One of the things I really like about London is the fact that you can do iconic things pretty much whenever you want to. Take a boat ride under Tower Bridge. Go round the London Eye. Check out the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. Ride a red double-decker bus or a black cab. Pose with your favourite wax celebrity at Madam Tussauds. Marvel at Impressionist art in the National Gallery. See a smash hit musical live on stage. Or eat at a famous, Michelin-starred chef’s restaurant. (No prizes for guessing which one excites me the most!!) And they don’t come much more famous or more Michelin-starred than French chef Joel Robuchon.
After many years of working under well-known chefs and cooking all over the worls, Robuchon opened his first restaurant, Jamin, in Paris in 1981. He immediately won a Michelin star,;then another,;then a third. In the early 1990′s he closed Jamin and opened the eponymous Joel Robuchon, which soon also gained three Michelin stars. Despite holding a record 6 Michelin stars, he retired at the top of his game in 1996, but this didn’t stop his peers from voting him “Chef of the Century” in 1999. He returned in 2003 with a less formal concept restaurant, L’Atelier (amongst other ventures), and the London branch joins its sisters in Paris, Tokyo, New York and Las Vegas.
The space at L’Atelier feels quite unlike London. It’s sleek and dark and sexy, decorated predominantly in red and black, all low lighting and gleaming surfaces, with a cascading wall of live plants at the back of the room (very clever – I want one of these!). Upon arrival you are greeted by a gaggle of staff who take your coat and then escort you to where you need to be. I don’t know if they think that diners are a) too dim to navigate their way around the building, b) going to steal the silverware; or c) planning on gatecrashing somebody else’s private party if left unsupervised. But the bottom line is you can’t just meander from the bar to your table – or even use the lift on your own – you have to wait for an escort! There are two floors of dining – the one at street level consists of a long cafeteria-style bar surrounding an open kichen, with a few tables scattered around the perimeter; and the upper floor consists of a more traditional formal dining room. Their reservations policy is somewhat convoluted – you can only reserve a table in the formal dining room, not in the open kitchen area; and even once we’d arrived, alerted staff to our presence and asked for 4 seats around the corner of the bar, we were told seating is on a first-come-first-served basis and we were only guaranteed 4 places, not a specific table. Okeydokey.
As Johanna and I were still waiting for our respective partners, we allowed ourselves to be escorted to the top-floor bar. The bar is another very sexy space. The lighting is very, very low and there are big, plush cushions on the sofas and a gas fire twinkinlg away in the corner. If I were having a secret rendezvous with somebody, I might well come here. No, wait, I forget – the tables are so close together that you are forced to listen to the conversation of the braying bankers next door no doubt celebrating in anticipation of their record bonuses. Grrr. Anyway, after a rather spectacular citrussy daiquiri we requested an escort and were taken back up to the dining room.
We were seated at a table, as opposed to space at the bar, which meant we lost out on the kitchen sideshow but it certainly made conversation easier. There are various menu options to choose from: a menu of smaller grazing plates, a more traditional a la carte and a £55 tasting menu of about 9 dishes. The only thing to bear in mind with the tasting menu is that the whole table has to order it; but since we all wanted the tasting menu, this presented no obstacle! First out of the kitchen was the amuse bouche (on the left): a roll of smoked salmon, nori seaweed and celeriac puree with sweet pepper coulis. This was tasty and prettily served, but nothing exceptional. Up next was the first course as listed on the menu: a velouté of avocado on a vegetable fondant dotted with cumin oil. The “vegetable fondant” was lightly jellied gazpacho as far as I could tell, with still-crunchy little nuggets of cucumber set in a tomato “fondant”. It was pleasant, but nothing spectacular. As for the veloute, I am a big fan of good avocado, but this particular specimen seemed to have lost the buttery, creaminess of fresh avocados and tasted rather more like supermarket “guacamole”. I would have to say that this dish didn’t work particularly well for me – and substituting some salt for the cumin might not have hurt!
