More Toothsome than Gracious
Grace Dent, food writer and critic extraordinaire, is my foodie heroine. Who can fail to be charmed, and even to laugh out loud, at her weekly column in the Evening Standard’s ES Magazine, Grace and Flavour? It’s always a fantastic read, whether I agree with her assessment or not. She’s clever and funny and always completely hits the nail on the head. Here I can reveal –and how thoroughly exciting is this?- that Grace the Great is newly a follower of mine! Well, at least on Instagram she is. This makes Grace and me practically BFFs , so you will understand that I feel highly elevated in the foodie ranks and go pink with pleasure and self-importance every time I think of it. Which is often, believe me!
There is a huge difference between proper food critics and food bloggers though. The former really know their stuff, they are expected to eat at any given venue at least three times, they often personally know the chefs and staff and they are far more adventurous in their food choices. They gleefully tuck into offal and snails, tripe and pigs trotters, frogs’ legs and black pudding, knowing no culinary bounds. Writing for publications, they also have to be careful not to offend advertisers, readers or persons of importance. The humble food blogger, such as myself, writes entirely from the punters’ viewpoint and reflects the one off experience. We can be picky eaters, difficult to please and, on our own blogs, we are free to say exactly what we like. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, we have influence. The internet spreads its tentacles far and wide and, once an opinion is out there, it’s open to be read by anyone and inform their restaurant preferences. Such responsibility weighs heavily, so it goes without saying, that bloggers, like journalists, need to abide by certain ethical guidelines. Fairness is key. And that’s not always easy to achieve.
Take The Balcon, for instance. Our youngest daughter had very generously given us a Groupon voucher for this restaurant which is in one of my favourite London areas, right in the centre, in St. James’s. Now I’ve never really got into this Groupon thing and that in itself was an interesting experience. Life in London is busy, so somehow, we’d not managed to book our table within the three month time limit on our voucher. When I got in touch with Groupon to extend it by a few days, they were completely unhelpful, so we were forced to book our table on the very last day of its validity, Easter Monday. Right there was the first fairness hurdle. No restaurant is busy or atmospheric on a Monday evening and on a bank holiday, when everyone is still digesting the excess of chocolate eggs they’ve eaten, even less so. Still, we had no choice, since no way were we going to forego the opportunity of a free three course dinner in a West End restaurant of some repute, no siree! While the Easter Bunny was still twitching his whiskers in other households around the country, we donned our glad rags and made our way to the Sofitel.
First impressions count. The restaurant is at a fine address in an imposing building on the corner of …… and Pall Mall. There’s a Union Jack fluttering above the door and a smartly uniformed doorman greets you. The foyer glistens with marble, magnificently bedecked with flower arrangements. It’s all very grand indeed! Then to the restaurant. Hmmm, this, on impact, is a little disappointing . It’s huge and rather too brightly lit and, somehow I feel, it lacks elegance. In fact, it looks like a typical hotel restaurant. My heart sinks a little. We are seated at a draughty table on the fringes of the almost empty restaurant from which we hurriedly move to a more pleasant central position. The massive light arrangement above us on the ceiling is interesting but vaguely reminds me of a crown of thorns. There’s a gallery section from which, quite possibly, the restaurant takes its name. Not many of the other tables are taken, it is Easter Monday, after all, and those that are, are occupied by what appear to be businessmen staying at the hotel.
The menu looks good but we are quickly informed that, as Groupon voucher holders, we can only choose those dishes that have a star beside them. I, of course, fancy those that don’t but hey ho, let’s make the best of things . The choices that are available to us look perfectly fine, however. I’m in two minds what to think about this place.
The Lovely Husband orders a White Onion Soup with Baba Ganouch and Dukkah Roll to start with, I order the Yuzu Cured Salmon with Edamame Puree, Wakame Salad and Tobiko. For main courses, he chooses Elwy Valley Lamb Rump and Shoulder, Pearl Barley, Roasted Carrots, Cavolo Nero and Broad Beans and I go for the Roasted Hake Fillet, Ratatouille, Green Olive Tapanade,and Shellfish Oil.
As the food arrives, our eyes widen in delight. Are we in for a monster surprise! All perception of mediocrity vanishes in an instant! The soup may not look all that pretty but it is glorious! It’s somewhat denser than normal onion soup, more like a thinnish puree but boy, is it tasty! The baba ganoush obviously does it great favours. The salmon looks so pretty on the plate and that too is fresh and very flavoursome, the ingredients coming together just perfectly. Our dander is up and we’re excited for the main courses.
My hake is simply to die for, the fish fresh and flaky, its skin crisp and delicious. The ratatouille has a lovely tomatoey Mediterranean impact; it’s probably the best I have ever eaten. This vegetable melee that is so often overcooked and mushy, on this occasion sparkles with sunshine and juiciness. The lamb too goes down like a treat, cooked as it is to perfection and swimming in a sophisticated gravy with exceptionally nicely done vegetables that retain a good crunch. The portions are big but the food tastes so good that we could easily have eaten more, just out of sheer greed.
There’s a rhubarb and stem ginger steamed pudding with cinnamon mascarpone and honeycomb on the dessert list which I could kill for but, to my great disappointment there’s no star beside it. As I don’t like chocolate tart, I choose the only other option available to me, the thoroughly boring sounding Yoghurt Pannacotta with Raspberry Jelly. Ha, how wrong can you be, it is in actual fact totally awesome and very far from boring! It’s cheesecakey creaminess is thrillingly heightened by something crunchy that tastes very much like honeycomb pieces and the ‘raspberry jelly’ comes in intensely juicy fruity cubes, their tartness a wonderful foil for the panacotta. The Lovely Husband’s French Cheese with Membrillo offers up an excellent selection. There’s a goat’s cheese, a hard yellow cheese and a section of ripe Camembert, and all, for once, have a proper bite to them and are a million miles away from the bland cheese offerings frequently produced elsewhere.
This has been an unexpectedly outstanding meal and we marvel at the chef’s skill and attention to the smallest detail. Well, I never! So much for a typical hotel restaurant! This is so not!
This puts me in a position. Do I recommend this restaurant or not? The answer is a resounding Yes! Yes! Yes! Ignore the not so chic interior design and the adequate but slightly sullen service and focus entirely on your plate. Three cheers to Chef Matt Greenwood!! Wow and double wow! At The Balcon, the proof is very much in the pudding. And in the main course. And in the starter too!
I don’t think we’ll be rushing to acquire more Groupon vouchers but The Balcon, now that’s an altogether different proposition; we’ll definitely be back for the fabulous food!
As our Groupon voucher present bought us this wonderful meal, we did not to have to pay a penny, which made it even better! Totting up the cost of it from the menu, it comes to approx. £140 for both of us, including wine and service.
The Balcon London, 8 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5NG
Tel: 020 7968 2900 firstname.lastname@example.org