mardi 12 juin 2007

L'Atelier Robuchon: smart restaurant

(Photos Hotel Pont Royal)
L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon is an innovative concept in restaurants from the chef that was once elected "cuisinier du siecle" (the 20th, obviously), along with Freddy Girardet, by his peers. It opened in Paris first, and since then has reproduced itself in London, New York, Tokyo, with awards and success.

In a black, sophisticated setting, a long bar goes around a grill/tepeyaki. You cannot really see the cooking going on, because you are far from the grill and out of sight from the non-grilling part. So you're really far away from eating in the kitchen, but there is still a more direct connection with the chefs that in a usual restaurant. Reservation is basically impossible and the place is very crowded around meal time.

Coming on a sunday night at 11.30, however, granted us immediate access to three seats without waiting (usually, you come, are told they probably won't have a seat for 45 min or two hours, and instructed to go have a drink nearby, where they will call you on your cell when there is a table for you). We were warned, that, contrariwise to French custom, the 12 am closing time is not the time for the last order being taken, but rather the time for the kitchen to actually close. We would therfore have to limit our ambitions in terms of exploring the menu but would be served quickly -- so much so that the third course actually came at the same time as the second ones.

All the entrees we had were more than delicious, more than perfect. The tartine de pied de cochons (pig's foot on toast), was intense and subtle, a perfect composition of consistencies, a touch of Parmiggiano almost went unnoticed but brought a fine balance to the foot's flesh, salad and toasted baguette (still: two small tartines, 19eur). Perfect and tasty glass of Languedoc red wine, without any sourness and many flavours, makes a good aperitif, although we are not offered anything to drink for long minutes after we were seated (10eur, lowest price for wines by the glass).
(Comme à la parade, Robuchon et ses boys)
Fresh anchovies and peppers are brought together in a very pictural and simple presentation: a rectangle, in the middle of rectangular plate, made alternate stripes of fresh anchovies and peeled, marinated red peppers. Both tastes perfectly reveal one another, and the plate once again is at the level of the best restaurants in the world. A plate of Bellota Bellota ham has nothing noteworthy except being delicious. I guess the reason they serve small dices of peeled tomatoes on small toasts of Poilane bread on the side is so you can't object that there is no cooking involved in this plate. However, they do not bring anything to the ham, which has enough to say by itself. See Chuck for more excitement on the topic of jamon.

The now classic Merlan frit is worthy of the pride of Robuchon (even if Gordon Ramsay in his autobiography pretends that he never understood what such a simple dish had to do in Robuchon's restaurant). It is paneed and deep fried. The fish flesh is tender, shiny, white. It is served with fried parsley and a little cocotte of the famous puree of Robuchon, half butter half ratte potato. It is obviously more of a sauce than an actual side dish, but a sauce whose richness is an excellent match for the simplicity of the fish, more so to my opinion than when it is served with meat (which also means that it annihilates its dietetic value).

(Photo Ajgnet)
This puree is obviously less of a match with creamed pasta, which happened that night in the form of six al dente macaronis lying in order next to one another, creamed I mentioned, also with veal and morilles mushrooms juices. This provides the base on which the flavour of the morille expands. Like the rest, the morilles were perfectly freshed, perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked. They were firm yet not hard to chew, and the said chewing revealed those characteristic forestry tastes. Cooking had sweetened, tamed the somewhat rough mushroom. Dices of foie gras and chicken kidneys, both roasted, completed the picture.

I should also mention the veal sweetbread, simply one of the best you can have, perfectly melty and tasty (other glorious sweetbreads include Bernard Loiseau in Burgundy and Rabaey in Switzerland -- there is much more to eat there in terms of quantity, but for much more than the 21eur of the Robuchon tasting sample). Also, a tartare-frites was irreproachable but, like the ham, had nothing more than that.

So the food was top notch, really impressive. But I have to tell you, the bread felt like it had spent two days in a plastic bag, and the desserts were plain bad (ice creams were still OK, they were out of tarts and petits pots, and the coffee and chocolate desserts we had felt like those industrial "desserts" you take out of the freezer and eat while watching 24 or football). And the service was not particularly attentive or helpful, with that impression that they are doing you a favour by serving you rather than you by coming.
On the whole however, my purely personal impression is that the place has no soul, with its black dressed personal that feels a bit like they are the security guys, or alternatively like they are about to sing corsican polyphonics, and that feeling of being part of a remarkably industrialised business. But it offers unique features: where else in the world can you eat a perfect ris de veau on a sunday night at 11.30? Where else can you have just a bit of a positively gastronomic experience, even if you are not hungry -- just a perfectly cooked whole lobster for 70eur, end of story? Here you do not have to have the appetite and time to make a full degustation menu, but you can do it as well (it will however end up costing almost as much as the degustation you would have had in a classical topnotch gastronomic restaurant). You can just pick up the thing you feel like that day. You also have a significant choice of glasses of wine. No two ways about it: a very smart concept, fit for our times, and remarkably implemented (that is, except for bread, desserts and service).

252eur for this three person dinner.

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