Monday, December 26, 2016

Lunch @ L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Paris

Over the years, I have been fortunate to visit several of Joël Robuchon's many Michelin starred restaurants around the world (he has 28 stars worldwide!), like the very solid meal we had at the casual 2 star L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Tokyo, or the one starred L'Atelier in London, or the kicked it up many notches and far more innovative, also two starred, dinner at La Table de Joël Robuchon, also in Tokyo.  So when I saw that there was a L'Atelier in Paris, I knew I needed to work it into my agenda.

We opted to visit for lunch, as the lunchtime prix fixe was one of the most reasonable Michelin starred meals I could find in Paris (and, Paris sin't exactly hurting for stars).  The experience was everything I've come to expect from the L'Atelier brand: an open kitchen where you could enjoy watching the elaborate plating, a very well crafted menu with perfect execution (but not necessarily the most exciting), and a highly consistent experience.  Its like McDonald's in that way.

We had a very good meal, at a price that is just unbeatable.  I'd gladly return again when in Paris, and will continue to seek out more Joël Robuchon restaurants worldwide. 

The Space

Fancy Foos Ball.
When you enter, the first thing you see is a very fancy foos ball table.  Yes it works, and has a ball, so you can play.  I'm sure there is a story behind this, but I didn't look it up.  I didn't do much research on this restaurant, since I pretty much knew what to expect from the L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon brand.

After our meal, I convinced Ojan to play with me.  The most shocking thing about it?  It was really quiet, which you wouldn't expect with all the plastic and metal parts.
Classic  L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Red & Black Decor.
A few more steps into the entrance, and we were greeted by a very familiar decor.  I instantly felt welcomed and at ease.  In a city where I couldn't read any signs, and I felt like a fish out of water, suddenly, I knew this!

Everything was red, black, and glossy.  While not exactly the same as either of the other L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon locations I visited in London or Tokyo, it was pretty much the same esthetic.

I was amused by how comforting this felt to me, in the same way that I'm sure places like Starbucks or McDonald's feel to others.  Familiar, safe, something to rely on, no matter where in the world you are.
Counter Seating, Open Kitchen.
Like all the L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon locations, the concept is counter seating around the large open kitchen.  There was a small side (private?) room as well, but basically everyone sits at the counters, served by waitstaff from behind the bar.  Bar seating isn't the most comfortable, but they did have padded barstools and purse hooks, which alleviate a lot of the discomforts normally found in bar areas.

As always, I loved watching the kitchen.  I like watching cooks in action in general, but at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, they take it up so many notches that you can't help but be fascinated.  Even Ojan got engaged a few times to watch.

This kitchen runs like a finely tuned, extremely perfectionist, machine.  The number of staff is a bit daunting.  The ratio of diners to cooks couldn't have been more than 2:1.  And each staff member is busy.  But never frantic.  That was one thing that struck me.  Everyone was working, hard, the entire time, but they never were rushed.  No one was running around.  They were also fairly quiet.  Focused, precise in their actions.

Even more amazing was watching a cook work on a particular dish.  Say, a salad.  First, he or she would prepare the mise en place ... for a single salad (or two if there were two orders in at the same time).  But not a big batch.   That is, a single radish would be sliced.  Two tiny tomatoes.  Etc.  Each component would go into a bowl.  And only then would he start composing the dish.  Different elements were all seasoned individually.  There wasn't just a bunch of dressing mixed in, or a sprinkle of salt and pepper at the end.  So incredibly deliberate and precise.  There were lots of little tweezers in use.

The individual care went into every single ingredient, not just those where you can argue that the freshness obviously matters like with fresh, raw vegetables.  Even the sides, like frites or mashed potatoes, were done to order.  Yes, a single order of fries was fried at a time, a single tiny bowl of mashed potatoes painstakingly passed through the sieve.

You would think that this would make for slow service, but given how many cooks there were, the pace of the meal was absolutely fine.  I wouldn't have wanted anything faster (or slower).

