I don’t like VIP rooms in restaurants – shuttered and segregated from the rest of the world they don’t make me feel important, they make me feel like a prisoner. So when I’m told we’ve got a meeting arranged in the VIP room of Baltazar my reaction is pretty muted: great, I think, two hours locked up with work people. Yippee.
As it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried. Baltazar’s VIP room isn’t some airless afterthought buried out the back, rather a mezzanine level with overhead views of the action downstairs: as someone who has always fancied becoming a spy, this holds endless appeal to me. And so too the rest of the place: looking down, it’s all big red colors offset by gunmetal grey and dimmed lighting. There’s a nice feeling of improvisation to the design, and an undercurrent of identity that’s emphasized by a modernized 1950s wall painting that acts as the venue’s statement piece and ballast. First impressions? Yeah, let’s stick around.
That turns out to be a good call, for when the starters roll out it’s clear that Baltazar knows what it’s doing. The pork belly is served with a blob of foam and sits on an arc of liquefied apple puree. It looks contemporary but the taste is true: soft, rich and everything it should be. Another colleague has ordered the salmon trio, but doesn’t see much of it – I fall onto it like a street cat. The mango chutney that accompanies it is a natural pairing, and does much to exaggerate the sharp, clean flavors even further. Wonderful.
I’m less enamored by the Charolais carpaccio, but that’s because everything else is so good: there’s a thick goose pate with red onion jam, and rabbit and thyme ravioli that are delicate and delicious. Our table becomes a free-for-all as our group vies for the last. I’m peeved to lose out in that particular contest, but glad I’ve retained my appetite for mains: a grilled Charolais fillet cooked medium rare. It’s a brilliant lump of cow and well-balanced by a demi-glace sauce and Dijon potato puree.
In contrast, my friend’s rib eye looks far less sophisticated; more like something Fred Flinstone would order. I scavenge a little though and am reminded of the rib eye’s bold, deep flavors. It’s a simple dish this, but my God it works.
It’s part of my job to eat dessert, and that’s exactly what I do. We’ve ordered three to share, though by the time people have stopped taking photos only two remain. Eyes settle accusingly on me. “Look,” I say defensively, “you can’t expect me to wait around while you dick about taking pictures.”
In the face of outrage I’m forced into a sheepish apology, though the truth is I’m secretly pleased with my underhand deception. The crème caramel that I’ve audaciously swiped is perfect, it’s smooth, silky taste rolling on the palette. Not that the table should feel shortchanged – I’m allowed a bite of what remains and am impressed by the refreshing flavor of the passion fruit mousse, not to mention the rich depth of the chocolate tart.
It’s been a fabulous meal, but there has been wine as well. Owned by actor and wine importer Tomasz Budyta, Baltazar’s cellar is serious in its intention. Spotting us, the debonair Tomasz insists on sharing a bottle (or five) with us, during which time he espouses his philosophy: “I wouldn’t call this a French restaurant, and I wouldn’t call it Polish,” he says, “but maybe something in between – people have had enough of ‘plastic’ food, they want something emotional, something honest.” If that’s been the plan, then it’s worked. The work of twin brothers Kuba and Michał Budnik (“one person in two bodies,” laughs Tomasz), there’s a deconstructed simplicity to Baltazar’s cooking, a return to how restaurants should be: places not of vanity but of good times and satisfaction. (AW)