L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
Once I learned that L’Atelier Tokyo was the original, my suspicions of Japanese influence on the concept of this restaurant were officially confirmed. At first I wondered if the preparations would be adopted to better match the Japanese palate; but, then I realized that here in Tokyo, these dishes were at home. With its floor to ceiling windows and bright workshop lighting passing over the second floor of the shiny new Roppongi Hills shopping center, L’Atelier glows as a culinary oasis beckoning hungry mall diners to venture in. Unfortunately, reservations are required. But fortuantely, L’Atelier has an adjacent bakery where disheartened customers without reservations can take home macarons, french breads, confiture, and a newly found smile. At least that’s what I did my first time. But fortune favors the persistent, and the following Christmas I returned with a reservation. While many of the dishes I had already sampled, I was glad that I waited. I expected to be seated amongst other foreigners as I was in Paris; but surprisingly, in all the times I’ve eaten here, I’ve never heard any language spoken other than Japanese. There are a handful of hightop tables adjacent to the bar, all of which seem to be second choice to a front-row seat at the counter, where diners get a first-hand view of the intricate plating each dish involves. Many of the dishes were similar to New York and Paris; but there were a handful of new dishes, all of which I was determined to try.
Service started with shavings of cured ham, the source of which was hanging above Paris’s counter but hidden here in Tokyo. Bridging the gap between source and plate is not nearly so important here as it is in Paris; more important is refinement, and hanging pigs in a gourmet restaurant would materlize as crude and uncivilized. But after a few bites, my mind stopped thinking about Japanese cultural nuances and focused on the smokey and salty strips of dried meat that nicely brought out the sweetness of of my Chablis. I do think that salty is the way to begin any meal, as sweet too early can prevent the sweet subtleties of savory courses from naturally progressing.
Next came an individual basket of bread, a collection of five different rolls, the freshness of which was startling. Even the miniature baguette, an item whose freshness quickly deteriorates after baking, was rife with moisture. It was a little excessive to give me a basket of ten rolls, particularly because I ate all of them. But no worries; there was still plenty of room left for the evening.
The amuse bouche was a shot glass filled with a red pepper velouté topped with a tomato foam. I didn’t care much for this: I found the texture repetitious and unchanging, with the flavor of cooked red pepper, something I despise, dominating every bite. It was interesting how the red pepper’s sweetness was synchronized with that of the tomato’s without any acidity; but ultimately, this was a flavor I just didn’t like.
My first dish ever at L’Atelier Tokyo was Le Haricot Coco en fin velouté au fumet de truffe et lard fumé, a bright white bean velouté with smoked lardons and shaved black truffle. Though perhaps a bit crude, the smokiness of pig fat with the earthy aroma of black truffle is a beautiful combination for the nose, one that is both complex and soul-satisfying at the same time. The texture of this soup was creamy with a slight grain from the beans, with the light foamy layer floating on the top acting as a link between the velvety soup and the weightless truffles hovering on top. The foam also kept the texture of the truffles as it held them above the broth, preventing them from going soft. The taste of this dish was the weakest part, though, as the velouté tasted more like milk than anything else -- it was undersalted and underflavored. Too bad; this had potential.
Another dish I didn’t particularly like was Le filet de boeuf granité avec une pomme purée truffée, which essentially is a fancy name for beef surrounded by soggy breadcrumbs. The texture of this couldn’t help but remind me of fried and breaded beef. It was not a pretty thought. There was no textural coherency between the granité and the steak, and with a swipe of the fork, I was able to scrape off all the offending topping. The breadcrumbs were also astoundingly salty, making this steak really unenjoyable. The truffled potatoes, however, were outstanding as always, the earthy flavor of the truffle adding an earthy fragrance to an ingredient that normally lacks much scent. The potatoes stole the show for this dish, and my plate was sent back rather lopsided.
The last dish of those I did not like was Le Saint-Pierre cuit à la marinière aux fines herbes, something I disliked in Paris as well but was curious how different it would taste here. Of all the dishes that varied between L’Atelier locations, this was one that did not. It was nearly identical to le saint-pierre in Paris, and it was equally disappointing.