Speaking of service, it was good.  Only a French menu was provided, but our server happily ran us through the entire menu in English, as she did for many other diners.  She was perfectly pleasant when we ordered the cheapest menu, didn't add any upgrades, or even order wine.  Our dishes were cleared soon after we finished, never so fast we felt rushed, but clutter was never left around.  It isn't the fine dining style with someone who comes to brush the crumbs up after you, and when I went to the bathroom my napkin wasn't re-folded for me, but really, I prefer this casual but attentive service, it is much more comfortable.
Place Setting.
The placemats were pretty cute, made from a hard paper, with a sketch of the Eiffel Tower on them, fitting given our location in Paris.  Behind that was a sketch of a bowl of produce, which matches the decor of the restaurant as well, as it too had the signature (fake) fruits and vegetables in glass displays everywhere.  (I still think the produce looks incredibly real, especially the bell peppers, so don't think this is a tacky way to decorate).
Lunch Menu Options.
At lunchtime only, L'Atelier offers the best valued Michelin starred dining I have ever found (which I'd say if they had only 1 star too, but it totally insane for a 2 star place!).  You just don't see pricing like this ... anywhere.  For 44€, you get a 3 course meal (starter, main, dessert).   If you'd like more, for 54€, you can add a second starter, plus coffee or tea.  Or for 84€, 2 starters and 2 mains.

That sounds too good to be true, right?  You might think that that price means that the menu is fixed, and you have no choices.  Or that the portions are tiny.  All not true.  You get your choice for each course, and you have many options.  The portions are all full size.  Oh, and they add in an amuse bouche, generous bread basket, and mignardises.  That's right, they don't skimp on the extras just because you are doing the "cheap" option.

So they must make up for it by upselling the drinks?  Well, nope.  A red, white, and rose wine of the day are all offered, in the very reasonable 9-12€ per glass range.  They gladly served tap water.

Everyone seated around us also ordered the lunch menus.  I didn't see a single dish go by that came from the a la carte menu, although the full menu was available.  For context, the regular tasting menu is 179€, starters range from 33-59€ (excluding the 88€ caviar), mains are 44-79€ (not counting the 158€ turbot for two), or you can design your own degustation from the small plates menu, where everything is (30-40€), and the portions really are small.

So yes, this is an incredible deal.

The Food

The food was incredibly solid.  The starters and desserts in particular were elaborately plated, and, even though we didn't love everything we ordered, that was mostly due to what the dishes were, rather than any shortcomings in execution.  The kitchen showed talent all around.
Bread Basket.
Once we placed our order, a bread basket was quickly placed before us.  Inside were 5 rolls.  Strangely, 4 were the same, and one was different.

Like all L'Atelier locations, the bread was served cold, and without butter or oil.  The folks next to us requested butter, and it was provided.  I previously found that I never really cared about having oil or butter, because I knew the dishes would have sauces that I'd want to soak up, and the bread would be perfect for that.

The 4 rolls were rustic style and ... sourdough.   Sigh.  Not in San Francisco, and still, the sourdough follows me?  I don't like sourdough!  It had a good crusty crust, soft and fluffy inside, but still, sourdough.  The odd one out wasn't sourdough, so I claimed it.

I wasn't thrilled with this bread basket, particularly when compared to the incredible fluffy croissant-like roll I loved at the Tokyo outpost (served with super cute petit pan a l'âme erre and petit baguette too),  or even the kinda lackluster bread basket at London location (it had sliced bread!).  But I wasn't there for the bread, so I didn't really care too much.

Very soon after the bread basket, an amuse bouche was presented.  I somehow didn't get a photo of it?  I'm losing my touch!

Anyway, it was a fried little red quinoa ball, filled with a creamy puree of some sort.  It was crazy crispy on the outside, since it was fried and the shell was made from quinoa, and the inside was warm and creamy.  A great little bite, full of contrasting textures, and it actually had some spice to it, so there was some kick too.

My palette was quickly awoken, job done!

Starters

Starters were broken into two sections, hot or cold, with 3 choices each.

For cold, there was haricot vert salad, octopus carpaccio, or tomato gazpacho with burrata (a 12€ supplement).  For hot apps, there was an artichoke dish, a poached egg and mushroom dish, and crispy fried shrimp (also a 12E€ supplement).

