Les Saveurs, London

Les Saveurs opened in November 1991 to the kind of reviews that would have closed a Broadway play in a matter of days. While the critics were highly appreciative of the star in the kitchen--chef Joel Antunes--they damned the strong emphasis on all things French. The menu and the wines were French. The cloches, lifted simultaneously by French waiters, were straight out of the 16th arrondissement in Paris. More generic flaws included high prices and poor lighting. London in the 1990s did not need any of thesethings, the critics charged.

And for the first seven months it seemed as if the critics were right. Antunes and his brigade--including an enthusiastic front-of-the-house legion led by Emmanuel Menujuzan and a knowledgeable sommelier--waited for customers who never came. The lack of noise and the obviously low turnover must have frightened Les Saveurs' proprietor, K. Ejima, a Japanese millionaire who had made his fortune via the Fujikoshi chain of department stores, but had set his heart on owning a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Then Les Saveurs did something that is common in America but still surprisingly rare in Britain; it hired a consulting firm. Payne and Dagworthy are more attuned to the world of hotels, yet they immediately recognized that the strength of Les Saveurs was the cooking; the exhorbitant pricing and stuffy atmosphere had to go.

Within a month, prices were almost halved, the wine list (cited as one of the most outstanding in London by the Wine Spectator) made accessible and affordable, and the dress code relaxed. The metamorphosis tripled the number of customers, and by necessity the staff became a tightly organized team.

The cooking is distinctive because of the time Antunes has spent outside as well as inside France. Initially Antunes' mother was his primary influence, and later chefs Paul Bocuse (of Paul Bocuse in Lyons) and Michel Troisgros (see Cigar Aficionado, Premier Issue, page 119) shaped his cooking. Then he packed up his kitchen knives and headed East, eventually becoming one of the head chefs of the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. Cooking primarily for discerning Asians, Antunes had to abandon butter and cream, lightening his food to produce a style of cooking that is now appreciated throughout the world.

At Les Saveurs the $28 lunch menu, which includes sales tax but not service, offers four choices at each course. I found it difficult to decide between the tomato tartlet flavored with pesto or the courgette flowers à la niçoise. Then the choices for entrées include salmon with coriander, a skate marinière with tarragon, and roasted guinea fowl with roasted pears. Dessert, possibly Antunes' forte, includes a bitter chocolate soup with pistachio cream, a gratin of strawberries with orange butter and, most originally, a lemon sorbet flavored with Thai spices. And all of this without the traditionally French amuse-gueule or petits fours.

The à la carte dinner menu has now been simplified so that any two courses cost $40 and any three courses are $56, including sales tax and coffee but not service. And there is also a fixed five-course dinner menu at $45. Here Antunes's skills run wider: a minestrone of crayfish; a terrine of eel with baby leeks; lobster basquaise with broad beans; delicious, plump smoked scallops with sautéed potatoes; and a pastilla of veal sweetbreads with red peppers. The lemon soufflé with light acacia honey should not be missed as long as you are with someone prepared to share her fresh fig tart with fig ice cream or the hot chocolate madeleine with almond-flavored cream.

The dramatic reduction in the cost of Antunes' food will allow you to enjoy the wine list and a very well-chosen range of cigars. Although the wine list is peppered with the top châteaux at impressive prices (three vintages of Mouton-Rothschild, four of Latour and three of Lafite Rothschild), there is now a selection of the better value French wines for everyday drinking and a section devoted to vins étrangers or foreign wine from the "exotic" likes of Italy, Germany, Australia and America.

The final section of the wine list is devoted to digestifs and cigars: five Montecristos, two Partagas, two Romeo y Julieta and two from H. Upmann, all of which are stored in an elegant humidor on a large French sideboard that stands impressively in the middle of the dining room. From it you can choose a well-kept cigar that will prove a fitting finale to a grand meal.

-- Nick Lander is a writer for the Financial Times of London.