As soon as people hear I have a food blog, one of the first questions they ask me is “so what’s your favourite restaurant in London?”. The question is almost always followed by an embarrassed silence as I rack my brain to come up with somewhere that has at least a whiff of the hip, happening or trendy to it. It’s one of those pressure questions that you just know is going to result in your being judged, either positively or negatively, for the rest of the night and so am I always loath to answer. You see, the thing is I have never really been one for scouring Twitter to see what’s cool on the restaurant scene and then trying to be one of the first people to go to that hard-to-find trendy pop-up serving only grilled cheese and kimchi sandwiches out of the back of a restored Winnebago in months ending with an R when the moon is full, somewhere in the Stoke Newington. I have nothing against grilled cheese sandwiches, pop-ups, Stoke Newington or, indeed, kimchi – but when I go out I want to be spoilt with food I would never dream of cooking at home, and this is one of the reasons why L’Atelier Joel Robuchon has been at or near the top of my list of London favourites since it opened.
French chef Joel Robuchon is rightly hailed as one of the great chefs of our time. He famously retired from his kitchens at the pinnacle of his career, in possession of six Michelin stars, but subsequently staged a comeback in 2003 to open a number of less formal fine-dining restaurants bearing his name throughout the world and currently hold more Michelin stars than any other chef has (and probably will) ever. L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon London opened in 2006 as part of this new line of restaurants and my first memorable visit took place in the year that it opened. I was recently invited back after chefs Xavier Boyer and Francois Delaire were respectively appointed as new Executive Chef and pastry chef , and I was keen to see what their new menu might be like. The restaurant has occupied the same building in the heart of London’s theatreland since it opened and is spread across three floors: Japanese-inspired counter dining around the perimeter of an open kitchen on the ground floor; more traditional table seating on the first floor; and a salon bar with a terrace on the upper floor. I had only every been to the salon bar at night and so was pleasantly surprised on this visit to encounter the terrace – a rarity in such a densely built-up area. It’s a small but tranquil space and it was here that my dinner companion Andrew and I enjoyed our pre-dinner cocktails. I had an excellent Gingerbread Manhattan consisting of bourbon, Maraschino, vermouth, gingerbread syrup and a home-macerated Maraschino cherry. There are a lot of strong flavours in here and I did worry that it might be overwhelmingly alcoholic and spice, but the drink was incredibly smooth with subtle and well-melded flavours – the cherry in particular was as distant from commercially-produced Maraschino cherries as you could hope for.
Cocktails done, it was time to be escorted down to the restaurant where we were seated at the bar – the first time I had managed this in three visits! The decor is vaguely reminiscent of a 1980s night club: low lighting (not great for photos!), perspex, and a lot of striking red and black but overall it works together to create a slightly decadent atmosphere. Being seated at the bar provides you with ample opportunity to watch the chefs at work and to chat to the sommeliers, but it’s probably best suited to parties of three at the most. The sommelier on duty on the night we visited was Tania Solito, who had an obvious passion for wines from her native Italy and came up with some outstanding wine matches for our food as you’ll see below. There are a number of menu options, including set lunch or pre-theatre menus (2, 3 or 4 courses for £31, £36 and £41 respectively); an a la carte menu; an extensive menu of small plates (£15- £22 each); and two tasting menus (5 course for £95 or 8 courses for £129, with the option of adding flights of matching wines). We chose to stick to the small plates menu and to share all our dishes so that we could taste as much as possible. We also asked Tania to propose one wine for every two dishes. While we were looking at the menu, we were served a glass of Veuve Cliquot Champagne as an aperitif together with some excellent warm mini baguettes and an amuse bouche of royale of sweetcorn with popcorn, aged port reduction and Parmesan foam. I loved the interplay of sweet/savoury flavours in the glass but was not a fan of the popcorn, which was chewy rather than crispy and did not add anything to the dish in my opinion.
The first pair of tasting plates to arrive were the sea bream carpaccio with lemon, poppy seeds and chilli pepper (£17) and scallops in their shell served with yuzu foam, baby leeks and lemongrass (£18). The sea bream carpaccio definitely won this round’s beauty contest – I loved the paper-thin slices of fish laid out in a single layer on the plate and sprinkled with poppy seeds, chilli powder and micro-herbs. The taste was equally sublime, with the lemon and pepper elevating the sweet flesh of the fish, and the poppy seeds adding crunch. That’s not to say that the scallops were not delicious – they were: big and buttery and subtly offset by the tart yet ephemeral yuzu foam . Both dishes were paired with a Pinot Bianco Vorberg from Cantina Terlano in the South Tyrol. This was a wonderfully complex wine, packed with pears and apples and with the added creaminess of wood maturation – more than a match for the food without overwhelming it.
