Pall Mall Dining
The Balcon offers grand and elegant surroundings but the food is slightly off the pace. It’s so close to being very good
Review by Geoffrey Leadwell Photography by Andy Barnham
The Balcon is situated on Pall Mall, and is the restaurant inside the award winning luxury hotel, Sofitel London St James. The inside is rather grand; all leather and dark wood with plush, heavy curtains falling the length of the tall arch radius windows. Thrown into the mix are a number of large contemporary light fittings, each boasting hundreds of bulbs, which stop it from becoming austere and give a kind of regal glitter to proceedings.
However, despite the ambitious decor, the restaurant doesn’t fully convince. There’s an extensive wine list, presented on an iPad (which may or may not appeal to the romantic in you), with an app that divides the wines into region, grape type and so forth.There’s also a swaggering menu, full of expensive ingredients: small plates including crab salad with caviar, or lobster thermidor croquettes; starters including scallops, snails and foie gras; there’s a grill menu for steaks and the main courses include Dover sole with brown shrimps, or a burger with truffle mayonnaise.
Despite this variety and the scope of the menu, the execution of our dishes falls short. The scallops (£15) are perfectly cooked, and the lardons are crisp and salty, but both are swimming in a too-sweet apple sabayon – unsubtle and overpowering. Likewise the snails (£12); the thick dark jus that covered them tasted good – but at the expense of the main ingredient. My friend had never had snails before, but after this dish he still didn’t know what they tasted like. The sweet potato purée it was served with felt unnecessarily heavy for a starter. Both came served in the bottom of a wide rimmed bowl with a sprig of green on top – the plating not quite setting off the food to best effect.
For our main course, we decide to go all out and share an 800g Dexter Tomahawk steak (£66), which comes with fries and three sauces – périgueux, béarnaise and peppercorn. The steak is huge, and cut up at the table; intended to impress, in the end it seemed rather laborious, our waiter struggling to cut the meat neatly on the butler’s tray he has been provided. Another waiter looks on, worried, and at one point comes over to whisper ‘are you alright?’ Inevitably this leads to a cold meal. In a nod towards trendy, the chips come in little metal cups, and each sauce has its own small pan. The flavours though are good, but with the avoidable delays the meal feels underwhelming – competent but so close to being really rather good. Perhaps most dispiriting is the side salad (£4), a roughly cut baby gem lettuce and large cubes of cucumber too clearly thrown together.
A soufflé (£8) for dessert has a wonderful flavour and consistency, but has stuck to the dish, so hasn’t achieved a proper rise. It’s also quite hard to eat it with the sorbet it comes with, as the sorbet is plated on a dumpling spoon. Once again imprecise presentation – style over practicality – undermines what could with minor improvements be a very good meal. The cheeseboard is much better (£11), with an option of three English or French cheeses. We go for English and all are good quality.
As we eat, the restaurant begins to fill a little, but most of the patrons are very clearly hotel guests; businessmen alone, or families, whose children are given colouring in to do by the acquiescent staff. In this context, the restaurant begins to make more sense – a competent option for those staying in the building. And if you aren’t in the mood for walking into town (although 10 minutes on foot opens up much of the West End), it really isn’t a bad choice. But if the Balcon wants to go to the next level as a restaurant in its own right, rather than just as an appendage to the hotel, it will need to polish its game. There’s huge potential here, but perhaps that captive market may be holding it back from becoming what it’s very close to being.
Enquiries: The Balcon, 8 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5NG / 0207 9682900 / www.thebalconlondon.com/