Published 16 April 2000 Style Magazine 353rd article
Prady Balan, Miss Lid the third and Michael Winner (Andrew Gray)
In my ever-enthusiastic quest for fine-quality snack places, I listened intently when my neighbour, the lyricist Don Black, spoke of a new arrival in Kensington High Street called Balans. Don had been there and liked it.
I have a problem with Kensington High Street. I keep seeing it as it was when I moved there in 1947. Faded gentility, a place for the elderly. A home for those who couldn't afford Belgravia. Lovely little tea shops with waitresses in black uniforms, white lace tiaras and white aprons. Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon, once big Hollywood movie stars, ran a sweet little antique shop. Later it all became terribly flash and tatty. Now it's very lively, massively open on Sundays, youthful, with its own reinvented energy. And large houses with real gardens and trees just a few feet from the High Street. Far better than overbuilt Belgravia.
Balans fits well into this ethos. It's part of a chain scattered around posh areas of London, from Knightsbridge through Soho to Chelsea. It's bright, with an art-deco feel to it, a bar, some leather armchairs facing banquettes in the midsection and elsewhere what appear to be tin chairs with brown seats for the less critical. "Paintings" consist of framed coloured water with bubbles floating up. A man called Andrew Gray was in charge. "Andrew Gray, like the footballer," he said trying to be helpful. If there's a footballer called Andrew Gray, I've certainly never heard of him.
"We've got freshly squeezed orange juice, but we don't squeeze it ourselves," said Andrew, uttering classic words of twaddle. Freshly squeezed means squeezed extremely recently. Orange juice when squeezed degrades within a couple of hours. If there's a preservative added, that degrades it too. I am astounded by how many top-price hotels now fob guests off with second-rate, plastic-carton orange juice.
At Balans I opted for a frozen coffee, which was nice and milk shaky, the only problem being the unbelievably thin straws. I had a lot of trouble with these straws at Sticky Fingers. They were too tiny to draw their thick, superb strawberry milk shakes through. After I moaned poetically, they went out and bought some thicker ones at a local supermarket and handed them over. Eventually they changed them for everyone. Balans should do the same. It's a very lively place with lots of specials on a blackboard and, ah - now the owner's coming in.
I have a feeling. as often happens when I enter an establishment, that they send a distress signal to the boss. There was Prady Balan, lolling on his sofa round the corner, watching utterly awful Saturday-night television, when the dreaded call came: "Winner's in!"
"You haven't come here to slag me off, have you?" asked Prady. "I don't know," I said. "I haven't eaten anything yet." I received, fairly smartly, robust eggs benedict with bacon, two large servings. Miss Lid had blueberry pancakes with fruit salad.
"It’s got a cheerful atmosphere," she said, eating her pancakes, which were thick and doughy but not heavy. I followed my iced coffee with a frozen mocha, a coffee and chocolate blend. I admired the Argos homestore opposite.
The difference between this and the New York snack places, which I greatly like, is that there they offer so much more space. You get large booths for four or six people, often inhabited by only two. In Balans I'd chosen the poshest section, central and opposite the bar, which was just acceptable spacewise. The rest of the place was crammed. This is ﬁne for the owner, but indelicate for me.
The service was quick. At the table next to us were two girls, one eating an enormous banoffee pie. Prady Balan came back just as they got up to leave. "Goodbye," they said to me. "Do you know them?" asked Prady. "That's Zoe and Sarah," I explained. "I spoke to them."
"If I did that I'd be arrested," Prady muttered.
I tasted the kumquat-marmalade bread-and-butter pudding with creme anglais. I'm not sure what it had to do with bread-and-butter pudding. but the kumquats and the creme anglaise saved it. It was pleasantly light.
As the Rolls pulled away, I phoned Don Black to tell him I'd followed his advice. "We went there last night," he said. "Shirley had a vegetable lasagne and I had spinach and bacon salad and a marvellous fruit salad." Don paused. "It was within our budget," he added.
Balans is not the Ken High Street of old, more a much jazzed-up Richoux. It's the sort of place I'll go to about three times a year. I'm sure that's enough for Prady. He doesn't want to be dragged from the telly too often.
I would like to voice my support for Michael Winner's letter to Mr Daft of the Coca-Cola Company concerning Fanta orange (Style, April 2). If people don't know what they are missing, they can't complain - which is why we need famous people such as Mr Winner to use their influence and prevent the British public from being ripped off.
Alex Swallow, Brighton
As Michael Winner considers himself so well travelled, I would have thought he would have known that most products - including Fanta - are tailored to the taste of the market they are being sold in. A visit to the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, where you can sample different products from around the world, would prove this to him -- same brand name, but completely different tastes in most cases. I am sure that Mr Daft will reply in time, but I think he will probably find a research trip to Morocco unnecessary.
Elizabeth Winter, London
Michael Winner's letter to Mr N Daft of Coca-Cola about Fanta prompts me to write about a complaint I have been nursing for many years. Whenever my husband and I have visited Crete and southern Italy, we have been refreshed by Fanta Limon, which is bubbly, lemony and just sweet enough. Unfortunately, Coca-Cola doesn't sell such a drink in either America or Britain. I do not know why; the Greek and Italian version is much better than any of the part-lemon, part lime, part-artificial-flavour drinks available in either country. Should Mr Winner's letter to Mr Daft get his attention, perhaps he could ask him to explain why we are being deprived.
Tricia M Reeves, by e-mail
MW's comments about Moroccan Fanta apply equally to the Seychelles version. On enquiring locally why Seychelles Fanta was so much better, I was told "because it uses local orange juice" - local in this case being South Africa, 1,000 miles away. One can only assume that the oranges from southeast England are inferior. French Fanta, incidentally, is no better.
Don Smillie, Paris, France
The fizzy, refreshing, orangey Fanta that Michael Winner had in Morocco is also a staple of East Africa. It's interesting to note that the Coca-Cola in these places is also very different. Most people from East Africa say that it's superior stuff, being less sickly sweet. Maybe it's to do with the fact that it's bottled rather than canned. It is, as you say, a very serious issue.
Paul Molinaro, by e-mail