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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Kajitsu – Zen and Veganism in NYC

Kajitsu serves exquisite vegan Japanese food in the Buddhist fashion; it's good and interesting enough that you probably won't miss the meat - I didn't.

Kajitsu, the name of the discreet subterranean Japanese restaurant in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, means ‘a fine day’, which is something you can be assured of having should your diurnal cycle happen to conclude within its enlightening confines.

Upon entering, don’t let chef Nishihara’s youthful glow fool you. He spent over 12 years learning the intricate art of kaiseki cuisine; 10 in Kyoto and two in Nagano, where he specialised in producing the multicourse affairs of hand-made buckwheat soba noodles. He brought all of this experience with him to New York two years ago and, for some unknown reason, no one really seems to have noticed. That is, if you ignore Messieurs Michelin, who promoted the restaurant to two stars in last year’s guide.

Kajitsu serves shojin ryori cuisine, a purely vegetarian form of gastronomy that was popularised in the 13th century by Chinese Zen monks in Japan, and is still served in Zen temples today. And, if these monks’ food is anything like what I recently sampled, no wonder they always seem so happy.

The meal was a fascinating vacillation between the paring down and joining together of exquisite ingredients.

Fried Trumpet Royale Mushrooms with Fresh Persimmons & Pine Nut Cream (with Gyokuro & Lahpet)

Our opening course set the tone for what was to come. The most delicately fried cubes of Trumpet Royale mushrooms had been wedded to fresh persimmons and pine nut cream. The green and golden pyramid was presented insideindividual clay dishes which resembled blossoming flowers. The ingredients bled umami on the palate (luckily not the plate), with the sweet and tangy persimmon ably dabbing up the spillage.

So immersed was I in this dish that I was taken aback when a fellow diner at the other end of the chef’s counter snuck up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. “I also photograph my food,” he offered. I felt like telling him, “That’s probably not something you want to gloat about to a stranger – even if he also has the peculiar habit of recording every potentially memorable bite he consumes – especially now that you’ve got the chef’s attention, numbskull.” Rudely ignoring my internal rant, he continued, “I was so eager to taste this course that I forgot to take a picture of it before I dug in. So I was wondering if, um, I could take a picture of yours.” My dining partner and I couldn’t help but smile, and let him complete his simultaneously innocuous and brave task before shuffling back to his stool to show off the stolen image to his other half.

The next course, a seemingly simple carnelian yellow and “scarlet-tinged” minestrone soup consisting of kabocha squash, bell peppers (which I normally hate – and yes, hate is a strong word), yellow yuzu and the mild but flavorful shichimi togarashi (seven spice), maintained my interest throughout, with citrus and chili notes peppering my tongue while I enjoyed the savory yet ever-so-sweet sweet broth.

And so it went: complex followed by ‘simple’.

Our third course was fittingly composed of three separate dishes, each more elaborate than the last. Let’s just say it involved wheat gluten which had been fashioned to resemble yellow maple leaves with orange edging; three rice cigars wrapped with tofu skin, crowned with beads of ‘land caviar’ (cypress seeds) and complemented by the best ginger I’ve ever tasted, and an immaculate pile of braised enoki mushrooms with nori, daikon and a radish wedge that provided a peacock-worthy splash of color.

This was followed by soba noodles with dipping sauce. While this is a dish you can order in any number of Japanese restaurants, the noodles won’t likely be made in-house and certainly won’t taste or feel like this – the texture was springy and superb – and the unusual addition of fresh wasabi was a welcome one.

Chef Masato Nishihara Whisking the Matcha

The main course was certainly the triumph of the evening, both in visual affect and deliciousness. An assembly of vegetables – some raw, some steamed, some fried; some warm, some cold, some neither – resembled autumn leaves that had been raked together into a pile similar to those you see at the end of proud homeowners’ driveways. The foliage was sprinkled with edible ‘pine needles’, which were actually brittle green tea noodles. This was both substantial and without a doubt one of the tastiest dishes I’ve eaten in some time, endlessly dazzling in its variety of textures and tastes, with no dud notes to speak of. Lying next to the leaves was a wooden wrapper, beneath which lay a row of cedar-smoked, green wheat gluten and portabella mushrooms that was surrounded by soft walnuts and a sticky combination of red miso paste and salsify. This was also surprisingly, and quietly, good.

A straight-forward bowl of steamed rice dotted with chestnuts was pleasant enough, but it was the trio of pickles residing next to it that made a good case for being a dish on its own.

Desserts continued down the same path, each containing only a few ingredients that were perfectly confident spending time with themselves. A diminutive mochi pancake with dates and sweet azuki bean paste was branded with the logo of the restaurant – a circle/square/triangle image descended from an ancient Buddhist story in which the master tells the student that once he realises the meaning of these three shapes he will truly be wise. I am, alas, still pondering.

Soft and delicate, the pancake led us to our final unassuming course of rice cracker candy and green tea. The chef whisked the matcha right in front of us and, while there was not much liquid in the bowl, it packed a punch. The surprise of the meal was learning just how good a sweet rice cracker could be – it was out of this world (well, definitely from out of this country), and perfectly offset the intensity of the frothy green tea.

The meal hadn’t actually lasted that long, and my companion and I lingered for another hour or so talking about relationships and food. At one point, the chef came up to us and smiled as he presented us with an extra nibble: a mini sweet potato ice cream ‘hamburger’ with a single walnut topping. This was subtly divine, and I was glad that the crunch of the light rice cracker ‘bun’ – coupled with the flavour of cool, sweet yams – was my final bite of the evening.

As I left, I felt completely content and not the least bit bloated. Despite a successful pairing of five sakes, I also felt remarkably lucid. The meal was something of a revelation as, without basic kitchen foundations such as dairy butter (the food is suitable for vegans), chef Nishihara was able to create a delightful meal that never seemed wanting in any regard.

In fact, his food resembles the enigma of traditional Japanese culture I experienced when I visited the country some years ago: it has been developed over a long period of time; it is undeniably beautiful and painstakingly considered, and it has a sea of emotions bundled up at its core. You may or may not experience the emotions, depending on your state of mind at the time, but they are worth discovering.

Given that the seasonal menu changes with the months, there is much still to be unearthed from this serene and (still) hidden goldmine.

Kajitsu
414 East 9th Street|
New York, NY 10009