"This is the most exciting thing I have done in 10 years," says Robert Reid with a coy smile. Arguably one of the industry's unsung heroes, the former chef de cuisine of Marco Pierre White's three-Michelin-starred Oak Room, is indeed making his comeback with a bang.
We're talking about Balthazar, the most anticipated restaurant opening so far this year, where Reid is in charge of the kitchen. And what a change it is for the South African-born chef, who little more than a decade ago was at the forefront of the UK fine-dining scene.
A collaboration between Caprice Holdings owner Richard Caring and iconic New York restaurateur Keith McNally, Balthazar London is a homecoming for Bethnal Green-born McNally, the doyen of Manhattan restaurateurs (see panel, page 58), who first announced plans to bring Balthazar to the capital back in 2010. It is, of course, an outpost of the legendary all-day brasserie he opened in New York's SoHo district in 1997.
Housed in a building called the Flower Cellars, sharing its space with the London Film Museum in Covent Garden, the 150-seat Balthazar London has been designed entirely by McNally and his team. "Keith looks at the whole project like a film director. It's not just a restaurant for him; he looks at everything, the floor plan, the lighting, the acoustics, the food - the complete package," notes Reid.
From its Parisian interior to the bar and on-site bakery, it bears the same creative footprint as the New York original - even the layout of the two restaurants is the same. "If you took a sleeping pill and fell asleep in New York and woke up again in London, you probably wouldn't know the difference," says Reid.
"Richard and Keith have spent a hell of a lot of time and effort and money to recreate Balthazar here and that pretty much applies to the menu too. There are a few things that are different - our oysters, for instance, and some of our fish dishes - but overall it's the same."
That means French classics such as hors d'oeuvres of onion soup; steak tartare; and chicken liver and foie gras mousse; next to entrées including Dover sole meuniere; steak frites; and duck shepherd's pie; as well as steaks from the grill and daily changing plats du jour. The bakery, which produces the famous Balthazar loaves as well as cakes and pastries, is overseen by Régis Beauregard (above, left, with Reid), who previously worked at the Square, the Ledbury and the Ritz.
Reid joined Balthazar full-time at the end of November, visiting New York for a few weeks ahead of the London opening. "They have an unbelievable machine over there," he enthuses. "It's a combination of many things; it's an incredible business and an incredible restaurant." But it wasn't just the machine that impressed him. "It was interesting to see their faithful team of chefs," he adds. "They are working not fearful of their boss but are utterly loyal and really believe in the brand. It was a privilege to see."
Reid admits there are definite similarities between his former boss at the Oak Room and his current employer McNally. "Marco wanted success, which is pretty similar to the situation we're in now," he explains. "http://www.catererandhotelkeeper.co.uk/Articles/6/3/2013/347750/raymond-blanc-and-boris-johnson-press-for-more-hospitality-apprentices-in-london.htm" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">Keith and Marco] are similar kind of people. They're different in attitude but equally exacting and demanding. Success is ultimately what they want."
That success seems to be well on its way. Open for just over two weeks, Balthazar is already fully booked and if its first reviews - the London Evening Standard's Fay Maschler gave it four, Time Out's Guy Dimond awarded five out of five stars - are anything to go by, the critics will do little but help fuel that demand. Initially open for dinner only, lunch started this week, earlier than Reid had anticipated, due to the already overwhelming requests for tables. "We're still building up our team," he admits. "We're currently around 50 people back of house and we need to raise that to about 60/65." It's a big brigade but with a target of 1,000 covers a day and an ambition to push that to 1,400 it's by no means overzealous.
But is there really enough room in London for not just another brasserie but one with such ambitious targets? Reid thinks there's more than enough space: "It is a lot of covers but there are lots of people in London. It's a bit like a funfair - people want different experiences all the time, they don't want to go on the same ride each time," he insists. "We'll be open from 7am until midnight so we're covering a lot of needs." Once fully operational, Balthazar will serve breakfast, a long lunch until 4.30pm, afternoon tea, and dinner including pre- and post-theatre
But although he's so obviously assured that Balthazar will be a roaring success - "it's just the take-off that's hard, once you're flying it's easy" - Reid refuses to take any credit. "I'm really irrelevant in this whole thing," he says. "There are 60 other people who make this work; on my own I'm useless."
What's more, Reid gets visibly embarrassed when asked about his pedigree. He's softly spoken and mild-mannered, diffident even for someone who has worked alongside some of the most legendary disciples of French gastronomy, won numerous competitions and worked in a three-Michelin-starred kitchen at a time when his peer group were clambering for them. Perhaps it was the abrupt termination of his career at the Oak Room, which ended in redundancy in 2002 when the restaurant closed. Reid pretty much disappeared from the limelight afterwards, hiding at Home House, the private members' club in Mayfair he joined as head chef in 2004.
So after a decade-long hiatus, how does it feel to be back behind the stove of such a high-profile operation, sending out gutsy brasserie food instead of sophisticated tasting menus? "It doesn't make any difference what you're cooking," he says. "I'm still as committed to food as ever; it's just a different volume."
But perhaps Reid's move is a sign of the times, heralding the changing face of the restaurant industry, which is moving away from foams and jellies, white tablecloths and silver service to more accessible food, produce-driven menus and relaxed dining rooms.
"Things are changing," Reid agrees. "Before a good restaurant was somewhere you stuck on a tie to go to but now it is a place you can go to whenever you want, where you can relax and are treated well." Amen to that.
Opened 18 February
Owners Richard Caring and Keith McNally
Executive chef Robert Reid
Head pastry chef Régis Beauregard
General manager Byron Lang
Capacity 175, including 25 at the bar
Menu All-day menu of traditional French brasserie and bistro dishes serving breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, late-night dinner, weekend brunch and Sunday roast.
Average spend £60 for three courses including drinks and service
Address 4-6 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HZ
Telephone 020 3301 1155
Described by the New York Times as the "restaurateur who invented Downtown", London-born McNally first moved to
New York in 1975, launching into the city's dining scene in 1980 when he opened his first restaurant, the Odeon in Tribeca, with his brother, Brian, and first wife, Lynn Wagenknecht. The trio went on to open Café Luxembourg, Nell's and Lucky Strike.
But the empire came undone when the couple divorced and McNally parted with two of the properties.
However, he carried on, his ability and drive undiminished, launching Pravda, a Russian caviar and vodka bar, in 1996, before Balthazar in 1997. In the years since, he's also opened Pastis, Schiller's Liquor Bar, Morandi, Minetta Tavern, and Pulino's.
McNally has now returned to London and lives in the capital full time.
Onion soup gratinée >>
[Roast Chicken for two >>
Both recipes are taken from the Balthazar Cookbook, published by Absolute Press