Joel Antunes was chef of Les Saveurs, one of the top London restaurants in 1991, after working at prestigious kitchens such as Normandy at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. He was lured to the US in 1996 and became head chef of the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta, and after this re-launched the Oak Room at the Plaza in New York. Now he is charge of the cooking at the Park Plaza Hotel in Westminster, a large new hotel on a much-needed development of what was a hideous 1960s monstrosity on a big roundabout near Waterloo. I used to work just down the road from here at Shell Centre, and it was remarkable to see the transformation of the old eyesore roundabout to a stylish new hotel. Brasserie Joel is on the first floor of the hotel (turn left as you enter the lobby area).
The Brasserie has been open to the public now for just over a month, and on this Tuesday night was pretty empty. The décor is smart, with an attractive corridor entrance, and a red and black theme for the décor in the dining room. On each table is a potted herb (mint in our case), a nice touch. The menu is in familiar bistro territory, with starters around £8, main courses about £20, side dishes £3 and desserts £6-£7. The muzak was a little loud, and the wooden floor makes the room quite acoustically difficult, even when there are few diners.
Oddly, there is a cover charge of £2.50, a habit that I hoped London restaurants had long since dropped, but has popped up occasionally in recent times. Yes, we know you have to make a living, but surely it is better to absorb the cost of the bread in the overall price than antagonise the customer with this extra charge? For this you get some water, bread that is home made (decent mini baguette and a good rustic country bread roll, maybe 5/10 bread) and, some “aubergine caviar”. Really, it isn’t. Aubergine dip can be lovely, and has been a regular at Gordon Ramsay over the years, amongst other places. Here was a sorry, oily concoction that peculiarly lacked aubergine flavour, served with a few hard croutons. This should be put out of its misery and sent to that home of failed amuse-bouches in the sky (0/10). Charging for it just rubs it in.
The short wine list starts at £16 and has choices such as Summerhouse Sauvignon Blanc 2008 at £32 for a wine that will set you back around £12 in the shops, the excellent Chateau Musar 2001 at £52 for a wine that costs £18 to buy, and at the upper end of the list Pichon Baron 2001 at £125 compared to a retail price of about £61.
The starter course was a puzzling contrast. Salad Nicoise was pleasant enough, with fresh artichokes and the usual mix of capers, peppers, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, boiled egg and tuna. The dressing was OK but the main event, the tuna, was cooked too long, not quite grey in colour but well past where it should have been in colour (maybe 2/10 for the dish if I am kind). Yet my starter was on a different level. Tuna tartare had nice quality tuna with a light oriental soy dressing, topped with very prettily presented and ripe avocado, plus crispy shallots to give a texture contrast. Aside from being a little small as a portion, this was genuinely classy, attractively presented and well balanced – a lovely dish (6/10).
My main course was scallops with gnocchi Parisenne and peas. This featured a trio of good quality, plump and sweet hand-dived scallops, gnocchi with nice texture and peas the weakest element, hard and not having much flavour. Still, overall, this was still a very good dish (pushing 5/10). John Dory was also fine, carefully timed with the full flavour that nice quality John Dory has, served with girolle mushrooms, spinach and aigre doux (sweet and sour) sauce (5/10). On the side a gratin dauphinoise was also well made, the potato cooked through properly, creamy with a nice cheese flavour (5/10).
Then, out of a clear blue sky, came the dessert course. We ordered the two specials of the day. Crème caramel had a caramel that had been cooked too long so had a bitter note, while the baked custard itself was grainy. The biscuit garnish was OK, but biscuit aside this was a very poor dessert indeed (0/10). Even worse were doughnuts with strawberries and a little vanilla ice cream. It is hard to get strawberries in England that have any taste these days, but the doughnuts were visibly burnt and not surprisingly were dried out inside (I just sampled the one, which was more than enough). This was visibly bad, and quite what the person on the pass letting this out was doing I simply don’t know (0/10). Homer Simpson would have sent these back.
Service was good throughout, under the direction of the experienced and charming Moria Makiese (formerly manager at Tom Aikens, amongst others). The waiters were well drilled and efficient.
I find this a very difficult meal to score. Some of the meal was very good indeed, with the lovely tuna starter and good main courses, yet not only were the desserts truly awful, but there was the sad aubergine caviar to consider (and over-cooked tuna in the Nicoise). I know this is early days, but Joel Antunes is a fine chef who should know better than this. The best dishes tell me that this is a kitchen worth persevering with, and I will try again in a few months, when hopefully the teething troubles will have settled down and there is a new pastry chef in place.