British restaurant critics tend to be far more scathing than their American counterparts. Because they excel at what the late Auberon Waugh (cousin of Evelyn) termed the “vituperative arts,” English food writers in particular flay most eateries they don’t laud. Such has been the reception accorded the London branch of Balthazar, which is pretty much indistinguishable from the celebrated downtown Manhattan brasserie, what with the red banquettes, zinc bar, and attached bakery. The critics agree, the place is awful, but diners don’t appear to agree with the critics.
Giles Coren of ‘The Times’ accused the London Balthazar of serving the “worst food in Europe.” Jay Rayner of the ‘Guardian’ wasn’t quite as biting, but he trashed the food, too, as did Mathew Norman of ‘The Daily Telegraph.’ Restaurateur Keith McNally responded by telling another British newspaper, ‘The Independent,’ “My pet hate is the London food and restaurant community which, with two notable exceptions, is a petty, self-regarding, back-stabbing bunch of narcissists who should be put through a meat grinder and dumped in the Indian Ocean.”
Regardless of which side of the pond you’re on, those are called fighting words.
So is the London Balthazar really as bad as Coren and company claim? Nope. New York’s Balthazar is a good restaurant rather than a great one and the same can be said of the London location. Our dinner consisted of a frisée salad aux lardons, followed by steak au poivre with French fries and profiteroles – three brasserie classics, all ably executed. The restaurant has a decent wine list, the service was pleasant and efficient, and the ambiance was terrific – caustic reviews having failed to turn people away. For comparison’s sake, we tried another London brasserie, Zédel, which has received effusive praise from some of the same critics. Located in a massive subterranean room in Piccadilly, Zedel has the virtue of being less expensive than Balthazar. The catch: The food was worse.
So what accounts for the brutal reception accorded the London Balthazar? Coren’s review hinted at the real issue: He bemoaned the influx to London of foreign chefs and offshoots of restaurants based overseas. If you have eaten at the New York Balthazar, there is no particular need to go to the one in London. But if you are interested in trying it, don’t let this outbreak of London parochialism deter you.