A branch of L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon has opened in New York at the Four Seasons Hotel in the old Fifty Seven Fifty Seven space. Starting about two weeks ago and running for the next three it is going through a protracted soft open. This time (during which walk-ins are received, but reservations are not) is claimed to have been set aside to work out the menu and the service.
In general I am suspicious when the public is asked to pay full price while subjecting itself to the working out of kinks, but most of New York is clamoring for the chance to finally eat Robuchon’s food here in our town; before this the closest examples were in Las Vegas (which I might mention as interesting had he not opened the Japanese location prior to the Paris). It would seem the chef likes warming up.
In sticking with the “working out the kinks” theme, I offer this report in questionnaire format with the porn following.
What was your impression of the space at L’Atelier on a scale of 1-10? 8
Comments: The deep and glossy black and red room with its blond wood accents is aesthetically pleasing, feeling metropolitan by way of Paris, Tokyo, and New York all at once.
Did you sit at one of the bar seats around the open kitchen? Yes
How would you rate this experience on a scale of 1-10? 6
Comments: The bar is comfortable and gives one a good sense of the calm confident buzz in the kitchen adding a dynamic to the whole room. However the lay of the kitchen within the bar space means all you really see is the Garde Manger section, relegating most of the more interesting things you would want to witness to the background, or behind closed doors. With Opera glasses you could watch entrées being plated, but the cooking happens in the unseeable kitchen.
There is an awkward service aspect to the bar seating caused by the large blond wood partition that divides the customers’ and the kitchen’s sides which makes service, 100% of which is from the kitchen side at this point, somewhat discomfiting. I suspect this will be resolved by moving water service, mise en place, and clearing to the customer’s side, leaving just the presentation of courses to overcome the design obstacle, or else they will hire a ridiculously tall staff with superhuman reach.
Would you be interested in sitting at one of our tables in the future? Yes
Comments: As nice as it was watching the kitchen staff do their work in front of my seat, in the end I felt it was about an even trade for sitting shoulder to shoulder with my dining companions. I am sure I would have had as good a time exchanging some of the proximity with the kitchen for the ability to discuss the food with all of the other three diners attending with me (Helmet, Pichon and Deputy). All food is served by waitstaff rather than kitchen staff, making this more like a glorious diner counter than the interactive experience of a Hearth or Minibar.
How would you rate the presentation of our food on a scale of 1-10? 9
Comments: Every single course was beautiful. From the lemon amuse in the shot glass to the lavender sugar sphere that was a component of dessert, the food was plated in a manner that could only impress without going so far as to distract from the taste.
Overall, in comparison to other classically French fine restaurants you have been to how would you rate the food at L’Atelier on a scale of Wow, Enhh, and Blech? Enhh
Comment: There were a couple of Wows – like the crispy egg and caviar, and the lemon amuse – and there were zero Blechs, but on the whole the food seemed to lack by the slightest degree of seasoning, primarily salt, which left it in the middle of the road as far as fine cuisine goes; in the middle with obvious potential, but not at Wow.
How would you rate the execution of our service on a scale of 1-10? 7
Comments: Besides the awkwardness of receiving food from over the bar, I got two distinct feelings from the service. The first was that I was in the hands of a journeyman professional very secure in his position, comfortable enough to use simple, dismissive explanations like "Tapas," whether in spite of or because of our level of comfort. The second was that this journeyman professional was working here because it was a good job and not because he was passionate about this or any other food. On the whole, the service was very good but in no way exceptional. To be honest it felt very French, maybe on purpose.
Did you have our tasting menu? Yes
Would you recommend it to your friends? Yes
Comments: In its context and its progression I think the tasting menu was exemplary. It moved well and confidently from lighter tastes to stronger and my hunger was sated at its completion.
Did you sample dishes from our À La Carte menu? Yes
Comments: We requested a round of courses to be chosen from the favorites as an alternative to the tasting menu, and on the whole I would say the big hits were evenly sampled from both menus.
Are our desserts worth $20? Most certainly
Comments: Read any other report on the blog and it will become obvious I don't care for desserts; here I finished one and tasted another. The first was all about the play of sweet and sour, while the other was an herbal dish. Both were gorgeous, and a perfect ending to any meal. I may go back for dessert, and I am sure I have never said that before.
