I remember as if it were but yesterday, the way the waiter broke the biscuity crust covering Joël Antunes’ chocolate soup and then poured a steady stream of opalescent pistachio cream on to the dark, glossy surface of the liquescent chocolate. Think of it: warm, husky, velvet chocolate, perfumed pistachio. Now that takes a really hedonistic sensibility and perfect culinary judgment.
Well, Antunes certainly had both when he was cooking at Saveurs in Curzon Street – what? – 15 years ago. Then his business partner died, Saveurs was no more and Antunes took himself off to America, where he was rightly revered until a few months back, when he returned to the UK to take up cooking duties at the Brasserie Joël Antunes in the Westminster Plaza Hotel.
Like a good many other admirers, I hope Monsieur Antunes is not exiled to the gulag of this particular location for too long. In an area in which there is stiff competition, the dining room of the brasserie is comfortably the most unpleasant I have come across in a long time. It sports a vile combination of red and black that even in the middle of the day give it the unsavoury, midnight air of a sleazy boudoir.
Antunes’ food, however, lights up this dubious dive with shafts of brilliance. Fosdyke and I ate most of the menu and, while it’s simpler than in the glory days of old, Antunes has clearly lost none of his eye for precise, dramatic presentation, or of his ability to balance clarity of flavour with lightness of touch. All the dishes sparkle with wit and life.
A couple of examples. Thai coconut soup with crab dumplings – glittering, sweet, white crab meat formed into little gnocchi bob around in a sharply flavoured stock, all creamy and fragrant with coconut, with each element of the dish helping to define the other. And dense crescents of burgundy-coloured duck ham, each edged with a thin collar of fat, were laid out in geometric regularity on a rectangular plate with a spoonful of superb, beautifully balanced chutney and a salad. You know you’re dealing with a very superior cooking talent if it can turn chutney into a thing of wonder. I must mention another dish: scallop with an earthy Jerusalem artichoke sauce the smoothness of cream, and sharp shards of ventrèche (bacon to you and me. Well, me, anyway). And then there’s the pork shoulder… but enough of that. To itemise all nine courses would be greedy and boring. I’ll just say that the standard was consistently astonishing.
This is really some of the finest cooking in London, and at £18 for two courses and £23 for three at lunchtime, there can’t be a bigger bargain in town. What is more, the wine list matches the food in terms of value for money, which is so rare it’s almost worth trekking to the lost world south of the river for that alone. Even if you have to close your eyes when you get there.
(well, I have to knock off something for the dining room)
Brasserie Joël, First Floor, Park Plaza, Westminster Bridge, London
SE1 7UT. Tel: 020 7620 727. www.brasseriejoel.co.uk