It is hard to miss L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon on West Street, near Covent Garden, with its striking and enigmatic black exterior. On entering, the black theme continues, accented with red and a lacquerware-like shine that makes me think – as I am sure other customers do – that I have walked into a giant bento box. Adding to this effect are the little rectangular decorative nooks in which fruit sculptures and brass kettles can be found, as well as the three tiered arrangement of the property, with the bar on the top floor, the sit-down restaurant, La Cuisine, on the second and counter seating on the ground floor. We began at the top floor bar, with a lychee-flavoured Haru Ichiban and citrusy Yuzu Pisco from the ‘L’Atelier Artisan’ cocktail menu, before taking our journey of culinary discovery on the next floor down…
Counter seating, inspired by Japanese restaurants, is a feature of Robuchon’s L’Ateliers across the world and the arrangement around the open kitchen allows diners to watch the amazing balletic movements of the team of chefs preparing their food, which is at once a privilege and a distraction, if you happen to be dining with someone who would prefer to have your attention all to themselves! In the first floor La Cuisine, the open kitchen is in the corner of the room so you can sit at a ‘proper’ table and still have a view of the kitchen, which lends itself to the emphasis on the food that Robuchon believes makes a great restaurant.
Since the menu is the same in both restaurants, we opted to dine at La Cuisine, mostly because we had been told that Executive Chef Xavier Boyer himself would be at the pass that evening. After being shown to our seats by charming restaurant manager Jerome, we noticed that even the lighting contributes to the restaurant’s focus on food. There is a flattering soft light around the guests and tables, but a brightly lit kitchen reminds diners of their dishes’ point of origin (as well as allowing the chefs to see what they are doing, of course!) and once at the table the food attracts attention with its artistic presentation lit directly from above. Blinds are kept closed, which allows for intimate moments at any time of the day and, in the absence of natural light, probably accounts for regular unplanned lingering over lunch.
With Madame Cliqcuot keeping us company, we decided on ‘Menu Decouverte’, a tasting selection of six courses with wine pairings and coffee, exhibiting a range of seasonal produce in Robuchon’s mostly French style with Asian influences. As soon as the first course arrived, we knew we would not be disappointed; our amuse bouche, a foie gras royale in a tiny glass, had such a light texture that it quite literally melted in the mouth, the sweetness of the aged port reduction combining with the salty tang of the parmesan foam.
Sommelier Lorenzo came to us before each course to tell us about the wine and we were, as ever, greedy to discover more! His first choice was a Godello Viña Godeval 2012, Valdeorras, Spain, with an unusual character that was reminiscent of marine air and samphire, but lent a smooth butteriness to the seafood with which it was served. Described as a ‘symphony of salmon tartar’ topped with Sologne Imperial Caviar, the first course was refreshing and salty, like sea spray on a sunny clifftop walk. A tiny mother of pearl spoon was provided to load juicy morsels onto the unbelievably thin toasts provided, which was probably fortunate because a larger utensil would have made possible my desire to eat the whole delicious dish in one go!
The next course was a masterclass in simplicity: crunchy sections of asparagus ‘veiled’ with tiny slivers of Iberian chorizo and aged Comté cheese, with girolles and a tangy sauce. To accompany this, Lorenzo selected a fine Pinot Gris 2012 by Firesteed, Oregon, that had a meadowy aroma and a flavour that made us think of August’s wrinkled sweet apples and warm hay.
A stand out dish for both of us was to follow, ‘Le Black Cod’ marinated in miso, perfectly cooked so as to fall apart in juicy, savoury flakes, served on a creamy pea and mint mousseline that was the green of grass after a summer shower. Our final glass of white wine was a Rivaner 2013 from Luxembourg’s Domaine Clos des Eglantieres Moselle, with a clean scent of the eglantine flower for which the vineyard is named. This wine dried quickly on the palate, with a tartness that went well with the fish.
Switching to red wine, Lorenzo brought out our favourite wine of the evening, a rich Austrian Sankt Laurent 2012, Weingut Heinrich, Burgenland, that had notes of aged balsamic and an irony aftertaste that was an excellent pairing for game. Our main course was dainty, flavoursome quail, stuffed with foie gras and served with a quenelle of mashed potato and tiny herb salad. Elegantly presented, the portion did seem a little meagre even for a tasting menu, but waitress Lamia, who had been making fun of my exclaiming ‘fabulous’ at the arrival of each new masterpiece, was on hand to point out that additional mashed potato was also provided in a separate bowl. ‘Fabulous’, I heard myself breathe, as she whipped the lid off and revealed the secret stash of buttery joy…
For us, cheese is a vital part of French cuisine and we were surprised that it did not feature on the Menu Decouverte, although it was – of course – an optional extra that we immediately added. The cheeses were selected for us but it was here that sommelier Lorenzo really came into his own by pairing a small glass with each cheese! Not content to stick to the wines and ports from his 254 label cellar, Lorenzo suggested a London craft beer called Meantime to pair with a soft Coulommiers cheese and we were surprised by how well the nutty character of the cheese was enhanced by the hoppy beer. Finally, we had a creamy praline and hazelnut yoghurt cremeux with a paper thin almond biscuit, all served on top of juicy shreds of pineapple and washed down with a “Granos Nobles” 2011 Gewürztraminer, Luigi Bosca, Mendoza that echoed the tropical flavours of the dessert.
Each element of the menu is carefully selected for its seasonality and it is hard not to cram this review full of summertime metaphors of flowers, great weather and the seaside. If you are a fan of the season’s fresh, bright flavours, the food at London’s L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon contains all the summer you’ll need – even if you have to step outside to see the sun!
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
13-15 West Street
London WC2H 9NE