How would you rate the wine list on a scale of 1-10? 5
Comments: It feels like a list inherited from the previous restaurant, overpriced even by midtown hotel standards and scattered, with little in common with the menu.
How did you feel about the prices? Daunted
Did you find value in your meal? No
Comments: The pricing seems to hover at the absolute top end of what the market will afford for this chef in this town and this kind of food, and it is prohibitive. No matter how much wow factor a course had, it was hard to ignore that you were paying just a little past the top dollar for it. I have spent as much on food elsewhere before and felt those places contributed much more to my having a good time in exchange for the money. I have also spent far less for a better experience.
What does L’Atelier translate to? The Workshop
Would you suggest your friends come try L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon? Whether I do or not they will, he is Joel Robuchon and, like me, my friends believe his food should be experienced. I would not however declare your life will be changed by any of the dishes I had, even the potatoes, but each one had potential, and this is the trial run. They are so tortuously close to that subtle balance between room, ambiance, excellent technique, the finest product, and appropriate price that I intend to go again at least to try what I haven’t yet, but won’t be surprised if in the end I am left un-rocked.
Tasting menu porn In order:
Comments: Seriously amusing, tasting of creamy lemon with sarsaparilla or burdock notes. I'll be bummed if it is not there next time I go.
Sea urchin in a tender jelly, topped with a cauliflower cream
Comments: Perfect urchin in a layer of jelly, the bottom of which tasted deeply of shellfish while the top tasted far lighter.
Capellini dressed with tomatoes and Ossetra caviar
Comments: Tomatoes can't live without salt, and caviar definitely tastes of salt, but here a glorious quenelle of lovely caviar gave as little of its brilliance to the combination as the tomato did. All in all I wished the pasta had been served with just a simple touch of good salt and the caviar were put on another dish.
Crispy langoustine fritter with basil pesto
Comments: By far the best fried shrimp I have ever had, which I wasn't sure I needed, and still am not.
Soft boiled eggs on a spicy eggplant stew
Comments: Like an eggplant tangine that favors cumin in its spice blend. This was a dish that a touch more salt would have made all the difference in.
Cod fillet and an aromatic broth
Comments: Light light light. Light broth, ethereal pasta, fish so light as to almost go unnoticed.
Caramelized free-range quail stuffed with foie gras and served with potato purée
Comments: Finally the potatoes. Believe it or not, the thing that made Robuchon most famous to me was that he is literally famous for his mashed potatoes. Here they are topped with some of the nicest summer truffles I have had. The potatoes are very good, as for the rest of the dish the breast portion contained foie stuffing, a mousse which extruded itself upon cutting, and the leg was a little tough. Both were nicely gamey; while the sauce was rich, the herb salad played well to halt that in its tracks.
Green Yuzu granite with a Vervain jelly
Comments: Wonderful in the pre-dessert role; citrussy, licorice and all around refreshing.
Cherries served with a soufflé and bitter almond ice cream
Comments: I didn't taste, it was gone when my turn came.
Espresso coffee and raspberry macaroon
Comments: No picture, great petit-four, nice espresso (not the best though).
Other dishes sampled porn in no order:
Sautéed squid, baby artichoke, chorizo, with tomato water
Comments: This may have been made with concern to keep the squid from getting chewy to a fault. The squid was so tender that the dish actually seemed to lack a slight chew. I have seldom seen greens of this quality though. When you do your wine studying and learn about cynar, the oil in artichokes, and other thistles that make you perceive wine as sweet this is the type of preparation they are talking about. If you want this course plan your wine consumption accordingly.
Gazpacho soup with croutons
Comments: A jelly that tastes of great gazpacho with all its good and various notes represented. WOO-HOO?
Lobster in a turnip ravioli
Comments: The finest lobster salad I have tasted; again not sure I was looking for it, but it is great.
Poached baby Kusyu oysters with french salted butter
Comments: Cooked and seasoned just enough to be solely about brininess.
Crisp poached egg with Ossetra caviar and smoked salmon
Comments: When I go back it will be because of this course (not for it, it is $98 without tax or tip).This was the dish of the eve. Served just shy of warm, the soft poached egg in a nest of fried shoestring potatoes was about perfect medium for the caviar.
