The most eagerly awaited opening in the restaurant world this Spring was the second branch in London of Balthazar, Keith McNally’s highly successful New York restaurant. Arguably the doyen of the New York restaurant scene, McNally has opened 12 individual restaurants over the last 25 years, all in out-of-the-way places. Although, such is the self-generated buzz which accompanies these openings, the locations do not remain obscure for long.
Balthazar is probably the best known, and it is this one that Caprice Holdings tycoon Richard Caring, now his business partner in this venture, suggested should be duplicated in London. The location chosen this time was not in some up and coming industrial backwater, but slap bang in the middle of tourist land, by the Piazza in Covent Garden. In fact the premises used to be the Theatre Museum, and it was the building itself rather than the location which dictated the choice. Its dramatic character has meant that the original Balthazar concept could easily be slotted in.
What has made Balthazar so successful in New York is not a particularly innovative menu nor a cutting edge décor (think traditional French brasserie on both counts), but the attention to the indefinables that make for a relaxed and happy experience for the customers. Hiring efficient, engaged and genuinely friendly staff for a well laid out space sounds easy and obvious, doesn’t it? But getting the formula requires continuous and alert attention to detail. And a degree of humility.
McNally possesses this last trait in common with my subject in the last but one issue of this magazine: Alan Yau. Neither is complacent. Nor puffed up with pride of ownership. McNally even says that he does not take a lot of pleasure in his restaurants per se, but does like knowing that other people enjoy them. Yau is similar; often to be seen self-effacingly seated in a corner observing the working of his various operations, to work out improvements.
It is ironic that the concept of the Parisian brasserie, the inspiration for Balthazar has been transported to New York and then on to London. What hasn’t been included in the transfer is the aloof and patronising service often found in Paris, where some restaurants could learn a few lessons from the friendly team here.
So what has a well-publicised restaurant opening got to do with sandwiches, you may ask? The answer is that in London, Balthazar is following the same model as in New York by opening a bakery/patisserie next door to the restaurant premises. It would obviously not make economic sense to have the large amount of space required for bread baking on such a premium site, so in both cities the bakery which supplies the restaurant and wholesales to other restaurants and shops is sited elsewhere. In London the bread and patisserie is made in Waterloo and delivered to the shop and restaurant at 6 am every day.
I talked to the enthusiastic manager of the Balthazar Bakery shop, Matt Bell, who filled me in about the rest of the supply. In the basement is a kitchen which the shop shares with the restaurant. Delicious-looking piles of salads and sandwiches are made for the shop each day and displayed on large dishes at varying heights balancing on upturned log sections along the marble counter. The prices range from £4.25 to £7 depending on the portion size. Because of the range of ingredients available in the restaurant kitchen, the salad recipes can be inventive and hugely varied. A stack of white asparagus with shaved mozzarella and radish at the back of the display overlooked more glossy salad combinations which included roast sweet potato, radicchio and onions with toasted pumpkin seeds, pasta with fennel and finely chopped red pepper, and giant couscous with aubergine. All enhanced with fresh herbs and carefully flavoured dressings.
The range of sandwiches is fairly small, but each one completely different, celebrating the diverse range of breads. On the day of my visit, the menu included goats’ cheese, red pepper and the special Lucques olives from the Languedoc on a properly baked ciabatta at £5.50, and a Provençal tuna filling inside potato and onion bread, again for £5.50. More traditionally French was smoked salmon on a tartine and Bayonne ham and gruyere inside a demi baguette, both for a fiver. I bought a very generous section of foccacia filled with rare roast beef, and celeriac remoulade on focaccia for £5.50. A long tranche of quiche was also displayed invitingly, ready for easy slicing.
There are two homemade soups to choose from; one is always French onion, and the second which changes daily. Today it was red pepper, freshly made and tasted it, served with a thoughtful mini slice of cheese-covered toasted crouton.
There are obvious symbiotic advantages in running a restaurant and a sandwich takeaway side by side. If you are serving roast beef in the restaurant on a Sunday, you can use any left over beef in the sandwiches on a Monday. The celeriac remoulade in the roast beef foccacia is already on the menu in the Balthazar restaurant as an hors-d’oeuvres item with Bayonne ham. The onion soup gratinée is made for the restaurant every day, and will sell many more times the amount from a soup urn in the shop to take away on a chilly day.
Like Balthazar, the interior is typically Parisian right up to the detail of the Renaissance-style painted glass panels on the ceiling. Matt told me this had been specially commissioned in France and was only installed a nail-biting couple of days before opening. The elaborate painted images reflect the theatrical nature of the vicinity. This ceiling makes the shop completely special, in the way that many French bakeries/patisseries look: as though they have been there for decades. Balthazar doesn’t quite have that aged look yet. The copper soup urns are still gleaming, and the espresso machine is spotless.
Perhaps surprisingly the coffee supplier is not French. Another point of irony is that although coffee is the national drink of France, the best roasters are not there. Monmouth Coffee is the supplier of choice to Balthazar in London. It does just happen to be one of the best in London, but is also conveniently situated in nearby Monmouth Street. The owner of Postcard Teas, Timothy d’Offay, the high priest of London tea blenders, supplies the teas in both the bakery shop in the restaurant.
Besides having a restaurant alongside, there are even more advantages is having your own bakery if you run a take away sandwich operation, and one of the best parts about my job as a restaurant and café consultant is that I get to meet all the people operating these noble enterprises. One of my latest projects is assisting an iconic operation called Les Trois Garcons in the East End of London to open an antiques cafe in Redchurch Street, Shoreditch. Part of the brief is to find the best supplier for every category.
I contacted the head man at Balthazar Bakery. Yes, he would be delighted to supply their multigrain tin for the perfect croquet monsieur for the café. Nordic-style cardamom-spiced twisted buns? No problem. This flexible whole “can do” approach is important for building up a critical mass of sales to get a wholesale bakery operation into profit.
It’s the same across the rest of the organisation too. The staff are involved and feel ownership of their part of the project, and so pride in the product is obvious. Back at the Bakery shop in Russell Street, I asked one of the staff why they were always smiling. “Because it’s so nice to work here and the things are all beautiful,” she answered cheerily.
Ah me! On my first visit to check out the possibility of writing about Balthazar Bakery for this article, I bought a croissant, and pronounced it not one of the best. At last I would be able to be somewhat critical about somewhere. On the second visit however, the croissant I ate, standing up at the counter, while drinking my Monmouth cappuccino was perfect.
Paris, you’d better pay attention. You never know, to complete the journey, Balthazar might come in your direction soon. The band of often expressionless martinets in Parisian bakeries who ask, in curt tones, “Et avec ca?” after every item you ask for, may suddenly not seem so attractive. Especially when the quality is as good as this.
Balthazar Restaurant and Bakery
4-6 Russell Street
London WC2B 5HZ
First published in International Sandwich and Snack News