Now that those three dishes are out of the way, the rest of the dishes were very impressive. Le thon onctueux et épice d'un velouté de brocolis was new; I hadn't seen it on the menu in Paris or New York. This dish had a surprisingly interesting texture, with the bottom of the glass containing a light and airy tuna purée, supporting an even lighter broccoli velouté. These two layers were garnished with smoked tuna and small heads of broccoli. The dish was certainly balanced texturally, but regarding flavor, it seemed a little one-sided: fishy. The salty fish flavor dominated the broccoli, as if I were eating vegetables out of a bowl previously used for a fish course. Though, as I looked around the counter, I saw other diners enjoying this dish, making me wonder if this savory fishy dish was created particularly for the Japanese palate. While it worked here, I'm not sure it would have done well elsewhere, perhaps explaining why it was only on the Tokyo menu.
As for the next dish, Le Foie Gras de Canard sauté aux figues et une glace verjuté, this dish was nothing short of beautiful. I certainly know what I think when I see fig and foie gras on the menu: boring. But note that there was no fig compote or other variant of fig, just the pure fruit sautéed so as to preserve their original texture, adding a chewy contrast to the buttery foie. The figs were much more savory than I had expected: no additional sugar was added. This indicated a clear desire to keep the flavors as close to nature as possible, something which worked nicely to differentiate this dish from other fig and foie variants. Ironically, this dish's originality came from its connection to nature. Delicious.
Citrus, particularly grapefruit, and meat is a combination I pretty much never enjoy. I find that the cutting acidity of the fruit sidetracks my palate from the comforting saltiness of the steak. I ordered Le Canard Challandais rôti avec des endives glacées aux sucs d'orange mainly because it was a new item for me; but, also because I was curious to see how chef Robuchon saw these two ingredients working together. Frankly, I started laughing to myself while eating this -- the hilarity of how well these three ingredients: the bitter endive, the acidic orange, and the savory steak worked together. It was like a high school chemistry experiment: the endive with orange was too bitter by itself; but somehow, when mixed with the steak, the bitterness became undetectable and, in fact, highlighted the latent sweetness embedded in the rare duck. Not only was this delicious, it was fascinating! I'm pretty sure this can be explained scientifically; but for me, it was magic.
Next came my five favorite words: "a gift from the kitchen." And a special gift it was; normally this was a full course on the menu: La Langoustine en papillote croustillante au basilic, L'Atelier's version of langoustine tempura. I wondered if La Langoustine would change as, after all, this tempura-like dish was to be served to some tough critics. But confidently, this Robuchon special was identical to that served at the other locations, a testament to this dish's universal tastiness. The first thing that struck me was the lack of oil in the langoustine's brik pastry crust. Most of the moisture came from the succulence of the moist crustacean. While the tail was removed from the shell a new dough-based crust was given, adding a delicate crunch that also helped to lock in humidity. Although not technically tempura, this could easily compete against langoustine tempura found in the most famous of Tokyo's tempura houses. Delicious.
Another new dish was Le Paillard de Volaille relevé de citron et tomates confites avec des artichauts à la plancha, a thin slice of grilled chicken breast covered with artichoke, sun dried tomatoes, rocket, parmesan shavings, and black truffle shavings. While there was nothing particularly bad about this dish -- except perhaps that the chicken was dry -- there was nothing special either. Why was this dish even on the menu? This seemed almost like spa cuisine. The truffle shavings were frankly uncalled for; I couldn't even taste or smell them. Sitting on top this chicken breast was a giant nest of superfluous ingredients, all of which seemed to tangle together so that I could brush it off to the side, eat the chicken, parmesan, and truffle, and cut my losses.
La Saint-Jacques au beurre d'algues acidulés was something that I didn't enjoy in New York, but enjoyed more here. Unlike in New York, this rendition served two scallops instead of one, and with about two-thirds less butter. This was no butter bath, so to speak. The scallops were also slightly undercooked, something essential, so that the texture remained soft and absorbant rather than firm and chewy. The spicing seemed a bit arbitrary; but this dish was so driven by the flavor of the natural ingredients, so long as the textures weren't off, it's hard for this not to be enjoyable.
