NEXT WEEK the finalists of the Independent/Le Cordon Bleu cookery competition will celebrate at the 18- month-old London restaurant Les Saveurs. Amid the toasts to the competitors, a glass should be raised to Joel Antunes, the 33-year-old French chef feeding them; and another to his staff. They have endured a particularly harsh rite of passage into the British restaurant world.
Mr Antunes would never ask for a sympathy vote, nor would he be likely to win one. His school of hard knocks is set in a cushy patch of Mayfair. His restaurant's near neighbours include the Dorchester and Le Gavroche.
Correction: it is not literally his restaurant. It belongs to Fujikoshi UK Ltd, which owns a chain of department stores in Tokyo and knows a good cook when it sees one. Mr Antunes trained in the famous French houses of Bocuse, the Troisgros and so on, graduating to become one of the head chefs of the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. Les Saveurs is only 'his' in the sense that, after he'd spent 20 of his 33 years cooking night and day, Fujikoshi gave him a precious stab at setting up a restaurant from scratch.
The catch was that the restaurant was to be in Britain, which he knew not at all. Mistakes followed. Firstly, and endearingly, he did not kiss the right hands. The restaurant opened with food clearly aimed at Michelin stars, only blocks from Albert Roux at Le Gavroche, the papa of British Michelins. He lacked the imprimatur of the local grandee.
Secondly, the timing was awful. November 1991 was hardly the time to launch a creme de la creme joint: if the recession wasn't hammering those with pounds 70 to spend on lunch, the fraud squad was.
The third problem was wooing the British in a foreign language. After years of pestering by guide editors and critics, the lingua franca of British menus is finally English. Relentless French at Les Saveurs looked pretentious and retrograde. It wasn't. It was just French. Mr Antunes speaks little English, his favourite word being yes.
'Do you understand me?'
'When did you arrive?'
All but one of the kitchen staff are French. The exception, an Australian, trained in France. Their experience of Britain amounts to little more than coffee breaks in nearby Shepherd's Market. They put in very long hours, but their biggest challenge initially was boredom. For the first seven months of business, the dining room was all but empty.
There might have been some justice in this if Les Saveurs were a bad restaurant, but it is excellent. That we have heard no howls of outrage from a noisy misunderstood genius owes much to the dignity of Mr Antunes, and the faith Fujikoshi has placed in his talent.
In the past nine months, business has picked up. Numbers are up to 50 or 55 per day. Credit for this is due as much to the food as to the young manager, a suave and canny Basque called Emmanuel Menjuzan.
Unlike Fujikoshi and Mr Antunes, Mr Menjuzan knows London. He has lived here for six years. His English is excellent. He has worked his way through a series of hotels, including the Savoy, the Dorchester and the Ritz. He has flair, grace, and most importantly, genuine friendliness. Even Tom Jaine, who dismissed Les Saveurs as 'rather unlikely' in the 1993 Good Food Guide, had to concede that 'staff are remarkably keen to please'.
Mr Antunes and Mr Menjuzan quickly realised that prices were too high and introduced set meals: a three- course lunch for pounds 18, five-course dinner for pounds 29. They anglicised the language, and introduced some affordable wines, such as a well-made, reasonably mature Pomerol for pounds 15.
However, there are only so many concessions Les Saveurs can make. It is devoted to putting on the Ritz. There is a dress code and synchronised cloche lifting. Guests do not pour their own wine. There are dinky treats that make three courses into five, or five into seven - the amuse gueules, the
palate fresheners and petits fours.
Jeer if you must at old-fashioned formality, but the difference between Les Saveurs and many creaky little places trying to emulate it is that Mr Antunes and Mr Menjuzan know what they are doing. It is their language, their style. In its way, it is as enduring as bacon and eggs.
Moreover, Mr Antunes is a chef's chef. He needed approval from his peers. As word seeped out that 'he can cook', fellow chefs have been quietly investigating. Terence Laybourne, the chef-proprietor of the Michelin-starred restaurant 21 Queen Street in Newcastle, was one. He says of Mr Antunes: 'He's good. He's bloody good.'
The Chinese chef Ken Hom, who met Mr Antunes when they were both cooking at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, says simply, 'He's serious.'
Once, when Mr Antunes had finished his own shift at the Oriental, he offered to work another shift helping Hom get en place (prepared). They had never met before. 'He takes immaculate care. He is more precise, more meticulous than any chef I have seen work,' says Mr Hom.
This meticulousness shows on the plate. Presentation tends to the nouvelle: big plate with highly wrought arrangements. This would be fanciful time-wasting if the impact did not register on the tongue. Witness this treatment of langoustine: sweet chunks of shellfish are covered by a delicate tomato puree, and then highly spiced skins of sun-dried tomatoes. With an Oriental logic, it is countered by a mild pineapple chutney and fresh, sharp greens.
Tomatoes crop up a lot, chiefly because Mr Antunes (whose parents are Belgian and Spanish) was raised in Provence. A tomato tart is little more than perfect puff pastry, ripe sliced tomatoes and an artful tracing of pistou.
One would expect Antunes constantly to invoke his famous teachers; Bocuse this, Troisgros that. Rather, he cites his mother. She taught him well, for Les Saveurs is one of the few grand restaurants where the chef is as happy to work with anchovy as caviare, with eel as foie gras. Eels are marshalled into a terrine and served with baby leeks. Anchovies crop up frequently, most pleasingly in bar snacks: salty, melting sticks with a dab of anchovy baked in the centre.
John Dory is served in a light red- wine sauce. Dotted, kaleidoscopically, around the fish are wedges of lightly cooked fennel that have been infused with coriander, lemon and saffron. This sort of seasoning is an obvious Oriental influence. Yet the most important impact of the East is in the extraordinary balance of the cooking. Three courses, even five, will not disconcert you.
Speaking through his manager, Mr Antunes says: 'Ten years ago, I could not imagine cooking without lots of butter and cream. When I arrived in Bangkok, and was cooking for Asians, I had to reduce the amount and lighten the food. It was delicious.'
It is because Mr Antunes loves to cook, Mr Menjuzan loves to pamper, and Fujikoshi has the patience of Job that we have a restaurant serving top- flight food at accessible prices. This is a restaurant to celebrate, all right.
Les Saveurs, 37a Curzon Street, London W1 (071-491 8919). Open lunch and dinner Mon to Fri. Set three-course lunch pounds 18; five-course dinner pounds 29. Major credit cards.
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