Monday, 11 March 2013

The Battle of the Brasseries: Balthazar vs Delaunay vs Zedel

So we recently had the pleasure of trying out the new hot table in town Balthazar as well as the slightly more established Delaunay. Instead of doing straight reviews, we thought we'd try something a little different with a post comparing the two restaurants as well as the other very reputable London brasserie, Brasserie Zedel. So without any further ado, let's get ready to rumble...

Round 1: Balthazar
Balthazar on Urbanspoon
4-6 Russell St, WC2E 7BN

First up is the new kid in town, the London outpost of the fêted New York original. Balthazar doesn't need much of an introduction from me, as you probably know it's one of the most hyped openings of the year so far and notoriously difficult to get a table for (one long day of repeated calling got us a table at 5.45 pm on the third day after opening).

For starters, Nathalie opted for the lobster and black truffle risotto, whilst I went for a half dozen oysters. The oysters were good, although I find it hard to differentiate too much in the quality of oysters in London (although I always love the variety you can get at Richard Corrigan's Bentley's in Mayfair). The risotto was really great though. We felt the black truffle taste was slightly elusive, but this allowed the taste of the lobster to be the centre of the show, as it should be. The rice itself was rich and appropriately luxurious (evidence of a good mantecatura perhaps).

Rock Oysters
Duck Shepherd's Pie
For the main course, Nathalie ordered the Duck Shepherd's Pie. Now if the risotto wasn't luxuriously comforting enough, this dish took the comfort factor off the scale. The duck was evidently slow cooked, giving rise to an end product somewhat akin to a barbeque dish. This was topped off with a crusty slice of mashed potato floating on top (almost like a kind of savory floating island). It was really good, but definitely very rich and filling. I think you could be happy with a meal of this without a starter to be honest.

Linguine Fruit de Mer
My main course was the Linguine Fruit de Mer. In practice the Fruit de Mer was basically just clams. They were very good though. The only thing I found was that there was a bit too much broth at the bottom, which kind of made the pasta a little bit stodgy. It did give it a kind of New York Italian feel to it (which is only a good thing in my book), but I would have preferred it a bit drier. The touch of having breadcrumbs on top was fantastic though, adding a bit of texture to the dish. In honesty, I probably would go for the Duck Shepherd's Pie on a return visit.

Baked Cheesecake with a Cinnamon and Apple Doughnut
For dessert, we finished off with the baked cheesecake (served with a cinnamon and apple doughnut). The cheesecake was good, but the doughnut was a little disappointing and lacking somewhat in flavour. It didn't really add much to the dish. It was probably the weakest of the desserts at the three brasseries.

All in all, we really enjoyed Balthazar. The setting, a brass rail-for-brass rail reconstruction of the New York original was very nice (the bar area was my favourite, proudly showing off its vast collection of bottles for the entire dining area to see), but probably my least favourite in terms of decor in comparison to the other two. It was the service that really made the place click for us though.

We were made to feel extremely welcome and consulted frequently about our experience. The changing of the table clothes pre-dessert was also quite a nice touch. The waiters were being actively trained by members of the New York management team (some of whom are apparently there on 6 month long secondments), and this really showed as waiters were seldom inactive, constantly working in small groups to serve the clusters of customers spread across the impressive dining space.

A final mention has to go to the cocktails. Balthazar staged somewhat of a coup by nabbing Brian Silva from Rules, and it really has paid off. We ended up swapping our drinks as the Diplomat was a tad bitter for Nathalie's taste, but perfect for me as I prefer that flavour profile in my drinks. The Two by Four was also excellent, with a slight hint of bitterness (but not too much) from the gin and sourness from the lime matching the slight sweetness of the champagne very nicely. We would be happy to come back here just for drinks (probably easier than getting another reservation for sure).

All in all we were really happy with our experience of Balthazar. It was a very professionally run place, where the attention to detail was very carefully looked out for. The amount of effort put in really showed, and regardless of whether it lives up to any kind of hype (I'm always ambivalent about these kind of things) it seems to me that Keith McNally has another success on his hands.


Round 2: The Delaunay (@TheDelaunayRest)
The Delaunay on Urbanspoon
55 Aldwych, WC2B 4BB

So next up we have Corbin and King's the Delaunay, which I would say is actually the most impressive dining room of the lot. It doesn't have the gold and brass railing effect to the same degree as the others, but it's a more understated and elegant affair. The ambience was also very special, as there is a sort of hum (not too loud, not too quiet), which makes for a very nice setting for making an impression on a special occasion.

In terms of food, the Delaunay wears a strong Austrian/Germanic influence on its sleeve. Now, I have to make a confession here that we are really big fans of real German country cooking (Nathalie particularly has fond memories dating back to trips to the Black Forest throughout her childhood), and so our standards were set quite high.

The menu is incredibly appealing (I think half our dining time was spent deciding from the menu), and contains many familiar dishes, which have perhaps fallen out of favour with London diners for being a tad dated (Beef Stroganoff, Schnitzel, Croque Monsieur). But in the end a classic dish is a classic dish, and the Delaunay is certainly the perfect setting to take a journey back in (culinary) time...

