Last March, I heeled up to the counter at “McRobuchon” at The Four Seasons in New York and had myself one expensive yawn. At least, that’s how I characterized it in a blog post.
But, that was a sensationalistically broad-stroked summary. If you read that post, you’ll see that L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon is much more than a yawn. For those who are willing to engage in it, it’s a dialogue. And, that is why, more than a year later, I, the ever-willing food conversationalist, decided to return.
As previously observed, the food at L’Atelier is not the type that will raise goose skin (though the prices may). It’s not the kind of cooking that will make you slap the table in heated excitement or cause you to vault out of the restaurant in maddened, gustatory ecstasy.
My initial indictment against Robuchon’s food was that it “lacked soul.” It’s perfectly executed and extremely thoughtful, but shockingly expensive. My second meal reconfirmed this.
Is the food “haute” (this was a topic of a lively debate among my foodie friends)? I say that it most definitely is. Is it French? Yes, some of it is. A lot of it is Asian, and leans toward Japanese in that respect. But, some of it is Italian, and pan-Mediterranean too.
Robuchon’s food defies definition (except, expensive). It’s not molecular gastronomy. It’s not classically anything, either. To call it contemporary seems inappropriate too. As noted, Robuchon’s creations draw upon multiple cultural cuisines and techniques. Even the plating style is entirely and wholly L’Atelier – what I call Star Trek, with a pinch of Asia.
The food at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon is mystical. It’s otherworldy. It’s mesmeric. It’s the type of food that, I think, is better experienced and/or more properly appreciated alone, or with just one other, very focused and like-minded eater.
There’s a sense of wonderment that requires reflection. It makes you slow down.
And, largely for this reason, I think the food at L’Atelier can be lost on the (common) American palate. This style of eating seems more in tune with Asian approaches to food.
To wit: Two American businessmen plopped down at the counter near us at noon. It was their first visit. As if trained at birth, they zeroed in on the (Kobe) burgers (they’re more like sliders) and were out by half past. There was also an American couple, clearly quite well-off, at the other end of the counter. They were very much distracted by her sunglasses, which kept sliding off her head throughout their meal. They didn’t like anything. And, they hadn’t even ordered. When they finally decided that neither the lobster (Maine lobster in sherry vinegar mayonnaise over iceberg lettuce) nor “L’Onglet” (that it was “Japanese” hangar steak caused some concern, although they seemed not to question the origin of the beef in the Kobe Burgers, which were suspicious because they contained liver (foie gras), and therefore axed) would kill them, they seemed to be a little more at ease. They didn’t bother to stay for dessert. Apparently, she had tired of ordering things she couldn’t pronounce.
In contrast: a Singaporean business man perched two seats down from me ordered two dishes after a significant, but not terribly lengthy exchange with the server. A first-time visitor, there was a lot to take in. There was a lot to consider. Flavors, certainly, but textures as well as presentation were also important to him. As his (and our) meal progressed, I noticed that what had started out as a quick meal turned into something much more than a refuel. He let his appointments go (a number of calls and emails were dispatched from the handheld). He ordered more. Clearly, there was a dialogue happening.
Admittedly, this scene is not representative of the behavior of most clients at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. The people that I happen to have shared the counter with were clearly characatures of the average diner. I suspect that most fall somewhere along the spectrum between the Singaporean and those burger-obsessed Americans. But, I did find the reaction and interaction with the food by my countermates quite telling, and not surprising.
The wonderful thing about Robuchon’s food is that it relies on simplicity and freshness.
Many of the dishes at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon are a couple of shades more subtle than one might expect given the vivid colours and striking presentations. Nuances are played to the fore. Certain ingredients are pulled back in order to let others shine.
L’Anguille makes the perfect case study. The slice of terrine involves alternating layers of eel and foie gras. The top (eel) layer is brulee with blowtorch right before serving.
The foie gras-obssessed might be disappointed with this dish at first bite. Instead of enjoying foie gras, unadulterated, the foie gras melds seemlessly with the eel such that neither tastes entirely of itself, nor of the other. Each one’s flavor chases the other’s around under a canopy of caramel sweetness, the circular flirtation interrupted only by momentary side glances at spice-and-herb from the accompanying chives and whipped cream dusted with piment d’espelette and sancho chile powder.
