L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon – Letting the Outside In

Thew New York branch of L'Atelier, based in the Four Seasons Hotel, is well worth a visit. The new head chef has introduced a number of new items to the menu and the cooking is as faultless as ever. It may not be the hippest dining destination in the city, but the food remains delicious.

“Each dish is like a jewel,” the gentleman sitting next to me exclaimed, as his painstakingly plated creation was set before him. “The question is: does it taste as good as it looks?” he said, and then proceeded to ‘mmm’ and ‘aah’ quietly to himself as each subsequent plate arrived….

The London branch of L’Atelier was a frequent haunt of mine when I lived there. The food was consistently delicious and I loved the casual interactions with the staff that were encouraged via the sushi bar style layout. You could sample any wine by the glass before buying it, and had the pleasure of observing the chefs meticulously cook and plate each dish before it reached its intended destination.

Over the years, Mr. Robuchon has brought this concept to many a metropolis across the globe. The model has been branded by some as “the McDonald’s of fine dining,” as virtually the same menu may be presented whether you happen to be dining in Taipei or Las Vegas. With so many destination restaurants now celebrating particular regional cuisines and the provenance of their ‘unique’ ingredients, some have branded Robuchon’s restaurants as increasingly irrelevant; such critics argue that this was how fine dining used to be, but not how it should be today.

L'Atelier New York Dining Room (Image: Four Seasons Hotels)

The New York outpost of L’Atelier has many things working against it. It is oddly housed inside the soaring ceilings of the I.M. Pei designed Four Seasons hotel, all the way in the back corner. There are both tables and bar seating, creating a somewhat discombobulated dining space. It is not sufficiently closed off from the adjoining hotel bar, and the bar music and clatter is audible as you dine. Plus, the menu can take a while to decipher, and the accompanying explanation the waiters are seemingly required to recite can leave you even more perplexed.

But, as my dining companion stated, “Once the food began arriving, everything was perfect.” I concurred.

In January, the restaurant welcomed a new head chef. Christophe Bellanca who previously worked at the three Michelin star Pic in Valence and has graced the prestigious New York kitchens of Le Cirque and Aureole. Christophe is only the second current head chef in the group to truly come from outside the Robuchon stable, perhaps a sign that Mr. Robuchon understands that in order to sustain his success, he must allow new ideas and creative energy to flourish within his kitchens. The New York menu, which changed markedly about a month ago, now includes around eight dishes that are all Bellanca’s own. These dishes even permeate into the tasting menu, and with them breath new life into this venerable culinary ‘workshop’.

An amuse bouche consisting of three layers – foie gras cream, a port reduction, and parmesan foam – was delightful and set the theme for what was to come: each element was clearly discernible and worked together in concert to create something greater than the sum of the parts. At once rich, sweet and salty, and packed with umami, it deftly balanced the inherently strong flavors. It was also amazing that the foam smelled exactly like freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Seared Foie Gras and Kumquat Compote with Pain d'Epices

My dining partner and I opted for the tasting menu which, for $190, provides the expected quotient of luxury ingredients, and its nine courses are nearly devoid of missteps. The opening course of white asparagus gazpacho with Ossetra caviar was surprisingly refreshing, with the vegetal flavor remaining dominant amongst the briny roe, luscious cream and sweet pepper accents, all of which served to enhance the primary ingredient. The Hamachi sashimi had an ever-present complex acidity that danced confidently with the delicately minted avocado.

The signature Robuchon crispy langoustine papillote was succulent and faultless, yet somehow did not live up to what came before or after it. A seared morsel of foie gras had not been properly deveined, but it was delicious when eaten together with a single kumquat (and accompanying compote), which made for an unusual yet successful pairing.

Long Island Caramelized Duck Breast with Candied Nuts & Salsify Confit

The crisp mustard-seed encrusted skin of the sea bass provided a welcome kick that melded perfectly with the jalapeño and cilantro garnishes, the fish itself being both pristine and impeccably cooked. An extra course of sweetbreads was presented and, under a leaf of lettuce, lay hidden a stash of finely diced bacon which elevated the dish with a persistent note of smokiness.

