L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
13-15 West Street
London WC2H 9NE
Tel. 020 7010 8600
Food type: French
Food rating: 5/10
Nearest tube: Leicester Square
Website: L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
(Editor’s note: In the 2009 Michelin Guide, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon was upgraded to 2 Michelin Star status)
Having had a weekend to recover from the Christmas feast (and all the hard work cooking) it was time for me to get out of my house and meet some of my old school friends. My restaurant of choice was Joël Robuchon’s outlet in London which I have been wanting to try for quite some time now. Conveniently they run an affordable lunch menu priced at £19 for 2 courses or £25 for 3 courses.
It was not long ago in 1996 when Robuchon claimed to have ‘retired’. Retired from cooking maybe, but he certainly couldn’t keep his mitts off the restaurateur business and soon enough, he opened restaurant after restaurant around the globe bearing his infamous name. One would think that with numerous ‘chains’, the standard of cooking would be inconsistent yet Robuchon’s restaurants have been consistently praised for consistent, high quality food. If the greatness of a chef is measured on the basis of Michelin stars, Robuchon would easily win hands down. With his ever expanding empire of restaurants, he has amassed no fewer than 23 Michelin stars (5 of these stars were recently gained with the recent release of the Hong Kong/ Macao guide). Not that Robuchon agrees. He has been one of the most vocal critics of the guide. More tellingly, he was also awarded the title of ‘Chef of the Century’ in 1989 by Gault Millau, a rival guide which is also happens to be one of the most influential French restaurant guide.
The first of the L’Atelier chain of restaurants was opened in Tokyo in 2003. The word ‘L’Atelier’ literally translates into ‘workshop’ and is perhaps the theme of the restaurant. The restaurant itself draws on Robuchon’s love for the Japanese culture. It is an open-plan kitchen where diners sit around the bar and can observe the kitchen at work, much like a sushi bar. The red and black colour scheme also bears a strange similarity to an over-sized bento box.
The London branch of L’Atelier is spans three floors – the aforementioned sushi-like bar, a more formal restaurant upstairs (La Cuisine) as well as a bar. Conveniently, there is a lift to transport you up and down if you don’t fancy working off any of the calories you ingested.
The menu, presented in a small black leather book, is subdivided into the traditional ala carte starters, mains and desserts option, the tasting menu and smaller tasting portion dishes which similar to tapas dishes. The cut price lunch menu itself consists of 2 options each for starters, mains and desserts. However, there was an option for does Robuchon’s signature mash potatoes (more on that later). For the purpose of the review, we tried a combination of dishes from the Lunch and more expensive a la carte menu.
Bread was brought to us in a basket and was a choice of white rolls or sliced brown bread. Readers who follow my blog will know that one of my frequent complaints about bread is that they tend to be under-salted. So it is to my great amazement to find bread that was over-salted. Both white and brown bread were poor – served cold, they were chewy, without much crunch to the crust. No butter in sight either. (1/10)
J and I opted for the langoustine veloute with winter vegetables (as described in the menu) as a starter. A small bowl of (count it) three tiny cubes of courgettes and carrots and a singular crouton was brought to us before the velouté was poured at table-side. By the way, since when were courgettes and carrots winter vegetables? Leaving seasonality issues aside, the velouté (a langoustine bisque to be exact) tasted as expected with good flavour of the shellfish although a tad over-seasoned. (4/10)
The other starter available on the lunch menu was a ‘fried egg’ which was presented as a scotch egg on a bed of mixed salad leaves and lentils.