As a starter, I ordered Borscht, the famous Ukrainian beetroot soup. The version at the Delaunay was very, good I have to say, a lot more refreshing and not as heavy as the more authentic version I tried in Moscow. I enjoyed the horseradish added to it too, but preferred the more authentic accompaniment of smetana, a type of sour cream which probably would only be of favour to the more Slavic residents of the city.

Polenta with Wild Mushrooms
Nathalie's starter was also very popular with us, and a million miles away from the disappointing polenta we experienced at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. The dreamy savouriness of the buttery wild mushrooms was bolstered by the creamy bed of polenta with the parmesan on top giving it a little salty edge. This dish could only be better in Autumn.

Beef Stroganoff
For the main course, I ordered a childhood favourite of mine. Beef Stroganoff is certainly one of those out of favour dishes, but I still think it deserves a lot of credit when done well. The Delaunay's one was a suitably elegant affair, with a creamy almost tomato-ey sauce giving a rich base for the succulent (I wouldn't go as far as to say tender though) chunks of beef. It wasn't quite a match for our starters, but a good permutation of the dish nonetheless.

Wiener Schnitzel
Nathalie's main course was the trademark Viennese dish, the Wiener Schnitzel. The Delaunay has a selection of different types of schnitzel, and I'm not sure how the others compare to this one, but we were left quite disappointed overall. Perhaps it's a bias on our part in terms of taste preference, but we didn't really feel this was up to the mark. Firstly the meat was not particularly tender. It was also battered quite heavily with breadcrumbs (which soaked up a great degree of the cooking oil) and sprinkled liberally with coarse sea salt. The strong combination of very salty and oily tastes really detracted from the taste of the veal. It's a great shame as it is another favourite of ours, but it wasn't really anything like what we have been used to.

Chocolate Eclair
We finished up the meal with a chocolate eclair. I have to say the patisserie tray at the front of the restaurant is a great sight, with all the Sachertorte, Gugelhupfs and Millefeuilles you could dream of lined up coyly under great glass cloches. The éclair was really good. Not quite the outstanding dessert that we had at Zédel, but a nice end to what was in truth a hit-and-miss meal in the end.

Finally, I have to say the wine we tried was superb. It was a Grüner Veltliner from Kamptal. I'm not a big white wine drinker, but I really enjoyed this one. It was really dry and mineral, and we really enjoyed it. As for the service, I can't really offer the same compliments. It didn't really match up to the class of the surroundings, with many waiters standing around and giving more attention to the older clientèle than us, with the table next to us having finished (a three course meal like ours) and left by the time we were ordering our desserts, despite arriving a good half an hour after us. It's a shame, as the ambience deserved so much better.


Round 3: Brasserie Zédel (@BrasserieZedel)
Brasserie Zedel on Urbanspoon
Sherwood St, W1F 7ED

Lastly we have another Corbin & King affair, this time at what is the lower end of the price scale. To me, I consider Brasserie Zédel more closely comparable to something like Côte, rather than the other two which are in more of a direct competition with each other (although I don't think Corbin & King or Keith McNally are willing to admit that). 

Owen did a great job of reviewing Brasserie Zédel in a previous post, so I'm not going to go into too much detail on this one. Check out his review here if you haven't already. On our visit, we actually got there pretty late on a post-cinema trip. They were more than willing to serve us at 11 pm, which was nice of them.

We ordered a main course each, as well as dessert. Nathalie ordered the Goujonnettes, after being told that her first two choices of fish dishes were not available (to be expected at 11 pm, I suppose, after all it would be worse if they had loads of fresh fish lying around at the end of day). I ordered the couscous à l’Agneau et Merguez, a sort of North African inspired dish consisting of skewered lamb chunks (it's a shish kebab, let's be honest) and merguez, the delightfully Moorish lamb sausage from the Berber regions. Whilst the food was good overall, I would definitely say that for me in terms of quality it didn't really compare to the others and again I wouldn't say it's miles ahead of what you can get at many other French brasserie-style restaurants in London.

For dessert, we shared a crème brûlée. I thought I've tried every permutation of crème brûlée in London, but I have to say Brasserie Zédel surprised me here. It was the best I've had in London. The balance between the caramelised surface, vanilla and the egg-rich custard was absolutely spot on, with the alcohol notes massively toned down to remove any hint of bitterness commonly associated with the  less accomplished versions of the dish.

However, Zédel does certainly win out in the value stakes. You can eat out well here for £25 a head easily and considering how absolutely beautiful the dining room is (a real treat if you're an Art Deco fan like me), I think you could do very well here for a special occasion without breaking the bank. 



I don't think I would say any of the three places had truly outstanding food per se. I certainly wouldn't consider any to be near the top of any ''best food in London'' list, but for me Balthazar wins out because of the overall experience. Although the Delaunay pipped it in terms of the decor, I think the combined quality of the starters and mains (not to mention the excellent cocktails) combined with the impeccable service on the night saw it through.

As for Zedel, I don't think the food was quite on the same quality scale, but the pricing surely was. In terms of what you get for the money that you pay, I think Zedel offers a very much comparable experience to the other two at a fraction of the price. Taking value aside, and all things considered, Balthazar was for me on another level, and the winner of our Battle of the Brasseries.

Square Meal  Square Meal  Square Meal

Photos by Nathalie.

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