The reason I decided to accept an invitation to review Balans in Soho was the very same one that initially made me think twice about it. With a menu that wanders across the globe from Egypt to France to Greece to Italy to Malaysia to Mexico to Thailand to the USA, the phrase that sprang to mind was “jack of all trades, master of none”.
But actually, sometimes it’s not about finding the most authentic cuisine from any of those countries but about enjoying a tasty meal with friends in a restaurant that offers a sufficiently wide range of dishes that you know everyone in the group will find something to suit their fancy.
Launched in 1993 by Anglo-Indian entrepreneur Prady Balan (which makes me wonder if there was ever an apostrophe in the name), the Compton Street branch was the first in what has now become a small chain with seven locations in London and a further five in Miami.
From the start, Balan courted the pink pound. During a time when many businesses were either openly hostile or merely indifferent, and those which were neither were often seedy, this was a novel approach that worked very well. In a 1999 interview, Balan explained that he had chosen to capitalise on the gay market rather than discriminating. Defining his restaurant he said, “it’s nice, it’s trendy, it’s modern – and gay” and he explained, “If I can do well with the gay community, which is far more finicky – they know exactly what they want in terms of presentation, food, quality, service, layout, decor – I can keep everybody happy."
Today is a different era but still the warm welcome, long opening hours, international comfort food menu and cocktails list appeal not only to the gay community but to all of society.
Neither of us in the mood for wine, my friend and I started with a cocktail each. The nutcracker (£8.95) is a frozen combination of rum, butterscotch schnapps, double cream, hazelnut syrup, honey and coconut cream. Fig’s Kiss (£8.35) purports to be fresh fig, honey , rum, pineapple juice and lemon juices. Confusingly, they were served the wrong way round with the tall glass declared to be The Nutcracker and the martini glass one served as Fig’s Kiss, though we worked it out eventually. Both were strongly alcoholic (as they should be) and we stuck to tap water hereafter. It was lunch time, after all!
Our first starter was the woodland mushroom bruschetta with fried duck egg and sherry vinaigrette (£6.95). This was not only rather generous but tasted excellent, with flavoursome (and properly cleaned) mushrooms, crunchy toast, soft-yolked egg and a well judged dressing.
Our second starter was the seared scallops and pork bell with a orange sweet soy glaze (£7.75). A smaller portion this time, though perfectly reasonable – the mushrooms would be plenty for a light lunch on their own – this was also delicious. The scallops had less flavour than the extremely excellent ones I enjoyed at The Vineyard recently, but they cost a lot less too and they were perfectly decent. The belly pork beneath was fantastic, cooked so that some of the fat melted in the mouth, whilst the rest gave just a hint of crunch. We both loved the sweet salty glaze, though it might be too sweet for some palates.
From the salads and sandwiches section of the menu, my friend chose a seared tuna nicoise with mixed greens, black olives, egg, tomato, potatoes, onions, peppers, green beans and a citrus dressing (£9.50). What arrived was an absolutely enormous serving; it was actually rather overwhelming; a huge pile of salad topped with two large thick tuna steaks. The salad was pretty good, but we felt bad that we didn’t finish even half of it. Perhaps a menu choice between a small / large portion would be worthwhile?
My pan fried sea bass with crushed new potatoes and spinach and a chive butter sauce (£15.95) was far more manageable. Nicely cooked, the flavours were decent. I appreciated the crispy skin on the fish and the generous pool of sauce, though not the towering presentation. Whilst it might not have blown me away, this was solidly enjoyable and perfect brasserie style fare.
Service is friendly and attentive, to all customers. I’ll probably get shouted at if I recall that our waiters were also gloriously easy on the eye. But they were! Also, friendly, professional and helpful with menu indecisions and questions.
Balans Soho won’t win any awards for the best food in the capital but I can see why it’s a popular Soho stalwart, offering enjoyable food at very reasonable prices for such a central location. The extensive opening hours mean it’s also one of the few places that’s open from early breakfast, through brunch, lunch, afternoon breaks and dinner to drinks and snacks in the early hours.
Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Balans.