I was tempted by the gazpacho because I love burrata, but, decided it wasn't worth the 12E€ when I was choosing this place based on value.  After I saw the poached egg dish get delivered to a few other diners, I wished I had picked it.  I don't like eggs really, but it was in this amazing mushroom veloute, and when the yolk burst open and mixed in it looked so luxurious!

That left the octopus carpaccio, and the haricot vert salad or artichoke.  I gladly opted for the octopus, and Ojan went for the hericot vert.
 Le Poulpe.
"Poulpe en carpaccio, marinade minute aux épices douces et citron vert."

I went for the octopus carpaccio.  I love octopus, but so often it is poorly cooked, rubbery, and either fishy or flavorless, so I don't get it often.  I felt confident in ordering it at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon though.

When my plate arrived, I actually just took a few minutes to take it all in.  Since it was a cold dish, I was in no rush.  And honestly, I was stunned.  I've been to plenty of Michelin starred restaurants.  I'm familiar with elaborate plating.  But the level of perfection shown here was just extraordinary.  Every single element of the dish was so, so precise.

The overall shape was sorta a rounded star, or flower perhaps, with 5 bulbs to it.  Mirroring the round shape, in each of the 5 sections, was a thin, round slice of white onion.  The dice on the bell peppers, of multiple colors of course, was perfect as expected, and the same size as the capers.  Bigger were the small halves of tiny tomatoes, each the size of a slice of olive.  Wow.

This was the most stunning octopus carpaccio I've certainly ever encountered!

Once I finally broke out of my trance, I tried it of course.  It was as amazing as it looked.

The octopus was insanely thin slices, pressed together to form the elaborate base.  Tender, not fishy, really perfectly prepared.  The assorted vegetables added tons of flavor.  Seriously, this was a flavor powerhouse, which I didn't expect, given the fairly simple list of ingredients.

It was however drowning in oil.  The oil enhanced the flavor for sure, but, there was too much.  I gobbled up half the plate immediately, as it was so insanely delicious, and then took a moment to reflect.  Once I went back in, I was put off by the oil. Too much, and it did sorta spoil the dish.

But really amazing prep work and presentation, clearly a well crafted dish.

Ojan appreciated the extra oil, and used it with his remaining bread, since the oil was super flavorful.
Le Haricot Vert.
"Méli-mélo de salade, copeaux de parmesan à la carta musica."

Ojan opted for the green bean salad.  Yup.  I was kinda amused by the choice, but he doesn't like mushrooms, and actually wanted something light.

Like my dish, his was a sight to behold.  This was particularly amusing given that they call this a "méli-mélo de salade", that is, a hodge-podge.  Does this look like a hodge-podge to you?

His was a dish I watched the salad cook make a few times, so I knew exactly what went into it.  You can't see it well here, but the green beans were gathered in bundles, three groupings of them.  There were a few slices of mushroom, honestly the thinest slices I've ever seen.  Tiny chunks of radish. Itsy bitty tomatoes, that had individual dabs of dressing on them.  Parmesan cheese slices, that we saw the chef creating with a peeler, one at a time. 

Of course, unlike me, Ojan didn't sit there admiring it for a few minutes first, and actually just ate it.  His review?  It was light and fresh, pretty, well prepared, but not particularly interesting.  The dressing was dijon vinaigrette.

I did try a tomato, when Ojan repeated a couple times that the tomatoes were really good.  For him to volunteer extra review material is a rare thing, so I knew it was meaningful.  And indeed, wow, that was an amazing tomato!  My dish had tomatoes too, but they were actually different (mine were smaller).  Seriously, such a flavorful tomato, and, perfectly seasoned.  It really seemed like the chef had put a few individual granules of salt on it specifically.  Remember what I said about precision?

For a green bean salad, this was quite the salad, but, it really wasn't the most exciting dish.

Mains 

Moving on to mains, we again had plenty of options.  There was a single vegetarian option (risotto), four seafood options, and three meat.

I quickly looked past the meat options (veal, beef, duck), and honed in on the seafood. For an additional 12€, there were two options: lobster spaghetti or john dory.  Opting not to pay extra, I moved on.  Another choice was a full, fried whiting.  I had seen photos of this, and while impressive, I didn't really feel like dealing with a whole fish.  Thus, the final seafood option it was: cod, a fish I always love, and we don't have in San Francisco (since it is an Atlantic fish).