While the menu does not actively promote the sources of its ingredients, the waiters can tell you just about anything you want to know about where your food came from. Both the Long Island caramelized duck breast and seared Idahoan Wagyu hanger steak were evidence enough of excellent sourcing. Serving as alternative endings to the savory portion of the menu, neither meat course was boring or overly heavy, and I particularly enjoyed the fresh wasabi served with the perfectly saignant beef.

Cranberry and Mascarpone Cheesecake

Desserts included the most beautiful cheesecake I have ever seen, though its cranberry sauce was slightly too cloying. An extra dessert of the famous Robuchon Bulle de Sucre was also nearly too pretty to eat, but similarly over-celebrated the ingredient with the star billing. These minor sins were more than forgiven, however, when the final dessert of Araguani chocolate cream, bitter chocolate sorbet and crumbled ‘Oreos’ arrived. This was as intense and delicious a chocolate dessert as I can remember demolishing – eminently satisfying in every way, and the perfect finale to what was overall a superb meal.

If you have not visited L’Atelier before, or have not been to the New York location, it is indeed a good time to go. I am pretty sure that once the food starts arriving, you will be glad you did.

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
Four Seasons Hotel New York
57 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

Note: I was invited to review L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon New York and did not pay for the food or wine, only the service.

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L’Absinthe – That’s the Spirit

L’Absinthe
40 Chalcot Road
London NW1 8LS
Website
Map
Reservations: +44 (0)20 7483 4848

  • Starters from £5-9, Mains from £9-16, Desserts £5-6, plus at lunchtime from Tuesday-Friday, 2 courses are £9.50 and 3 courses are £12.50
  • For the full set of photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal; you can also click on any of the images below for high-resolution versions of the images

L’Absinthe is a pleasant little bistrot on a lovely street in Primrose Hill. The simple food is executed well and is very reasonably priced. Their wine, which they also sell on a retail basis, is only marked up £10 when you order it during your meal, and they have a short but interesting selection to choose from. But the main thing about L’Absinthe is that their passion and joie de vivre shine through, and they have made it into the type of neighborhood restaurant you wished you had just around the corner from your home. I will certainly be returning.

Paris in Primrose

I am not sure why I’ve suddenly decided to review a pair of places in Primrose Hill – but alliteration aside, they are both worth it. My last review of Lanka, the cafe serving French pâtisserie with a Japanese twist, is about a five minute walk away from L’Absinthe, which is just off Regents Park Road (which functions as the High Street of the neighborhood).

L’Absinthe’s pleasant corner position on the street

Located on an attractive, wide intersection on Chalcot Road, L’Absinthe is a French bistrot-style restaurant and retail wine shop. It was set up in November 2007 by a group of Frenchmen, all with impressive backgrounds.

Some amusing shots of the bosses

The proprietor is Chef Jean-Christophe Slowik, and he worked in the front-of-house under Marco Pierre White for roughly 20 years at many of his well-known ventures. When Slowik decided to go solo, he enlisted help in the form of well-respected chef Christophe Favre, who has worked with Michel Rostang in France and also at the Bleeding Hart in London. At the Bleeding Hart, Christophe met Jean-Marc Charre, who was recruited to L’Absinthe’s front-of-house, along with Jena-Marc’s colleague Laurent Valentino. Laurent was running the floor on our visit, and he is one of the most pleasant hosts I’ve come across in London.

Upstairs dining space

The restaurant has both upstairs and downstairs dining rooms. Upstairs is light and airy, with a motif of green – presumably a reference to its namesake. There are a total of 30 covers, with one long rectangular communal table as you enter, a few shelves of wine, and then a number of simple wood tables on a slightly raised level, with a little window to the kitchen at the back. There is also terrace seating available outside – I believe about five tables – when the weather is nice enough to warrant it.

Downstairs dining space

The downstairs room was not open when we were there for our Saturday lunch, but seemed perfectly pleasant and houses another 34 covers. The bar also resides below, and there is direct access from the kitchen as well.

Making a meal of it

We had walked past the place earlier in the week, when it was unfortunately closed, and I recalled some foodie friends of mine going here about a year ago and saying it was good, so I made a mental note to keep it in mind next time we were in the area. That just happened to be a few days later, so we took another look at the menu posted outside and decided that the bistrot fare looked appetizing and reasonably priced, plus it looked like everyone there was having a good time.

