One of the things I love best about London is the abundance of choice. I might go and see a musical; you might prefer classical ballet; or even an experimental dance company from Montenegro. I might choose to go and see Billy Bragg playing his singular brand of political folk music while friend might prefer to listen to Adele warble on about rolling in the deep; and yet another friend might prefer to go and hear a DJ pumping out hard house tracks at a funky club. Or (purely hypothetically, of course!) I might choose to dine in a Michelin-starred restaurant while hubby will only visit steakhouses, and another friend might prefer the many and varied pleasures of KFC. But the problem with so much choice is that it often paralyses you with indecision and instead of constantly trying out new places, you end up going over and over to the same places.
That’s the only reason I can think of why I have left it seven years to venture back to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon after my initial visit back in 2006. It’s been too long – it really has. Joel Robuchon is the French chef wunderkind who famously retired at the pinnacle of his career, in possession of six Michelin stars. He launched his less formal L’atelier Joel Robuchon concept in 2003 and his London restaurant is part of this venture. Just as I remembered, you are not allowed to wander off to find your table alone but are escorted every step of the way (even in the lift) – but that is probably because the layout is so confusing, with two separate dining areas on different floors plus a basement bar.
The occasion for this visit was to celebrate Air France’s 80th anniversary, which will also be celebrated by a dedicated website and an Airbus A380 and A320 that will be specially painted with the anniversary logo for a year. The reason for the choice of venue is the fact that Joel Robuchon has for the past couple of years been one of the chefs devising some of the dishes on the Air France Business Class in-flight menu. Can you think of a better antidote to the usual airline food “chicken or beef?” culinary purgatory? After drinks in the bar, we were escorted to our table and presented with our menu for the night – the 8 course tasting menu with matching wines chosen by the sommelier. It went something like this:
L’AMUSE BOUCHE: Royale of foie gras topped with a Maury reduction and Parmesan foam. Served in a single shot glass, this course’s size was in inverse proportion to its outright deliciousness. The royale turned out to be something akin to a wobbly foie gras custard, given sweetness by an oxblood-coloured slick of Maury reduction. The Parmesan foam was ephemeral in texture and added a hint of salt. Perfection. This was followed by LE CAVIAR: Caviar served on a bed of crab meat and lobster jelly. What I loved about this dish was the presentation – it arrived in a little branded Joel Robuchon tin which was opened by our waiter at the table to reveal what seemed to be only caviar. But once you dug your little mother of pearl spoon in, it soon became apparent that below the caviar was a layer of intensely flavoured lobster jelly covering a layer of sweet white crabmeat. With three of my favourite flavours in one dish and a novel presentation, this course could not fail to impress. The matching wine that had been chosen was the 2012 Godello Vina Godeval, an artisanal wine from Galicia in Spain – crisp and citrussy with a racy acidity and a great foil for the rich, briny seafood (which brought out some delicious slightly honeyed notes in the wine).
Up next was the LA NOIX DE SAINT-JACQUES: scallop with a chicory salad with mustard dressing and white truffle. I love dishes like this that rely 100% on the quality of simple but excellent ingredients and the way in which they interplay. The scallop was delightfully buttery inside and seared to a golden crisp on the outside; and its creaminess was wonderfully offset by the crisp chicory shoots and mustard dressing, while the earthy truffle added some musky depth of flavour. This was paired with a truly unusual wine (new to me, anyway!) – a 2012 Rivaner Domaine clos des Eglantiers from Luxemburg. The grape is an unusual cross between a Riesling and a Sylvaner and the wine had a simply spectacular nose of flowers, lychees and gooseberries with a full but more restrained palate. This was followed by a the LE HOMARD D’ECOSSE: scottish lobster with baby spinach and a Malabar black pepper sauce. I loved the plating for this, in a bowl with each element in distinct yet rubbing shoulders. The chunks of lobster were sweet and fat; and the sauce (a surprising dark brown jus) also featured some smoky lardons. I would never have thought to pair such a sauce with lobster, but here it worked fantastically well. I also loved the crisp shard containing the pepper which added a sculptural element to the plate. The matching wine chosen for this dish was the 2009 Chardonnay Le Clos Jordanne from the Niagara Peninsula, Canada. This also had a wonderful, fruity nose of pear, apricot, melon and buttery toast notes but was far more structured than expected on the palate with subtle wood and a good acidity.
