French chef Joël Antunès, who ran a Michelin-starred London restaurant in the 1990s, has been lured back from his award-winning adventures in the USA to oversee the kitchens at the capital's new-build Park Plaza Westminster Bridge hotel. Joanna Wood reports.
For anyone not around in London in the first half of the 1990s Joël Antunès's name may not be familiar. But at that time this reserved, self-effacing French chef was one of the hottest properties on the capital's dining scene, critically acclaimed and held in the highest esteem by his peers for his precise modern classical cooking at one-Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurant Les Saveurs, where he was co-partner and head chef.
Antunès's background before coming to London was a combination of French multi-Michelin-starred temples of gastronomy and stints in Mandarin Oriental hotel properties in the Far East. This made him one of the few European chefs working in the fine-dining mainstream to understand and use ingredients such as lemon grass, kaffir lime and other Oriental spices.
After a period in Atlanta - first at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead hotel in 1996, then as joint-owner of an eponymous brasserie, at which, in 2005, he picked up a revered James Beard award for his skilful cooking - he returned to London via the Oak Room at New York's Plaza hotel.
Now, thanks to Andrew Swindells, general manager of the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, Antunès has been wooed back to London with the offer of an executive chef position at the hotel. Despite it being notoriously difficult to revive past glories, Swindells's offer was too good to refuse.
Both men are coy about the details, but an educated guess must assume that Antunès will get a percentage of any profits from the restaurant - "something like that," he concedes. The rumour is that his contract with the hotel is for a year, and there are plenty of industry pundits who swear he has been eyeing up locations for an independent casual fine-dining venture.
Challenged on this, he implies that it's not out of the question, but he's concentrating on the job in hand. The best guess is that Swindells and Park Plaza are aware that he might want to get involved in another venture and are realistic about the possibility.
So long as he delivers at Brasserie Joël and oversees the other food outlets at the hotel (part of his executive chef remit), Park Plaza will be satisfied. From Antunès's point of view, if Brasserie Joël hits the spot as a branded in-house dining venue, then avenues might open up for rolling it out in other Park Plaza hotels around the world. It could be his bread-and-butter income in the future, as well as a USP for the hotel group.
The high-ceilinged Brasserie Joël itself is slickly designed, sporting much black lacquer and a wall of artfully lit wine bottles down one side. Its design has had a lukewarm reception from restaurant critics so far - the Observer‘s Jay Rayner called it "overconceptualised… like a club class airline lounge"; Time Out referred to it as a "lacquered jewellery box" - but the verdicts are somewhat harsh. It's not an intimate space, that's true, but it has an international flair. Its function is to give guests and diners drawn from the area - the Houses of Parliament are across the River Thames, the London Eye, South Bank theatres and BP's London HQ are a stone's throw away - an upmarket place to eat great French brasserie food.
And the food has been well received, although there have been a few dissenters and grumbles among reviewers about prices and a cover charge of £2.50 for water, bread, butter and amuse-bouche. At the core of his menu Antunès has restricted himself to classic French dishes - albeit sometimes with North African or Asian spicing and garnishing - reflecting his roots and the current trend in London for upmarket bistros.
There are also nods to British, as well as French, retro favourites. He plans to do his own takes on trifle and bread and butter pudding, for instance. "I like the food in the UK," he explains. "It's very important to use local influences wherever you are. And the great thing about the UK is that people are open to ingredients. You can have liver and kidney on the menu, different cuts of pork and veal. In the USA it's more difficult to serve offal. They like their steaks, and to serve cheek or leg isn't possible."
Presentation is simple, rustic even. Portions are hearty. "If you see just plates, it's a little bit boring," he says.
His aim is to make food sociable, accessible - hence the inclusion of some dishes that can easily be put in the middle of the table and shared between two people. Examples are whole John Dory or a succulent, gelatinous lamb shoulder that comes with a whole head of roasted garlic. Roasting makes the garlic sweet rather than pungent, of course, but it's also rendered milder by presoaking it overnight in buttermilk. The dish comes with some lemon confit and fresh home-made relish-style harissa, which cuts through the richness of the lamb in one fell swoop.
Other deceptively simple but depth-charged dishes include a zingy tropical fruit minestrone with a margarita sorbet where aromatic flavourings of lemon grass and ginger highlight fruit such as pineapple and mango; an artichoke risotto using tender baby Italian artichokes and pea shoots offset by a splash of lemon juice and olive oil; roast duck breast cooked in grenadine served with confit leg and an orange sauce. All are great examples of culinary retro chic in the 21st century.
Often with his dishes Antunès will serve a pickle or something acidic. A six-hour slow-cooked apple jam with the foie gras torchon, for instance, which slices through the rich liver; or pickled tomato with an aubergine caviar. "I love acidity. Vinegar and lemon juice. I like it when you put something in your mouth and it goes ‘whoosh'," he says.
In appearance, Antunès hasn't changed much since he lived and worked in London 14 years ago. Maybe he's a little fuller-faced. But the blue eyes are as piercing; the accent, despite the intervening years working in the USA, still resolutely French; the manner still gently polite. Much has changed, of course, since he was here last - although, pleasingly, from his point of view, not the suppliers. For instance, Aubrey Allen supplied him at Les Saveurs, and the Birmingham-based butcher is still one of the country's leading meat sources.
