I've been driving round the huge roundabout on the south side of Westminster Bridge for years, and assumed there might be a pumping station inside, or a maximumsecurity prison. Imagine my surprise when it recently shed its dismal chrysalis and emerged as a lumpen butterfly, 15 stories high with 1,021 rooms and dramatic views of Big Ben.
The lobby is cool, minimal and hushed in the Sanderson-esque style, suggesting a high-grade religious movement, staffed by seraphic high priests in Hugo Boss leisurewear. The restaurant is named after its star chef, Joel Antunes, who picked up aMichelin when he was chef-partner at Les Saveurs in Mayfair.
The Park Plaza restaurant that bears his name is a brasserie like no brasserie you've ever seen. It looks positively Japanese. The walls and ceiling are lacquer-black, the tables slate-effect black, a harsh red light shines through a glass wall at the back while a sickly marmalade glow illuminates the frontage. Plastic cream banquettes and titchy exotic potplants all shout "1980s!" at you.
The menu has two surprises. One is the cover charge. I thought they'd disappeared years ago, because they imply a lack of generosity towards eaters. Here they charge you £2.50 per person for water (water!), bread, butter and amuse-bouche.
Iwas surprised to find no mention of "Use of cruet" or a napkin-laundering charge added as well. The amuse-bouche (which is generally presented as a little gift from the chef, gratis)was "avocado caviar"
served with Melba toast. It was green, mucoid and not amuse-ing at all.The other surprise was how plain the selection of utterly predictable brasserie dishes was: roast duck, roast chicken, pork shoulder, suckling pork belly, shoulder of lamb, fillet of bream, scallops, John Dory, sea basszzzzzzz - sorry, I nodded off there for a minute. Talk about uninspiring. My date Angie and I strove, without success, to find something that we hadn't eaten a thousand times before.
We weren't helped by the fact that, apart from the soup, there were no hot starters. Maybe they eschew them in summer because of the heat outside. But since we were dining in an air-conditioned, crepuscular geisha boudoir, that didn't really seem likely.
I ordered a Lobster Cobb Salad. The Joel's version features lettuce, bacon and hard-boiled quail egg, with no tomato or avocado but with tiny cubes of processed cheese instead of Roquefort. Perhaps they were afraid Roquefort might overwhelm the lobster. Personally, I sat there wondering what on earth delicately flavoured lobster tails were doing among this hearty all-day-breakfast salad with its mustardy sauce, and glumly trying to digest the frisée lettuce which was like a plateful of vinegary split-ends.
Angie tried the "chef's special" roast vegetable terrine. It looked cute with its layers of red pepper and aubergine, but was fatally soft, greasy and slithery where one hoped for something more clenched. Things weren't going well, though the charmingly attentive French waiters kept our spirits up.
The main courses brought another surprise, in the shape of a Le Creuset saucepan, in which Angie's Cornish prawns were served. I know restaurants sometimes dish up a flavoursome dish of chicken bits in a minicasserole, from which you transfer the contents to your plate. But to have the battered kitchenware plonked in front of you, for you to peer into and dig your supper out of… (What next? Will they serve your pan-fried Dover sole in the actual frying-pan?) The prawns therein were perfectly well cooked but covered in a too-sweet, tomatoey sauce. Around them, sliced courgettes were a welcome counterpoint; but the ricotta tortelloni most emphatically was not.
My honey-glazed roast duck couldn't be faulted, however. The glistening duck leg split open to reveal a juicily pink interior; its honey glaze wasn't too sweet, while baby artichokes and a figgy sauce were just fine. Two rectangles of char-grilled polenta came under the heading of interesting-if-you-like-polenta. A side order of potato puree was gorgeously butter-and-creamed.We shared the restaurant's signature puddings, a huge sundae of strawberries and vanilla cream with eight sticks of pink meringue poked in at angles to resemble a crown of thorns or the Millennium Dome.
Again, I had to question the addition of dried apricots among the cream and sliced fresh strawberries. It seemed simply perverse. If there's such a thing as flavour blindness, there's a small outbreak of it at the Park Plaza. I'm sure Mr Antunes can do much better.
Brasserie Joel Park Plaza Hotel, 200 Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7UT (020-7620 7272)
About £90 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Brass facts
The Elephant Brasserie
Simon Hulstone's exemplary cooking here features dishes such as organic chicken livers on grilled ciabatta with onion compote and sherry vinegar jus. Two course lunch, £25. 3-4 Beacon Ter, Torquay 01803 200044
Brasserie at the Bull
This Leeds newcomer specialises in fusion-style, imaginative bistro fare at reasonable prices – try the Asian style crispy belly pork with pak choi and salt and pepper squid (£12.50). 5 Bull Green, Halifax (01422) 330 833
Buzzy Portobello Road favourite with an appealing all day menu featuring comforting fishfinger sandwiches (£10) alongside ladies-who-lunch type dishes such as a scallop, fennel and celery salad (£18). 191 Portobello Road, London W11 (0)20 7908 9696
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