Freshly Toasted Bread & Homemade Butter

Upon being seated, some bread was brought to our table to keep us occupied. It was of the basic sliced variety (which seemed store-bought, but I didn’t ask) and was freshly toasted for each table, a nice touch. The butter was particularly good, and it is homemade on the premises according to one of the waitresses.

Champagne Thiénot Brut NV

As I perused the wine list, I noticed that they seem to have a strong relationship with (or affinity for) the champagne house Thiénot, as the brand features on the cover of their wine list and also on the awning of the restaurant. Alain Thiénot is quite a well-regarded figure in the Champagne region, and also runs a number of other brands besides the one bearing his name, including Canard-Duchêne.

Check out that sparkling action & the branded crystal

I decided to sample a glass of the Thiénot Brut NV, which is the house champagne (£6.95), and thought it was very nice. It had a good citrus kick to it, without being overly harsh, and also displayed a pleasant creaminess and fairly elegant mousse. The bubbles did not seem particularly fine, but I thought it functioned well as a house champagne and was not overly expensive.

A funny and charming touch was that Laurent left the rest of the bottle on the table once he had poured my glass, and said nonchalantly that I could have the rest of it if I wanted (the bottle was more than half full). I think he was sort of serious and it was this warm and slightly cheeky attitude that helped to make it an enjoyable afternoon – it was as if we were already very old and loyal customers, when he’d only met us in the last ten minutes.

Hareng Mariné, Salade de Trevise aux Herbs

Mrs. LF opted to have two starters for her lunch. First up was the marinated herring (£4.95), which was certainly a generous portion and attractively presented. The marinade was good and not overly sweet or strong (we asked if it was marinated on the premises, and the waitress said it wasn’t), and the texture of the herring was pleasantly soft and firm enough. It worked very well with the slightly sour radicchio and herb salad, and was a very satisfying starter. 7/10.

Salade de Tomates & Onions de Printemps

The second half of Mrs. LF’s meal was a simple salad of tomatoes and spring onions (£5.25), which also came very prettily presented. The tomatoes were nice and sweet and the spring onions were very mild. What made the dish, and tied it all together, was the very good vinaigrette, which Mrs. LF said reminded her of France – in a good way. 7/10.

Chèvre Chaud, Salad Melangée, Vinaigrette au Miel

I ordered the goats cheese on toast with a honey dressing (£6.25) and really enjoyed it. I suppose it doesn’t get much simpler than this, but it was well executed and the produce itself was good. The ever-so-slight sourness and saltiness of the cheese was lifted by the light sweetness of the honey dressing and the vinaigrette added a nice streak of acidity, so everything was well balanced. I would order it again if I was in the mood for this kind of dish. 8/10.

Côte de Porc, Pommes Purée, Sauce aux Pruneaux

My pork chop with prune sauce (£10.95) was also plated up nicely. We noticed almost immediately that the crackling looked very crisp (always a good sign) and inferred that it was probably slow-cooked. The pork chop itself was well cooked, retaining enough moisture and having a nice clean flavor (it wasn’t overly ‘porky’ – even in the crackling, which can sometimes have too harsh of a taste for me). The prune sauce was a natural flavor combination, and this was very nicely carried out, with bits of the macerated prunes strewn throughout the purée, providing good texture.

Côte de Porc, Pommes Purée, Sauce aux Pruneaux (Crackling Side Facing)

As we had anticipated, the crackling was indeed very crispy (so much so I couldn’t cut it with my normal knife), and I really enjoyed it, as well as the dish as a whole. The only let-down on the plate was the mash, which tasted okay but was too dry and grainy – we expected more from the French kitchen as, when we dine in France, the mash tends to be more rich and creamy. I’m not saying I expect Robuchon standards everywhere. Well, yes I suppose I do actually – after all, it’s only potatoes, butter, milk/cream and seasoning whisked up to be very light and airy, and a French bistrot should be able to pull that off well. 7/10 (it would have been an 8/10 if a bit more effort had gone into the potatoes).

