Balans Café – London, UK

Balans Café
Unit 1034, Southern Terrace
Westfield Shopping Centre, Ariel Way
London, UK
+44 020 8600 3320

Open every day for lunch and dinner
Monday – Friday & Sunday: 9:00am – 11:00pm
Saturday: 8:00am – 11:00pm

The London Underground, also affectionately known as “the Tube”, is a convenient way to navigate the city when you are car-less in London.  Ironically, not all of the rail network is even below ground.  With its distinct logo, the stations are easy to pick out from the street, making for effective navigation by tourists and locals alike.

In the West London district is an area called Shepherd’s Bush.  Walking around the green park common area, I found it had an interesting character – with a balanced mixture of small businesses and eateries, outlets of larger corporations, entertainment complexes and residences.  As I made my way up and down the streets, just exploring on my won, I saw an assortment of people, some young, some old, some working class and some dressed up like they have a white collar office job.  With the large hub of transportation (including a large bus terminal), the area seemed to my novice eyes as a transit-heavy spot, with intersecting modes and lines of transport shutting people into and out of the core of London city.

But perhaps its most popular attraction is the Westfield London- the city’s largest shopping centre which is also the biggest urban area indoor shopping centre in the entire EU. Encompassing over 1.6 million square feet of retail space on 5 floors, housing 270 stores, and parking for over 4,500 vehicles, it truly is an amazing destination – and quite new, having opened just over a year ago in November 2008.  The shiny sparkle that new mega-complexes such as this have when they first emerge was still largely present and felt during my stroll through this super mall.  Clearly there was no expense spared in its construction – including the terrace that houses many restaurants.

Photo credit: Balans

With an enormous rat pack of about forty people, we flooded one of these places, that was pre-booked by one of our gatherings leaders.  Balans Café is part of the Balans restaurant group that sports six places in the London, as well as three outlets in Miami/Miami Beach in the USA.  As seen for the corporate images above, The Balans Westfield is a long narrow space, flanked by a glass walled patio on one side, and a stone countertop eating bar on the other.  Towards the back, are larger tables for four/six, and the entire kitchen is fully exposed.  While we were there in the late evening, I could see with a fortunate sunny day in London, the place could appear very bright and fresh, with the clean lines helping to make it seem larger than what it seems.

As my table was one of the last to arrive, partly because we’d done a short lap through the adjoining mall for some shopping, we got a seat right next to the kitchen action.  It had its side benefits as I could clearly see into the prep and cooking area, including the grill which was already searing off some beef burger patties (on their menu was a 10oz Balans burger, that appeared to be a popular choice with diners).  As the rush of tickets started finding their way onto their order slide, I could tell things were getting a bit out of control.  Service seemed non-existent, drinks were mis-ordered and some didn’t even show up for the longest time.  I felt sorry for the chaps on the front line, just staring at the order stubs and trying to sort out what to do and when.

After a long wait, our table began to get some of our appetizers.  Across from me, a gentleman (from Saudi Arabia) ordered the potato, spinach and feta samosas.  On the side was a tamarind dip.  I asked what he thought of it and he expressed satisfaction.  I’ll take his word for it.  Plating-wise, as you can observe, was very basic.

As I was in an all-surf kind of mood, my opener was this plate of pan seared scallops, coupled with bits of pancetta and laid out on a cauliflower puree.  A bit of a mismatch when it came to the level of searing, some more caramelized than others, and the overheated ones resulted in that dreadful shoe leather consistency.  The overwhelming mound of the puree was a big letdown too – under seasoned and very bland, I felt as though if I left the scallops to be they would have sunken and disappeared into that vegetable quicksand. The chunks of pancetta had been fried real crisp and perhaps was the only thing that tasted like anything good on this whole plate, with its salty consistency.

I enquired at the table over, to someone else who ordered the same starter.  I got a shoulder shrug and the comment that she wasn’t going to finish it.  Guess I wasn’t the only one making bad decisions on this night.  There were about twelve appetizer-sized choices on the menu, ranging in price between 5 to 7 quid.  I’m sure I could have done better and been more adventurous.

Maybe slightly more picks to be had on the mains list – that were full of choices of meat (beef, lamb, chicken, pork, and wild boar), some seafood (sea bass, salmon, cod, haddock) and some pastas (linguine).  For vegetarians, a single stir fry was all that was available.  I was tempted to give the sea bass (served with crushed new potatoes and wilted spinach) another go following my excellent one at The Wells, but I decided not to repeat myself and instead ordered the roast cod (with fondant potatoes, confit tomatoes and parsley sauce).  What came was an itty bitty piece of fish, skin on and done crispy.   Seasoned this time, much to my relief, I just wished there was more (as it was 15GBP!)  The accompanying veg did nothing for me, neither did the washed out sauce.

I was expecting slightly more from this flashy looking brasserie.  Food wise, it was unspectacular, service was spotty (albeit it with the stereotypical British politeness), and that in the end is what’s important more than the showy atmosphere.  In many respects, it reminded me of too many bad experiences eating in Las Vegas.  More sparkle than substance, and prices not helping things when you walk out the door thinking you got little value at the end of the night.  Thankfully, on this evening, I was not paying, but I still felt somewhat cheated from the whole dinner experience.

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