Celebrating the Wine Harvest in France at the Balcon:
There are ideas which just seem so intuitively good as to be unquestionable. In my humble opinion, a menu to celebrate the wine harvest at the Balcon at Sofitel London St James is a great example. Without lapsing into ‘traditional French Brasserie’ territory, the Balcon always seems to me to be quintessentially French with just a nod to the British. And a wine pairing menu with French food and wines is a great way to showcase that heritage.
The decor is Contemporary meets Art Deco with French style lighting, brasses and ambience. Staff generally have a French accent too. The overall effect is of a casual fine dining restaurant where you can eat exceptionally well and dress up as much or as little as you want. Opposite the Institute of Directors, the Balcon and Sofitel London St James itself is housed in an old Bank. But until someone points it out, you simply wouldn’t guess. It’s comfortable and relaxed – and I’ve never had a bad meal there.
The Sofitel Wine Days Menu is a cleverly planned concept. As our waiter explained, the idea is to showcase the grape at every stage of what can be done with the grapes that are harvested. So the amuse bouche comes paired with a grape juice and port cocktail to show the unadulterated grape, the starter with a Viognier, the main with a Champagne (second fermentation) and the dessert with a distilled cognac. Subtle and charming, the very essence of that French personality I love.
This year too, many French winemakers are in celebratory mood. I’ve just come back from a trip to explore the Champagne region where I learnt that 2018 is an exceptional harvest. And, at a Grand Crus de Bordeaux event yesterday in London to taste the 2016 release, the winemakers were finding it hard to hold back their enthusiasm for 2018. Of course, France is a large country and not all parts of the winemaking regions have the same success this year. Generally, though, all I’ve heard is positive.
The Wine Pairing menu is four courses, but there’s bread to start too, with the option of salted or unsalted butter, neatly presented in a waxed paper. I was trying hard not to eat it…and failed.
The first drink arrived looking like a frothy grape juice. I was actually surprised how well it paired with the Foie Gras Ballotine with verjus and pomegranate roasted grapes on brioche. Alain Milliat is a producer of fine fruit juices from the Rhône-Alpes, France. ‘Grape Juice’ might just be something of a misnomer as he offers each grape varietal as a separate pressing, much in the same way that fine wine is produced. So you can choose from Syrah, Chardonnay, Merlot and more – along with fruit and vegetable juices with ever more exotic-sounding names (Black Krim Tomato Juice anyone?)
The Foie Gras Ballotine was dainty and light on a puff of a cloud of brioche. I was particularly taken by the roasted grapes which I’m planning to try to recreate at home. Delicious.
Next a delicious glass of Les Vignes d’à Côté, Viognier 2016, Yves Cuilleron, a peach and apricot mouthful with enough acidity to cut through the duck ham and not be overwhelmed by the blood orange. I confess to being more taken by the salad of chicory, blood orange, caramelised spiced walnut and frisée than by the duck ham which I thought was a little dry.
The main course was stellar. A perfectly cooked sea bream fillet, with tender flesh and crispy skin was topped with a delicately grilled oyster served with a sauce of champagne beurre blanc. Served on a bed of salsify and samphire, this kind of simple yet refined dish always makes me happy.
What makes me even happier is when I’m served food which is crying out for a sparkling pairing with a glass of champagne. In this case, we were offered Charles Legend Champagne Brut Royal, which rather charmingly pays tribute to the British love of champagne and is named after Charles II of England. It’s a beautiful and delicate champagne with a fine mousse and notes of apple and praline together with well-balanced acidity.
From the South of the Champagne region, the grapes used for Charles Legend are allowed to mature longer resulting in a base wine which requires a lower dosage as the wine is naturally sweeter.
Finally, two show stoppers in the form of a Rémy Martin 1738 cognac baba with roasted pineapple and Madagascar vanilla ice cream and, for my companion who has an allergy to pineapple, crepes Suzette.
Both were served with a mouthful of Rémy Martin 1738, a toasty smooth cognac with notes of butterscotch. I seem to remember drinking most of my companion’s serving too, despite swearing that I was going to avoid spirits.
As you may have guessed I loved the menu and the wine pairing concept. It’s a limited time offering and only available until the end of October so you’ll need to get your skates on if you are going to try for yourself. At £75 including all matched wines, it is something of a bargain in fine dining terms.
The wine pairings for the dinner I enjoyed at Sofitel London St James and for the events taking place in Sofitel hotels around the world to celebrate wine have been chosen by Dominique Milardi, Maître Sommelier De L’Union De La Sommellerie Française et Chef Sommelier
Sofitel London St James,
8 Pall Mall, London,
Opening times: Monday – Friday 6.30am – 11.00pm Saturday 7.00am – 11.00pm Sunday 7.00am -10.00pm
Reservations: +44 (0)207 968 2900, TheBalcon.London@Sofitel.com, SofitelStJames.com
Disclosure: I dined as a guest of Sofitel London St James