Food | The Gannet

New York state of mind

Can two buzzy openings successfully transplant American-style dining to the London restaurant scene?

May 20 2013
Bill Knott

We all know that wines do not always travel well. Had the volatile reds from Portugal made it to Britain in good nick, for instance, nobody would have stabilised them with spirit, and port would never have been invented. But is the same true of restaurants?

Eleven years ago, I went for dinner at the newly opened Electric Brasserie in Portobello Road. There were red banquettes and a menu that included such dishes as duck shepherd’s pie. It reminded me of Balthazar, Keith McNally’s buzzy New York brasserie.

I said as much to Nick Jones, whose Soho House Group owned the Electric. “You weren’t supposed to notice that!” he replied. Anyway, the Electric Brasserie is no longer: major refurbishment following a fire has resulted in the Electric Diner (first picture), modelled on Chicago chef Brendan Sodikoff’s Au Cheval diner. Perhaps, given recent events, the change of name was felicitous.

There is an American generosity to the portions: even the single cheeseburger is a hefty beast, and adding bacon makes it mightier still. Service is friendly and efficient and there is a fine range of beers, wines and cocktails. The menu features a dish of bone marrow with beef-cheek marmalade, “flat iron” chicken with garlic jus, and an incongruously healthy salad of quinoa, feta, almonds and grapes. It is, however, the cheeseburger for which I shall return.

Electric Diner is part-owned by Richard Caring, who is also involved in the new Balthazar branch in Covent Garden. Balthazar is McNally’s creation, however, and he has been in attendance on both my visits, flitting his way around star-studded tables.

The mosaic floor is lovely, but it does make the room cacophonous: ask the very professional front-of-house staff for a banquette away from the bar. The menu is, as you might expect, a New York-style remix of Paris’s greatest hits: head chef Robert Reid once held three Michelin stars at Marco Pierre White’s Oak Room.

I enjoyed a salt cod brandade – although it needed, oddly, more salt – and a “T-bone” of lamb, by which I presumed they meant a double loin chop: it arrived chopped in half, which again seemed odd. The meat was sweet and well-flavoured, though, with flageolets and merguez lending it some weight. And the bread (second picture) is some of the best in London.

Has Balthazar travelled well? Too early to say, I think: if the kitchen irons out a few wrinkles, and the buzz from its stellar clientele endures, it could be a very good restaurant indeed. I suspect that Mr McNally will make sure it is.