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L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon

57 East 57th Street (between Park & Madison Aves.)
(212)350-6658
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TYPE: Modern French cuisine
VIBE: Contagiously spirited fine dining with a casual flair
OCCASION: An indulgent splurge, romantic dinner, or gastronomic adventure 

DON’T MISS DISH:
Poached baby kusyu oysters in echire butter
DON’T BOTHER DISH:
Truffled mashed potatoes

PRICE: $100 (with a cocktail) & up; $160 for the discovery tasting menu
HOURS: Dinner, Monday through Sunday, 6 PM – 12AM; Lunch, Monday through Sunday, 11:30 AM – 2:30 PM.

RESTAURANT GIRL RATES: 9 (divine)

SEATING: 20 seats at the eating bar, 30 seats in the dining room
RESERVATIONS: Reservations for tables highly recommended; 6 PM reservations taken for the eating bar, after that, on a first-come first-served basis.

INSIDE SCOOP: Order the off-the-menu pasta carbonara, a Paris L’Atelier signature.
FINAL WORD: An uniquely unfussy haute feast for both the eyes and mouth.

CHEAT SHEET:
DRINK: Rose champagne
NIBBLE ON: Poached baby kusyu oysters in echire butter
START WITH:
Sea urchin with lobster gelee and cauliflower cream
ORDER: Foie gras ravioli in chicken broth
FINISH WITH: Rose macaron with kirsch gelee

Joel Robuchon has fortuitously chosen to open his first New York L’Atelier, a spinoff of the Paris original, in The Four Seasons, where the contagious energy from the adjacent bar, festively spills into Robuchon’s unwalled dining lair.  Like the seamless space itself, L’Atelier sets no boundaires, putting up no partitions to separate the restaurant from the hotel bar, or even the dining area from the kitchen.  In fact, he turns the concept of formal dining on its head, outing the kitchen into the limelight, pots, pans and all.  Having done away with the suited formality that tends to go hand in hand with serious culinary affairs of the foie gras and sweetbread sorts, he sets a theatrical stage, the kitchen and its many players taking starring roles in the admittedly high-priced show.

Even L’Atelier’s signature modern red-and-black lacquered design, a joint effort between French designer, Pierre-Yves Rochon, & architect I.M Pei, organically works its way into The Four Seasons backdrop.  But what takes center stage is not the seated tables & banquettes, but instead, a u-shaped eating counter surrounding the open kitchen, inspired by Spain’s tapas bars and Tokyo’s sushi bars.  Though I tend to avoid the sushi bar, likening it to watching a tennis match – a dizzying, neck-cranking experience of turning from my plate, to my companion, then back to my plate, over and over again – this is one counter affair that ought not to be missed.  After all, how could I turn down front row seats to fall’s most anticipated food show and the chance to glimpse of  “the chef of the century” in his natural element? (Yes, Robuchon was in the house.)

Robuchon has come out of retirement to return to the kitchen, determined to change the face of formal dining as we know it.  L’Atelier is an exciting and flavorful adventure of ingredients, that lacks the characteristic stuffiness of most haute dining experiences.  Seemingly unconcerned with participating in the gastronomic race to innovate and outdo his contemporaries, Robuchon relies on simple, and somewhat traditional techniques and ingredients, training a new generation of young chefs (chef Yosuke Suga heads up NYC’s kitchen) to do the same in L’Atelier’s around the world.  But with Robuchon busily floating from Paris to Tokyo to Las Vegas, would
New York’s L’Atelier be a hollow replica of the original Paris
L’Atelier, a Robuchon in name only?

Having secured one of the coveted cushy red counter stools, a feat
in and of itself, I hung my purse on a hook underneath the pearwood bar (chivalry is not dead here).  The most treacherous part of the evening was navigating the menu, which is confusingly divided into four categories: small tasting portions, (some with asteriks recommending they be eaten early on in the meal), a $160 discovery tasting menu, entrees, & desserts.  Secondly, many offerings, such as the $48 tasting portion of ossetra caviar over a cold cappelini, and a kobe beef ribeye entree, which at $8 per ounce, could easily add up to $50 per person, seem far too expensive to merit their weight in gold.

Longing to sample as many of Robuchon’s creations as possible, I steered clear of the over-priced wine menu and focused my efforts on the small tastings.  A spotlight from above illuminated my amuse bouche, a glossy lemon and vanilla gelee draped in a fennel cream, effectively awakening my palate for what would be a endless succession of precious plates, a fantastical interplay of simple, but intense flavors.  Most notable, were the oysters, proudly perched on a bed of sea salt; stray crystals added a salty crunch to gleaming, barely cooked oysters, poached in a shallow puddle of sweet Echire butter (French butter does taste better).  Stunningly presented in a glass Faberge-like egg, a cloud of profoundly rich sea urchin was offset by a thin sheath of sweet lobster gelee and a cauliflower cream icing.

The most prominent flavor in three wonderfully crunchy langoustine fritters, was surprisingly not the tender langoustine laced with basil pesto, but the basil leaf that peeked through the transparent deep-fried, though defiantly greaseless bric dough.  A crispy-skinned quail, masterfully stuffed with caramelized chunks of foie gras atop a silky truffled potato puree, was decadent and delicious, a worthy L’Atelier rite of passage.

A mere few were not as memorable; the lobster turnip ravioli, sweet lobster meat tucked betwen two wafer-thin slices of turnip, was a portion too precious to share, yet not compelling enough to shell out another $22 for a tiny nibble.  And at the risk of alienation by all L’Atelier devotees around the globe who swear by the signature truffled mashed potatoes, I dare to rage against the velvety whip of equal parts cream, butter and potatoes, as an underwhelming and over-glorified comfort food effort, money better spent on another tasting, perhaps on a second order of poached oysters.

But the most indelible impression was made by chicken soup; a simple chicken broth, laced with chives, cilantro, basil and shiso, abundant with sumptuous foie gras raviolis that literally melt in your
mouth, a french take on good old chicken soup that will surely change your chicken soups standards forever and leave you fantasizing for $28 L’Atelier delivery on a cold winter’s night.

I topped off the ride with a warm chocolate cake, oozing with rich liquid chocolate well-matched with an airy semi-sweet coffee mousse.  Though I’m a chocolate lover by nature, I was enraptured by  exotic rose macarons, sandwiching marscapone mousse laced with rose water, and delectably paired with a delicately sour kirsch gelee.

Aside from the steep price of admission, there is something marvelously refreshing about a world-renowned chef, who doesn’t take himself too seriously.  Likewise, the food is startlingly uncomplicated, a whimsical feast of playful dishes, each one bathed in a celebration of exquisite flavors, that one might associate with a more austere tasting experience.  Apart from his curious preoccupation with gelee, nothing is particularly ground-breaking, which may just be the point here: it is as difficult a feat to find
fault in the food as it is to score a seat at the counter.

Perhaps, there’s an enlightened reason that the concept of L’Atelier is thriving in Paris, Tokyo, Las Vegas, a rationale that transcends the notion of cashing in on a reputation and successful menu.  L’Atelier may just be a twenty-first century model for a new generation of fine diners who want to make eating a more casual affair.  But casual doesn’t mean inexpensive by any stretch of the word, and just as Robuchon’s new style has a sense of humor, you’ll have to have exercise yours when a hefty bill arrives.  Besides, you might not want to bite a gift horse in the mouth, especially when they’re ladling out bowls of the best thing to happen to chicken soup since the matzoh ball.

In the spirit of Frank Bruni and The New York Times star system, I humbly award L’Atelier 3 stars.

Until we eat again,
Restaurant Girl

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