Discovering L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon: Le Menu Decouverte
Full review with photos: http://www.kevineats.com/2009/06/late...
The year: 1996. Joël Robuchon, at 50 years of age, was at the peak of his career, a giant on the French cuisine scene; his eponymous restaurant in Paris was rated at three Michelin stars, and he himself had been deemed "Chef of the Century." On the back of all this, Robuchon did the unthinkable--he announced his retirement. He wanted to go out on top, and was to serve his last meal on July 5, 1996, afterwards handing over the keys to his restaurant to Alain Ducasse.
Robuchon thus retired, but not really. He couldn't keep himself away from the kitchen entirely, and continued to act as a restaurant consultant. There were rumblings of a comeback, and in 2001, Robuchon returned, opening Robuchon à Galera at the Hotel Lisboa in Macau. But oddly enough, he stayed away from Paris. For that, he was crafting up something new, something revolutionary: gourmet counter dining. In 2003, Robuchon opened his Atelier, or workshop, in Tokyo and in Paris. Las Vegas debuted in 2005, with New York, London, and Hong Kong the following year. For L'Atelier number seven, I've heard rumors of Taipei, Tel Aviv, Philadelphia, and even Miami.
With L'Atelier, Robuchon wanted to break the fine dining mold, to create a dining experience whereby diners surround the kitchen. In his years off, Robuchon traveled extensively to Japan, and fell in love with the place; thus, it's not surprising that the idea behind L'Atelier resembles that of a sushi bar. At his restaurant La Cuisine de Joël Robuchon in London, Robuchon expands the concept even further--there, diners are literally surrounded by the kitchen (the entire restaurant, thus, is a "kitchen table").
Ordering at L'Atelier is probably best accomplished via the Menu Decouverte, priced at $148, though we did consider going à la carte as well; for that, there's the Dégustation menu of smaller plates, as well as typical Carte selections. A new option is "L'Unique," three courses for $39, served within 15 minutes, and available daily until 6:45. The cuisine at L'Atelier is French at its core, with touches from Spain and Italy, and is similar for all six restaurants across the globe. The Las Vegas location is run by Steve Benjamin, who also worked at L'Atelier in Paris.
Now, onfo the food:
1: L'Amuse-Bouche | crémeux de foie gras au Porto et son émulsion au parmesan
We got right into the menu, starting with a foie gras parfait topped with port wine gelée and Parmesan foam. Served in a large shot glass, the amalgam had an intensely cheesy nose thanks to the Parmigiano. On the palate, I noted port, foie gras, then cheese on my first bite, with subsequent bites have differing levels of interplay. Unfortunately, the Parmesan was a bit more apparent than I'd hoped for, stealing the show from the foie gras in a sense. This was also a heavy starter, and I would've appreciated something lighter.
2: Le Saumon Fume | dans une gelée marbrée aux sucs d'herbes, crème légère au raifort
Another dish served in a cup--here we have cubes of smoked salmon encased in an herb gelée, topped with a light wasabi cream. Now this would've made for a more proper starter. The salmon "aspic" was properly tarted up by the application of herbs, but the wasabi was even better, providing a fantastic foil to the fish, resulting in a lingering, spicy finish to the dish. Very nice!
3: Les Huitres | de Kusshi pochées dans leur coquille au beurre salé
Moving along, next was a trio of baby Kusshi oysters poached in salted Echiré butter. Kusshi oysters are a Pacific breed that bear resemblance to my favorite, the Kumamoto. They tend to be small, plump, and clean and briny in flavor--all pluses for me. Though I usually have my oysters raw, I loved the cooked presentation here, swimming in butter from Échiré, a town in the Deux-Sèvres department of western France. The oysters were served quite piping hot, and the initial flavor was of butter; it was only after a few seconds that the briny flavors of the mollusks became apparent. Lemon wasn't necessary, though it did add a pleasant acidic tang to the dish. This was simply one of the best preparations of oysters I've had, and I quickly gulped down all three.
4: Le Homard | à l'américaine aux asperges vertes
This was L'Atelier's take on Homard à l'Américaine, a very classic preparation of the crustacean. Though it's "à l'Américaine," the dish is decidedly French in origin; however, no one knows exactly where it came from. In any case, it was lobster cooked in olive oil, then served with a tomato-Cognac sauce, and finished with macaroni and asparagus. Though the course didn't break any new grounds in terms of flavor, it was delicious nonetheless. The lobster itself had a fantastic, crisp consistency and rich flavor, and was expertly balanced by the tartness of the tomato sauce, and the slight bitterness of the asparagus. The macaroni, meanwhile, added some interesting textural variation.
