L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon

For the solo gourmet, one of the best restaurants in Paris is also one of the most accessible. At L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, which has only bar seating and takes no dinner reservations, show up as a single diner at 7pm one weeknight, and you may find yourself ushered in immediately to an odd remaining seat.

The tourist room - you'll find that famous Parisian restaurants have these - was located appropriately à gauche, but the crowd was less so. To my left sat a woman speaking perfect French to the waiter until her American friends arrived, at which point she broke into perfect American. To my right a Frenchman spoke accented Italian to an Italian couple, and they answered in accented French.

Even in this multilingual cacophony, everyone was focused on the food. How could you not be, when you feel as if you are communing at the altar of Robuchon's sleek black open kitchen? Curiously, Philippe Starck's decor at Katsuya in LA looks a lot like L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon's, though L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon came years before and does not share the same designer. Lighted displays of vegetables, grains, eggs, and dangling sausages and ham hocks strung up by the hooves (try that in squeamish New York) signal that this place is serious about food. Everything that follows not only lives up to but exceeds expectations.

When someone offers you a champagne cocktail flavored with fruit in France, take it. Champagne mixed with fresh strawberries was testament to the French obsession with fruit - I once saw a five minute news story on apricots here.

Though, as mentioned, it is inadvisable to order any sort of crab dish outside of Maryland, Virginia, or the Carolinas, Robuchon's looked like it would be worth the risk. The crab and lobster salad came sandwiched between slices of radish. The slight bitterness of the millimeter-thin radish nicely offset the sweetness of the crab. The combination displayed an exemplary understanding of how one taste contrasts with and complements another.

Next came the egg, which I ordered because of Cooking Under Fire (the PBS series that predates Top Chef). During the second episode, the contestants were given the challenge of cooking an egg. That's all. How to cook it perfectly, but with originality? How to make the simple complex?

Joël Robuchon's egg did not disappoint. The menu advertised only an egg with cream and mushrooms; what arrived was a martini glass filled with several layers of hot liquid and topped with foam. (Hey: Robuchon helped start the foam trend, so we'll forgive him the trendiness.) The courteous, knowledgeable waiter, who functions as a sort of bartender willing to talk to the lone loiterer at the bar, explained that the egg dish should be dug into with one's spoon so as to mix all the layers of foam, girelles, cream, egg yolk and egg white all at once. The whole shebang was earthy yet airy, flecked with bits of orange filament that turned out to be saffron. It was absolute ambrosia.

Home chefs often take the phrase "grilled lobster" too literally. Chances are this guy was not cooked on the grill from start to finish; doing so would only dry out the lobster. The char is only the icing on the cake. More likely he spent a while in a hot bath of white wine, butter, tarragon, bay leaf and rosemary (see the lemon garnish for clues) before he was cut in half and slapped briefly on an extremely hot grill. The results were delicious - the aggressiveness of the exterior char gave way to the subtle, herbal flavors of the just-cooked lobster meat.

Pigeon was on the menu, so when in Paris... eat traditional foods you wouldn't find elsewhere. The waiter recommended the pigeon cooked à rosé (medium rare), which was perfect for this surprisingly delicious meat. (You know how New Yorkers feel about pigeons.) It was flavorful but not as gamey or fatty as duck, tender but not as bland as filet mignon, and came sandwiched against a pink slab of rich foie gras, wrapped in a lettuce leaf, and steamed.

The mashed potatoes that came alongside were "the best in the world," according to the waiter (and several other sources who do not profit by Joël Robuchon). I asked for the secret, expecting to hear that it was the butter - which does make up half the dish - but his answer surprised me.

"It's the potatoes." He explained that they used only a very specific type of tiny, tender potatoes from a specific farm up north. Then he described the painstaking process of simmering the potatoes at a very low temperature and running them through a sieve again and again by hand. All this for a side of mashed potatoes.

And that, dear diners, is the secret to this restaurant's greatness. L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon lavishes attention on prime ingredients, coaxing new forms out of them by emphasizing their essence or setting them in perfect contrast to a complementary ingredient. It's not just putting x and y together. The inherent magic of great cuisine is a 2+2=5 effect: what never existed is suddenly, miraculously present.

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
5-7 rue de Montalembert
Paris, France
01 42 22 56 56


joy said...

i am beyond jealous!

would be interested to see how the Joel Robuchon egg compares to the Jean Georges egg, which is one of the best things I have ever tasted.