Langoustine fritters was served accompanied by a pistou (a cold sauce made from garlic, basil and olive oil). The langoustine wrapped, along with a basil leave, in filo and deep fried to resemble a spring roll that wouldn’t be out of place in a Chinese restaurant. This poshed up spring roll was well executed with only the thinnest, most translucent layer of the wrap surrounding the langoustine. The pistou was well made with the distinct flavour of the basil coming through without overpowering the langoustine. (5/10)
One of the restaurant’s signatures, stuffed quail with foie gras with Robuchon’s famed truffled mash sounded much better than it tasted. Whilst the roasted quail was itself flavoursome, stuffing it with foie gras failed to perfume it with the lovely flavours of the liver. In fact, there wasn’t much livery flavour from the foie gras itself. The mash was as smooth and creamy as you could only dream about. Rumour has it that the secret to the mash lies in the ratio of potato to butter (something around the clot-inducing region of 2:1). It was thus a letdown, that at the height of truffle season, the truffled mash tasted more of butter and cream and not much of truffles. Now, the failings of the quail would have been forgiven somewhat had there been more mash. Unfortunately, what I received amounted to no more than a tablespoon’s worth. It became quite apparent later on when my dining companion who also had the quail received an additional pot of mash. (In case you are wondering why I didn’t just ask for the missing pot of mash, the way the food was brought out, I was working on my duck when his quail arrived). (4/10)
The pan seared foie gras served with a gratin of citrus fruit was rather bland – the foie gras again not packing much livery taste and the gastric component too acidic. I suspect that it is likely that the liver used is not of the best quality. (3/10)
A serving of confit duck leg was comfort food at its best. Instead of having the duck leg to tear into, here the leg is shredded and topped with Parmesan mash before being gratinated. Again the famed mash, this time infused with a bit of picked thyme leafs, is a feature here with a nice crunchy top while remaining almost liquid in the interior. The mash sat on top of the shredded duck which was decently moist and succulent. (5/10)
The lunch menu option of perch was unavailable but the restaurant graciously substituted it with halibut instead. Here it is grilled a la meunière. The fillet of halibut well seasoned but failed to dazzle. The meaty fish tends to dry out easily because of a low fat content (as opposed to something like salmon) and it was evident here that the fish was cooked a fraction too long. Similarly, the artichokes pickled in parsley vinegar accompanying the fish lacked much flavour. (2/10)
Desserts was a much better affair. A Calvados soufflé showed good technique with a light, airy, perfectly risen soufflé with the alcoholic aroma of the Calvados exploding upon sticking my spoon into the soufflé. So often, even in the best restaurants, soufflés can be hit and miss, with the base remaining too wet. Here, it was perfectly executed with only the slightest of moisture. The cider vinegar panacotta and confit apples showed good balance of acidity and sweetness, the milk jelly itself smooth and trembling at the slightest touch. (7/10)
J’s ‘Chocolat Sensation’ was a deconstructed version of a McFlurry. This featured white chocolate ice cream, Araguani chocolate sauce and crumbled Oreo biscuits. A nice surprise was little chocolate balls containing air hidden within the chocolate sauce giving an effect similar to an Aero bar. A very pleasant, if unexciting dessert. (5/10) By the by, if you happen to have a remote interest in cooking and want to reproduce this dessert, you can find the recipe by following this link.
Below are some other dishes enjoyed by my dining companions which I did not try. Of interest is one of the tarts served here which was filled with apple, yoghurt and curry. This was a unique combination which I had the opportunity to get a nibble of – the addition of curry lent a gentle background perfume without a hint of suggestion that this should have found a better home in a savoury tart.
My experience at L’Atelier was an outright disappointment. The cooking here showed some promise in parts but at the prices they were charging I would have expected much more than what was at times refined pub grub, desserts aside. Whilst it is to be expected that most lunch menu use less expensive ingredients and naturally cut down on trimmings, L’Atelier would be wise to learn from other Michelin starred restaurants like Foliage, Hibiscus and even Pied-a-Terre on what can be achieved whilst working within the constraints of a lower budget. In a time where the credit crunch is hitting the hardest and without any of the extra freebies – amuse bouche, petit fours, I feel that this does not represent good value for money.
Throughout our meal, service was glacial – a problem compounded by the lack of servers and the fact the restaurant was full. It didn’t help that our table was located behind a pillar making it tricky to attract attention. This was a shame, because SOME of the staff serving us were perfectly capable. I stress the word some because one server whom I flagged down to bring us the wine list simply forgot whislt another was completely unaware that we still half a bottle of wine left. Let’s not forget that they did not bring the accompanying mash for my quail. In short, the service was a comedy of errors. You can safely bet your bottom dollar that I won’t be in a massive hurry to return any time soon.
Before I sign off, I would like to wish all readers a Happy New Year!!!