The Balcon SW1
REVIEWS, November 22, 2011
Overall Value
out of 5
The Balcon, Sofitel St James, 8 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5NG

On a grand scale, an unnecessarily fussily-conceived Theatreland brasserie; it offers a long and unduly esoteric charcuterie-heavy menu, and an extensive wine selection, all at very high prices.

Why did it upset me so much, I wondered? In the middle of this grandiosely decorated, almost Ruritanian, St James’s brasserie stands a candelabra with half a dozen lit white candles. Nothing wrong with that.

Except that it stands on a podium, itself carefully lit – no doubt at great expense – with hidden electric lights. Whatever the opposite of ‘form follows function’ is, this is it – the sort of thing you presumably might find in the highest class of brothel. Its effortful striving is a surefire sign that no real character will ever flourish here.

The same striving is evident in the menu, which goes out of its way to offer a plethora of choices, few of which you may actually want. Oddly for a Gallic hotel group, the decision has been taken that these former banking hall premises should not be the straightforward brasserie to which they are well suited (and as which, under the Roux banner, they formerly traded). No, here there’s a lot of fuss about charcuterie, and sourcing, and ‘ well, let’s just say it’s one of those places where waitresses ask if you’re ‘familiar with the concept’.

Why on earth would you want to be? We are in the heart of Theatreland: a place where menus should not need explaining. The next table was occupied by a German mother-and-schoolgirl couple. They were talking a lot about ‘fish and chips’ (auf Englisch), bemoaning – I assumed – the absence of this British classic from the Karte. Or much else in the way of straightforward food. People in hotels often want simple food. Theatre-goers don’t need ‘concepts’. And foreigners, in particular, don’t need anything which requires explaining.

I picked my way through the menu – as irritating in its layout as its content – to secure a plain supper of onion soup (not bad), Cornish brill (fractionally overcooked) and a cocotte of plain vegetables (hurrah, what I wanted).

The pudding menu was considerably less vexing than the main one and I enjoyed my trou normand (sorbet with a shot) with some slightly dry doughnuts. The espresso (£4.50) wasn’t bad either.

Ah yes, the price question. The businessman’s dinner described, for one, with two glasses of basic wine, came to £70-odd. With a glass of champagne beforehand, a bill of £100 – for one – could have been achieved without the least difficulty. And that would have been without the least extravagance on the wine selection: the long list here bamboozles with its range and expense, not least, the range of Krugs it offers.

Who are they trying to impress? Certainly not me.

More from Hardens

Share this article: