BRASSERIE JOEL: QUELLE SURPRISE
The other day I imagined Daniel Boulud in a meeting with the Mandarin Oriental and DB was saying “Thank you so much for this opportunity to bring my cooking to London” and the hotel bigwigs were saying “Well we had a meal cooked by Joël Antunes – it was memorable, fantastic stuff – he’s great, unavailable, hence your good self”. Well, it made me chuckle.
But surely, you might say, you’ve got this arse about face Hermano: DB is the famous one who you’d be very lucky to get. That’s as maybe but as far as I know M. Boulud does very little if any cooking these days, whereas M. Antunes was busy behind the stove on my visit to his eponymous brasserie. Yes, a chef who actually cooks in the restaurant which bears his name. Whatever next? How about a bloody good meal.
What’s extra surprising about this is the location of Brasserie Joël. I can’t say the Park Plaza Westminster hotel is the most hideous lump I’ve ever seen because there’s plenty around in Londo, but it comes close. Weirdly, it’s been sited just across the road from another Park Plaza hotel.
This behemoth is obviously aimed at the conference-goer and sure enough when I visited there were large groups of people who looked as disorientated as I was by the black décor and odd lighting. I found the act of actually walking to where I had to go quite difficult. And that was before I’d had a drink.
Eventually, through my random wanderings, I did find a bar called Primo. The portents for my evening weren’t good however. The correct answer in a cocktail bar to the request “I’ll have an Americano please” is not “right, one Americano coffee” neither is it “remind me what’s in an Americano again” when told it’s a cocktail. Less Primo more Lame-o. I stuck with a Campari and Soda.
Despite my legs buckling a bit at the shock of a £11 bill (that’ll learn me to be a wiseacre) I made it across the foyer into the restaurant and onto the set of a French sci-fi movie. I knew it was French because they had one of those compilations of chanteurs (and chanteuses) on the sound system with Charles Trenet going Boum and Yves Montand mourning lost love.
So there I was, all ready for a meal devised by an absentee executive chef serving up the same old stuff, except, blimey, the menu looked a bit different. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but dishes like Zucchini Flowers with shrimp mousse, Milk-fed Lamb shoulder, Suckling Pig Pork Belly do it for me all day long.
That Zucchini flower tasted pretty good too. Initially I was a bit disappointed it hadn’t been deep fried but the actual preparation – poached, I guess – was probably a better method given that the flower was stuffed with a delicate shrimp mousse and the stem retained some bite and flavor. It came with a light tomato coulis and a blob of Aubergine caviar. Nice one, chef.
It was the start of the Bank Holiday weekend and I wasn’t going anywhere (a bit like my life really) so an extra starter of Pork Terrine seemed mandatory – an unecessary indulgence. The terrines at Boulud have spoiled me for tettines in general so this one was going to have a hard time reaching that level. It didn’t: it was underseasoned and didn’t really have the depth of porkinessof the best examples. I also hope the artifice of putting terrines into those little kilner jars dies out (M. Antunes feels the same way). Still, a good effort and I liked the little accompanying toasts.
If there was a small dip with my terrine there was a massive rise (ooh-err) with my main course. A small hunk of Suckling Pig was good in the way that only Suckling Pig can be: sweet, fatty, rich. I believe there’s a picture of this actual piece of meat in the dictionary, next to the word unctuous.
Can one have too much pork ? Don’t be stupid - of course not. So with my pork there was a side of…pork. Pork feet - trotters perchance? – had been chopped up and made into a little cannelloni. If anything I liked it even more than the Suckling Pig.
When you’ve got good ingredients and have confidence in them and your preparation you don’t need much else on the plate. As if to reinforce this there was a solitary carrot but a good one and on the side a single roasted shallot. The whole had been annointed with a little jus which seemed to bring it all together.
Pud kept up the high standard. A light but alcohol-rich Baba au Rhum came with excellent Rum and Raisin Ice Cream, a small, roasted banana (much better than it sounds) and a little pot of crème Chantilly. I would normally run a mile from a dessert like this – so much going on, so much scope for disaster – but every component worked well and it didn’t deliver the sugar overload that sometimes comes as baggage.
At £6 I thought the price was reasonable too. You could pay twice that in more high-falutin’ places. In fact prices as a whole seem very fair given the quality of the food and the cooking and the fact we’re in a centrally-located hotel. And even with three glasses of wine I had to do a double-take when I got the bill.
Looking at chef’s CV it seems he’s been around a bit and his last job didn’t go too well. But my attitude with regards to the person cooking my meal is always the same: I don’t care what you’ve done in the past. I don’t really care what your plans are for the future. Just cook me the best meal you can in the here and now and I’ll be a happy camper. Job done M. Antunes.