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New start for Simpsons

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It’s a sunny autumnal day and Andreas Antona is driving me through the leafy Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston for a sneak preview of his new restaurant. Well, perhaps “new”, in the strictest sense of the word, isn’t quite correct. The restaurant, Simpsons, has merely relocated from nearby Kenilworth. But then, “merely relocated” doesn’t cut the mustard either.

This is because the Warwickshire restaurant has metamorphosed in the move, from being a highly respected foodie haven in Middle England to becoming a sleek, stylish restaurant with rooms (four) in England’s second city. And Birmingham has seen nothing like it to date.

What Antona and his wife and business partner, Alison, have created is, potentially, a Michelin-starred food destination with the accoutrements of an exclusive boutique hotel. The Michelin potential is very real, as Simpsons has held a star since 1999, and Antona has not only moved his key brigade with him but also intends to build on, rather than change, the food repertoire that established the Simpsons reputation.

More discussion of that later. First, I’m curious about the reasons behind Antona’s expansion of his business empire. Why take the financial risk of relocation – and, in fact, keeping the original site on as a more simplified operation – when Simpsons in Kenilworth had won a national, not to mention European, reputation for its food and was ticking over nicely?

“Kenilworth was just two shops slapped together to become a restaurant, and it had served its purpose as a fine-dining restaurant,” Antona explains. He adds with a smile and a chuckle (he’s a serial chuckler, by the way): “I suppose I needed a new challenge. I’m too young to retire and you’ve got to keep moving forward.”

It’s a reasonable answer, but a little more cajoling reveals what my instinct tells me, that 47-year-old Antona is astute enough to avoid a mere ego-driven spree. He spotted the Edgbaston site – a beautiful, classically balanced Grade II-listed Georgian building with a Victorian interior – some time ago, but walked away from it when the deal that he wanted wasn’t forthcoming from its freeholder, the Calthorpe Estate.

The building had been on the market for a long time – it had been empty for 12 years, in fact – but it wasn’t until July 2003 that Antona figured that the deal on the table looked commercial enough for him. And it took a further six months of negotiation for his lawyers to dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s.

The result is a 25-year lease on the property with a rent of “about 4%-5%” of rateable value. Not bad at all, as 10% of rateable value is a more usual figure for annual rent on similar projects. What’s more, the Calthorpe Estate picked up the bill for the building-related renovation that has been carried out, leaving Antona, as the leaseholder, to concentrate his funding on interior refurbishment – essentially soft furnishings and kitting out the kitchen. The bill for him was only about £600,000 for the refurbishment. He’s coy about revealing the purchase price.

It seems like a snip when you see the work that has been carried out. The derelict building has been brought back to life sympathetically, with a dominant cream and caramel toning in the restaurant areas – the private dining room, the bar and main dining area – and with a darker, more masculine brown for the lounge. Very metropolitan, very fashionable, yes, but happily not the same as many another restaurant. The reason for this is the very individual layout of the main dining area, most of which zigzags around the back of the building, following the line of an old veranda.

The veranda flooring has been relaid in limestone, its wrought-iron balustrades enclosed in massive sheets of glass, so the effect is to project you out into the greenery of the garden that encircles the property. It’s a simple, clever idea – one that Antona visualised from the outset of the project and had realised by Leamington Spa-based designer Sue Evans, with whom he had worked at the Kenilworth site. But it proved to be a source of conflict with the council’s conservation architect.

“The mentality of the ‘chin-stroker’,” says Antona, pithily referring to his sometime adversary, “is to just preserve anything without always knowing why, and he originally refused to let us enclose the veranda at all. So I said, ‘All right, I’ll walk away from this’ – I really didn’t want to know – and he was then put under pressure further up the line, and in the end we got the glass. But I had to compromise. I wanted to widen the veranda and put the glass inside the ironwork, but he wouldn’t let us alter the width and he made us position the glass on the outside of the wrought iron.”

There were other conservation sticking points – a step down to the veranda from the small, 20-seat dining area in the main building had to be kept, for instance – but, in the main, Antona won the day. He’s a man who, despite his geniality, is adept at getting what he wants, it seems.