2006 Les Grimaudes, Vallée du Rhône

Laurent had recommended a glass of the 2006 Les Grimaudes (£4.95), a biodynamic wine from the Vallée du Rhône (Costières de Nîmes to be exact) to go with my pork chop. It is a blend of Grenache, Carrignan and Cinsault grapes and has a very small production of some 26,000 bottles per year. I thought was a lovely little table wine. It was less heavy than I expected it might be, and I thought the Grenache provided a nice fragrance and lightness to wine. It was just fruity enough, very fresh and had ripe and fairly supple tannins. Laurent also poured way more than a normal-size glass without a second thought – I was beginning to like this guy.

Also of note, and as I briefly mentioned earlier, is the fact that L’Absinthe has a dual function as a retail wine shop. They sell all of the wines on offer at retail price and simply charge a £10 corkage fee on all of the wines when you order them at the restaurant. There is a very interesting if short selection. It is French-focused, though there are offerings from elsewhere in the world – from Chile to Italy. It is a list made up of interesting producers, many of which I was not familiar with, which is always fun.

After the savory business was out of the way, we decided we still had a bit more room left for dessert, especially as we had spied one that we definitely liked the look of at another table.

Mousse au Chocolat Noir & Café

Mrs. LF’s chocolate and coffee mousse (£4.95) was very good, with the coffee flavor coming through just enough. It was rich as a result of the dark chocolate base, but this is the type of mousse I prefer as I often find chocolate mousses to be too lightweight to my taste. The shortbread served on the side was nice, and I enjoyed dunking it into the mousse, although Mrs. LF would never contaminate her mousse with foreign particles of any kind ;-). 7/10.

Crème Brûlée à l'Absinthe

I loved my dessert, which was the house crème brûlée (£5.50). The little spin here is that the custard is actually infused with a bit of the lethal absinthe spirit. I thought it was a stroke of genius as it had been injected very subtly but consistently throughout so that you detected just a little hint of anise in the background. It also created a gentle heat in the middle of the mouth, alluding to the power of this spirit, which Van Gogh and his drinking buddy Gaugin knew all too well. It was a highly satisfying and delicious dessert. Given the quite large portion, I am pleased to say I didn’t get bored of it either – often, I get sick of something which has the same consistency, texture and flavor throughout when there’s a lot of it – and enjoyed every last bite. (Oh, the carmelized crust was perfectly crispy as well). 9/10.

Espresso

I decided to finish off our lingering affair with a single espresso, courtesy of Musetti beans, which was very good.

Chocolate-covered Espresso Beans

A nice little touch was the fact that they served some chocolate-covered coffee beans (also Musetti) alongside the coffee. I always enjoy these, and even if it seems rather Italian to me (rather than French), it was appreciated.

Green with envy yet?

The bill, presented in that now-familiar green shade, came to a reasonable £58.05 including wine, service and VAT.

I’m glad we didn’t dine the night before!

As we exited, I was glad that we had decided to come for lunch and not for dinner the previous night (just check out that chalkboard)! 🙂

This could become a habit

We had a really enjoyable long lunch at L’Absinthe. The food was simple and tasty throughout (with a few memorable dishes and no sour notes), but what made it such a memorable afternoon was the atmosphere, service and spirit of the place. They clearly have passion and seem adept at the art of customer interaction – and it’s nice that this hasn’t been lost after being in business for well over two years now.

As we sat inside the little corner restaurant, it almost really felt like we weren’t in England anymore and had been transported to France. It had the same acoustics as a good bistrot and the feeling of a place to which you’d want to return. Mrs. LF said she was sure that this is the kind of place where regulars would be welcomed, recognized and rewarded by the staff, and I am sure if I lived in Primrose Hill, I would certainly be one of them. Luckily, we don’t live too far away, so I may still become one anyway.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 7/10 (it was a particularly busy lunch period so things dragged a bit towards the end when we wanted to get the bill and go)

Food: 7/10

Wine: as mentioned previously, L’Absinthe has a dual function as a retail wine shop. They sell all of the wines on offer at retail price and simply charge a £10 corkage fee on all of the wines when you order them at the restaurant. There is a very interesting if rather short selection. It is French-focused, though there are offerings from elsewhere in the world – from Chile to Italy. It is a list made up of interesting producers, many of which I was not familiar with, which is always fun.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at L’Absinthe once, and it was for Saturday lunch.*

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