The next course was a study in umami and another of my favourites and a study in umami. LE SHIITAKE: Shiitake mushroom with duck foie gras served in chicken broth with gingerbread spices I could have polished off a rather large bowl of this. A clear, gently spiced and expertly salted broth held sliced shiitake mushrooms, a minced chicken meatball (for want of a better word!) and small cubes of foie gras that resembled nothing as much as cubes of meaty butter. It managed to be light and indulgent and richly flavoursome, all at the same time. The matching wine was a 2010 Leeuwin Riesling “Art Series” from Margaret River in Australia. This had quite a shy nose with notes of jasmine and a palate packed with refreshing citrus flavours – but it was when you drank it with the food that its hidden superpower to intensify the flavour of the shiitake came to light. A fantastic match! This was followed by out final fish course of LE SAINT-PIERRE: roasted John Dory served on “Paimpol” coco beans and chorizo. I had never heard of the beans before but the are a particularly thin-skinned variety of white haricot beans originating in Latin-America but now grown in Brittany, France – and boy, are they tasty! The fish was cooked to just-flaky perfection and its mild flavour was given a smoky kick by the chorizo and satisfying starchiness by the beans. Such a simple but deeply comforting dish! This was matched with a 2012 Karmis Contini, from Sardinia which had a delightfully floral nose but a crisp acidity on the palate. The final savoury dish was the only one I had tasted before, back in 2006: LE CAILLE free range quail stuffed with foie gras and mashed potatoes. Not just any mashed potatoes – Joel Robuchon’s rumoured-to-be-50%-butter-and-50%-potato mashed potatoes. The quail, as always, is not something I’d necessarily order in a restaurant as it’s so small and fiddly but it makes sense here: given the richness of the dish, anything larger would be dangerous! Hidden inside the caramelised quail leg is a seam of foie gras, like some sort of minature gourmet turducken. And then there is that mashed potato…. What I haven’t pictured is the fact that they brought us a few soup-bowls of the stuff in addition to what was on our plates because there is no way you’d stop after a singe scoop. It remains one of the most memorable things I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant. This was paired with a 2011 Saint Laurent Weingut Heinrich from Burgenland, Austria, a red wine with surrisingly ripe dark berry flavours and spicy notes.
The final two courses were desserts, both of which were served in obviously bespoke serving dishes – part of the attention to detail that I love at this restaurant. We started with LE CITRON: lemon on acacia honey jelly and yoghurt lightness perfumed with yuzu. I loved the lightness of this, both in terms of consistency and flavour. The visible part of the dessert consisted of three textures of citrus: a pannacotta-like sphere; a sorbet quenelle; and a yoghurt – but hidden below was a base of perfumed acacia honey jelly to add a touch of balancing sweetness. The final dessert was richer – LE DÔME: chocolate sponge cake on a dark fruit mousse topped with Valrhona Dulcey chocolate sauce and “dome” Again, the presentation could not be faulted and the dessert arrived underneath a hard chocolate dome in which impossibly perfect circles had been cut – imagine a practice gold ball in chocolate form! Both the chocolate sponge and the caramel-coloured chocolate sauce were rich and sweet but the dark fruit mousse saved the entire dish from being too rich. To match this, our final wine was a 2011 Banyuls Domaine Les Clos de Paulilles , a rich and unusual fortified red dessert wine from Languedoc-Rousillon. Believing in our inexhaustible capacity for food, our waiter brought a plate of mignardises with coffee, consisting of homemade marshmallow squares; chocolates filled with salted caramel, and still-warm raspberry financiers (my personal Achilles heel!). As a cheeky request, somebody asked if we could get the mignardises as a doggy bag – and within minutes we were each presented with a stylish branded Joel Robuchon box containing our mignardises! The financier was spectacular with coffee the next morning.
The evening reminded me of why I loved L’Atelier Joel Robuchon so much the first time I visited – a combination of unwavering attention to detail, service excellence without being stuffy; and truly delicious food. The tasting menu we had is available for £129 per head (£194 per head for the international sommelier’s selection of matching wines that we had, or £214 with matching French wines). It’s not cheap, but for a special occasion, it’s definitely recommended – and those mashed potatoes are life-changing.
DISCLOSURE: I attended this dinner as a guest of Air France but received no further remuneration to write this post and all opinions are my own.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
13-15 West Street
Tel: +44 (0) 207 010 8600