L’Atelier Joel Robuchon
The Four Seasons New York
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
(one visit, March, 2007)
Joël Robuchon is one of those chefs that makes gastronomes sit up and other chefs genuflect. He has attained an incredible status, not only in France, his native country, but around the globe, as one of the premier chefs of his and our time. The French love him, the Japanese adore (and can afford) him, and Americans – they either are agag in awe or don’t know what to do with him. His accolades are endless and his credentials a non-issue. When you are at Robuchon’s table, you are eating amongst gods.
You can read more about Joël Robuchon on his website. (If anyone figures out how to opt for the English or French version, please email me, I do not read Japanese.) You can also read more detailed commentary about each dish I tried on my flickr set.
What makes Robuchon and his food so appealing? In my estimation, it is a combination of things: precise technique, impeccable eye for detail, command of food knowledge, imaginative creativity, and unparalleled aesthetic artistry.
My experience was certainly only one of what could be among other potentially spectacular meals. Unfortunately, my recent lunch there was, to say the least, boring.
It’s not that the dishes I ordered or tried were uninteresting. In fact, they were fascinating. Caramelized eel layered with foie gras in a terrine, not a combination new to me, was perfectly executed – coated with a crisp gossamery sheen of caramelized sugar and served with whipped cream dusted with espalette pepper and chives (“L’Anguille“ $29). Amadai (tile fish) is pan-fried with the scales on so that the delicate flaky white flesh becomes sheathed with a crunchy coat of armor (“L’Amadai“ $27). And, I would be remiss in failing to mention “La Langoustine,” what has perhaps become one of Robuchon’s signature dishes – which features a single succulent prawn wrapped in tissue-thin brik dough with a basil leaf and served simply with a basil pesto ($17).
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.” Maybe from Paris?
Nothing I ate made me moan in ecstasy, nothing made my eyes roll to the back of my head, and nothing made me take pause.
Should it have? Was I playing a self-created cat-and-mouse game of chasing after expectations that others have helped me impose upon Robuchon?
After some consideration, I have come to this conclusion: At the prices Robuchon is charging, I expected every bite – that’s an average of two, maybe three, per small tasting portion – to be revelatory. They weren’t.
A Dali-looking plate of tuna tartare was excruciatingly fresh, finely chopped and formed in a cake and topped with a runny sunny-side quail egg ($24). But, it wasn’t anything extraordinary; I could get something comprably as fresh – and without the “fence” of julienne of dry and tough chorizo and floss-stringy chives. The tiny filet of venison, grassy and sweet, was near-perfectly cooked (we ordered it medium rare, but it was squarely in the medium temperature range), but without much more, was thoroughly ordinary for $25.
“Le Calamar” featuring tender, but not meltingly tender, ringlets of squid with a beautiful bundle of arugula, velvety violet artichoke hearts and a zippy “tomato water” was more successful ($20). Everything with this dish clipped along nicely until my teeth hit the cubes and julienne strips of that jerky-tough chorizo. They were impenetrable.
Sitting at the “Counter” is definitely the way to go. If you look past all the chrome-and-glass chic of the open kitchen and prep line, it’s really just a sushi counter – literally. Where the refrigerated fish is usually kept, Robuchon displays three bright coloured bell peppers. The advantage, over the tables, is that you can watch the Treky black laboratory smocked-like cooks prepping each dish.
Depending on the server(s) you get, you may also enjoy the additional interaction with the waitstaff at the Counter. We had a couple of surprisingly good-humored servers, who amused us with their offers to take a picture of the chefs for us.
Desserts were more visually stunning than gustatorily statisfying. Seventeen dollars each, the two that we shared were, as everything else, precisely plated and wildly creative, but really failed to grab me in any way. We ordered “Le Sucre,” perhaps the most talked about dessert served at L’Atelier. Like “Le Thon,” this could be a Dali creation… somehow, it reminds me of vignette from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It featured a golden transluscen orb of sugar containing saffron-honey mouosse and strawberry compote.
I’m not a sweet-tooth, and to that end, this dessert really failed to catch my attention. The best part of this dessert, besides its tremendously gorgeous presentation, was shattering the sugar globe and seeing all of the saffron-honey mousse filling, along with blood-red strawberry compote ooze out – a gorgeous seduction. I found myself enjoying three things about this dessert: the vanilla ice cream, the pomegranate gelee, which had a nice tartness, and the saffron-honey mousse for its wonderful flavor. (I was notified by an acquaintance that this dessert was taken off the menu a few days after my visit).
The chef also sent out a complimentary dessert for my friend and me, “Pampelmousse.” I commented to my companion that it looked angelic and heavenly – with the wall of gossamer white sugar crisp and frothy foams and meringue.
Mint, grapefruit and wine – who would think that would make such a great combination? I’m glad Robuchon did. This was a nice light and refreshing dessert – not cloying and immensely soothing. I could enjoy this on a nice hot summer day. At the bottom were whole wedges of grapefruit luxuriating in a white wine gelee. This was topped by meringue and a quenelle of very fresh mint sorbet (very herby – almost like basil). I preferred this dessert over the other. But, for $17 each, I could have done without either.
Perhaps the most impressive and satisfying parts of this meal were free (sort of). The amuse bouche of foie gras mousse layered with Port wine and topped with Parmesan foam was memorable – affecting a sweet yeasty brioche like flavor. The pre-dessert of almond cream with strawberry and tomato confit as well, impressed me.
I have no doubt that those who can eat with abandon (with regard to the prices) would enjoy L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon immensely. The food is fresh, impeccably plated and, for the most part, cooked properly. The flavors are all there. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), I am not in that privileged position. Everything was great, but not transcendent. For dropping over $100 per person on lunch (six “small tasting” plates and one dessert, all of which we shared between the two of us) – without even trying – I expect to be transported.
As many others have noted, the pricing structure at L’Atelier is absolutely unexplicably and seemingly unjustified. Some courses seem immensely over-priced, while others, by comparison, seem like a steal. Also, there seems to be quite some difference between the prices at the various locations (Robuchon has opened L’Ateliers in Tokyo, Las Vegas, Monaco and Paris. He plans to open “Counters” in Hong Kong and Macau in the near future.).
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon ***
Four Seasons Hotel
57 East 57th Street
New York, New York 10022
– Miserable: What else do you want to know?
* Okay: Go there if you want edible food, you won’t die, but disappointment is possible.
** Decent: Average food. Nothing to write home about.
*** Good: Memorable. Quality food and service. Would measure up to most standards…
**** Outstanding: Charmed. A jewel of a find and hard to beat.
***** Excellent: Flawless. Seamless, ie. must be very finicky to find something wrong…
****** Speechless: ‘nough said.