Having returned from a week of eating rough-hewn slabs of ibérico ham and messy heaps of paella in southern Spain, taking Sunday lunch at a new brasserie in London seems a good way to ease gently back into dismal, autumnal English urban life by way of some refined dining.
The first items placed on the table – a little dish of saucisson and two baskets of bread – are more holiday fare than swish city offerings, but there's a significant difference in the surroundings. The Balcon is within the Sofitel St James, part of the French luxury-hotel group; it used to be Brasserie Roux – care of the legendary Albert – but it was a slightly soulless roll-out conceit. The chef, Vincent Menager, arrived a couple of years ago, a long-time Sofitel hand. Now he's been given sole control. And introduced some soul.
His menu blends classic French and British produce and techniques to appeal to West Enders without scaring off the trad hotel clientele. Charcuterie is from Trealy Farm in Monmouthshire and Mas le Rouget in Cantal, France; Herefordshire snails come with Mas air-dried ham while wild Devon mussels marinière arrive on Welsh rarebit. There are rotisserie dishes and slow-cooked rib-stickers, grilled meats and fish and some tarts and tartines for lighter meals, as well as the aforementioned charcuterie plates – 16 of them. The salad section is small but well-formed, although quite what steak tartare is doing there is anyone's guess.
We're directed by friendly, textbook-French staff towards the items in bold on the large-format menu; these are chef's signature dishes. No argument from me – the pike custard with King's Lynn brown shrimps, crustacean velouté and sourdough toast (£10.50) is both pretty and delicious, an unctuous, delicately flavoured confection with punchy shrimps scattered on top and a jug of rich sauce.
The other cheffy special, those snails with garlic jus and parsnip purée (£9.50), is a little too mannered for Mr M – he was hoping for bubbling, greasy little chaps still in their shells – but he can't fault the taste; and a Normandy onion soup with Roscoff onion and Aspall English cider (£7.50) is exemplary. "Meurette" poached duck egg (£7) comes in a properly rich red-wine sauce, salty and fragrant.
It's a damned good start. A shame, then, that three of the four mains seem to have been at the pass for a while. My rump of Devon rose lamb with seaweed and garlic green beans (£22.50) was requested pink but arrives brown. A "Label Anglais" rotisserie chicken with baked Charlotte potatoes and sage and onion stuffing (£19) is glossy and tasty, but a hair's breadth from dry, while pan-fried black bream with braised fennel, seaweed and beurre blanc is also a tad over (though the seaweed is actually samphire, a much more appealing accompaniment).
The star of the show, if rich brasserie food is your thing, is Mr M's Scottish beef and foie gras cottage pie with chanterelle mushrooms (£23), which must be the pinnacle of Anglo-French gastronomic marriage. A sturdy dish arrives with – can it be? – three slabs of foie gras atop the mashed potato, while dark gravy oozes out around the perimeter. It's enough to make your arteries harden just looking at it, but Mr M manfully polishes it off. I can, however, report that he requires a lengthy siesta afterwards. The rest of us feel the same way following an intense chocolate soufflé with pistachio ice-cream and a plum tarte tatin with clotted-cream sorbet (a puzzlingly backward, if delicious, concept).
As we roll out through the revolving door on to Pall Mall, I properly take in the room. It's terrifically elegant, with dark leather banquettes and flattering lighting, while two spiral staircases lead up to the champagne cellar (yes, I know) on the wooden balcony that gives the restaurant its name. There's mercifully little decoration and everything, from the drapes to the cutlery, is stealth-wealth style, which I'm very keen on.
Two weeks after opening, The Balcon is relatively quiet – which might explain the timing glitch at the pass – but I don't think it'll stay that way. An inviting interior, imaginative but comforting food and delightful staff. And if you don't want the full blowout, a charcuterie table and bar with smart snacks would make a charming West End pit stop. There's more than a hint of The Wolseley about the place, and that is a compliment indeed.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
The Balcon Sofitel St James, 8 Pall Mall, London SW1Y, tel: 020 7968 2900. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. About £120 for two, including wine (though there is a daily set menu from £16)
La Brasserie, Chester Grosvenor Hotel
Eastgate, Chester, Cheshire, tel: 01244 324 024
This grandly fitted-out brasserie by the iconic Eastgate clock makes a lovely lunch venue in particular
160 Piccadilly, London W1, tel: 020 7499 6996
Everyone who's anyone is to be found at Corbin & King's star-studded grand café by The Ritz; but it can be noisy and crowded, and the brasserie fare is competent, rather than dazzling
Riding House Café
43-51 Great Titchfield Street, London W1, tel: 020 7927 0840
A superb, snazzy interior twinned with a crowd-pleasing menu of comfort food is making a smash hit of this casual new Fitzrovia brasserie
Reviews extracted from Harden's 2012 iPhone app, £6.99, available now. www.hardens.com