The Balcon restaurant review: is the 500 calorie three-course 'De-Light' menu filling enough?

Constructed by top French nutritionists to allow health conscious diners to “indulge without the bulge”, the menu promises low fat, yet full flavour

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Indy Lifestyle Online

If you take a walk through affluent London in January, you can practically hear the Maître Ds of Pall Mall gasp with the panic that is catering for wealthy people who diet.

On the other side of things, how difficult a month this must be for the Kensington socialite, the Esquire model, the trophy wife or husband who must continue to be seen dining in the finest five star restaurants whilst absolutely maintaining a diet of negative value calorie consumption – one must repair the damage of the Christmas canapés at all costs, but without fainting from hunger, or worse – showing oneself up in polite company.

Thank heavens then, for the “wellness experts” at Sofitel hoteliers. Their brand new 500 calorie set menu has been carefully constructed in French kitchens by top French nutritionists, allowing health conscious diners to “indulge without the bulge”, promising to be low in fat yet full in flavour. The dishes were tested out in the Sofitel Quiberon Thalassa, France, before their success brought them to London tables. This all sounds very promising, but the real question is: will it fill me up?

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Within the Sofitel St James hotel sits The Balcon, a stunning restaurant with classic 1920s style decor reminiscent of a French Brasserie. As we take our seats, an equally stunning French waiter welcomes me and my dining companion, Fi, by telling us: “This is a meal originally for obese people who are perhaps unhappy, you know?” This leads me to entertain the idea of fried chicken in bucket followed by cake in a frantic puddle of Bailey’s, although I’m not sure how that could feasibly pass as a French or even English delicacy.

The Balcon is known for its eclectic mix of French and British cuisine: Herefordshire snails, Scottish pheasant with foie gras and English breakfast tea crème brûlée. All hearty, indulgent dishes. If it is possible to substitute some of the guilt that comes with such indulgence, the chefs behind Sofitel have created a masterpiece. But it’s hard to imagine such a thing can exist without compromise.

 

The De-Light menu offers one of two seasonal choices for each course. First to our table is a basket of fresh, crusty soda bread with the Lamb lettuce and endive salad armed with beetroot, pear and quail egg (£7). It is unnerving if not a little fascinating to see the calorie breakdown under each course, and the 45 calories contained in my salad build me up to expect something so pathetic that I’d need a magnifying glass to help me eat it. But the beetroot is generous, quail eggs perfectly soft in the middle and a combination of the tricky lettuce leaves and sleepy ambiance of the room force us to eat slowly, savouring the unexpectedly pleasant flavours.

The dimly-lit room is relaxed, if a little quiet. Fellow diners are primarily well-suited men with their expensively blow-dried dates, and, reassuringly, a few French accents lilt over the never-ending jazzy lift music. As our generously portioned Salmon fillet arrives with vierge sauce and seaweed greenery (£17, 320 calories), a superbly French man pops in for a coffee, cigar tucked behind his ear, to complete the Parisian cliché.

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My only niggle was with dessert. The set menu’s honey fried apple with orange cream (£6, 125 calories) sounded promising as a light yet wholesome pudding, but in reality it was a disappointing, cold and pricey mush, albeit presented in a charmingly hipster jam pot. It seemed a waste to not serve the apple hot, which could have made it tasty in an apple-pie without the pastry kind of way. However advertised, it is still just a dollop of unhappy fruit.

Fi had better luck with the green apple sorbet (£5) which was off the regular menu, but offered as an equally low-calorie alternative by our waiter. When clever French nutritionists can create a low-calorie chocolate dessert, west London will truly rejoice.

The verdict:

Were our stomachs full and taste buds excited? Surprisingly, yes. Even the prices were reasonable for the setting.

For those of us who don’t count calories day to day, city socialising can feel saturated after the Christmas glut, and so it is heartening to know that a tasty yet healthy meal out is still possible with friends. The salmon was a highlight and paired nicely with the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (£29.50), which admittedly ruined our chances of taking any glory for a strictly “healthy evening”. Dry February, anyone?

Food ***
Ambience ****
Service *****

The Balcon Sofitel St James, 8 Pall Mall, London SW1Y, tel: 020 7968 2900. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. De-Light set menu £90 for two, including wine.

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