Joel Antunes built his reputation on the restaurant Les Saveurs in Mayfair in the early 1990s, earning a well-deserved Michelin star in 1994. It was a regular haunt of mine and so I have a certain fondness for Mr Antunes’ cooking, a man who trained at some serious kitchens including Ledoyen, Troisgros and Esperance. After Les Saveurs Joel moved to the USA, to Atlanta of all places, to launch a restaurant called Joel in 1999, before returning to London to open the bistro Brasserie Joel at the Westminster Park Plaza Hotel. I have had two meals at the latter, neither of which were particularly enjoyable experiences, so it was with some trepidation that I sampled his new restaurant, Kitchen Joel Antunes, which opened in November 2011.
It is a 96 seater at the old Embassy site, and is open all day from mid-morning onwards. The room has a low ceiling but is brightly decorated, with white walls, tiled floor and comfortable seating, and good quality white linen tablecloths. Lighting was distinctly on the low side, hence the murky photographs, and muzak played in the background, though not at an intrusive volume. The menu has starters priced at £7 - £14, main courses at £17-£29 (with vegetables extra) and desserts £7 - £9. The menu is firmly in bistro territory, with dishes such as fish soup and coq au vin, even if the prices are equally firmly in Mayfair territory.
The wine list has 135 wines, and was put together in some haste, so is likely to change as things settle down (this review was written within a week of the restaurant opening). There are a few token cheap wines (the list starts at £21) but climbs rapidly in price, the priciest wine being £690 (Raveneau Batard Montrachet 2002 at a huge 4.3 times its retail price). Mark-ups are steep, frequently four times retail price or more (an average mark-up of 3.7 times retail), and our genuinely helpful sommelier struggled to find anything marked up much less than this when I asked him. Examples were Domaine Berthomieu Madiran 2006 at £34 for a wine that you can pick up in the high street for £9, Domaine de la Suffrene Bandol 2008 at £52 for a wine that you buy in a shop for £13, and the excellent Mas de Daumas Gassac Blanc 2008 at £79 for a wine that retails at £25. As you climb the list the relative mark-ups decline a little but are hardly bargains, with Dom Perignon Enoteque 1996 at £495 for a wine that costs £221, or Domaine Pillot Chevalier Montrachet 2006 at £320 compared to a retail price of £165. Mineral water was £4.50 a bottle. I find this level of wine mark-up hard to justify, and rather than ordering a bottle we instead had a few glasses of modest wine between us. Bread comes from Boulangerie de Paris, and both baguette and ciabatta were decent.
On to the food. I was very impressed with my beef tartare (£14) with matchstick fries. This was really well made, the shallots not too sharp, the seasoning exact, the fries crisp (easily 15/20). Sardine Nicoise (£9) was also very good, the sardines served on a thin bed of pastry with a layer of aubergine and Parmesan crust: a well-made Provencal dish (14/20).
Crab remoualde (£14) had fresh crab from Dorset and again was accurately seasoned, served with a little toast on the side. The aroma of the toast arrived well before the toast itself, as I commented to my wife that “something is burning” shortly before some visibly blackened toast was set down at the table. I am not sure who was on the pass (Joel Antunes was certainly in the kitchen) but quite how a professional kitchen can fail to successfully make toast eludes me: the second attempt was fine, but this was sloppy (13/20 for the crab).
My main course of scallops (£24) with baby artichokes was a very enjoyable dish. A trio of large scallops were lightly seared, the scallops sweet and clearly fresh, the artichokes and tomatoes served with it also good (16/20). Scottish halibut (£28) with “coco painpal” (butter beans) was less good, the fish cooked perhaps a fraction longer than ideal but still fine, but the fish itself just not having great flavour; the beans were a little over-salted, though tender. The fish was accompanied by a meat just flavoured with a hint of rosemary, and this was good, though the fish was not fully skinned, which seemed a little sloppy (13/20). On the side, gratin dauphinosie (£5) was well made, with the potatoes still having some firmness of texture, and not too creamy, while haricots verts were fine (£5).
Rum baba (£7) is a tough dessert to do well, but this was a good version, the bread base moist, a caramel sauce good and “creole” (rum and raisin) ice cream excellent (easily 15/20). Tarte tatin (£9) was also capably made, the apples properly caramelised, the pastry based very thin but having nice texture, the vanilla ice cream with it having visible flecks of vanilla, smooth texture and good flavour (16/20). Coffee was £3.20, but at least the double espresso was of good quality and came as a large measure.
Service was friendly though was as yet far from being a well-oiled machine; these were, to be fair, early days for the restaurant. Our desserts arrived with the “who ordered what” question that really should never happen in places at this price point, and there was an unnecessary explanation at the beginning of the concept of a menu that had, er, starters, main courses and desserts (thanks for clearing that up). Given the quite generous portion sizes throughout the meal, our waiter’s suggestion to order more than one starter per person seemed, if one was kind, misguided, but to a cynic would seem just a greedy attempt to upsell an extra an unnecessary extra dish. Our neighbouring table ordered a whole sea bream, and the customer asked, not unreasonably, for the fish to be filleted. This took an inordinate amount of time and, judging by the number of times she had to pick bones out of her teeth, was far from successful. Perhaps such issues will be resolved in time, but the service did not feel particularly well organised, and it was certainly not for lack of waiting staff.
The bill, with no pre-dinner drinks, and some glasses of wine rather than a full bottle, came to over £91 a head. Here is the difficulty for me. The food was objectively (toast aside) very good, with some genuinely well-made food, decent ingredients and mostly very good kitchen technique. But halibut at £28 (and £5 for vegetables) for a piece of fish and some beans is an awful lot of money for such a simple dish, even though we were in a location that is on the costliest part of the Monopoly board, between Park Lane and Mayfair. At £90 a head I would really hope for cooking that something special, rather than merely very capable. Perhaps it is aimed mainly at clientele who do not trouble themselves too much about value for money, but having added 12.5% service, leaving the credit card slip open really did seem inappropriate.