L’atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel, Arles 2

October 4, 2010

Jean-Luc Rabanel was named the 2008 Chef of the Year in France by Gault-Millau. In 2009 he received his second Michelin star. Linda and I had really enjoyed our meal at his atelier in 2007 and were looking forward to our return on September 16, 2010. The main restaurant had not changed since our previous visit. This is the view from my seat through the plain dining room past its serving area into the plating area of the kitchen.
 
We ordered glasses of Billecart-Salmon champagne, which were poured from a magnum in the big wine cooler you can see in the photo. There is no printed menu at the atelier and there are no choices; everyone is served the same thirteen-course meal for 85 €, although the friendly Maitre d’Hotel did ask about food allergies. Each dish is described as it is served, but my descriptions below are only our best recollections of quite complex dishes with some unfamiliar ingredients. Wine pairings are offered for 65 €, but we decided to order a bottle of 2003 Domaine de Hauvette from the nearby Les Baux-de-Provence appellation, a wine we had discovered when it was recommended on our previous meal here.  2003 was a hot year in the region and this is normally a strong wine so it was put into a carafe for us; it opened up nicely as the evening progressed. We enjoyed it a lot.

The first course was a tomato sorbet on a bed of dried olive tapanade granules, unidentified beige granules underneath, an oyster leaf, a cherry tomato, an almond and a crispy wafer.

The point here was the clear, good, seasonal flavor of the tomato in the sorbet, enhanced by a lot of garnishes with complementary flavors, most of them crunchy for textural contrast.

Alongside was a small bowl of gazpacho of wild garlic with cherry tomatoes and raspberries.

This had just the right level of garlic flavor and completed the dish very well.

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A vegetable tartine, spread with an anchoïade; lime sorbet

A slice of grilled bread had been covered with an anchovy flavored paste. It was topped with a variety of small vegetables. They had been selectively seasoned with a bit of oil or salt which really brought out the fresh flavors. On the right is a small ball of lime sorbet, which was a bit too acidic for my taste; the dish was so fresh it did not need its own palate cleanser. Jean-Luc Rabanel has his own extensive vegetable garden in the nearby Camargue. It provides for his extensive use of very fresh, seasonal vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruit.

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A “spring roll” of just-cooked green beans wrapped in a thin sashimi of dorade royale on an orange vinaigrette.
For this subtle dish, the chef restrained the acidity of the vinaigrette to the right level.

A small tomato bread was served with the “spring roll” and remained on the table afterwards.

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Thai-style stuffed eggplant.

Two lengthwise slices of eggplant had been cooked in oil and put back into a faux eggplant form. In between them were pieces of spiced diced eggplant, peanuts etc. There was an overall, subtle flavor of sesame oil and seeds enhancing the restrained Thai spicing. Excellent. 

Alongside was served a little glass of rosemary emulsion on a gazpacho base with a crisp eggplant slice.

This was a nice palate cleanser with complementary flavors. 

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A raviolo of piment d’Espelette with girolles, pistou of artichokes, pata negra emulsion, riquette and a bread crisp with balsamic vinegar.

This time the chef didn’t succeed for me with his habitual complexity, which usually works well. One could enjoy each ingredient, but the dish didn’t come together as a well conceived composition.

A small bread with dried fruits was served with this alongside the remaining tomato bread.

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A piece of filet of Saint Pierre with white coco beans, shellfish emulsion, little clams, confit fennel on top.

A nice dish, which brings out the flavors and textures of the sea.  I was reminded of the seafood dish at The Fat Duck, missing the cries of the seagulls and the surf.

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Pumpkin tempura beignets, jarret of veal, girolles, olives, jus de veau, cocoa caramel decoration

The chunk of veal shank had been braised for a long time and was luscious. The pumpkin was an appropriate accompaniment, but was a bit heavy. Thinner slices might have worked better.

Cremeau de chèvre, honey/rosemary gelée. Feuilleté of green olive paste.

This was a good, refreshing way to serve a cheese course in such a big menu. The goat cheese had been lightened with cream and was served on top of the honey gel. We finished our good bottle of Domaine de Hauvette with this. We had skipped it with some of the prior courses: artichokes, seafood, and so it lasted through the big menu until the desserts.

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Rosemary pannacotta, lemon gel on top, strawberry juice and strawberry sorbet.

The fresh strawberry flavor came through nicely, enhanced by the rest of the dish.

Hot roasted fig with ginger and orange; sorbet of spiced orange wine

The roasting and the ginger, orange and Moroccan spicing helped bring out the luscious flavor of the fig.

A chocolate log with piment d’Espelette on chocolate granules, raspberries topped with sweet red pepper, raspberry sorbet.

The chocolate was very rich; it was enhanced by the elegant heat of the Espelette pepper. The raspberry flavor was equal to and very complementary to the chocolate. Excellent.

Pastis sorbet wth anise gel, wafer, nut cake.

This concluded our meal with the archtypical flavor of Provence. It was logically served last, as pastis is a notorious palate killer.

We thoroughly enjoyed our meal and think that Rabanel is one of the most interesting and accomplished chefs in France today. He has his own style, quite different from Alain Passard at Arpège, who also emphasizes produce from his own gardens. Rabanel’s creations are more complex and decorated, which theoretically I don’t like, but in reality it worked very well for me here except for the raviolo dish. Mauro Colagreco at Mirazur was Rabanel’s successor as Gault-Millau’s 2009 Chef of the Year. He has a style like Rabanel’s and is also excellent at using fresh seasonal ingredients, including flowers, from his own garden. He gets a lot more publicity, but I don’t think he is quite as successfully adventurous.

This dinner was a significant improvement over our 2007 dinner in its planning and composition. There was a logical progression and little repetition. In his blog, Rabanel says that a meal should be considered as a whole and it is clear he was doing that well.

During the evening I was frequently reminded of my recent meal at Momofuku Ko in New York. There is the same no-choice many-course formula. There is the same successful inventive complexity, but Ko has a wider range of ingredients and styles. But L’atelier has a much nicer ambience. It is quiet and comfortable. It is not as expensive. While we didn’t have the wine pairings, the table next to us did and I could see that each wine was carefully explained as it was poured. I think they were mostly well chosen wines of the region.

As you can see, I had no problem taking no-flash photos in the well lit room. The one negative which L’atelier shares with Ko is the lack of printed descriptions. The two efficient young servers quickly announced the complex descriptions of each dish after they presented them, but one cannot retain all that in one burst.  As one explores the flavors, it would make them more interesting if their source were known. If the chef wants to retain the flexibilty and surprise factor from not having a printed menu of the day, he could have printed descriptions of the dish presented with each one. It would not be difficult with today’s computer printers.

We were quite surprised that twelve of the 28 seats were empty. This is a heavy tourist season in Arles, with one of the two big bullfight weekends just before our visit and the Rice Harvest Festival the following weekend. We did not see the chef, but were told that he was present, supervising a party in the new private dining room just off the kitchen. Two years ago he opened a bistro next door. Renovations are currently underway to expand the restaurant on the other side with a new entryway and sitting area for aperitifs. The dining room will be enlarged, but the number of tables will remain the same. 

We hope that Jean-Luc Rabanel will get the recognition he deserves. He is not shy, publishing his own blog, books etc. We urge you to go.

To see our blogpost from our meal three years ago click here.

The chef’s website:
http://www.rabanel.com

 

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