As far as the Simpsons project goes, he actually has a point: his refurbishment of the property has respected its history, but brought it into the 21st-century dining world. He hasn’t obliterated the finely crafted plaster mouldings and cornices that abound in the building, he has preserved the wonderfully intricate Victorian tessellated hall floor – and has even taken the colour scheme for the stairway from its dark brown colour palette.

“In France – anywhere in Europe – with a building that’s been empty for 12 years, they’d be biting your hand off to bring it back to life. And anyway, this building’s not even got its original interior – the outside is Georgian, the inside is Victorian,” he says.

In the end, Birmingham’s “chin stroker” didn’t prevent the birth of Antona’s new Simpsons, nor its successful blending of 200-year-old architectural features with an airy modernity. Nor did he stop Antona from converting a space on the first floor into a bijou cookery school kitchen (it will open in January and accommodate 10-12 people). And he certainly didn’t put the mockers on the restaurant’s large, clean-limbed new kitchen, which looks like it has just been unwrapped, and has a view out over what Antona refers to as the Orangery – a seamless conservatory extension to the veranda dining space.

Which brings us to the hub of the whole enterprise: the food. Without the food, the rest of the project wouldn’t exist. With his old partner in crime, executive chef Luke Tipping, who has worked with him for 15 years, Antona plans to develop the menu at Simpsons to match its new surroundings.

The food is rooted in classical techniques and is hallmarked by a skilled balance of flavours and textures. Nothing ever seems to be heavy-handed in its taste or execution. Trademark dishes have, of course, been transferred – ravioli of scallops, courgette and home-dried tomato with a lobster froth with perfect al dente pasta; torte of Loch Fyne smoked salmon, Salcombe crab, creamed guacamole, tomato and pimento coulis; fillet of bream with potato scales, spinach, Sevruga caviar sauce; a refreshing granit‚ of melon with star anise parfait and fennel espuma.

Among the newcomers, roast squab pigeon with confit of cabbage, wild rice, pleurottes and pigeon jus is just as it ought to be, while a satisfyingly cloying chocolate tart is offset by deliciously crisp pastry and the hint of coffee in a tiramis— ice-cream.

It all bodes well for Simpsons’ future, although Antona won’t tempt fate by anticipating Michelin. He clearly would rather I didn’t raise the subject, but acknowledges with a smile (and a chuckle) that that particular desire of his is unrealistic. “If we get a star, we get it,” is his guarded reply. “If we don’t, we don’t.”

Others before him have transferred sites and retained a star, and there’s no doubt it would please him to bring a Michelin star to Birmingham. However, there is a possibility that former prot‚g‚ Glynn Purnell, head chef at nearby Edgbaston restaurant Jessica’s, might equal the feat and get recognition in January. The idea doesn’t displease Antona. “The more, the merrier,” is his view. Another of his chefs, Andy Waters, won a Michelin star in 2003 for his cooking at Edmund’s in Henley-in-Arden.

“I think people should be looking at the broader picture,” Antona says. “Three years ago, I was the only Michelin-starred chef in Warwickshire. Then Andy got one, and Simon Haigh got one at Mallory Court near Leamington Spa. Everybody talks about Ludlow, but I’d like people to talk about us here in the Birmingham-Warwickshire area. We’re all going to capitalise on it if Glynn and I both get a star. That’s the way I look at it.”


Andreas Antona: home truths
I always have
olive oil, halumi cheese and lemons in the larder at home.
My last holiday was in Portugal.
My favourite family film is Finding Nemo.
I drive a BMW M3 [with TV and navigation system].
My culinary role model is Paul Bocuse, because he was the one we all looked to when I was a lad in the business.
My phone ring is Scotland the Brave.
My last great meal in London was at Pied … Terre – brilliant.
My hit list of restaurants to visit include Bras, the French Laundry and El Bulli, because I want to see what they are all about.
On my days off, I play golf or watch Coventry City FC, although their recent form means I’m thinking of returning to my London roots [Arsenal], like the good Greek boy that I am.

so easily be bland, are counterbalanced by clever use of furniture – a silver-burnished sideboard in the 18-seat private dining room and some zebra-esque fabric on its theatrical high-backed chairs nearly tilt into kitsch but stop the right side of elegance


