Tuesday, October 28, 2014

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, London

On my recent business trip to Europe, I had exactly 1.5 days to spend in London.  I arrived with Emil on Thursday evening, fairly burnt out from our time in Zurich, and before that, Mallorca.  For dinner, we were planning to just check out the offerings in the executive lounge at our hotel, and if that wasn't sufficient, perhaps venture to a nearby place for fish and chips.  Casual, simple, easy.

But the executive lounge failed to impress, and after a glass of mediocre bubbles there, I considered other options.  I remembered that there was a L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London, somewhere.  I had no idea where it was in relation to where we were.  But I quickly looked it up, and saw that the restaurant consists of 3 separate spaces, one of which is a bar area.  The website implied that it served food.  We really enjoyed our experiences at both La Table de Joël Robuchon and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Tokyo, so it seemed only fitting that we check out the London branch, you know, for research purposes.  Just to compare.  I felt a bit ridiculous suggesting this to Emil, given that we were intending to have a very simple night, but, he didn't exactly need convincing to go do fine dining, and the next thing I knew, we were in a taxi on our way.  We were planning to just get a light bite in the bar area.

We arrived and went straight to the bar, on the top floor, the Salon Bar and Terrace.  It was a stunning space.  Just like the L'Atelier in Tokyo, the color scheme was red and black.  Inside was comfortable seating, even a fireplace.  It was an incredibly welcoming environment.  The entire space felt classy, intimate yet comfortable, very well thought out and cohesive.  The large terrace area looked equally inviting, particularly on a warm evening.  Everyone inside looked, well, happy.

Even though I was exhausted from travel, I was thrilled that I'd suggested this.  We settled in to our seats, and a glass of olives was brought out, along with cocktail menus.  The cocktails sounded fantastic, and we both eagerly ordered one.
Gingerbread Manhattan.  £13.
"Woodford Bourbon, Maraschino Liqueur, Carparno Vermouth, Homemade Gingerbread Syrup and Angostura Bitters"

I picked the Gingerbread Manhattan.  I really enjoyed it.  It was spicy from gingerbread syrup, sweet from the maraschino liqueur, and bitter from the Angostura.  So balanced.  So complex.  I of course appreciated the maraschino cherry garnish.  I'd gladly get another.

Initial drinks taken care of, it was time to look at food.  The bar menu we were given just had a list of "les brouchettes", nothing we really wanted, so we asked to see a food menu.  We were presented with menus.  5 or 8 course tasting menus were available, or, a la carte, with a menu divided into small plates, appetizers, and mains.  The menus were filled with our favorites.  Every single category contained at least one dish with foie gras, which even though we'd had some of during other legs of this trip, we couldn't resist since it is banned in our home state of California.  The list of star ingredients also included scallops and crab.  Basically, yes, everything I like.

We painstakingly picked out a few items (sooo hard to narrow it down!), and asked to order food, menus in hand.  Our server was confused.  "I thought you just wanted to see the menus", she told us.  "You can only order les brochettes in here".  We were devastated.  Tease us with these amazing menus?

We had no choice.  So, even though I wasn't remotely dressed for fine dining, and even though we were planning to just get a simple bite to eat in the bar, we asked if it was possible to get a real table.

The restaurant is broken up into two further spaces, La Cuisine de Joël Robuchon, a table concept, and L'Atelier, counter concept.  Since we knew I wasn't dressed for a real sit down meal, as I was in casual clothes and had just stepped off a plane, we asked about L'Atelier.  A few minutes later, our server came back to tell us that yes, we could be seated, although we'd be at the end of the counter.  This was fine with us.  Somehow, our just grabbing fish and chips at a nearby shop had turned into Michelin star dining.  I suppose, you might not expect much less from the pair of us.

So, down to the restaurant we went.  It reminded me a lot of the L'Atelier in Tokyo, it is clear that they aim to maintain consistency between the different outposts.  Most of the space, just like in Tokyo, was occupied by a large open kitchen with counter seating.  A few tables completed the space.  Also as in Tokyo, there were large displays featuring fruits and vegetables, and a huge wall of plants.

