L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon – Paris
Strange phenomenon: It’s 6:25 pm and there are already people milling outside the restaurant. In New York, this would be nothing out of the ordinary; many places start seatings as early as 5:30pm. But this is Paris, a city that likes to eat fashionably late. At this time, many restaurants would not even have had their staff dinner yet.
Explanation: L’Atelier only takes reservations for 6:30pm. After that, you wait in line.
The door opens and we are shown inside. It’s a cave. Everything is black — walls, waiter uniforms, placemats, plates.
Everyone is shown to their seats along a u-shaped counter that wraps around a sizable open kitchen. Counter seating may be common place at high end restaurants now, but this was quite a novelty back in 2003 when L’Atelier opened. I remember the buzz it generated in the food magazines because Joel Robuchon, hailed “Chef of the Century” by the Gault Millau and collector of numerous Michelin stars, was “unretiring” and opening a place on the Left Bank with no reservations and *gasp* no tables. One can only imagine the number of raised eyebrows at the Michelin inspectors’ staff meeting.
We take our perch on the red leather bar stools and peer through to the kitchen. Edible art somewhat blocks our view. Cherry tomatoes on the vine, slices of carrots and cucumbers are suspended in clear liquid, contained in vases on wall units separating chef from diner. Despite the open kitchen concept, it’s as if Mr. Robuchon wanted to keep a little of the mystery, allowing diners to get a glimpse but not a full view of what was happening in the kitchen. Intimacy at arms length.
We pass on the tasting menu. It seems that as we age, our stomachs contract. We are no longer capable of consuming nine courses each in a night; instead, we order six small plates to share.
Le Crabe Royale. A signature dish with morsels of king crab sandwiched between luminous disks of rave. I say radish, but according to the French English dictionary, it’s either celeriac or kohlrabi.
La Chataigne. Velvety chestnut soup scented with celery and bacon. The bits of foie gras lurking underneath are a surprise.
La Langoustine. Two nuggets of sweet firm prawns encased in millimeter thin ravioli with a truffle infused sauce. Shredded savoy cabbage in the middle rounds out the food group.
L’os a Moelle, the high end version. That’s marrow out of the bone laid out on toast. It’s way too much fatty unctuousness for one person so it was good we were sharing.
Le Ris de Veau. Veal sweetbreads a little smaller than a hockey puck accompanied by softened onions hidden beneath the fold of that edible leaf.
L’Agneau de Lait. Baby lamb chops with thyme and a dollop of mashed potatoes. So tender and juicy, it was hard to resist the temptation of nibbling on the bone.
Le Foie de Veau. There’s a piece of sauteed calf liver hiding underneath those greens. Perfectly pink, sweet and succulent. We added this dish while our meal was already under way. The pretty greens and fried onions caught my eye as soon as the waiter laid it in front of the lady next to me. After subtly casting envious looks at her plate, I succumbed and flagged the waiter for the menu.
The calf liver came with a cocotte of the most memorable mashed potatoes I have ever eaten. Memorable not because of any new-fangled twist to a classic but because of the simplicity of its execution and the perfection it achieves. Nothing more than potatoes, butter, cream, and salt whipped into shape by a whisk, but so good that each spoonful leads to another.
It’s funny that in the US, most restaurants leave solid chunks on purpose to show their mashed potatoes were made from scratch. At L’Atelier, they are smooth, creamy and totally devoid of lumps. Despite this, there’s no way one would ever mistake them as coming out of a box.
Basil sorbet as a palate cleanser.
La Chartreuse. Souffle with pistachio ice cream. They stick a spoon into it when they serve this, hence the gaping hole in the middle.
Le Marron. Robuchon’s take on the Mont Blanc. The description mentions a vermicelli of chestnut cream on top of meringue. It’s a bit too sweet for me.
How does L’Atelier rate among all the other restaurants we’d eaten in this trip? It’s unanimous. Number one.