5: Le Foie Gras | en ravioles dans un bouillon de poule avec une fleurette pimentée
Our second variation of foie gras came in ravioli form, in a chicken broth, with a bevy of herbs including basil, mint, Thai basil, ginger, and espelette pepper. The raviolis gave me a pleasant pop upon mastication, providing just a hint of that signature liver sapor, over a backdrop of the complex, vegetal broth. My dining companion wanted more foie gras flavor, but I really appreciated its subtlety here. I even enjoyed the soup by itself, with its light spicy herbaceousness, making sure to consume every last drop.
6: Le Maquereau | filet sur la peau aux jeunes artichauts épicés à l'huile de gingembre
Now, I eat mackerel all the time in sushi form, but it is somewhat rare for me to have a cooked presentation. We have here a filet of mackerel, cooked a la plancha (on a flattop grill), with baby artichokes, mushrooms, bell peppers, and spicy ginger oil. Mackerel is usually a pretty oily and "fishy" fish, so I'm glad that the kitchen kept that characteristic here. The mackerel alone was quite powerful, so the use of vegetables really balanced out the dish; the ginger especially was a great contrast.
Supplement: Le Burger | au foie gras et aux poivrons verjutés [$32
]A beef slider basically, topped with foie gras and caramelized bell pepper, served with crinkle-cut pommes frites. The burger had an intense foie gras aroma, and biting into it, I experienced the very essence of foie, intertwined with just about the juiciest, most tender beef patty ever. All this would've been too much, had it not been for the veggies, which provided an absolutely crucial foil--excellent. My dining companion even mentioned that this was "20 times better" than Daniel Boulud's infamous DB Burger. And those crinkle-cut French fries? Best I've ever had--perfect texture, perfect saltiness--give me a whole bag please.
7a: L'Caille | au foie gras, caramélisée avec une pomme purée truffée
For course number seven, we were given two choices: quail or lamb, and naturally, we went for one of each. "L'Caille" is actually one of L'Atelier's most well-known dishes. It is a free-range quail, stuffed with foie gras and caramelized, served with truffled-mashed potatoes. Unfortunately, I felt that the foie gras was too strong for the quail, overpowering the bird's delicate taste. The quail was otherwise competent, but unexceptional, though I did appreciate the truffled pommes purée.
7b: L'Agneau de Lait | en côtelettes au jus et à la fleur de thym
A rather similar looking dish to the quail, we have here a roasted rack of lamb, au jus, with fresh thyme. Lamb and thyme is a classical pairing, and it worked well enough, making for a tasty though somewhat pedestrian experience. Nevertheless, the lamb went well with the included mashed potatoes, Robuchon's signature item. It's quite surprising that a chef of Robuchon's stature would have such a simple dish as his most famous, but it was indeed one of the best preprations I've ever had: creamy, rich, savory, and very fine.
8: La Peche | confite au Moscato d'Asti, lait frappé à l'abricot
And with that, we were off to desserts. Starting off was a peach confit infused with Moscato d'Asti, with apricot milkshake and sorbet. I quite enjoyed this, as the very quintessence of peach was captured so elegantly and yet so forcefully here. The pieces of confit were quite sweet, as expected, but were tempered by the relatively mild, creamy milkshake. The use of Moscato d'Asti added a slightly alcoholic tinge that set off the peach nicely as well. Superb.
9: L'Acai | en petites paillettes givrées, crème légère caramel
Last but certainly not least, we have an acai granité in a light caramel cream with cotton candy. Acai berry refers to the fruit of the açaí, or aqai, palm. It had a fairly tart, typical berry taste and thus was deftly countered by the caramel cream, which added weight and depth to the dessert--very good.
I must say that I was quite impressed with L'Atelier. Much of the food served would not seem out of place in a 3-star setting, and thus Robuchon manages to blend a proper haute cuisine experience with a friendly, interactive environment. Such natural reciprocity between chef and diner is almost Japanese in its approach, and is a fitting concept that does well in promulgating Robuchon's gastronomic aesthetic. So in the end, we have great food, in a setting that is simultaneously sexy and hip, even trendy--a request for Monsieur Robuchon: forget Taipei, forget Tel Aviv, forget Philly, forget Miami; for your next L'Atelier, make it LA!
Full review with photos: http://www.kevineats.com/2009/06/late...
Thanks! The photos didn't come out quite as good as I'd hoped for, due to the inconsistent lighting. Having both strong natural and ambient light was messing with my white balance. But yes, I'm starting to use a DSLR--not as convenient, but I think that the results are worth it.