As expected, we were indeed seated at the end of the counter, for which several members of the staff apologized.  They were the worst seats in the house.  But, we randomly walked into a Michelin star establishment and got seated at prime time, so, we weren't complaining.  Service was good, attentive and fast, our server worked from behind the counter the whole time.

The food was good, but I did prefer both L'Atelier in Tokyo, and obviously La Table in Tokyo, more, which I suppose makes sense, given that they both have 2 Michelin stars, and this had only 1.  Overall, the food was all well executed, and I had few technical complaints, but nothing left a lasting impression.
Amuse Bouche: dashi custard with sundried tomato and asparagus foam.
Soon after we ordered, we were presented with an amuse bouche, a layered creation in a little cup.  Like the cocktail, it was an exercise in balance.

The custard on the bottom was warm and creamy.  The dashi added an umami quality.  The foam was ... well, foamy, and tasted mildly like asparagus, but the fresh bright asparagus flavor was accented by further bits of asparagus inside.

This was warm and comforting, yet quite flavorful, and a nice way to start the meal.  I enjoyed it.
Bread Basket, Cone of Butter.
We were soon presented with a bread basket.  This looked familiar!  Yes, it was the exact same basket that we had at L'Atelier in Tokyo!

The basket itself was the same, although, this time it was filled with a different bread selection.  It had the same petit baguettes, but instead of a crusty hard roll and the fluffy croissant-like roll I loved in Tokyo, the other options were sliced varieties.

Not particularly exciting, and all served cold, but I of course still tried them all.

The petit baguette was adorable, had a good crust on it, but tasted a bit stale.

One sliced variety had almonds, the other olives.  Both had a good crust and were quite moist.  The olive one had a strong olive flavor.  But .. it was still just sliced bread, and I really wasn't into any of the options.

In Tokyo, some of my companions were upset because we didn't receive butter or oil at L'Atelier, which that was not the case in London.  The butter came on its own plate, in a cone shape.  It was soft, but otherwise, unremarkable.

This was a poor showing of a bread basket.  Cold, sliced bread?  Even if it is housemade and fresh, who wants cold sliced bread?
LE TOURTEAU aux herbes, guacamole légèrement acidulé". £19.
We started with a dishe from the "small plates" menu, the le tourteau, or, "crabmeat seasoned with fresh herbs, slightly sour guacamole".

Since I am allergic to avocado, we asked to have the guacamole on the side, which they provided in its own little cup.

The crab was light and well seasoned.  It was accented by good citrus (orange?) notes.  Garnished with edible flower petals.

The most interesting part of the dish was what the crab was served on top of.  It seemed to be some sort of cracker, something baked and crunchy, but we couldn't figure out what it was actually made of.

The plate was finished with an herb oil, which paired well with the crab.

Overall, a very light, fresh tasting dish, a nice easy start to the meal.  My second favorite dish of the night, but Emil's third pick.
LE FOIE GRAS chaud de canard, fruits rouges et kumquats.  £16.
And of course, being outside of California, we had no choice but to order foie gras.

Foie gras appeared on the menu in several forms, but we choose the seared version, another pick from the small plates menu: "pan seared duck foie gras, red fruits and kumquats".

It was plated very artistically, with stripes of kumquat and fruit purees, along with whole blueberries and kumquats.  Topped with the perfect amount of sea salt.

It was served hot, on a hot plate even, clearly delivered to us rapidly from the kitchen.  The foie was good, very creamy, quality, no veins.  The sear was good, but I would have preferred even more of a crust on it.

The kumquat emulsion was slightly sweet, a nice pairing with the foie.  There were also a few chunks of pecan which gave some crunch, but they otherwise seemed a bit out of place.

At L'Atelier in Tokyo, we had the seared foie gras as well, but there, it was served atop a creamy cheese risotto.  I preferred the Tokyo version.