By this point, my sister was in awe at the quantity of food I ate. "I've never seen someone eat like this," she exclaimed. Thankfully Aaron wasn't with us this night ... she might have passed out. But responsibly sensing a hint of fullness, I ordered three additional courses that were slightly lighter. I started with the well-known L'Oursin dans une délicate gelée recouverte d'une onctueuse crème de chou-fleur, a martini glass filled with a sea urchin gelée and covered with a cauliflower crème. The cauliflower crème was bordered with equally sized and perfectly round dots of basil oil. I ate this dish while watching the basil oil being set, drop by drop, under the spotlight in front of me feeling slightly guilty that it took me only a few bites to undo all the pain-staking minutes that went into making all these drops perfectly sized and aligned. But while the presentation was highly styled and certainly artistic, the flavor was simple and fresh, the cool gelée encapuslating the oceanic flavor of the urchin and the crème preventing that flavor from tasting hollow. The urchin was firm and held its shape, despite being in a gelée, a clear indication of its freshness. But while the urchin was firm, the dish overall was texturally monotonous -- everything was soft. A slight crunch, as nori typically has when uni sushi is served, would have gone a long way. Nevertheless, this was very flavorful.
Next was a dish I'd enjoyed in New York, and was happy to find that it was delicious here as well. La Caille au foie gras caramélisée avec une pomme purée truffée is two pieces of caramelized squab with Robuchon mashed potatoes topped with black truffle shavings. Aside from the incredibly tasty potatoes, which is essentially butter with essence of potato, the squab held its own very nicely. The lightly caramelized skin gave a honey flavor to the succulent meat which seemed to go really nicely with the more salty potatoes. This sensation was heightened by the aroma of trufle. What a nice dish.
Noticing that my sister had stopped eating over an hour ago, I declined another look at the menu and decided this would be my last course ... well, savory course. Next came Le Homard rôti puis accompagné d'une fricassé de champignons au vin jaune d'Arbois, half a roasted lobster with a wild mushroom fricassé. Delicious; but, boring. The stringy texture of the dry roasted lobster soaked up the yellow wine into its small crevasses, making each salty bite slighty sweeter. Something about this dish seemed a little sloppy to me -- perhaps the fact that there were three different sauces mixing, but not complimenting, each other. I appreciated this dish as I love lobster; but ultimately, this is not something I would order again.
Time to cleanse my palate, or to warm up for dessert, depending on your point of view. I was handed a small shot glass with raspberries and blueberries suspended in a lime gelée and topped with a lime and basil ice cream. I really like basil when it's turned sweet: it has a fresh flavor not too far off from mint. The acidity of the lime was a little too strong, however, making my tongue cringe in bitterness preventing it from feeling refreshed from the basil.
My first dessert was a Pomme en feuillantine croustillante avec une glace d'une pomme au four, several thin layers of pastry sandwiching poached apple and crème fraîche, with a side of apple ice cream accented with dried apple chips. This dessert was wonderful. The sweetness of the apple was tempered by hints of salt and the milky crème. It was texturally balanced as well, as each bite of soft apple, crème, or ice cream, had crispy pastry and dried slices of apple. The apple inside the pastry layers was also lukewarm, and as we all know, warm apple and ice cream is quite delicious. Mmm.
But last of the desserts was also my favorite, an updated rendition of my favorite dessert Le Sucre, which for some reason has been taken off all the L'Atelier menus. This dessert was Les Fruits Rouges en soupe avec une gelée de framboise et une fin tube de glace mascarpone, a thin crispy sugar cylinder filled with mascarpone ice cream, served on a bed of strawberries and red currants with a raspberry gelée. With the first crack of the tube, tiny crispy bits of sugar were released into the soft ice cream, making this dish not only beautiful and delicious; but balanced as well. The natural sweetness of the fruit was brought out by the slightly sweet gelée, yet made more rich and subtle by the creaminess from the mascarpone ice cream. Very delicious.
I was happy to see that the Tokyo branch of my favorite international restaurant brand had remained impressive from location to location. Though this may have been the original location, it seems like most of the inventive dishes were still happening in Paris and from there, trickling their way onto the international menus. Yet the consistently delicious fare at L'Atelier knows no geographical bounds -- one can expect a well-executed meal at any location worldwide. I look forward to returning the next time I'm in Tokyo since it seems like the handful of dishes that make this location unique can all be tasted in one seating are original and, from my experience, certainly worth trying.