The next dish marked a turn for the better: scallop cooked in its shell with a seaweed butter. Note use of the singular form: when they say scallop, one is all you get – a single (albeit huge!) seared scallop. And although it may have been cooked in its shell – which I seriously doubt – it had previously been removed and de-roed which I always think is sad as I love scallop roe. Either way, this was seriously delicious. The scallop was properly seared: crisp edges on the outside, meltingly undercooked on the inside. Heaven. The seaweed butter hit the perfect flavour note as well and, unlike with the gazpacho, this needed not another drop of seasoning – its fresh flavours were clear as a bell. Up next was something I would never have ordered, had it not been included in the tasting menu: crispy crumbed frog’s legs with sweet garlic mash and parsley coulis. Frog’s legs has always been one of those dishes that I can’t bring myself to eat because as a kid I… loved frogs! And I always figured the poor little things! Then as I grew older I just thought “what’s the point?” – you’d have to eat like 50 frogs’ legs just to feel halfway satisfied! So I managed to get through almost 4 decades without trying these, and then decided if I’m going to try them, I’m probably in good hands with Monsieur Robuchon’s team! The frog’s legs arrived looking (to be honest) like the world’s smallest chicken drumsticks, with a generous dollop of artfully smeared, intensely green parsley coulis and garlic mash. The overwhelming taste of the frog’s legs was the crispy coating and (I think) a little garlic butter inside the batter. I did try the flesh on its own but a) there was precious little to try and b) it really does taste like chicken. Really. So interesting, but probably not something I’d bother to order again. However… what came with the frog’s legs – now here’s one of the reasons I don’t mind paying for fine dining. The devil’s in the detail. When the waitress brought out the frog’s legs, she also brought two square black plates, each holding two shot glasses of some sort of scented liquid, scattered dried rose buds and what looked like 2 large-ish white antacid tablets. Hmm. Just as we were about to ask about these, she picked up the “tablets”, plopped them each into a shot glass and… voila – they grew! No really – the soaked up the water and suddenly shot up into little squishy white towers! Dehydrated, compressed hand towels – whatever next?? Johanna and I were quite enchanted! It was a great exercise in turning something as mundane as a hand towel into a bit of tableside theatre, and I’m a sucker for that stuff
After the slightly shaky start and the underwhelming frog’s legs, it seemed as if things moved up a gear from here on. The next dish was pure sensuousness: egg cocotte topped with a light wild mushroom cream, served in a martini glass. This was wonderful. The egg was barely cooked and the wild mushroom cream/foam was truly indulgent. The earthiness of the mushrooms and the comforting runniness of the egg made for the most grown-up comfort food imagineable. Delicious. And the next dish was similarly impressive: pan-fried seabass with stewed baby leeks and lemongrass foam, topped with a sun-dried tomato and strands of crisp fried lemon grass. I have to say that I have seldom had such a delightful piece of fish. The texture was firm and just-cooked, the foam was light and zingy, and the crispy lemon grass made a good foil for the chewy sun-dried tomato. A really light yet satisfying dish – and beautifully plated. The last of the savoury dishes was also, in my opinion, the highlight. Much has been said about Joel Robuchon’s legendary mashed potatoes (reputedly 50% or more butter!) and they put in an appearance at the end of the menu in the free-range quail stuffed with foie gras and served with truffled mashed potato – probably the most opulent thing I have ever eaten. Quail is another of those things that I never order as it doesn’t seem worth the effort. But this one was rather different. The skin was deliciously caramelised and provided a perfect foil for the gamey meat and the morsels of foie gras that gently oozed out as you cut the meat. And then, of course, there was the potato. Calling it a mash is far too crude a term – it is more like whipped clotted potato cream (if that makes any sense) and it is Total Heaven. I wanted a giant scoop of this, although I suspect the richness works best as a small scoop! The only disappointment on the plate were the truffles scattered on the potato. They had, simply put, the taste, smell and texture of cardboard. Not a hint of that delicious truffle aroma or flavour. Definitely surplus to requirements on this otherwise magnificent plate of food.
From there, we moved on to what was described on the menu as “Francois’ duo of desserts – presumably Francois gets to choose which two he wants to serve on a given night? We sat back and waited to be surprised. Up first was a really gorgeously presented little chocolate pot: three layers consisting of white chocolate ice cream, milk chocolate mousse and bitter chocolate mousse served in a ceramic shot glass. The layers themselves were good (particularly the bitter chocolate mousse) – I would only have left out the scattering of Oreo cookie crumbs on top which added a gritty and unappealing texture. But what I loved most of all was the plating of this dessert. On top of the pot was an achingly thin disk of excellent chocolate dotted with circles of red chocolate. This echoed the red lines on the gunmetal-coloured serving plate which I first took to be part of the ceramic glaze, but later discovered to be streaks of the red chocolate. Scattered around on the plate were tiny chocolate spheres (dusted with edible gold dust) which I can only describe as mini-Malteasers. Inspired! And the drama queen within me adored the gold-dusted spoon, a theme which was continued in the next dessert. This turned out to be a Chartreuse soufflé with pistachio ice cream and surprisingly, given its lack of chocolate, this was my favourite dessert of the two. It just blew me away, in fact. The soufflés were perfectly light and fluffy and the servers brought them to the table with separate bowls containing four scoops of pistachio ice cream. Each soufflé then had a hole poked in its centre (something I’d never be brave enough to do to my own soufflé!) and pistachio ice cream carefully scooped into the hole. This meant that while you were eating the light, herby Chartreuse souffle, the pistachio ice cream was melting and infusing the whole dish with a nutty sweetness. A perfect end to the meal.
The service throughout was efficient and friendly without being overly so. It was sometimes hard to hear what was in a dish (as announced by the servers) because of their heavily accented English, but this is a not a problem confined to this restaurant. The sommelier in particular should be singled out for praise. He asked us some sensible questions about our budget and the type of wines we liked before suggesting a red and a white, and didn’t pressurise us to open both at once – we drank the white first, considered out options and then went on to the red. I’m afraid I made no notes (mea culpa!) and can only remember that the white was French and not something I was familiar with – a full-bodied and interesting wine – and the red was an excellent Cotes du Rhone. both of them were in the £35-45 price range. Staying on the beverages, when we were offered coffee or tea, Johanna and I both requested fresh mint tea, which was prepared for us even though it is not officially on the menu, so more bonus points there.
For the four of us, including pre-dinner drinks, two bottles of wine, water, and service, the total came to £380. Given the quality of the food and the level of service, I did not find this excessive for London at all. Tasting menus can easily run to £100 per head before you’ve had a sip to drink! The food was all gorgeous to look at and mostly wonderful. The few low notes (the vegetable fondant and the frog’s legs) were neutral rather than disasterous and more than outweighed by other wonderful courses. Now I want to go back and try the a la carte so I can put together a “greatest hits” from the tasting menu! For an inventive yet informal dinner with a couple of friends, this is a marvellous option.
Verdict: inventive food, beautifully served at affordable prices. Go.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
13-15 West Street
Tel: 020 7010 8600
And for another version of the night’s events, go and read Johanna’s expert write-up of our meal.