This was good, again, nothing wrong with it, but my 3rd pick of the night, Emil's 2nd.
LES NOIX DE SAINT-JACQUES saisies, conchiglioni farci et émulsion d’asperge, side of Pommes Puree.  £43.
From a main dish menu, we selected the scallops, as we both love them: "seared Scottish scallops, stuffed conchiglioni pasta and asparagus emulsion".

This was a fabulous dish.  3 large scallops, cooked just slightly more than the mid-rare I'd prefer, but still nicely done, sweet, meaty, and delicious.  They reminded me of how much I could love scallops.

The conchiglioni were two large shells, stuffed with a seafood custard.  I'm not sure if the filling had any ricotta as is traditional in a stuffed shell, it seemed more egg based perhaps.  The shells were absolutely perfectly cooked, al dente.

The sauce was a green asparagus foam, and, just like in the amuse, asparagus flavor was deepened by shaved asparagus in addition to the foam.

Although not mentioned in the description, the dish also contained 3 large chunks of morels, which I absolutely loved for their meatiness and texture.

All together, perhaps this was bit of a strange pairing of ingredients, but they were all quite good, and Emil and I both ranked this as our first pick, even above the foie gras.

The only negative is that the dish was served barely lukewarm.  I was impressed by how hot the foie gras was when it came, and this was borderline cold.  Not the fault of the kitchen, but sad, because it could have been that much better.

We also received a bonus dish: a side of Pommes Puree, the famous Joël Robuchon mashed potatoes.  These are a thing of legend, and, even though we'd been to two Joël Robuchon establishments before, we had never encountered them.  It is rumored that the potatoes were responsible for earning his first Michelin star.

The mashed potatoes were indeed magic.  Honestly.  I have never tasted any so creamy, so rich, so smooth in my life.  They reminded me more of a perfectly smooth creamy cheese than of potatoes.  The creaminess is achieved through use of not only a food mill, but also a fine mesh sieve, through which the potatoes are passed several times.  And the insane flavor is achieved in only one way ... the ratio of potatoes:butter is 2:1.  Ok, so not magic, just butter and great technique.  But wow, I can assure you, these were the best mashed potatoes I've ever had.

They say that you shouldn't have more than a couple spoonfuls of these potatoes.  And, even more ridiculously, in the Vegas restaurant, they had to change the ratio to 4:1, because guests were eating them in "American sized" portions, and that wasn't such a good thing.  The side we got of these was small, but Emil doesn't eat carbs, so they basically became all mine.  I uh, had more than a few spoonfuls.  I had to take breaks.  But I savored every last bite of the potatoes.  I decided that they were decadent enough to be my dessert.
2011 Dow's Quinta do Bomfim Port.
Speaking of dessert, you know how much I love desserts.  Always a highlight of a meal for me.  But in Tokyo, there was pretty much nothing on the L'Atelier dessert menu that I wanted.  I still tried the La Mandarine, but didn't really care for it.  The same thing happened in London.  The non-caffeinated dessert options were only lemon or orange based, and, although I like citrus, I just don't tend to like it in my desserts.  To be fair, if I ate chocolate in the evenings, there were plenty of options on the menu, and, in Tokyo, my dining companions enjoyed their chocolate dessert.

So, I actually used restraint, and decided to skip dessert.  Of course, it helped that I knew my dining companion, Emil, would not help me out with a dessert at all, so I'd have to eat the whole thing myself.  And, I was full and quite satisfied by those ridiculous mashed potatoes.  But, you know me, if there was something that actually sounded good, I would have gotten it anyway.

Instead, Emil ordered us "liquid dessert", a glass of port for me, a double espresso for him.  The port was good, but all I was still thinking about was those potatoes.
Mignardises: yuzu marshmallow, financiar.
Even though we didn't order dessert, we were still presented with a tray of mignardises.

Since Emil doesn't eat sweets, the whole platter was for me.  I never care for financiars, but they were nice and moist, with a good amount of jam on the inside, well distributed.  But still, just financiars.

The marshmallows on the other hand were amazing!  Fluffy, fresh, sweet, with a really incredible yuzu flavor.  I really liked these, and gladly consumed the extra.
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