Antunès believes that, for meat and fish, the UK and Ireland cannot be bettered. At the moment his lamb is from Wales and Ireland, shellfish from Scotland and fish from English coastal waters. "Why buy something from far away when there is the best quality here?" he asks.
And in terms of the menu, Antunès likes to keep it simple. "I like to put ‘lamb shoulder' on a menu - that's it. The waiters should know the produce details," he says. But that's not to say he won't return to fine-dining one day: Antunès admits to missing the cut and thrust of a Michelin kitchen.
"Of course. It was my life for years. I won awards in Bangkok, France, London, Atlanta. But you can be at the top when you do bistro also. Simple things are the most difficult to make. They have to be of the highest quality. I like that. It's a challenge," he says.
Simple, incidentally, is a word that Antunès uses a lot. Probably because he's at heart a simple - in the straightforward sense of the word - man. So perhaps it'll be a simple matter for him to move back to a Michelin-level restaurant in the West End? At this suggestion, Antunès will only smile and reiterate that he's focused on his current job at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge hotel. Simple as that.
THE PARK PLAZA WESTMINSTER BRIDGE
Where? On the South Bank side of Westminster Bridge, near sister hotels Park Plaza Riverbank and Park Plaza County Hall, and the London Marriott Hotel County Hall
What? 15-storey new-build hotel with 1,000 guest rooms, 2,700sq m of flexible conference/meeting rooms (including 31 meeting rooms and a pillar-less 1,200sq m ballroom which accommodates 1,400 theatre-style or 1,000 seated for gala dinners), luxury spa, two executive lounges, 24-hour business centre
Rooms include 54 suites and penthouses, 422 superior rooms with average of 27sq m and 545 studio rooms for families with average of 36sq m
Restaurants and food outlets 172-seat Brasserie Joël, 30-seat Ichi (sushi) restaurant, coffee shop, 180-seat bar, pâtisserie
Opening rates £99 per room per night (excluding VAT), subject to availability
Development spend £350m
http://www.parkplaza.com/london" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, London SE1 7UT
What's on the menu? (£35 for three courses) scallops with peas and gnocchi Parisienne; steak tartare with panisse; whole grilled John Dory with mousseron mushrooms and thyme sauce; suckling pork belly with pork feet cannelloni, carrot and shallot; raspberry millefeuille with vanilla cream; peach melba
Tel 020 7620 7272
FIVE KEY TIPS FOR RELAUNCHING IN THE CAPITAL
Joël Antunès is not the only celebrated French chef who's returned to London's restaurant world in 2010. His compatriots Bruno Loubet and Pierre Koffmann have also launched new dining rooms after long absences from the capital's eating scene, also in hotels.
Here are a few tips if you're thinking of doing the same:
• Don't risk your own money. Make sure you have backers or partners who can shoulder the costs until you have established yourself. Perceived wisdom says you need to clear two years for long-term survival. A partnership with a hotel group is ideal.
• Know the current trends in dining. Research your market thoroughly. Since Antunès was last in London fashion has embraced a more relaxed dining ambiance even in the top-end fine-dining restaurants.
• Get a good PR, but don't overhype your restaurant. It pays to peddle lower expectations and overdeliver to your customers (and restaurant reviewers).
• Research your competitors. If they have good ideas that customers like (food or service), adapt them to your own style.
• Keep your options open. Get yourself some consultancy work to run in tandem with your restaurant. And make sure you don't tie yourself down to a long-term contract in case things don't quite work out.
BRASSERIE JOEL: A CRITIC'S VIEW
Jay Rayner, The Observer, 11 July 2010 [Joël Antunès] is an accomplished chef, whose cooking at Les Saveurs in the 1990s made people pant and swoon. His arrival back in London is the sort of thing to make people like me bounce up and down in their seats with excitement… but is a hotel at the wrong end of Westminster Bridge really the right place for a chef of this calibre? I'll answer the question myself. No. It isn't… the food… for the most part, is good, in a very precise, French way.
You will find many of the dishes, or approximations of them, in many other restaurants, but rarely done with this precision or commitment. Look: he even serves tournedos Rossini. The only down points were a lobster Cobb salad which felt overly chucked together for such a louche ingredient - though the seafood was accurately cooked - and a rum baba that wasn't quite lush or syrup-soaked enough. By contrast, a gazpacho with a scoop of tomato sorbet was vivid and light and fresh and lots of other words that are pressed into service to denote summer.
Better still was a dark, sticky dish of sweetbreads, roast cèpes and beautifully turned roast potatoes with a hunk of long-braised veal cheek served in a Le Creuset-style pan. Another dish of big, butch duck breast was served medium-rare, despite my companion asking for it medium; I rather admire the kitchen's obstinacy. It came with sweet cherries, an equally butch sauce and a certain Gallic swagger. A special word, too, for a side of gnocchi soufflé, a cast-iron dish of something light and fluffy and crisp that had us scraping furiously for the best bits on the bottom.
