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Balthazar's a star

Balthazar is not quite sure what it is. The décor is a spirited blend of traditional and modern, which can often work in these retro-chic times, but doesn’t here. The open electrical conduiting snaking around the roof and the minimalist brutalism of the entrance and bar space may be the dernier cri in neo-industrial restaurant design, but in the context of the grand old Lawson Apartments building, it just seems to be trying too hard.

Its identity crisis is unsettling. To use advertising argot, Balthazar hasn’t established a cohesive positioning statement.

Having twice been for lunch, it was with some trepidation that I approached this review. Lunch on both occasions had been a spiritless affair: nothing particularly wrong, nothing particularly right. Underwhelming is the apposite term.

And then last week, at dinner, we were delivered one of the best all round restaurant experiences we’ve had in years. The food was streets ahead of what it had been previously; in fact it was near perfect. The service was confident, thoughtful and knowledgeable. Even the schizophrenic room seemed to change at night, singing for its supper in

a way it doesn’t at lunch.

It didn’t begin well. Outside on the street we could hear the boom, boom, boom, boom of the kind of music more often found in self-consciously groovy hairdressing salons. It was so loud, we paused just short of the entrance and looked at each other with that inquiring should-we-leave-now-before-it’s-too-late look. We didn’t. Instead, we asked for a quiet table and were quickly ushered to a banquette, which, while it couldn’t entirely escape the primal thumping from the speakers, was as far away from the epicentre of the audio earthquake as was possible in Balthazar’s small dining room. The CD player had Tourette’s Syndrome though for, despite the waiter’s attempts to keep the volume low, every so often it would involuntarily launch into a conversation-stopping outburst, before being quieted by the staff yet again.

Three pieces of paperwork are presented at table: the menu, the wine list and a sort of snacks menu combined with a wines-by-the-glass list. This third document was targeted directly at those looking for a tapas and glass of wine experience rather than the full meal — an appealing alternative for the after work crowds.

We began with a serve of the bread ($1.50 per person), which came with oil to dip it in. It was the only low point in the meal.

Commercially produced ciabatta is one of the few breads which does not respond well to re-heating. It hardens and becomes overly chewy. The oil was probably not an extra

virgin. It was acidic and bland.

The freshly shucked oysters ($2.40 each) were offered with a ponzu sauce dressing.

I ordered eight of the bivalves, six of them plain, two of them with the sauce. Both variants were magnificent. The ponzu sauce, a tea coloured marinade based on Japanese soy, was subtle enough to allow the oysters to release their full flavour, while providing a hint of acid and tartness. They were topped with a sprinkle of what looked like Yarra

Valley salmon caviar. The plain oysters were like little bursts of tropical seawater.

Importantly, the oysters were not straight-from-the-cool room frigid.

The other entrée was a simple carpaccio of beef with shaved parmesan and rocket leaves ($12.50). Again, superb. The beef

wasn’t as aged, and consequently flavoursome, as it could have been. It was none the less a good cut. The cheese was first rate, as were the fine, peppery rocket leaves. The whole was much more than the sum of its parts. It is such an easy dish, but it’s the simple dishes that are hardest to pull off (If you make a mistake with either technique or produce, there’s nowhere to hide). This version was one of the best we had eaten.

From the seven mains, we chose the sesame crusted Tasmanian salmon with kai lan and oyster sauce ($25.00) and the crisp duck, porcini ravioli with mango salad ($25.00). Both were superbly structured, deftly presented and with clean, precise flavours. Dishes which require a mastery of several cuisines (in the case of these two, a combination of classical bistro and south east Asian techniques) are often unconvincing in execution. These two however were seamless exemplars of what ‘east-meets-west’ cooking should be all about, but so rarely is.

The thick wad of salmon was rare in the middle. It’s crust of sesame seeds was unobtrusive while adding a highly successful textural dimension. The kai lan (one of the family of Chinese greens of which bok choy is the most well known) was wilted and tossed through an oyster sauce based dressing. The small flaw in this dish was its overt saltiness, brought on by the oyster sauce.

The duck was faultless. In fact, rarely does one experience such a perfectly judged combination of textures, flavours, timing and technique. The salad of thinly julienned mango flesh was plated up like writhing green earthworms. It had been cold-wilted before being drained and dressed. It sat to the side of the duck, which had been roasted crisp, moist and still pink at its core. Beneath it sat a large hand made ravioli filling with minced porcini mushroom which was moschate and slippery. Ten out of ten.

The desserts, often second class citizens in contemporary restaurants, were sublime. We chose a piatti di dolce ($15.00) essentially a two person degustation of three of the five listed desserts, including chocolate mocca tart with passionfruit coulis ($8.00), date and palm sugar parfait ($8.00) and caramelised mango and almond sponge, coconut wafer ($8.00).

The chocolate mocca tart was rich, velvety and glossy. For chocolate addicts this was endorphin induced rush. The dark undertones of espresso gave length and depth to this lavish, sensual slice of deep brown tart. The parfait was an iced confection, not unlike a semifrodo. It came as a thick dark beige slice. It was exemplary. The caramalised mango was simple and classic. The accompanying almond sponge was a warm, crisp contrast to the mango. The coconut wafer was unnecessary.

The desserts, like the rest of the meal, were virtually faultless.

The wine list was of equally high standard, with an eclectic range. However, the wines offered by the glass do not reflect the depth of the main wine list and are something of a disappointment.

The service was the clear winner. The head waiter delivered outstanding service. His knowledge of the lesser known wines on the list was precise and discerning. He thoughtfully pulled another table up to the banquette so that we could sit side by side. A request for sea salt (cooking salt in shakers is provided at table) was quickly seen to.

It’s difficult to reconcile this standard of service and food with the lunch time Balthazar. It could be two different restaurants. Maybe, we were on the receiving end of a rare experience at Balthazar.

Regardless, one can only review as one finds it on the night, and in the case of this restaurant, the experience was wholly delightful and worthy of the highest praise.



Balthazar

Lawson Apartments building

Cnr The Esplanade and Sherwood Court, Perth

The Buzz

Bistro food that holds its own

against the best.

Intelligent, deftly constructed food that you remember well after you’ve left the restaurant.

A wine list to make oenophiles

jump for joy.

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