L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, NYC

April 28, 2009

There are Ateliers de Joël Robuchon in Paris, London, New York, Las Vegas, Taipei (Sept 2009), Tokyo and Hong Kong, but I had never been to one until April 18, 2009.  I was alone, as Linda was at a concert with her sister that evening, and so I couldn’t really complain when I was seated at the very end of the U-shaped counter. I eventually figured out that one can see more of the preparation from there than from the central seats which have all kinds of decorative items blocking their view, although they can see the flames of the grill in the back of the kitchen.

The Atelier‘s NY website declares

“Dissolving the boundaries between kitchen and dining room, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, whose name refers to an artist’s studio, allows a dynamic interaction between chef and diner, yielding direct access to the creative process. Seats are arranged around a V-shaped bar that looks directly into the kitchen; what was once behind-the-scenes becomes center stage.”

This is misleading propaganda. In fact, in front of the diners is a counter at eating level and then a second counter about shoulder level. On the other side is a shelf for staging dishes, implements etc. Then there is a space for the servers and hosts to move about and work. Then there is an interior U-shaped structure with a lot of decoration on it, behind which are two or three sous-chefs plating and decorating dishes. Sometimes this was interesting, but at other times boring. I watched fifteen minutes of stripping tarragon leaves from their stems at one point. The kitchen is as removed from the counter diners as it is anywhere else. All of this is not to disparage the excellent rapport I developed with Salah, my host behind the counter. Many others also served the plates; however, it was only Salah who served my wine and discussed things with me. He was born in Aswan, grew up in Alexandria and has been in NY since 1977.

The menu is quite complex with à la carte and “small plate” offerings, but I made things simple by ordering the Menu “Découverte” at $190, plus $125 for the wine pairings. Happily, Salah brought a small copy of the menu and propped it up in front of me. A basket of bread was put on the counter.
jra
The olive foccacia was particularly good; I used it as a palate cleanser when needed, although I usually do not eat much bread with my meals before the cheese course.

The amuse-gueule was a foie gras mousse with a port wine reduction topped with Champagne foam.

Nice

Then the menu started:
LE KING CRAB
en fine raviole de navet au romarin à l’aigre doux
King crab in a thin turnip ravioli with rosemary
KLUGE “SP”, Albemarle County, 2004

Very thin slices of turnips which had been lightly pickled served as the tops and bottoms of the two ravioli. They gave a nice counterpoint to the crab filling. This was served quite cold. The California sparkling wine was good and appropriate.

LES SAINT-JACQUES
en carpaccio aux graines de pivot grillées
Scallop carpaccio with toasted poppy seeds
SAUVIGNON BLANC, Raphael, North Fork of Long Island, 2007

This was really a cevice. The thin slices of sea scallops had been lightly marinated in lemon juice which did not dominate their good delicate favor. The poppy seeds, snipped chives and little flowers were a good topping, adding a bit of needed crunch. This formula is also used with langoustine on the à la carte menu. This was also served a bit colder than I would have liked. The local wine was nice; the scallops needed a somewhat tart sauvignon blanc like this to offset their flabbiness. 

LA LANGOUSTINE
en papillote croustillante au basilica
Crispy langoustine papillote with basil pesto
CHARDONNAY, Kumeu River, Auckland, 2005

The langoustine is Scottish, but seemed very fresh. The rice paper crust preserved the flavor of the langoustine and the basil leaf during the quick cooking, as well as providing the right textural contrast. The pesto for dipping was good. You can see the little finger bowl provided because one ate this with the fingers. The NZ “Chardonnay” tasted like a mediocre Sauvignon Blanc. When Salah asked me how I liked it and I told him, he poured me a glass of Hanzell (Sonoma) Chardonnay which tasted like a Chardonnay should.

LE FOIE GRAS
chaud de canard au gratin de pamplemousse
Seared foie gras with gratinated grapefruit
GEWURZTRAMINER “Reserve Personnelle”, Domaine Weinbach, Kayserberg, 2006

This was okay; there was nothing wrong with it, but it was not interesting if you have had seared foie gras a few times before. The underlying grapefruit with apple chunks was not a pleasant flavor and made it impossible to taste the dabs of ginger ketchup which might have been interesting. One sad point is that this dish recently replaced another, still shown on the website, on the Menu “Découverte.”  Adam wrote:

The late autumn menu brought La Châtaigne, a chestnut velouté with celery foam and foie gras. This is my single favorite dish from L’Atelier (and, apparently, Aaron’s). It’s also the single most delicious dish I’ve ever had in the US. Chestnut and foie gras: what a brilliant combination. The warmth of the nutty velouté with the creamy foie gras was nothing short of enlightening. The addition of celery foam added a textural element that bridged the gap between liquid and solid; and even more importantly, brought a hint of vegetal bitterness to tame the sweetness of the chestnut. The ratio of foie to velouté was immaculate, ensuring that each bite had some of each. In every regard, a truly stunning dish.

Darn. On the other hand, the Alsatian Gewürtztraminer was scrumptious and a good match for foie gras.