Note: for the quantity of tuna, you'll need only about 50ml of Japanese vinaigrette (see method)
• 400g big-eye tuna or yellowfin tuna steak
• 25ml olive oil
• Pinch salt
• Freshly ground pepper
• 3 large avocados
• 5 shallots
• 120g (approx) Wondra Flour (a low-protein, pre-gelatinised fast-dissolving flour)
• 1-2 limes
For the vinaigrette • 250ml shiso dashi
• 250ml chicken consommé
• 250ml rice wine vinegar
• 175g sugar
• 15g sliced ginger
• 1 nori seaweed leaf
• 35g kombu
• 5 springs of chervil
• Sesame oil to taste
Cut tuna in to 5mm x 5mm cubes. Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and then set aside.
Cut the avocado into slices and season with a squeeze of lime juice and a dash of salt and pepper. Refrigerate.
Julienne the shallots. Dip them in Wondra flour and fry at 130°C for about 10 minutes until golden brown. Set aside on kitchen roll to drain and season with a dash of salt and pepper.
To make the Japanese-style vinaigrette, combine shiso dashi, chicken consommé, rice wine vinegar and sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Once boiling, stir in ginger, nori seaweed leaf and kombu. Then remove immediately from heat to cool.
On a serving plate, layer tuna, vinaigrette and sliced avocado. Place fried shallots on top. Finish with a sprinkle of finely chopped chervil, and drizzle with vinaigrette and a few drops of sesame.
• Grenadine syrup - Chez Morin, if possible
For the lemon streusel • 230g plain flour
• 240g sugar
• 105g ground almonds
• 105g toasted ground hazelnuts
• 3g salt
• 1 orange, zest removed
• 1 lemon, zest removed
• 240g butter, chilled
For the vanilla chantilly cream • 470g Elle & Vire UHT cream (special chantilly cream for whipping)
• 65g icing sugar
• 5g Vanilla Aroma (real vanilla essence/extract)
• 1g vanilla powder
For the pink sugar (enough for about 20 portions) • 250g sugar
• 5 drops red food colouring
For the strawberries • 500g strawberries - Gariguette, if possible
For the strawberry ice-cream (enough for about 60 portions) • 1,500g whole milk
• 560g crème fraîche
• 600g egg yolk
• 2g stabiliser (cornflour, arrowroot or other)
• 750g caster sugar
• 250g strawberries, puréed
• 10g vanilla extract
• 60ml lemon juice
• 30g strawberry syrup
For the pink-and-white meringue sticks (enough for about 50 portions) • 370g egg whites
• 370g sugar
• 8g cream of tartar
For the vanilla ice-cream (enough for about 60) • 1335g full-fat milk
• 550g crème fraîche
• 400g white sugar
• 200g egg yolks
• 3 vanilla pods, split and deseeded
For the dried strawberries (enough for about 60)
• 1kg sugar
• 1 litre water
• Handful of fresh strawberries
For the lemon streusel Mix all ingredients together, except butter. Gently add in butter, stirring very little, and form a dough. Cut the dough in to small pieces and bake at 150°C for 10 minutes.
For the vanilla chantilly crème Combine all the ingredients and use a hand mixer or whisk to mix to a whipped cream consistency.
For the pink sugar Whisk sugar and food coloring together and set aside.
For the fresh strawberries Wash, drain thoroughly and halve. Reserve.
For the strawberry ice-cream In a saucepan, bring the milk to the boil and then remove from heat. Beat the egg yolks, sugar and stabiliser. Pour the hot milk over the egg mixture. Combine and return to the pan. Using a digital thermometer, bring the entire mixture to 82°C and then quickly remove from heat. Place the pan immediately into a bowl of iced water. Then add the crème fraîche, strawberry purée, vanilla extract, lemon juice and strawberry syrup. Blend in a food mixer. Strain the mixture through a chinois to remove strawberry seeds and either freeze in Pacojet canisters or churn in an ice-cream maker.
For the meringue sticks Mix all ingredients to create a stiff meringue. Place the mixture in a pastry bag and pipe, using a fine tube, on to a baking tray into the shape of narrow sticks. Bake the meringue sticks at 90°C for 30 minutes.
For the vanilla ice-cream Follow the same basic method as for the strawberry ice-cream.
For the dried strawberries Create a syrup by adding the sugar to the water and bring to the boil. Skim residue from the top and leave to cool. Slice the strawberries lengthwise, dip in the syrup and then arrange on non-stick baking tray and bake at 100°C for approximately 90 minutes.
To serve Use a traditional ice-cream sundae glass and layer the ingredients from the bottom. Start with the lemon streusel at the bottom. Then layer in this order: fresh strawberries, grenadine syrup, vanilla chantilly cream, strawberry ice-cream, fresh strawberries, vanilla ice-cream, vanilla chantilly cream, grenadine syrup, fresh strawberries and finally more vanilla ice-cream and strawberry ice-cream. Top with dried strawberry pieces, a sprinkling of pink sugar and a drizzle of grenadine. Finish by placing six to eight meringue sticks around edges to form a crown shape.