by David Ramsey
Big news for foodies: The Capital Hotel announced yesterday that Chef Joël Antunes has been named executive chef, overseeing Ashley’s and the Capital Bar and Grill.
Antunes won the James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast Award in 2005 for his work with his namesake restaurant in Atlanta. Back in the ’90s he helped London restaurant Les Saveurs win a Michelin star. So there is plenty of reason to hope that Little Rock has just landed an exciting culinary star.
The less appetizing side of the story: Antunes parlayed his success in Atlanta to a plum gig at the Oak Room in New York’s storied Plaza hotel and things did not go well. The New York Times gave it a one-star review, praising the service and atmosphere but, while calling Atunes talented, condemned the food as over-busy, overpriced and mediocre.
More than a few dishes were clumsily executed or vacuously luxurious. Seldom have I had so many black truffle shavings thrown at me to so little effect.
Harrumph! New York magazine chimed in with a more savage no-star review:
[M]y first meal there was so overpriced ($55 for that old warhorse tournedos Rossini), so tragically tone-deaf and outdated that I thought it prudent to wait until some of the very substantial kinks had been worked out before I returned. Two months later, I’m sad to report that nothing much has changed….
The reviewer writes that one of his guests “out down her fork in exasperation. ‘I’m sorry, I wouldn’t serve this food to people who came to my home.’”
Antunes was canned after a less than a year. Since then he’s been at a few restaurants in London, where reviews have been more positive, though complaints that the food was good but overpriced have continued. One such critic called him “a cook in search of a restaurant,” so perhaps he’s found the right spot.
One thing to watch: Antunes's menus have tended to be heavily French. The managing partner of the Oak Room said, "I kept telling Joël to come up with more American dishes but he thought he was in Paris."
Antunes replaces the much-beloved Lee Richardson, who left last summer. Rumor is that Richardson may be working on new restaurant concepts in town.