19 January 2011

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, London - Review

So where do I begin? To say that Joël Robuchon knows how to run a restaurant is a bit of an understatement – the man holds 24 Michelin stars for crying out loud! He is culinary royalty across three continents. Last spring, I enjoyed a wonderful meal at Robuchon’s two-Michelin starred restaurant in Monaco, and I had craved more of his Asian influenced French cooking ever since. So it was on a chilly January day that I found myself gravitating to part of the Robuchon stellar constellation: L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London.

Of Robuchon’s 12-restaurant empire, only four are fully fledged starched white tablecloth affairs (Macau, Las Vegas, Monaco, and Tokyo). The rest are more informal dining spaces, which is not at all to say that the food is of a lower standard. Instead, the more casual Atelier (French for ‘workshop’) concepts are designed to be more laid back and accessible, allowing you to watch as the chefs grill, chop, and tweeze your meal right in front of you.

I’m usually too self-conscious to eat alone at high-end restaurants, but on this day I made a rare exception. So with a lunchtime table for one booked and my copy of The Economist in hand (I wonder if there are any solo diners that don't bring reading material with them), I arrived at this Robuchon outpost in the heart of London’s Covent Garden, which is run by the capable chef, Olivier Limousin. The restaurant has three levels, and I had booked a table in the ground floor L’Atelier. The other two floors contain a bar and a slightly more traditional dining room. Fortunately the layout of the ground floor restaurant lends itself to lone dining perfectly. In line with Robuchon’s fascination for all things Japanese, the restaurant is dominated by an open-plan kitchen surrounded by a sushi bar-style counter in Indian rosewood, which is where I was seated. There are other, free-standing, tables that are also elevated, giving the restaurant a more relaxed feel. The décor, though, is straight out of the 1980’s with bold shades of red and black dominating. The lighting inside was very dim, creating quite a sultry atmosphere, even at 1pm on a Wednesday. All in all, a very pleasant place to while away the afternoon.

The menu here is one of those irritating things that doesn’t list separate starters or mains. Instead there are smaller and larger portions, and you are left to decipher which is which by price alone, which is no easy task – is a £39 egg and caviar dish bigger or smaller than a £36 plate of langoustine? I decided to make things easier and opted for the nine-course menu découverte at £125.

To begin, an amuse bouche of “royale” of foie gras with port wine reduction and Parmesan foam woke up the palate with a bang. This was a great combination of silky smooth foie gras mousse, salty cheese and an intense sweet and sour port wine hit. I had begun my excellent meal at Robuchon in Monaco in an almost identical fashion, except then the port reduction was replaced by a layer of salted caramel, so this was a pleasingly familiar start to the meal.
Another old friend from my Monaco experience (and one of my highlights of 2010) was next, and this was simply titled “Le Caviar”. A caviar tin was placed in front of me and I watched as the waiter lifted the lid to reveal what looked like a tin full of Oscietra caviar. Of course, I already knew the punchline to this piece of culinary humour, and dug my mother of pearl spoon in to reveal a layer of intense lobster jelly and crab in fennel cream below the fish eggs. It was a beautiful mix of flavours, although I felt the execution of this dish was a touch better in Monaco.

