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.
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
Tel: +44 (0)20 7010 8600