Balans, Soho – Restaurant Review

Daniel John Lynch

So like many people after the festive period, I’ve decided to give up alcohol and try to eat sensibly. The eating part lasted 2 days. I’ve developed a new addiction to Harrods food halls (as you do). If you’ve not been there recently, head down. I pretty much spend the first part of my Sunday salivating over their selection of cakes (I strongly recommend the Triple Chocolate Cheesecake). The not drinking part has been a lot easier. Mainly thanks to Joe and the Juice.

On Monday evening, I went to meet my friend Paul for a post new year’s catch up and to generally gossip about people we know. We met at Joe and the Juice on Old Compton Street as we both were on a healthy kick start to the year. This little corner cafe in Soho is just fantastic. Not just because of the delicious sandwiches, amazing coffee (try the ginger latte) and imaginative juices (I had the C-SHOT SWEET – Red bell pepper, apple and organic lemon. Delish!). Yes, they’re all great, but what really makes it fantastic is Arron, the hottest guy in London. It’s worth going to Joe and the Juice just to meet him. After Paul and I finished our juices and had gotten over Arron, we headed off down Old Compton Street to a Soho institute, Balans.

Balans on Old Compton Street has been around for longer than I can remember. Pretty much everyone from the LGBT community who has been to London has dined there. We arrived around 7pm and the place was already pretty busy with a really good energy about it. The staff looked all calm and relaxed and most importantly, were all smiling. There’s nothing worse than walking into a restaurant and being greeted by someone who looks like they’ve just been slapped in the face with a fish. We were taken to our table and straight away offered bread and water. After a few minutes, the bread arrived. I must admit, I was expecting some standard white rolls or some wholemeal bread with a bit of butter in a ramekin. What we got though was a selection of herbed breads including one with sliced tomato, olive and feta cheese and a rather delicious tomato relish.  I was not expecting this. What a great start!

After a few minutes, our waiter came to take our order. Now, one of my biggest gripes is a confused menu and Balans wins the award for the most confused menu in the world. I just doesn’t know what it is. Balans classes itself as offering a contemporary global menu. Well it’s definitely global. You’ll find the usual suspects on there. Fish & Chips, Burger, Steak etc. But then you get Snapper Fillet with Sag Aloo, Quesadillas and Shredded Duck Spring Rolls. Now this is fine, they all sound wonderful. But I find it hard to believe that any chef can produce a great dish when there are numerous different cuisines available to the diner.

After inspecting the all over the place menu, I opted for the Chicken Thai Red Curry with Egg Noodles (£11.25) and Paul went for the Black Bean Chilli with Rice and Flour Tortilla (£11.95). I was intrigued to see how a chef could make these 2 very different dishes and what the quality would be like. At this stage, we both ordered our drinks too. Paul had now fallen off the wagon and ordered a beer of some description (I’m sorry, I’m an East Londoner. If it’s not a craft beer from a micro brewery and made with the tears of puppies, I’m not interested) and I ordered a Fruit Smash mocktail (£3.95). Apple and Cranberry juice mixed together with a few berries muddled in.

They seemed to have made a very unexcitable drink even more unexcitable. There’s not much you can do with non-alcoholic drinks, but you can dress them up a bit. May I make a little suggestion? Muddle some blueberries strawberries and raspberries together in a tall glass. Add crushed ice and mix the 2 together. Pour in apple juice and cranberry juice and top off with a little soda water. Garnish with a blueberry, strawberry and raspberry on a mini skewer. It’s simple, refreshing and looks fantastic. What I got didn’t look like this and I couldn’t drink half of it through the straw as it wasn’t muddled properly huge chunks of fruit kept getting stuck in it.

balans soho

After about 15 minutes, our food arrived.  Paul’s Black Bean Chilli looked ok. Not the most appetising, but what can you do with a chilli. Taste wise, he really enjoyed it. Not too spicy and it had enough to be filling. The dish was served with a sour cream and a salsa fresco. The salsa fresco was a few strips of sliced tomato. Enough said. Then, with my Red Thai Curry, it actually looked quite good. It was nicely piled high with the noodle and chicken with large chunks of red pepper and onions and topped off with shredded cucumber and spring onions. The curry leans to a much milder version than what I was expecting. It was nice and rich, but all I could really taste was the coconut milk. I couldn’t get any hints of any of the spices of herbs used in the paste. But that all said it was a pretty decent dish. Not a traditional red Thai curry, but not far off. Again, this dish was pretty filling. So for the amount we were paying, it seemed pretty good.

balans soho

We were offered the dessert menu, but this time round opted out. The desserts did look pretty awesome though. Baked New York Cheesecake with a Blueberry Sauce and the Pineapple Tart Tatin with Ginger Spice Ice Cream (No, Geri Halliwell hasn’t started her own line of ice creams… maybe she should) really were tempting, but I was pretty full.

It seems like my doubts about Balans menu was justified. I’m still not convinced a restaurant can offer great dishes from varied cuisines across the globe.  The food we got was ok, but nothing special. The service was good though. In all, everything was just nice. But where Balans differs from any restaurant I’ve ever been to before is that it’s very much a community restaurant. Yes they have locations dotted around London and in Miami, but they do have a loyal following. The food may not be the best in London, but it doesn’t plan to be or pretend to be anything else. The prices alone tell you that. With Balans, it very much feels like a restaurant that belongs to Soho. You can go in there any day of the week at any time and you’re bound to run in to someone you know. Even though I wasn’t blown away with Balans, I know I will go back again. Mainly for the reason that I feel loyal to them in the same way they’ve been loyal to Soho.

Total bill £42.10 including service.

About Daniel John Lynch

I’m a fat man trapped inside a skinny man’s body. After many years of working in the hospitality industry and travelling around the world, I’ve finally decided to do something with my worldly knowledge and write. I’m also a documentary film maker and lover of food and all things London. Follow me on Twitter @danieljohnlynch