Even though I’ve had this dish before, and, even though I’ve encountered this combination (in Europe) before, Robuchon’s L’Anguille forces me to pause and pay attention to detail. If you want to taste that foie gras, and Robuchon knows that you do, you have to be especially attuned to what you are tasting.
Here is what a friend and I ordered on my first visit:
The dishes we repeated this time were L’Anguille, L’Amadai and La Langoustine (Robuchon’s “signature” dish at L’Atelier; it was a must-order for my friend, who was a first-timer at the restaurant). I won’t discuss these dishes further; by and large, they have not changed (this is what I meant by “robotic rigor”) since last time (you can read my thoughts about them here). The only observation I’ll make is that the wrapping for La Langoustine is now rice paper, instead of brik dough, which was what Robuchon had previously been using.
If the menu weren’t cumbersome enough (at least according to my sunglass-troubled neighbor) in French (with English subtitles), Robuchon isn’t afraid of redundancy.
For example, there are three dishes called La Langoustine. Two are on the “La Carte des Plats en Petites Portion Degustation,” or small tasting portions, menu and one on the more substantial “Entree Froides et Chaudes” (cold and hot appetizers) menu.
There are also three La Saint Jacques on the menu. All, of course, involve La Saint Jacques, or, “sea scallop.” The two we tried further exemplified Robochon’s simplistic approach to ingredients and flavors.
La Saint Jacques in carpaccio form was better executed than the whole, caramelized scallop dressed with Cancale butter on a half-shell. Although there are few things more enlightening than fresh lime and imported butter, there are few things as traumatizing as even the slightest over-cooked scallop. Unfortunately, this buttered scallop was slightly traumatizing, and its over-doneness shocking given the otherwise exacting nature of L’Atelier’s kitchen. (As an aside, the kitchen is (besides being very quiet) very French. The expediting chef, who also seemed to be the Alpha male en campe, spoke only French to his crew members, many of whom were clearly native English-speakers, but also conversant in French.)
The more successful La Saint Jacques featured raw scallops sliced width-wise, and fanned out on to the plate. The (chilled) pavement of scallops is painted with olive oil, dusted with chives and pepper, topped with three “tongues” of sea urchin roe and garnished with fresh dill and micro frisee, which, even now, I remember as being *extra* grassy and sweet.
The scallops were exceedingly fresh – the dollar coin-sized slices made an excellent wrapping for the creamy, sweet sea urchin roe. It was served at the right temperature; I could taste every corner of flavor in the scallops and the sea urchin. There was just a tinge of acid somewhere in this dish that put a nice contrast to the creamy and rich textures of this composition. The flavors here were delicate; pretty, almost.
But, Robuchon also has an incredible knack for concentrating flavors too. Our amuse bouche is great example. The tiny shot glass of orange liquid tasted like a million tomatoes radiating with peppers and onions. The drop of olive oil and balsamic added a twitch of grassy sweetness and the teeny chip of crouton floated on top was nothing short of a crunchy garlic bomb.
Speaking of bombs, the Spaghetti was one big umami bomb. $39 for a moderately-sized bowl of meatless spaghetti seems shockingly unreasonable. And, it is *shockingly* unreasonable. But, there was something precious in this pasta – morels. And, there was not an insignificant amount of this ephemeral Spring gem of the woods in this dish.
The intensity of the Parmesan penetrated everything. It was in the broth. The noodles tasted as if they were made partly from Parmesan. The morels tasted as if they had been brought up on a diet of Parmesan. Sounds absurd, but it’s the gospel truth.
Yet, for all the “Parmesanizing,” the dish was not overly-salty. In fact, somehow, the toasty sweetness from the pasta was coaxed out in contrast. The textures – sturdy noodles (cooked to that exact degree of firm doneness, but not a smidge beyond), buttery broth, melting curls of cheese, and soft-meaty morels – were wonderful.
Les Ris de Veau also moved the savory quotient to a new level. It puzzles me that something so wonderfully delicious should need euphemistic names like “sweetbreads” and ris de veau, literally “the calf’s laugh,” or the “the joy of the calf.” Properly cooked, they’re immensely better than anything I might imagine as a sweet bread or a laughing calf.