Simpsons: the lowdown
What is it?
Restaurant with rooms in Birmingham.
What does that mean? 70-seat restaurant, 18- to 20-seat private dining room, lounge, four individually designed bedrooms, private cookery school.
Launch date: Restaurant opened 4 October, rooms will open in November, cookery school in January 2005.
The bedrooms: Colonial Room, £140; Oriental Room, £120; the Venetian Room, £140; French Room, £180.
Key staff: Chef-proprietor Andreas Antona, executive chef Luke Tipping, head chef Adam Bennett, pastry chef Simon Morris, restaurant manager Catherine Clave, sommelier Kevin Seymour.
Food: Modern French offered on … la carte and set-price menus (lunch – two courses, £15; three courses, £20; dinner – three courses, £30; tasting menu – £49.50).

Simpsons
20 Highfield Road
Edgbaston
Birmingham
B15 3DX
Tel: 0121-454 3434
www.simpsonsrestaurant.co.uk



BOXHEAD: Troncettes of lobster, coconut basmati rice, apple, sultanas, curry sauce



BOXTEXT: (Serves four)

INGREDIENTS

4 x 1lb native lobster

Olive oil

For curry sauce

40g butter

60g onion, chopped

1 pineapple, finely diced

1 apple, finely diced

Coconut, grated

200ml coconut milk

300ml chicken stock

For coconut rice

1 shallot, finely diced

Basmati rice

Coconut milk

Salt and pepper

For apple and sultana garnish

Sultanas

Apples

Knob of butter

Pinch of sugar

METHOD

For the sauce, sweat onion in butter until soft. Add pineapple and apple, and cook for five minutes. Add coconut, coconut milk, chicken stock. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Transfer to blender and blend until smooth. Pass through a fine sieve. Season. For the rice, sweat shallot in butter until soft. Add rice and coat in the butter. Cover with coconut milk and cook until just cooked. Season.

For the apple and sultana garnish, place sultanas in a bowl and cover with boiled water to soak. Leave to cool. Peel apples and cut into small cubes. Cook in small pan until soft, with knob of butter and pinch of sugar. Add sultanas and reheat.

Kill lobster. Remove heads and claws. Bring large pan of salted water to boil. Add claws. Cook for two-and-a-half minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and refresh in iced water. Repeat for the tail – cooking for only 30 seconds.

Crack open claws and carefully remove meat. Divide tail into four, cutting along natural lines. Place tail and claws on grill tray, season and drizzle with olive oil. Place under a hot grill for about four minutes until just cooked.

To plate, spoon rice on to plate, place claws on top of the rice and tail down one side of plate. Sprinkle sultanas and apples down other side, spoon curry sauce around. Serve.



CAPTION: Desserts, Simpsons-style… granit‚ of melon with star anise parfait and fennel espuma



BOXTEXT: Simply Simpsons

The original Kenilworth Simpsons, which garnered a Michelin star in 1999, has been renamed, had a quick refurbishment – “more of a paint job” according to Antona – and is doing brisk trade already.

Antona and his business partner and wife, Alison, have differentiated the Kenilworth restaurant from the new Birmingham Simpsons by taking a little of the formal fine-dining edge off its food and front of house.

“I wanted to get back to making it a real neighbourhood restaurant, make it a bit more relaxed in feel,” Antona says.

So, 30-40% has been shaved off the pricing of the starters and the effect on the clientele has been almost instantaneous. “Midweek covers are up, and we’re getting more families and younger couples through the doors than we used to,” says head chef and manager Iain Miller, formerly the restaurant’s sous chef.

Miller’s front-of-house partner is restaurant manager Jeremy Quilles, while Alison keeps a watching brief over Simply Simpsons. “She’s on a three-month trial!” jokes her husband.

One or two signature dishes remain on the menu at Simply Simpsons, such as slow-braised shank of kleftiko lamb, and bavette of beef with red wine shallots. Offset against these are simpler offerings such as fish cakes with tartar butter sauce, and braised belly of pork with lentils and pak choi, plus desserts such as fruit crumble with crŠme anglaise and Old English sherry trifle.

Simply Simpsons, 101-103 Warwick Road, Kenilworth, Warwickshire CV8 1HK. Tel: 01926 864567

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