L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (NYC) – Midtown Michelin Meal

Joel Robuchon was named “chef of the (last) century” by Gaunt Millau; garnered more Michelin stars than any chef; and, yet, he might be the single greatest danger to fine dining today. Joel Robuchon, the chef, has influenced countless chefs worldwide with his focus on perfectionism and taste. It is, however, Joel Robuchon, the businessman, whose seems intent on building an empire of L’Ateliers in every major city worldwide. The menus are mostly interchangeable. The restaurants are just homogeneous units, iconic of modern-day capitalism, the same experience no matter where one happens to be. In a world where everything will be merchandised, we can already taste the future today.


Despite the theoretical criticisms, Robuchon is an important chef and I had not eaten his food. Good reviews, a burgeoning form of online peer pressure, further convinced me this was a necessary stop. I could not hope to catalog Robuchon’s New York cuisine as extensively as A Life Worth Eating has done in their 3-part post – appetizers, mains, and desserts. Their write-up should be mandatory reading for anyone contemplating a meal at a L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (near you!)

Beginning shot – Foie Gras with parmesan foam
The ubiquitous shot, a necessary beginning to any haute cuisine meal, began the proceedings. The “silky-smooth” foie gras dominated the dish with the foamy, salty parmesan essence and sweet port reduction playing counterpoint to the foie’s richness. Some day I would like to have a meal made completely of shots; if any chef is reading this, email me when you’re ready!

La Langoustine – Crispy langoustine papillote with basil pesto
An exquisite dish with exceptional frying skills. The batter, brik dough, was very thin, and greaseless – you can see the basil leaf and langoustine through the dough. Its slight sweetness complemented the langoustine’s sweetness, with the basil giving it a nice pop.

L’Anguille – Caramelized Eel layered with smoked foie gras
Some of the greatest moments at Pierre Gagnaire (Paris) come with foie gras or fish liver paired with seafood. When I saw the eel/foie option on the menu, visions of rich extravagance danced in my head. Unfortunately, the cloyingly sweet eel overpowered the foie in both taste and texture. The foie might as well not have been integrated into the dish. A very odd dish when one considers Robuchon’s reputation for balance and perfectionism.

La Saint-Jacques – Day Boat scallop in their shell with seaweed and Bordier butter
Bordier butter, the stuff of dreams and $1000 meals, is an automatic must-order if the option presents itself. I was skeptical this would be the same magical butter found at L’Arpege (Paris) but it was worth a shot. Unfortunately, the dish was rather pedestrian – a sweet scallop, cooked fine, with whipped butter, that was just a US-imported version of the real deal. It was quite buttery but the butter was nowhere near the richness levels of French (or is that L’Arpege?) Bordier.

L’Oursin – Sea urchin in warm fennel broth
Uni, too, is usually a must-order but I was skeptical of the fennel broth. Any fears were allayed when the broth turned out to be a few spoonfuls dabbled over the dish. The urchin, while not top grade, worked well with the bright fennel broth, their sweetnesses complementing each other. But the uni was not firm enough nor clean tasting enough. The dish could have been perfect – the uni quality being the inhibitor.

La Caille – Free-range caramelized quail stuffed with foie gras, potato puree, and black truffle
On paper, it reads romantically suicidal; particularly, if one knows Robuchon’s potato puree is 50% butter. However, the dish is remarkably, though not perfectly, balanced. The sweetness of the caramelized quail complemented the richness of the foie. I would have liked a more acidic element than the salad with vinaigrette to the side. The potato puree was everything everyone has ever said – perfect – right up there with Michel Bras’s aligot as one of the great potato dishes. The truffles were an afterthought as they were cardboard-y and void of any intense taste.

Les Burgers – Beef and foie gras burgers with lightly caramelized bell peppers
This dish is absolutely iconic of the L’Atelier concept – casual quality. These tiny bite-sized burgers, at $13/pop, could easily become a habit. The texture is the first introduction to the dish – the sauted foie and burger, somewhat similar, their boundaries blurred, bursted everywhere, with an excellent saltiness. The buns, brioche, had a light crust to give the dish just enough resistance. I will disagree with Luxeat – this is the best burger in Manhattan, with the Burger Joint a clear second. The Burger Joint hamburger was excellent; this was just that much better; alas, you will go broke eating these with any regularity. I suppose I will have to try the infamous DB Bistro (NYC) foie/short rib burger to complete the triumvirate.

La Nage de Fruits Frais – Fresh fruit in light lemongrass nectar, basil-lime sorbet
This dessert hit every keyword for me and it was a refreshing end to a rather rich meal. I’m not a huge tropical fruit fan so some of the bits were not to my liking, but the basil-lime sorbet sung with its focused flavor.

Le Pamplemousse – Grapefruit segments, wine gelee, mint sorbet
A perfect ending – the mint sorbet was particularly potent and helped offset the acidity of the grapefruit. The wine gelee, though in the background, helped round the flavors out.

It’s an international cuisine, perfect for upscale hotels across the globe, but it lacks identity and personality. It jumps around, from here to there, with nods to this and that; without, seemingly, going anywhere. There is a precision and focus; but, aside from the langoustine and burgers, there are better examples of all the dishes elsewhere. The ingredient quality in a few key dishes were also suspect. Given the price point this restaurant wishes to play at, I agree with Ulterior Epicure that there are better alternatives.

Despite those criticisms, this was a good meal. It was not a destination meal, one I would recommend for someone traveling to try the best, but it was well-done. It deserves its one Michelin star much more than, say, the Spotted Pig (NYC). The memory of the langoustine and hamburger/foie sliders might lead me yet again to L’Atelier – you never know.

- chuck

  • http://www.tasty-bits.com Misha

    I’ve heard reports that the L’Ateliers vary in quality somewhat across locales. The menus and techniques seem consistent, but you simply cannot rely on the quality of the ingredients to be equal everywhere. My meal at L’Atelier in London was exceptional. A friend that tried it in Vegas had more to say about the price than the food.

    The DB Bistro burger is a complete waste of time, by the way. I was very disappointed. The sirloin just mashes fois gras and short ribs into a sticky paste with barely discernible taste. I suspect the biggest problem is that depending on how hurried the kitchen is they cut the patty too soon; it promptly gets dry and cooks fois gras to chopped liver consistency at the same time. I would have preferred a deconstructed version of same much more, but thats not the Boulud domain.

  • http://www.luxeat.com Luxeat

    Its funny, because today i read that Helene Darroze is opening her restaurant in London http://francoissimon.typepad.fr/simonsays/2008/03/helene-darroze.html and i was thinking that the international restaurants scene is getting boring as you will find the same restaurants of the same chefs all around the world! Robuchon is the best example…

    Anyway,great review.Its true that Robuchon restaurants are not worth a special trip, but some of his dishes (like langoustine or entrecote with potato puree) do make me happy :)


  • ChuckEats

    Misha – thanks for the advice on the DB burger – i suppose i’ll wait til i read something good again.

    Luxeat – it’s like going to a major metropolitan city and shopping at the same old stores – prada, gucci, this, and that. What’s the point of traveling when everything is the same? I’m sure the future will give us both “chains” and local spots but it’s disheartening, from an epicurean POV, to see chefs more interested in empires than perfection.

  • http://www.ideasinfood.com H. Alexander Talbot

    if you want a meal of all shots, we are game.

    at least a meal served all in shot glasses.

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