Balthazar is a golden cave in Covent Garden, in the old Theatre (Luvvie) Museum, home to dead pantomime horses and Christopher Biggins’s regrets. It is a copy of a New York restaurant, which was itself a copy of a Parisian brasserie, and it is the first big London opening of the year. This means diary stories and reviews and profiles of the co-owner (with Richard Caring), Keith McNally, the most ludicrous of which was in the FT, and was an interview with his house, which is in Notting Hill. It wasn’t quite as ridiculous as:
F.T. What are you proudest of, Keith McNally’s House?
Keith McNally’s house Guttering.
But it could have been. This is the age of the celebrity restaurateur, as distinct from the celebrity chef, and we must kiss the hem. It could be worse. It could be an interview with Richard Caring’s hairbrush.
F.T. What are you proudest of, -Richard Caring’s Hairbrush?
Richard Caring’s hairbrush Fuck you, I’m calling my lawyer.
Richard Caring owns The Ivy and Le Caprice. He once made his secretary ring me after I wrote that his face was made of diamonds. So I should clarify. Richard Caring’s face is not made of diamonds, but human skin.
Inside, the thing the Spectator reader most fears — a buzz. Balthazar is huge and gold as coin, filled with red banquettes and aged mirrors, and everywhere staff bounce in black or white, like purity and malevolence with bread. I will not linger on the obvious reference, which is, of course — Café Rouge! It’s just like a big Café Rouge! But Café Rouge as a frame of reference is over. It died with Colbert, in Chelsea; it is too unfashionable even to be a slur. But I like typing the words Café Rouge. Every time I do it, I imagine McNally banging his head against a wall and crying because Balthazar is a Parisian brasserie wrought for Legoland, and he probably knows it.
It is obviously a tourist joint, because this is Covent Garden, and the only people who come to Covent Garden are tourists and ballerinas. The effect is of a slightly uglier-than-normal Miss World competition; the second XI of desperately plastic hotness, if you will. The service is excellent — almost over-charming, because staff have flown in from New York — and the food is adequate to good. That is, the bread is lovely. (McNally has built a bakery next door.) His friend Fay Maschler of the Evening Standard said the butter was ‘notable’, but I can’t see it myself. A grunts at his steak frites. My burger and brioche is OK.
Then, calamity! It happens like this: I suck on my electronic cigarette. A woman appears, tells me such things are banned and that I must put it out. (She means away.) I explain it is a legal replacement for a fag, not a fag, and call for management. I give her a laminated card which explains the law.
And here comes Keith McNally, doing the rolling-troll Americanised ex-Eastender dance of spiv; for this you need a leather jacket, a shirt ironed by someone on the minimum wage, and expensive hair that has, ideally, been wept on. It is not the most frightening moment of my professional life; that was an email I received from Julian Fellowes that began, ‘I got your email address from Simon Heffer…’
He is here to insult, and he does. ‘I own this restaurant and I can do whatever I want,’ he says, as his hair wobbles with the memory of proximity to the quite famous, because Balthazar in New York did well. He walks off and hugs some people. I wonder if he actually knows them. Perhaps I should ask his house.
Spectator Is he always like this, Keith McNally’s House?
Keith McNally’s house Yes.
Balthazar, 4-6 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HZ; 020 3301 1155.