitress let slip that they have had the workmen in to take measurements of the pillars, lights and mirrors so the interior of the London Balthazar resembles that of the original as closely as possible.
There is a chance that when Balthazar comes to London, it will be little more than a soulless copy of the real thing. But the success of its American cousin and the track-records of the men at the helm suggest it is likely to be worth a visit – especially for those looking for a famous slice of the Big Apple a little closer to home.
Keith McNally: The British restaurateur who became the apple of New York’s eye
Keith McNally is the archetypal working-class-boy-done-good. Brought up in the then-squalid East End of London, he got his break working as a bell-boy in the Hilton Hotel, when he was spotted by a film director who cast him in a biopic of Charles Dickens. His first restaurant meal was with playwright Alan Bennett, aged 17.
He emigrated to New York in 1975, with hopes of making it big in the film industry. Instead – perhaps predictably – he found himself in the leisure business, waiting tables. But he quickly rose through the ranks, eventually opening a restaurant of his own, Odeon, with his brother Brian.
He went on to launch and be involved in a string of hit restaurants, with the 180-cover Balthazar, which opened in 1997, the most famous of them all.
His knack of nurturing the affections of the rich and famous has given his restaurants an almost mythic reputation. The London Balthazar, for which he has gone into business with Richard Caring, will be his first foray in the UK. With his reputation, you shouldn’t bet against it.