The Balcon London, housed at Sofitel London St James, is a grand brasserie boasting French-British cuisine. Neil Gerrard reports
The Balcon at Sofitel London St James doesn't have a sommelier. Instead it has a "Champagne angel" to dispense advice on what is best quaffed with which dish.
Given that there are 72 different varieties of the drink to choose from, all stored on a balcony which gives the restaurant its name, that is probably just as well.
The restaurant has replaced the space vacated several months ago by Albert Roux's Brasserie Roux. The new venture, designed by Russell Sage Studio to evoke a French brasserie setting combined with the opulence of Coco Chanel's 1920s apartment, is now headed by executive chef, Frenchman Vincent Menager.
Menager, who hails from the Périgord region, is no stranger to the Sofitel group, having shared the kitchen with Roux at the brasserie for just over a year, as well as stints in Thailand, China, New York and Paris, where he worked with Alain Ducasse and Alain Dutournier. He also spent some time with Frédéric Anton at the now three-Michelin-starred Le Pré Catalan near Paris.
Given Menager's strong pedigree in classical French cooking, all the Champagne, and the decor, it would be natural to expect that the food would also be traditionally Gallic. Instead, though, he took himself off around the British Isles to acquaint himself with British food, in order to create an interesting and sometimes playful Franco-British mix of flavours and produce.
"I ate British food for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I tried some fabulous things, as well as a few quite a lot less fabulous. But it was an eye-opening experience," Menager explains. The development of the restaurant, which opened in September, was six months in the making. The menu itself is unconventional in that it does not simply list starters, mains and desserts, but is split between starters, charcuterie, tarts and tartines, salads, rotisserie, slow-cooked and en cocotte, side orders, and pan and grill. "We really wanted to develop the menu with the thought of making you read through the whole thing and falling in love with the dish you are going to choose," he says.
The dishes themselves are often slightly surprising. The Herefordshire snails in garlic jus and parsnip purée with Mas air-dried ham and country croutons (£9.50) uses British snails because they are "as good if not better than what you get in France".
Meanwhile, Menager has worked hard to bring some British ingredients which may not traditionally have been considered a delicacy up to a new level. The pike custard with King's Lynn brown shrimps, crustacean velouté and sourdough toast (£10.50) elevates an unpopular fish to a new level of sophistication by dint of its modern presentation, and has since become one of the restaurant's best sellers. Menager also reckons it goes well with a rosé Champagne.
But the dish that the brigade of 27 finds itself preparing most often is the Balcon Scottish beef and foie gras cottage pie with chanterelle mushrooms (£23), a rich and indulgent creation which once again combines the best of British and French. "I wanted at one point to do Tournedos Rossini (a dish reportedly created by Escoffier for the composer who gives it its name) but it didn't belong in there because it was too posh," Menager says.
Although it may sound somewhat unlikely given the restaurant's surroundings, "not being too posh" is something Menager remains keen on. "The whole idea of this restaurant is to give everyone the chance to come and try something," he explains. "We are trying to be quite accessible as far as pricing is concerned and make it quite democratic."
The fact that the 100-capacity restaurant is already turning out 2,000 covers a week tends to suggest that there are plenty of customers who share his belief that they are getting real quality for what they pay.
Sample dishes from the menu
Starters Normandy onion soup with Roskoff onion and Aspall English cyder £7.50
Tarts and tartines Wilde Devon mussels marinière on Welsh rarebit £11.50
Salads Trealy Farm charcuterie salad, Roquefort and caramelised poached pear £13
Rotisserie Rump of Devon rosé lamb with juniper-infused jus, seaweed, and garlic green beans £22.50
Slow-cooked and en cocotte Braised leg of French rabbit in Dijon mustard cream with home-made fresh pasta and carrots £19.25
Pan and grill Cornish brill on the bone with butternut squash purée brown shrimps and liliput capers £24.25
The Balcon Tel: 020 7968 2900
8 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5NG
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