Back at the Balcon, on Pall Mall, but paying a little more attention to a fantastic and fantasy themed cocktail menu. Richard investigates…
In a word
What is it?:
A magnificent cocktail experience with a very good French restaurant attached if you fancy a bite…
Ever been to Pall Mall?
Many of you won’t know The Balcon but I can almost guarantee you’ve walked past it if you work in Central London. The official restaurant of the Sofitel Hotel on Pall Mall, it is located on one of London’s major thoroughfares. The Sofitel has always offered a French bistro restaurant but The Balcon has recently been revamped and it’s hoping to steal some points from the competition. And there is a lot to steal (and a lot of competition).
High quality in house hotel restaurants in central London are as legion as Herring in The Baltic Sea and there are many exquisite meals to be had within a one mile radius of this venue. So it’s going to have to have something special to build a reputation as anything other than a ‘me too’ establishment.
The venue and décor is balanced and as expected – lots of wood, lots of brass, not too overpowering and not too dusty. As you enter the restaurant the ‘balcon’, the small indoor half balcony after which this restaurant is named, sits proudly in front of you. It’s not physically impressive but as you look up you can see it hosts the wine collection which is rather more notable.
Look left and right and you’ll notice that there aren’t more than 50 covers. This is not a big place. It’s cosy and exclusive and it feels warm and comfortable.
I come with the expectation that The Balcon won’t offer anything out of the ordinary but via its cocktail selection it exceeds my every expectation. This is a new drinks menu, introduced just a week ago, and comprising just eight options. But look closely and you’ll see that every one of them comprises a unique range of rare and unusual ingredients – rosewater; white tea syrup; homemade vermouth; vanilla bitters; violet liqueur.
These components have been carefully selected by experienced mixologists to create unique and novel beverages. Take a step back and you spot another layer to the innovation – each drink has a connection to a fairytale. Crazy Tea Time is a tribute to the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland; Enchanted Rose is linked to Beauty and the Beast; Fear O’Clock connects with Peter Pan.
And like those children’s tales full of wonder, flair and flamboyance, these drinks turn out to be as much about the theatre of their presentation as they are about the taste and smell brought on from the complexity of their ingredients.
We order the first two from the menu to see what might be delivered. We are not disappointed.
Crazy Tea Time is a violet liquid served in a glass teacup on a glass saucer. The latter is decorated with edible fruits potpourri and has built-in LEDs that underlight the cocktail and give it the quality of a magic potion. To the right is a small corked bottle of citrus liquid. Pour the latter into the former and magic occurs. The violet liquid turns bright pink before your very eyes. It feels special. It looks special. You can’t help but smile. The cocktail itself is very strong, akin to a long island iced tea with a big kick. It’s too alcoholic for my taste buds but
The cocktail itself is very strong, akin to a long island iced tea with a big kick. It’s too alcoholic for my taste buds but frankly, I don’t care. It’s fun. I love it anyway.
You won’t believe this but Enchanted Rose is even better. Like a scene from the film itself, the drink comes served on a wooden plinth, under a glass bell jar filled with smoke, and topped with a single red rose. It’s hard to see what’s going on inside the glassware but as the waiter lifts the jar the smoke dissipates into the ceiling and the drink, in glorious pink, is revealed. It’s total theatre and no one in the restaurant is immune to the charm.
I’m assured that the rest of the menu is similarly spectacular and I can absolutely believe it. It’s time to move on to the food but I’m already overtaken by how impressive this liquid start has been. I think we may have already found this place’s USP.
The menu is varied but not enormous and the food is exactly what you would expect from a French bistro-style experience. Steak tartare; grilled fish; pate; buttered vegetables. There aren’t any shockers here but we go for some variety in our ordering to see how far we can stretch the menu. Our starters are lamb wellington and octopus salad.
The lamb comes as a small slice of fillet encased in a buttery pastry, accompanied by a rich gravy. Its flavoursome and punchy but the meat feels overcooked. I’d have preferred a little pink in the lamb but this is brown throughout.
The octopus is superb. Large chunks of meat cooked to perfection – not tough but not bouncy either. Just enough bite to make it interesting and a mild but savoury flavour that works with the texture perfectly. Mixed with a combination of rocket, olives, and a creamy seafood dressing that brings the dish a level above. It’s a really fresh, light clean start to the meal.
For mains one side of the table moves for a large sirloin steak; the other tries the fish – a pan-fried sea bream fillet with samphire, charred salsify and a creamy beurre blanc infused with laverbread. The fish is crisp and buttery on the skin side, flaky and moist on the flesh side. Samphire has a decent amount of bite and a seas saltiness that shouts about the freshness of the ingredients whilst the salsify, increasingly popular London fayre, is caramelised just enough to add a secondary layer of flavour.
Laverbread is usually a killer for a dish as delicate as this but it’s used sparingly here and works well. It’s a strong dish, not complex or intricate but solid and pretty to look at. It’s perhaps just a good showing of how to cook a simple dish extremely well. Similarly the sirloin. A large slab of meat entering the table, held together firmly with a firm belt of fat, characteristic of the cut.
It came cooked medium and it both cut and tasted as a high-quality sirloin should. There was nothing bad to say about it. But equally, nothing extraordinary either. It’s a steak – what more do you want?
But after the theatre and the ceremony of the drinks adventure we had just been on, it felt like a let-down. True, we could have selected more extravagant dishes. There was the option of a beef tartare prepared at the table, and a fillet of turbot that would be surely shone brighter than my sea bream. But we went safe and came out happy.
Desserts were honey ice cream macaron with gingerbread and honeycomb; and chocolate fondant with stewed pears. The macaron looked special but was simply too sweet for any normal palette. I admit I don’t have an especially sweet tooth but I challenge anyone to try this dessert and not worry about their ability to finish it off, such is the level of sugary decadence presented. The honeycomb is brilliant though – salty sweet and sharp all at the same time. I’m still finding bits in my teeth four days on, which is, frankly, excellent value for money…
The fondant is exactly what you would expect which is good but not revolutionary. The pears add another dimension to the dish but pairing chocolate with fruit splits a room and whilst I’m a fan, my colleague isn’t from the same school of thought and decides it’s added little to the classically-prepared fondant.
London prices are what they are and you can’t expect to head out into town for a high-quality meal like this and get change from £70 a head including a couple of drinks and service. The Balcon places itself in the acceptable range and its food is also where it needs to be. Simple and delicious. Beautifully prepared and classy. So it fits the bill and whatever you order from this menu I doubt you will ever be disappointed. It’s a lovely place to eat.
But it’s the cocktail menu that really shines. Not just the theatre of the delivery, or the beauty of the product, but also the care and attention that has been lavished on this short menu of exquisite options. Have one and you want to try them all just see what surprise your order will bring. Every choice is very different and rather special. I can’t help thinking that this could well be one of the most impressive cocktail menus I’ve ever seen in the capital.
Everyone does a great Mojito but who can pull off a Beauty and the Beast themed drink with such accuracy, relevance and aplomb? So what we have here is a combination of solid heritage with an innovative streak. It’s a rather fascinating combination of the reliable old stock, and an edgy creative new streak that moves people from ‘nice meal’ to ‘I must tell you about what we had at The Balcon’. Without the drinks
Without the drinks menu, this is a good sturdy hotel French bistro restaurant. With the cocktail menu taken into account it’s somewhere I want to share with people I know enjoy something special. What The Balcon has done is recognise the limitations of being just another hotel brasserie and added some fairy dust to make it so much more.
That gives me an idea for a new cocktail suggestion…..
8 Pall Mall, St. James’s, London SW1Y 5NG