Robuchon pan-fries them until the outside is just cooked and the inside is molten and creamy. It’s sauced with a rich veal jus and sided by a green leaf of wilted romaine lettuce folded at the spine and stuffed with hammy, smoky, salty minced pork fat and topped with a buttery emulsion. There’s a sprig of spring laurel tucked under the sweetbread. Warmed, the mini-branch imparted a woodsy perfume that complimented the hammy, rich flavors.
La Lotte offered perhaps the most dynamic marriage of flavors of any dish we ordered. Nuggets of monkfish on a carpet of silken carpet of melted leeks were treated to a Mediterranean confetti of chorizo, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, and pine nuts. I cannot emphasize how meltingly soft the leeks were, nor how wonderfully bold the combination of flavors was. It was sweet, tangy, woodsy, savory, salty, briny and grassy all in one bite.
I rarely fawn over a dessert. And, I didn’t (fawn) over the legendary Le Sucre, which despite its entirely organic and celestial presentation, failed to capture my admiration as much as the other Robuchon desserts I’ve tried. (Upon inquiry, I was informed that the pastry chef who created Le Sucre was re-stationed in the restaurant’s Tokyo bureau. Along with that pastry chef went the dessert. It is no longer on the menu at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in New York.)
Of all of the outstanding dishes that L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (NYC) has to offer (and that I have tried), the Le Multi-Saveurs warrants ones flight, not sprint, to the restaurant. Conjure up your best superhuman effort.
Unlike Les Herbes, which has all the finesse and imagination of a four-star dessert, Le Multi-Saveurs, despite its exotic-sounding name, targets the lowest common denominator. It takes a cheap shot at those chocolate-lovers among us and hits the bull square in the eye.
The perfect bite is achieved by shattering the chocolate stick studded with gold-leafed feuillatine and plunging one’s spoon through the ginger ice cream, red fruit puree and pushing down through the dense Jivara chocolate ganache at the very bottom so that all layers, and a piece of the crunchy stick, are captured. It is heavenly. It’s like chocolate and cherries – but a thousand times more intense.
The server tried to tell us that the red fruit was raspberry; but I suspect it was more than just raspberry; there has to have been cherry as well. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, there was a single macerated cherry enrobed with the puree off to the side of the ginger ice cream (think Maraschino cherry, but infinitely more real, and better). I cannot articulate how good the chocolate, red fruit puree and ginger ice cream went together. Of course, the crunch from the chocolate feuillatine stick was also indispensable to the success.
Les Herbes involves pineapple coulis in a bowl layered with frothy Chartreuse sabayon and topped with a pastel green quenelle of herb sorbet. It’s light. It’s tropical. It’s refreshing. And, it wouldn’t be half the success that it is without that little sprig of mint that garnishes the composition.
I’m discovering that mint, used in the right quantities and in the right places, can be quite the star ingredient. Mint sorbet is what made Robuchon’s Pampelmousse so great. It’s not the most unimaginable combination of flavors. But eating it makes one pause and appreciate the wonderfulness of a coupling, which, at the hands of anyone else might not be so brilliantly conveyed.
I suppose, this is why L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon is more than a yawn. It is thoughtfulness – even the bread, which is made in-house, is amazing (the Kalamata olive-studded focaccia is nothing short of life-altering). And, for those who can look past the price tag (which, I will admit is very distracting), it offers an immensely rewarding gastronomic conversation. I’m lucky to have experienced Robuchon’s cooking. I look forward to more opportunities in the future.
You can see all the photos from my latest meal on Flickr.
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
Four Seasons Hotel
57 East 57th Street
New York, New York 10022
For a more comprehensive review of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon’s repertoire, my friend Aaron and his buddy Adam at A Life Worth Eating have tag-teamed a three-part Part One focuses on La Carte des Plats en Portions Degustations (small tasting portions menu) and Les Entrees Froides et Chaudes (hot and cold appetizers), Part Two dives into Les Poissons et Viandes portion of the menu (more substational, main course-sized fish and meat dishes), and Part Three wraps up the trilogy with La Carte des Desserts.