2010 is the year of culinary comebacks. Three French chefs who gained Michelin stars in the 1980s and1990s have returned to the stoves in their new London restaurants: Brunot Loubet (Bistrot Bruno at the Zetter Hotel), Pierre Koffman (Koffman’s at the Berkeley) and Joël Autunes (Brasserie Joël at the Park Plaza, Westminster Bridge.) All three have earned the respect of the profession by shunning the media limelight in favour of actually being in their kitchens; and all three are producing highly accomplished cooking worthy of serious attention
Of the three, Brasserie Joël, located on the first floor of the recently opened Park Plaza, has the newest accommodation. In keeping with the rest of the ultra modern hotel design, the dining room is spacious, smart and sophisticated. The lacquered black walls and high ceiling produce a cavernous effect, illuminated by a red light through a glass wall of what appears to be the wine cellar. A curtain of silver thread on one side, a dark screen opposite – blocking out any exterior light – divide the room. Spotlights and lamps brighten the slate effect tables – each one decorated with a small herb pot – whilst high and low backed banquettes provide comfortable seating. However, the spacing of the tables proved to be a little too close.
For those who remember the Michelin starred Les Saveurs, the intimate basement restaurant where Joël Antunes was a chef-partner between 1991 and 1996, the scale of his new 170 cover restaurant might come as a surprise. However, we must bear in mind that his experience in America, during his twelve year absence, included holding executive chef positions with the Atlanta Ritz Carlton Dining Room and the Oak Room at The Plaza in New York, in addition to his eponymous Joël Restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia.
Classically trained, Joël’s cooking is confident and precise, the result of over thirty years in the profession. His experience in the kitchens of Bocuse and Troisgros in France, and Raymond Blanc in England – to name only three – as well as top restaurants in Tokyo and Bangkok has made him an internationally renowned chef.
At Brasserie Joël, however, the main aim is not to produce haute cuisine worthy of Michelin stars – although these accolades would be welcome – but rather well balanced bistro style dishes executed to perfection. There are few surprises, no attempts at over elaboration and no molecular gastronomy. This will appeal to those who welcome a return to a simpler, more rustic, style. Bistro classics such as fish soup, pork terrine, Sea Bass en papillote and Tournedos Rossini on the menu satisfy this need.
Economies of scale in a large hotel allow Joël to engage the best suppliers of the finest and freshest of seasonal produce. This is reflected in the regularly changing menu which includes specials of the day.
On the night we visited there was one unwelcome surprise: a £2.50 cover charge for bread, water and amuse-bouche. Such practices have, fortunately, died out, except in some small, independently owned restaurants, so it was even more of a shock to see it implemented a newly opened, large scale establishment.
A starter of Gazpacho with tomato sorbet exploited the stronger, sweeter, less acidic taste of the San Marzano tomatoes used to make it. Here is an essentially simple dish whose impact on the palate was sensational – a burst of summer in all its lively explosion of flavour, texture and temperature. The sorbet was a master class in its delicate smoothness
A superb roast saddle of rabbit, moist and tender through exact timing and resting, was enhanced by a herb farce which complemented the gentle gaminess of the rabbit. Artichoke Barigoule provided an appropriate seasonal accompaniment, whilst rocket salad added a peppery boost. In its flavour combination, execution and presentation, this could well become a signature dish.
Hand dived scallops, seared to produce a caramelized crust, once again demonstrated the precision of Joel’s cooking. The ubiquitous pea puree accompaniment was avoided in favour of a fresh pea garnish, which had the benefit of a textural contrast – the nuttiness of the pea worked well against the velvety richness of the scallop. As a bonus, the Gnocchi Parisienne, rarely seen on restaurant menus given their labour intensive preparation, revealed a feather light touch and good balance its moderate use of parmesan
Joël’s success in the USA has given him the confidence to offer simple steak main courses. But these were no ordinary steaks: the use of a wood fire grill added the gentle barbeque smokiness to the prime New York steak. This was cooked to a perfect medium rare, as requested, and was garnished with bone marrow – utterly decadent in its melting richness –
sweet roasted garlic, artichokes and a rich, intense bordelaise sauce.
Coffee granite, with its flavour packed tiny ice crystals, served its purpose as a pre dessert in cleansing the palate and exciting the taste buds.
Raspberry mille feuille, crisp, and light, with properly made crème patisierre, revealed the strengths of the pastry section. Peach Melba is another classic that should not be missed.
The wine list is extensive, with Old World and New World varieties, a dozen of which can be drunk from £4 a small glass of house wine,£16 a bottle,
Efficient, unobtrusive service was overseen by the amiable Moria Makiese, whose time at Tom Aikens and Gordon Ramsay will serve him in good stead for the pressures of service.
Whilst the location of Brasserie Joël – the wrong side of Westminster Bridge – and the size and décor of the restaurant might have their detractors, there can be no doubt as to the excellence of the cooking. The predominance of hotel guests eating there is understandable in its early weeks of opening. However, there is no reason why it cannot become a destination restaurant, Michelin stars or not. The care and attention lavished on the food, and the outstanding quality of the finished product, are testaments to the strong impact this newcomer to the London restaurant scene has already made.