When in 2010 Joël Antunès returned to London after more than a decade in the USA, it caused quite a stir on the capital's restaurant scene. After all, in the mid-1990s the Frenchman had been a bit of a hotshot chef at the Michelin-starred Les Saveurs.
But his comeback restaurant, Brasserie Joël in the Park Plaza hotel on the South Bank, got mixed reviews from the critics. Although his cooking was largely well received, the restaurant's setting, vibe and décor were not exactly raved over.
Fast forward to January 2012 and Antunès has moved on from the hotel, having teamed up with the owners of Mayfair nightclub Embassy, where he now runs Provençal restaurant Kitchen Joël Antunès.
"It was a great experience to work at the Park Plaza but I am more of a restaurant chef than a hotel chef," Antunès admits. "I ran my own restaurant for 15 years and here at Embassy I am a partner. It's definitely what I prefer."
Embassy underwent a mild refurbishment and now features interiors inspired by 1950s and 1960s Riviera glamour. There's a patterned limestone tiled floor and a marble-topped bar as well as banquette seating, chairs and bar stools covered in leather in shades of duck egg, blue, burgundy and Champagne. It's very slick and certainly reflects the Mayfair neighbourhood and clientele - on our visit Princess Beatrice and her entourage were dining.
Like the interior, the food is also inspired by the South of France, but it's a bit more toned down, showcasing classic Provençal dishes and ingredients such as Niçoise salad (£12), warm octopus salad with aubergine caponata (£14) or homemade pasta with rabbit ragoût (£19). The menu features 15 starters and mains as well as a daily special, while at lunchtime a set menu offers two courses for £25 and three for £29.
"I'm still learning about the customers here and what they want," says the chef. "At lunchtime we have a lot of women so we have a few more lighter dishes on the menu - ceviche, salads and fish. At dinner we have more men coming in so we have things like pepper steak, côte du boeuf - more masculine food."
Among the starters is a dish of crab roll served with potato gnocchi and lemon oil (£12). Antunès takes crab and scallop meat - supplied by Keltic Seafare - and forms a roll, which is then steamed for a few minutes. The finished dish features equal-sized pieces of crab roll and gnocchi served with lobster sauce and Parmesan, which add punch to an otherwise delicately flavoured dish.
Popular main courses include roast lamb belly - from Aubrey Allen - with salsa verde (£23).
"We roll the belly and vac pack it with olive oil, garlic, rosemary and thyme and cook it sous vide at 78°C for 12 hours," explains Antunès. "We cut it into 200g portions and serve it with sweetbreads, salsa verde and lentils."
Meanwhile a selection of sharing dishes includes a whole baked sea bass with lemon, fennel and basil pesto (£26 per person); dry-aged côte du boeuf with bordelaise sauce (£29 per person); and suckling pig, grilled apple (£23 per person).
"We brine the pork for one night, then sous vide it for 10 hours, finishing it off in a hot oven to make it very crispy," says Antunès. "We serve it with a whole roast apple and a simple pork jus."
Onto the sweets and the chef says that as he started his career in pastry he loves to pay attention to desserts. Currently on the menu are tropical fruits - a pineapple carpaccio with lemon and lime sorbet (£8); and pavlova (£9) served with exotic fruit chutney and sorbet (mango, papaya, kiwi and pineapple) and vanilla cream. And of course no French dessert menu is complete without a classic tarte tatin and vanilla ice-cream (£9).
"I try to keep things simple," concludes Antunès. "If you have good ingredients then you don't need to make things complicated. Simple is best."
SAMPLE DISHES FROM THE MENU
Baby artichokes, avocado salad - £9
Foie gras terrine, apple and red wine jam - £14
Main courses Scottish halibut, haricot coco de Paimpol - £28
Roast duck, pear, potato gnocchi - £23
Oxtail tortellini, Swiss chard - £18
Desserts Le "Kit-Kat", caramel, tonka bean ice-cream - £9
Rhubarb marmalade and ice-cream, sable Breton - £9
Selection of three or five French cheeses - £9/£14
Kitchen JoÁ«l Antunès
29 Old Burlington Street, London W1S 3AN
020 7494 5660