On a prominent Covent Garden corner, a grand brasserie with plenty of Paris-meets-New York buzz; early days reviews have been decidedly mixed, but our visit a couple of months after opening was an all-round success.
Only those recently returned from Mars will need much reminding about the back story of this prominently-sited brasserie – the grand Gallic operation from New York’s SoHo, recently exported to Covent Garden by a celebrated New York restaurateur, Londoner Keith McNally, with the backing of the ‘Lex Luthor of Mayfair’, Richard Caring.
If the quality of the cast-list is impressive, the story has been almost biblical in the time-span of its elaboration. Perhaps it’s the build-up of expectation which is responsible for some decidedly snitty reviews from the major critics: our visit, a couple of months after opening, found very little to criticise.
This is, as we all know, essentially ‘just’ a Gallic brasserie. Just? Regular readers will know that we defer to no one in our regard for this most imperishable of restaurant formats, and – in our view – this is already one of the very best brasseries in town.
Let’s start by judging by appearances. Even the place’s critics have conceded that it ‘feels’ right. It may be odd that it’s taken an Englishman-in-New York to do Gallic so well, but the care that went into SoHo’s original Balthazar has been lavished again here. It helps that this light, high-ceilinged corner site (the former Theatre Museum, much fought-over when it came up for grabs) is perfect for its starring role – brasseries should really, as here, be on the ground floor, the lack of which positioning restrains the appeal of such otherwise authentic-feeling competitors as Le Café Anglais and Zédel.
If the interior is comme il faut, one senses the New York obsession with placement. McNally is famous for his famous friends, and it can’t have been a coincidence that the two knights of the rag trade lunching at the same times as us had each been given large banquette tables. Those of us in Siberia had to make do with relatively cramped accommodation (just as it is in NYC).
With a bakery next door, the bread is a big deal here, and the amplitude of the bread basket, quickly brought, only served to emphasise the modest proportions of our dining surface. (The rye sourdough is excellent, incidentally, while the baguette is more ho-hum.) Not least to observe where they could possibly find place to put a wire stand on our already choc-full table, we ordered oysters. Sadly they solve the problem by not using a stand at all – presentation was otherwise correct, however, and the oysters amongst the best we’ve had in a long time.
The rest of the menu is notably wide-ranging, and prices vary widely too. There are some dishes for not much over a tenner, and some well over £20. Unless you’re on expenses, we can’t really see the point of aiming for the top end: brasseries are about robust food and enjoyment, and our mid-price dishes – such as steak tartare and confit of duck – all precisely hit their mark. Wines are priced for jollity too – the only trouble with having 50cl carafes available for £15 is that there is always the risk, as we did, of ordering another.
photo by David Loftus