Ojan basically wanted all the mains.  He asked the server for a recommendation, and she said that the duck is their most famous dish, so she pushed him towards it (along with several other diners, all of whom I saw ask the same question.  She was clearly used to this.  Perhaps she has stock in a duck farm?)  After we saw the other meat options go to nearby diners, I must say I was jealous.  The steak looked good, a thin style, but beautifully cooked.  And the veal, which Ojan decided against as it was a cold prep and this sounded a bit odd, came with the most fascinating sides ... a cone of matchstick frites, lettuce wraps, and toast points.  I saw the sides get delivered to several other diners, and eventually asked what dish they came with, because I couldn't figure out what on earth went with those three items together.

Anyway, cod and duck it as for us.  The plating of these dishes was nice, but no where near as elaborate as the starters (or soon, desserts).
Le Cabillaud.
"Dans un bouillon épicé au gingembre frais."

My cod was lovely.

The portion was insane.  I would have thought this was a large piece of fish under any circumstances, but as part of this value lunch menu it was even more incredible to me.  The cod was moist, mild, delicate, flaky.  Expertly cooked, you couldn't have asked for anything different here.

Of course, normally I prefer my cod baked with a coating, or fried, and served with tartar sauce, so this was quite different.  It was a very light dish.

On top was ...  a noodle?  It took me a while to figure out what it was, but yes, it seemed to be a rice noodle with a leaf printed on it in green.  I can't say I really understand this, but I broke it up a little in the broth, which turned it into a noodle soup almost.

Speaking of the broth.  It was really incredible.  So much flavor in here.  So many aromatics, including the prominent ginger, slightly spicy.  I couldn't stop lapping the broth up.

Floating in the broth was a bit of lettuce and two types of mushrooms, some sliced, some just tiny.  The vegetables went perfectly with the broth.  It was finished with a sprinkle of a red spice, and a drizzle of oil.

This was a fairly light dish, but given the size, it was very filling, particularly as part of a multi-course meal, at lunchtime.

I really enjoyed both the fish and the amazing broth with vegetables in it, and would certainly recommend it.
Le Canard.
"En aiguillettes, aux cerises et amandes fraîches."

Ojan's dish was more dainty, three slices of duck, with three almond topped cherries.

I don't like duck, and didn't want to try this, but Ojan insisted, saying I'd like it.  I didn't.

Yes, the duck was tender.  It was cooked medium, as Ojan had opted for (they asked how he wanted it cooked, he said however the chef recommended).  But I didn't like it.  He didn't either really, but was glad to have tried something different.  Given what I saw of the other dishes, I think he would have liked the beef the best.
Bonus! Pommes Puree.
While we were dining, the woman next to us asked if they could also somehow have a side of the pommes puree.  She tried explaining these to her date as life changing mashed potatoes, and I enthusiastically agreed, as I had them at the London L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, and remembered them fondly.

I set about telling Ojan all about the pommes puree too, and, when our main dishes showed up, so did some pommes puree.  And not just one small side serving, two bowls, one for each of us.

For the uninitiated, these are pretty famous potatoes.  Just search for "Joël Robuchon mashed potatoes", and you'll find more material than you care to read about them.

What makes them so famous?  Well, for starters, don't bother call these mashed potatoes.  You don't need to speak French, but at least call it potato puree.  Mash it is not.

You don't want to know what goes into these potatoes, from a nutritional, or labor aspect.  Some spoilers though?  2:1 ratio of potato to butter.  No joke.  And they get passed through a ricer.  And a sieve.  The process takes many steps.

But the result is indeed incredible.  It is impossible to describe the texture.  You have never had potatoes this creamy and smooth.  And the flavor is so rich, that you likely wouldn't know it was potato.

Delicious, insanely creamy, but oh so rich.  Did it go with my delicate fish?  Well no.  But that didn't stop me.  I did actually try dunking a spoonful in my broth, and that was surprisingly tasty, almost like a light gravy with the potatoes!  We appreciated the bonus dishes, again, a complete surprise as this price point.

Dessert

And finally, time for what is often my favorite part of a meal: dessert!