The next two courses were the marinated black cod in miso served on a green peas and mint mousseline (£21), and the John Dory fillet on a tomato reduction with avocado vierge sauce (£18). I am a sucker for black cod miso and seldom fail to order it when I see it on a menu – and this version was a delight. The fish fell into juicy flakes at the touch of a fork, each edged with an umami-rich miso crust which was nicely balanced out by the sweet pea and mint mousseline. A gorgeous summery dish. John Dory is not a fish that one sees often enough on restaurant menus and this dish showed it off very well, pairing its sweet, mild flavour with a punchy tomato reduction and glorious little grape tomatoes packed with flavour. Both these dishes were matched with a Firesteed Pinot Gris from Oregon, a full-bodied and almost oily wine with rich tropical fruit aromas and flavours as well as a good amount of balancing acidity.
Up next were the some more robust flavours: langoustine ravioli with Savoy cabbage and foie gras sauce (£26) and from the specials menu we had a fricassee of lamb sweetbreads and kidneys with black trompette mushrooms. The fricassee was ordered at Andrew’s behest as I am not a massive fan of sweetbreads or kidneys, but I found the dish to be perfectly pleasant, if a little salty. Andrew loved it though. More to my taste was the ravioli – quite possibly one of the nicest things I ate all year. Each pasta parcel was packed to capacity with sweet langoustine meat and the added flourish of foie gras sauce brought a decadent meaty note to the dish. Truly spectacular. Both these dishes were paired with a glass of Marjan Simčič Sauvignon Blanc, a wine grown in Slovenia near the Italian border. The colour was golden and quite exceptional for a Sauvignon and the wine itself was complex and minerally, unlike any Sauvignon I had tasted. I found out later that the vines are grown on opoka (marl) soil and that the wine is only bottled in exceptional vintages, in extremely small quantities. It is also matured for 22 to 36 months in wooden barrels, accounting for its complex and unusual palate.
Up next were our final savoury plates: the beef and foie gras burger with lightly caramelised bell peppers (£19); and the classic free-range quail stuffed with foie gras and mashed potatoes (£17) which has been on the menu since 2006. I love the plating of the burgers, served slider-size with skinny fries and the red pepper sauce dotted artistically on the plate. The piece of foie gras is the same size as the burger patty, so you do not in any way feel short-changed on the foie gras. Your arteries won’t thank you, but your tastebuds will! And the quail is a dish that I loved the first time I tried it in 2006 and still do. It’s totally simple – some teensy weensy quail legs, stuffed with foie gras and then roasted (or maybe grilled?) to a golden turn. Accompanying them is the highlight of any visit to Joel Robuchon: mashed potatoes. I say mashed potatoes, but you could also called it “potato-flavoured butter” because the rumoured ratio of butter to potatoes in this version is 50-50. Either way, it is the most decadent thing you will eat this year – good thing they brought us a little extra pot alongside the artfully plated spoonful! These two dishes were paired with a Chevalier de Lascombes 2008 second growth Bordeaux Grand Cru from Margaux. This was everything a Bordeaux should be, with complex yet succulent flavours of blackberry and cassis, balanced out by liquorice and black pepper, an earthiness and some vanilla whiffs.
Before dessert, we were offered a glass of Veuve Cliquot Rosé champagne as a palate cleanser. I certainly did not need any more wine but it seemed churlish to refuse 😉 For dessert, Andrew ordered the La Baba au rhum – an orange flavoured baba with exotic Rhum and Melba cream with Tahiti vanilla (£11), while I chose the warm Guanaja chocolate soufflé and Sicilian pistachio ice cream (£11). The baba was gorgeous and suitably exotic looking but proved to be a little too sweet for my taste. The soufflé, however, was just up my alley – deeply, darkly chocolatey and light as a feather. The pistachio ice-cream was fabulous too, with not a hint of almond essence (it’s made in-house). As a final flourish, we were also served dessert wine with our desserts: Charles Hours-Clos Uroulat ‘Uroulat’ Moelleux from Jurançon for Andrew; and a Rudera Noble Late Harvest Chenin Blanc from South Africa for me.
I was pleased to find that I loved the restaurant as much as, or possibly even more than on my previous two visits. The menu has achieved the balance of preserving some old favourites while allowing chef Xavier to put his stamp on it. Attention to detail in terms of ingredients, flavours, technique and plating was evident in every single dish we had and there were several dishes that still had me dreaming wistfully the following day – particularly the sea bream carpaccio, the burgers and the langoustine ravioli. Our sommelier was excellent – not afraid to make slightly unusual pairing choices and opting for wines from Alto Adige and Slovenia rather than playing it safe with French classics. It’s not a cheap night out, and the fairly complicated platings may not be to everyone’s taste but they are exactly the kind of food that I dine out to enjoy. If you are after Michelin-starred modern European dining with a touch of Japanese flair and none of the fussiness that usually accompanies those stars, head for L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon.
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of L’atelier de Joel Robuchon but received no further remuneration and was not required to write a positive review. I retained full editorial control and all opinions are my own.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
13-15 West Street
Tel: +44 (0) 207 010 8600