Beef and foie gras burger with lightly caramelized bell peppers
Comments: One all beef patty, one foie, spicy catsup, soft bell peppers, on a sesame seed brioche bun. Glad I tried and you should as well, won't need it again.
Violet and lychee sugar sphere, milk ice cream, wild rose and blackberry coulis
Comments: This is the other thing that will get me to go back (but in this case, for $20 I may get two). The most amazingly thin blown lavander sugar bubble full of creme anglaise and lychee slices with rose notes, wonderfully sour blackberry, and a milk ice cream to tie it all together.
Made another swing by L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon last week for a second look and truly enjoyed myself, as did my co-diners Bear and Pichon. On the inaugural trip there was no doubt that everything tasted was exceptionally prepared and gorgeous to look at, but all in all it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi. This may have been caused as much by reputation and expectations as newness and a light hand with salt. On this visit we sat, decided to take it slowly, going course by course as the mood struck us, and this time had a stellar experience.
For wine we had, in order, an ’04 Leroy Bourgogne, an ’00 Beychevelle, and an ’01 La Tyre du Brumont, all chosen as likely to be food friendly, which they were. We also had the same waiter as last time who remembered Pichon and me before the camera came out, speaking to an appreciation of return guests which is of course appreciated. He seems to have settled nicely into the familiarity with product he seemed capable of.
As for the porn:
LE JAMBON Iberian ham with bruschetta: hand sliced Serrano ham with the other traditional sausages of the pata negra, served with grilled bread topped with dense, cheesy French butter and the same grilled bread topped with concasséed tomato, garlic and olive oil.
LE FOIEGRAS Traditional foie gras terrine, with toasted country bread: Simple and perfect for it, a slice of foie gras paté and its fat cap served with grilled bread, sea salt, cracked pepper, and powdered ginger snap. Of my three assemblings, a bit of the fat cap spread on the hot toast with foie spread over the melted fat and a small bit of the three accoutrements sprinkled atop was slightly better than just the foie alone and a bit of the foie with pepper.
LES CUISSES DE GRENOUILLE Crispy frog’s legs, garlic purée and parsley coulis: I am currently reading Chelminski’s The Perfectionist which credits Bernard Loiseau with creating this interpretation of the classic Burgundian frog’s legs with parsley and garlic. Having missed Loiseau’s, I was both happy and eager to have the opportunity to taste it prepared by one of his contemporaries. The meat, having been frenched from the bone, gathers at one end making a plump little morsel encased in crunchy fried breading. Holding the bone, you simply swirl this drummette through the garlic that has had all its bitterness steeped out before whipping, and the parsley puree which is almost pure chlorophyll at this point. A very refined and restrained version of a traditionally rustic dish.
KOBE BEEF: A boned rib-eye of actual Japanese Waygu is presented whole and the waiter places a chef’s knife along the steak to let you decide how much you want (it is priced by the oz. offering a good opportunity to test your skill at eying a chop by weight; we aimed for a pound and selected 28oz., this was confirmed as ok by our waiter prior to cooking). The Kobe was cooked medium rare, presented, and then sliced and served with Robuchon’s famous whipped potatoes. The meat was amazing, more like Otoro than beef. Decadent on a transcendent level, it was closer to white than red on the color wheel. More a sensation than a flavor, this level of ingredient is very sparse in this town, even though its name appears on many menus. As for these poor potatoes meant to be the best in the world, to put it simply they pale to the beef. Robuchon’s potatoes are famous as being the borderline of a saturated solution between butter and creamy potato. Next to beef of this richness they seemed thin. I want to have and love these potatoes, but after two consecutive tries I still vote for Marco’s at Hearth. Next time I’ll have to get just the potatoes.
To be fair, it is not exactly hard to make things like Serrano ham, real Japanese Waygu, and foie gras taste good; it is, however, amazing to make them seem well worth their cost, and this was done in all cases. Nothing was cheap by any stretch of the imagination and at some point I worried I would suffer from sticker shock when I saw the check, but at the end of it all the bill presented seemed very in line with the experience, and in this town where I have ordered what should be opulent meals, paid opulent prices, and been let down that may be the feat in itself.