Next was a salad of chicory, Fuji apples, and black Perigord truffles. This dish was full of clean and fresh flavours. The sweet acidity of the apples and vinaigrette dressing were well paired with the bitterness of the chicory leaves. The only let down was that there was not much flavour coming through from the truffles – quite a tough thing to achieve I would have thought.
A soup course was next, and what a bowl of soup it was! Butternut squash velouté sounded a tad tame when I first read it on the menu, but how wrong I was. I watched as a chef ladled thick and vibrantly orange soup into a bowl and then lovingly garnished it with small juice-filled segments of pink grapefruit, slivers of orange peel, coriander seeds, toasted pumpkin seeds, ground cardamom, coriander cress, and golden croutons. Wow! The soup had an earthy sweetness to it that was transformed by the freshness of the orange peel and grapefruit. The cardamom and coriander seeds gave a hint of winter spiciness and the toasted pumpkin seeds and croutons added a welcome bit of texture. This was one of the absolute highlights of the meal and every spoonful was slowly savoured.
A slab of seared duck foie gras was next, which arrived perfectly cooked with a good savoury crust and meltingly soft centre. Its richness was offset by a mix of grapefruit, apple and maple syrup, which provided the sweetness and acidity that foie gras needs.
This was followed by a fish course, and in a change to what was billed on the menu I was served a beautiful dish of grilled sea bass and Scottish langoustine tail served with clams and artichoke. This was another stand-out dish; the sea bass was perfectly cooked and the langoustine was impossibly sweet.
The main meat course followed and this was another Robuchon classic. Confit of quail’s leg and foie gras stuffed quail breast had been grilled and slicked with a soy and honey glaze. This was served with a dollop of black truffle mashed potatoes, and a little pile of dill and chervil. I am getting hungry just writing this as this was yet another delightful dish. The quail was cooked to perfection – so juicy and soft. I mean how can you complain when you have foie gras and truffles on the same plate? As if this wasn’t decadent enough, a small cocotte was served on the side containing Robuchon’s infamous and impossibly rich mashed potatoes. Rumoured to be a blend of equal parts of potatoes and butter, I could feel my arteries thicken in anticipation of the first bite. It was sensational.

Desserts, although good, were a little more muted. Yuzu ice cream covered in popping candy-studded white chocolate was a fun little number. The citrus notes of the yuzu making this quite a refreshing dessert.
Finally, a beautiful looking dessert consisting of layers of Manjari chocolate mousse, white chocolate ice cream, and chocolate biscuit crumbs. Sitting atop the serving bowl was a thin circle of chocolate. I'm not a huge fan of chocolate-based desserts in general, but this was fine, if a little ordinary.
Service throughout the meal was friendly and efficient, and the sommelier picked out two wonderful glasses of wine to go with my lunch: a young Austrian Grüner Veltliner went really well with the first courses, while a fruit-packed and spicy Argentinean Enamore was perfectly matched with the quail.

L'Atelier seems to be a somewhat forgotten gem in the London dining scene. Perhaps its informality is off-putting to people about to spend a good wad of cash on a meal. But although the atmosphere is relaxed, don't forget that this place still holds two Michelin stars, one of only eight such restaurants in the capital, and the level of cooking here is monumentally good (Update 26/09/13: In the 2014 edition of the Michelin Guide it was announced that L'Atelier had lost its second star). I'll definitely be back for more as there was so much on the menu I wanted to try. Although maybe next time I'll bring a friend to share the experience with, as a meal at L'Atelier is just too good to keep to myself.

Food:          9 / 10
Service:       8 / 10
Ambiance:   8 / 10

13-15 West Street
London WC2H 9NE
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)20 7010 8600
L'Atelier on Urbanspoon
Square Meal


  1. Since you recommended it, it's moved upwards in my own wishlist, hope to visit soon.

  2. Thanks Kavey, very honoured :-) It's a very different sort of 'posh-dining' experience, but is all the better for it I think. It has the sort of menu where everything sounds tempting. I really wanted to try the pig's trotter on parmesan toast, but it wasn't on the tasting menu. Next time!

  3. Thank you very much for the lovely in depth review. We look forward to welcoming you again soon to try our new seasonal dishes.

    Kind regards,

    Peggy Li
    Marketing & Communications Manager
    L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon London

  4. I always enjoy it at L'Atelier - the food is generally very good and I love sitting at the bar and watching the near-silent Japanese-esque kitchen. I love that they let you taste a bunch of wines by the glass before deciding which one you want with each course, or for the meal. The pre-theatre is a steal, too. I think you're right about it sort of flying under the radar...at least of many London bloggers. Glad you had a nice meal.

  5. This has been one of my London favouirites pretty much since it opened - the food is just falutless!