After more than a decade in the USA, Joël Antunes returned to the London dining scene with the launch of Brasserie Joël. Joanna Wood went to visit
For obsessive foodies, the return of Joël Antunes to the London restaurant scene after more than a decade in the USA - at the appropriately named Brasserie Joël in the Park Plaza hotel on the Southbank - was a big event. After all, in the mid-1990s the Frenchman had been one of the capital's hotshot chefs at the Michelin-starred Les Saveurs.
Since opening his new restaurant, he's had mixed reviews. On the whole, the cooking's been well-received, if not raved over, the dining room décor - all black laquer, artfully lit bottle walls and glossy surfaces - less so. Antunes thinks the hotel will re-do the décor. And he takes the food criticism on the chin, pointing out that the 172-seat restaurant has been bedding-in since its summer launch - lunches have only been up and running since September - and that he's still finding out what sells well in a 21st century London brasserie.
He's kept menus simple, sticking with core dishes that have proved popular from the off - like tuna and steak tartares (£11.50 and £12.50 respectively) and making sure he always caters for the British taste for lamb and the current trend for pork. A slow, 26-hour cooked neck of lamb - at 61°C, sous vide - served with seasonal vegetables, enough for two people (£34), is a steady seller. While succulent suckling pork comes cooked over a wood fire grill - a recent bit of kitchen kit - either with grilled apple and frigatelli pepper (£24.50), or in the case of belly pork, with trotter cannelloni and a further caillette of pork (£19.50). The lamb is being sourced from the Pyrenees at the moment, but previously came from Wales when it was seasonal to the principality.
"I try to give people what they want to eat," says Antunes, admitting that offal for the 75% of hotel guests who eat in the restaurant is not high on the list. "It doesn't really sell," he sighs. However, having just tweaked the menus to reflect the autumnal game fest, he's trying again with some more butch dishes as specials, and so far his version of hare royale has proved popular.
Portions are generous, presentation unfussy, flavours depth-charged. On the whole, dishes are in the classic bistro tradition, but with seasonal nuances in the garnishes and nods to local influences and modern trends. A sticky toffee pudding, and a popcorn custard among the desserts (all £6.50); the utilisation of pear confit with roast duck fillet and an apicious sauce (£22.50).
Duck, like monkfish and hand-dived scallops, always keeps the 12-strong kitchen brigade busy. Originally the water fowl appeared on the menu in an amazingly flavoursome and tender roasted form, cooked in grenadine and accompanied by confit leg and a retro-chic orange sauce, but acidity and sweetness are now supplied by autumnal fruit.
And there's little on the seasonal produce front to fault. A nice touch is Antune's use of sweet chestnuts in the run-up to Christmas, in the shape of a chestnut perce-neige or, as he describes it, "posh meringue with chestnut custard inside". As a bit of sophisticated comfort food, it's hard to think of anything better.
Sample dishes from the menu
5-course tasting menu £55
Butternut squash soup, trompette mushrooms, buffalo ricotta £7.50
Terrine of rabbit loin and foie gras, garlic confit, honey vinaigrette £8.50
Traditional steak tartare, country bread £12.50
Oxtail tortellini, spinach, swiss chard £15.50
Grilled whole seabream, fig confit, bouillabaisse sauce £19.50
Suckling pork belly, pork feet cannelloni, caillette of pork £19.50
Vanilla panna cotta, rhubarb £6.50
Floating island, salted caramel £6.50
Fruit minestrone, lemon sorbet £6.50
● Brasserie Joël
Tel: 020 7620 7272
Park Plaza hotel, 200 Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7UT