Except, at Joël Robuchon, I actually wasn't really looking forward to dessert.  The desserts were all pretty weak at every other Joël Robuchon establishment I visited.  When I was in London, I didn't even bother ordering dessert, the menu was that unappealing.

And to be honest, I wouldn't have ordered it here either, if it wasn't included.  We had the choice of a cheese plate, or three sweet options.  One was inspired by coffee, one was lemon, and one was apricot.

Cheese is never my dessert of choice.  Both Ojan and I really dislike lemon desserts.  Ojan can't have any caffeine, and I tend to avoid it, but I still opted for the coffee choice given no better options.  Ojan was stuck with the apricot.

Desserts are ordered at the same time as the mains, since it is a fixed menu.  They showed up with proper pacing after our main dishes were cleared away.  The plating was just as exquisite as the starters.
Decaf Americano. €5.50.
I always like coffee with my dessert, as I like the bitter pairing with a sweet dessert.  Since we didn't actually order our desserts at the end of the meal, no server came to ask if we wanted more drinks either.  I had to order the coffee when the dessert arrived, less ideal for me, but it was quickly delivered.

My decaf Americano was fine.  No strange decaf funk, not really remarkable though.  Served with sugar and no creamer.

I was glad to have it, but at €5.50 it was quite expensive compared to the meal itself, and even to coffee in other places I visited in Paris.
Le Cafe.
"Gelée périe noire, chantilly gianduja, sable au chocolaté orange."

I really had no idea what to expect with this dish, the server just told me it was a dessert inspired by, and used, coffee.  Even once it showed up, I still had no idea what I was eating, although yes, most bits did taste like coffee.

Starting with the center, a quenelle of ice cream, coffee flavored I guess.  Creamy and smooth.

Next to that were balls of a creamy mousse-cream (again, coffee?) coated with a layer of sweet ganache.

The other cream was smaller puffs of what I guess was the gianduja chantilly, with discs of chocolate perched on top.

Finally, some dark brown gelées, and a chocolate cookie crumble.

The ice cream wasn't anything special.  I didn't care for the gelée.  The two creamy components were good enough, but not particularly interesting.  I did like the chocolate cookie crumble; it was salty, and had some nibs in it.  It was nice to have bites of cream and crunchy cookie, but, satisfying this was not.

It did look lovely though.
 L'Abricot.
"Gâteau au formage blanc caramelize, glace à la verveine."

And Ojan's option ... the apricot.

Neither he nor I were excited about this, but the server did tell us it had cheesecake bites, which sounded like could be good at least.

The "cheesecake bites" were the "gâteau au formage blanc caramelize", which, while yes, technically a "cheese" "cake", it certainly wasn't cheesecake.  Instead, they were jiggly squares, most like a custard than a cheesecake.  I didn't actually taste anything remotely formage blanc-esque.  I did like the brûléed top though, a nice touch.  Really, this was more of a play on crème brûlée than cheesecake.

The star attraction was the apricot I guess.  It was ... a whole apricot, cut in half, and glazed.  Nearly impossible to cut into with the spoons we had.  We had no forks nor knives, so this was really awkward.  Ojan gave up after a few tries and just left it.  The glaze was just sweet apricot puree.

There was also a little orange colored cream, neither of us could identify that either, perhaps it too was apricot infused?

And finally, in the center was a quenelle of ice cream.  We didn't know what flavor it was, and I kept saying it was something Persian-like, perhaps cardamom? Or rose water?  Or saffron?  When I looked it up later, I learned that it was lemon verbena.

I didn't really like anything about this dessert.  While mine had some redeeming qualities, this one really didn't.  Neither of us bothered finish it.
Mignardises.
And finally, a little platter with mignardises.  Again, even with a 3 course lunch menu, these elements were included.

I'm never a fan of madelines, so the madeline was entirely lost on me.  I tried it, but yes, just a madeline.  Ojan took a single bite and discarded his.

The chocolates on the other hand were great.  Ojan got to his first, and immediately proclaimed that I'd like it, telling me nothing else.

Thus I was shocked when I bit into it, and the shell gave way to a smoothy, creamy salted caramel.  This was quite good, so I managed to leave the lackluster dessert portion of the meal very happy.  Bonus migs for the win!
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