L’AMADAI
cuit en écailles et servi sur une nage au yuzu et bulbes de lys
Sauteed amadai in a yuzu broth with lily bulbs
LANGUEDOC, Mas de Daumas Gassac, 2007

Amadai is a Japanese snapper. As the French description says, it is sauteed with the scales left on because amadai is notoriously difficult to scale. Here they simply fry to a papery crisp. The yuzu (Japanese citrus) and lily bulb broth has just the right level of assertiveness. On top are shreds of something and a shiso leaf. Salah seemed to think that Daumas Gassac was a little known discovery and seemed deflated when I told him it was the white wine for my big 65th birthday dinner. It was good as always.

LE BŒUF
de Kobe poêlé avec shishito grillés
Kobe beef “a la plancha” with shishito peppers
TEMPRANILLO, Pesquera Tinto, Ribera del Duero, 2005

Kobe beef is surely a treat I am glad to be served, but I find its hyper-marbeling creates a fattyness that diverts my attention from the good flavor. I would rather be served a filet of grass-fed Charolais. Below the beef is a dab of mustard sauce that did enhance it. On the upper right is a generous spoonful of Joël Robuchon’s famous purée. Since it has as much butter as potatoes, it was not exactly an offset to the Kobe beef, but I enjoyed it. I really liked the Shishito peppers; the dish needed more of them to counterbalance the fat onslaught. The Kitazawa Seed Company says:

“This mini, sweet-hot, thin-walled green pepper is popular in Japan.  These 3″-4″ long peppers with wrinkled skin are used in tempura, yakitori or stir-fries. High in vitamins A and C, these peppers are hotter than bell peppers, but not as hot as chili peppers.”

Pesquera Tinto is nice, but is hardly a discovery. For the one red wine in the pairing I think they could have added more value by finding a discovery among the world’s thousands of red wine choices.

The predessert was a lemon grass mousse with passion fruit tapioca. A good palate refresher.

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LA POMME VERTE
ganache légère au chocolat Jivara, glace au gingimbre
Light Jivara ganache, green apple brunoise and ginger ice cream

I really enjoyed this, both visually and for its successful flavor combination.

LA PERLE DE CHOUX
crème madame à la vanille de Tahiti, croustillant au sucre muscovado, coulis rouge épicé
Crunchy pate à choux with Tahitian vanilla cream, spiced red fruit coulis
MALVASIA/MOSCATO, La Stoppa “Vigna del Volta” Passito, Emilia Romagna, 2005

This was supposed to be the featured dessert, but I did not find it to be close to the high level of the first one. It was okay, but ordinary. The pinkish sweet wine was also okay and ordinary. 

LE CAFÉ EXPRESS
et son chocolat
Espresso coffee served with salted caramel chocolate
 

The meal was very good, except for the boring foie gras and second dessert courses. Only the crispy langoustine was memorable. This menu is more expensive than the menus at our recent meals at Jean Georges, Chanterelle, Le Bernardin, WD-50, Le Cirque and Momofuku Ko. Only Per Se cost more. L’Atelier was certainly better than Jean Georges and Le Cirque, but it was not better than the others.

When I arrived at 6:30, there were five pairs of diners at the twenty-seat counter, plus me. By 7:00 two of the pairs had left and no one else had arrived. The tables were half full. Quite a few people arrived at 7:30, but the restaurant was not close to full when I left at 8:30. I enjoyed the counter experience, but only because Salah had plenty of time to spend with me. After 7:30 I saw a lot less of him. This isn’t even remotely the same counter experience as Momofuku Ko where one is a few feet away from the actual preparation and the contact is continuous with the actual cooks.

Another aspect I couldn’t judge was the possibility for interaction among the diners at the counter. This was important at Momofuku Ko. At L’Atelier‘s counter I had a wall on one side of me and an empty bar stool on the other. Just beyond that was a couple exhausted from an afternoon of Siegfried at the Metropolitan Opera. We did chat a little and I enjoyed looking at the beautiful plating of their à la carte dishes.

Unfortunately, I never dined at Jamin, the restaurant which made Joël Robuchon’s reputation. I have had Sunday lunch twice at Restaurant Joël Robuchon in Monte Carlo, which is nice, but nothing special considering the price. His restaurants around the world have a total of eighteen Michelin stars, more than any other restauranteur’s. Gault-Millau calls him the “Chef of the (last) Century.” He has just been awarded this year’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” at the notorious “World’s Fifty Best Restaurants” event. Was I unusual in not being overwhelmed? Ulterior Epicure said in his blogpost:

So, what was missing?  I hate to say it, but the experience lacked soul. Nearly all of our dishes were executed with precision  – but, with almost a too robotic rigor. The whole experience was a little too clinical – sterile. As someone on a food forum once described another restaurant experience, the food seemed “phoned in.” 

While Aaron and Adam say that L’Atelier is their favorite New York restaurant, their enormous multi-meal blogpost is more nuanced. Marc gave it his top NY rating shared only with six others. Food Snob says (of the Paris Atelier:)

The title may hint of a meaning more in line with the Atelier method in art, wherein master artists run a studio of pupils who collaboratively compete in the creation of works made in the school of that master. This last sense pessimistically suggests that one should not expect ‘Robuchon’, but just an imitation of it.

Chuck, damning with faint praise, says it deserves its one Michelin star. Aïste says: “Bravo.” Well, there is a wide range of opinions. Anyway, I was glad I went. My disappointment came from the high price and the high ratings to which my meal did not measure up. So I walked out into the beautiful spring night in NYC and admired the tulips on Park Avenue.

The restaurant’s website.
http://www.fourseasons.com/newyorkfs/dining.html

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