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21/07/2008

Balconies at the Royal Opera House

Balconies at the Royal Opera House – 1/5

Like a huge dado rail, this restaurant juts out half-way up the wall round three sides of a sizeable bar. They’ve fixed a glass ceiling above these eponymous balconies – platforms really – over what was once a flower market. With the escalators, the suits milling beneath and (a shame perhaps, given the history) the virtual absence of flowers, it feels like the restaurant cousin of Gatwick; but the ROH’s website stuffily pronounces this place ‘a grand, formal restaurant’. We’ll see.

I’d been rung up at 11am that morning and told to place my and T’s full order. And while I understand that a theatre’s restaurant can’t sit about for hours as customers um and ah and fret about the provenance of the blueberries, at that time of day I haven’t the faintest idea whether I’ll want cheese or chocolate. Had we booked a week earlier, we’d have been asked to order everything then, which seems positively neurotic of them. As it turns out, the starters are all served cold anyway, and it’s a mystery to me why the chef should need a minimum seven hours’ notice to lay some oily shreds of farmed smoked salmon next to a whisper of dill and a stingy dab of ‘horseradish’ cream devoid of any horseradish. Ker-ching! That’ll be £16.00. The accompanying submarine rolls, not a million miles from those served by BA – or is it just the feel of the place? – are bought in, cold and stale, and the butter too is hard enough to shatter. My starter is billed (the operative word) as a ‘seared red mullet ceviche’, whatever that might mean, since the whole point of a ceviche is that it doesn’t touch heat. Oddly damp, like a dishcloth, it conceals two slices of raw carrot shaped vaguely, conceivably in a factory and for no discernible reason, into stars. These are crunched rather morosely, with an emphatically un-grand, un-formal house Champagne at £9.50 a glass (or £52 a bottle: estimated mark-up: 400%).

The main courses arrive: a grey-brown lump of lamb, squatting in some flaccid cabbage; and strips of fridge-cold duck, purple and raw, splayed in an inelegant fan and apparently superglued to a soy reduction thicker than bitumen. Both dishes are sent back – the duck returns microwaved, rubbery as a tractor tyre; the pak choi that came with it now the matt, pondy colour, and not far from the consistency, of baby food. The lamb is also the same – or at any rate, it’s as grim and flabby as the last. A resentful waitress marches over to demand whether we’ll want coffee after pudding, almost two hours later. Couldn’t we decide that while we’re eating pudding? “No, you need to order it now.” But it doesn’t take that long to boil a kettle, does it? “No, you have to order it now.” OK then, forget pudding, I think we’d rather not.

And it all becomes clear: Balconies is a giant, cynical trick, where the normal restaurant model, with staff operating to the convenience of the customer, is horribly inverted. At Tate Modern, the top-floor restaurant is a worthy destination in itself, serving well executed, intelligent food in a cheery, modern setting. Balconies is living testament to the fact that a restaurant, absent the spurs of competition, and catering to a captive market, will sink into an arrogant slouch. The website smugly remarks that the place is ‘ideally suited to business entertaining’. Of course it is. Tank up the corporate tickets on overpriced booze, foist on them some third-rate food and kick them out into the auditorium before they can complain. Think only of the margins. What a missed opportunity this place is.

Tel. 020 7212 9254. Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £94.

Vilar Floral Hall Balconies on Urbanspoon

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