L’ATELIER de JOEL ROBUCHON
New York, New York
April 2007/October 2007
Let me explain first how Robuchon is set up. You can either have a seat at the bar or sit at a regular table. There are pros and cons to both. If you manage to get a seat at the rectangular-shaped bar, you will get a front row view of what’s going on in the kitchen. To see what’s going on in the kitchen of Chef Robuchon (even if he’s not in the house) is a big part of the “entertainment” aspect of the meal. In fairness, the front of the open kitchen is basically where all the cold dishes are prepared while the messier work of grilling and sauteing is done in the rear. It is however, very exciting to see such talented people cook such simple but ultimately extraordinary dishes.
Drawbacks to sitting at the bar include the fact that service can be a tad awkward in that the staff is either in front of you or in back of you trying to arrange your silverware, pour water and wine, bring courses and clear away dirty plates. Another distraction is the intimacy of the conversations around you. If you find yourself having to listen to the guy next to you talk endlessly about medical situations not particularly appropriate for lunch time chatter, opt for a table.
When Robuchon first opened, they offered an express lunch menu of three courses for a little over $40. A couple of years later the price went up to $59* but it was still the best deal in town for a high end restaurant. (* Starting with the summer of 2008, they stopped serving lunch entirely citing incredible overhead.)
The first time we went to Robuchon we sat at the bar and worked our way through the express lunch; Lynn had the roast chicken, I had the turbot. We were however, eyeing the sliders everyone else around us seemed to be eating and vowed on our next visit we would, too. You see, these weren’t just your average old sliders, these were handcrafted tasty little beef and foie gras burgers crowned with lightly caramelized bell peppers sandwiched between lovely little buns. (Why when I’m describing that dish does it sound well, incredibly sexual?)
The next time we went to Robuchon we decided to try a table rather than a bar seat and worked our way through an incredible meal of “light bites.” Lynn and I each had the vitello tonnato to start – a dish one so rarely finds on menus these days, that it’s a sacrilege not to order it. Robuchon’s version consisted of four generous slices of paper-thin veal covered with the tuna sauce plus a sprinkling of tomatoes and greens. (If I had been eating this dish at home, in private, I most likely would have licked the plate clean.) A king crab with mozzarella and avocado salad was up next followed by crisp sweetbreads followed by day boat scallops.
Even with the “light bites” we were eating (but unfortunately not a “light” price tag), the chefs working the kitchen kept sending out “treats.” These included a shot glass partially filled with a warm liquid foie gras then topped with a port wine reduction and frosted with a parmesan cream; a bread basket filled with baguette, two kinds of foccacio and rolls with a generous disk of French butter with a sprinkling of sea salt on the side; a “palette cleanser” in a shot glass composed of a giant raspberry surrounded by grapefruit gelée and grapefruit ice.
Finally, they brought out the sliders, giving us an extra one since normally the portion is confined to three. The four on the plate were sublime and truly to date the best burger we’ve ever had. The irony of being in a “French” restaurant and having the #1 burger of all time was not lost on us.
We finished our sliders and dessert was up next. Dessert at Robuchon, like the rest of the meal, was simply amazing. Our choices were a pastry of the day, sorbet or the chocolate special. We opted for the chocolate special but not before a bowl of mint ice cream (but not your grandmother’s pale green mint but a mint the color of pesto) with grapefruit sections, something frothy and a crystal sugar-like disk topping off the bowl were laid in front of us.
Pre-dessert!, I loved it. And everyone else around us was licking their lips, too. When they brought out the chocolate special it was truly a work of art. Creamy chocolate mousse was ladled into a beautiful cranberry colored glass mixed in with a crunchy chocolate cookie and topped with a milk chocolate disk with some gold leaf and tiny droplets of red, yellow and brown colored cream. They looked like melted M&M’s but tasted like the best chocolate in the world.
Ultimately, to eat at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon is expensive but the food is gorgeous and if gorgeous had a flavor it would taste like what these chefs are crafting.