In 1981 Mimi Sheraton wrote a magazine article raving about a new restaurant on Chartres street in New Orleans called K-Paul's. I was fortunate to visit Paul Prudhomme's restaurant several weeks before her wildly enthusiastic report appeared as well as returning to stand in an hours long line months later. As the years went by locals disappeared from the line replaced almost exclusively by tourists who were willing to pay increasing prices while sharing tables with strangers. K-Paul's is still there although it's "format" has changed while the food is still among either the best truck stop food you've ever had or some of the best and most creative Creole Cajun interpretations available anywhere.
Joel Robuchon, named as the "Chef of the Century" after he closed his earlier Paris restaurant which had been called by many the best in the world, on May 7th opened L'Atalier de Joel Robuchon, arguably the most anticipated restaurant opening of any in Europe. Last friday Patricia Wells in the International Herald Tribune alerted the world to its opening. Although her enthusiasm was somewhat more muted than Mimi Sheraton's twenty some years earlier she clearly rejoiced in telling the world that "Robuchon is back in all his glory." (She also co-wrote his cookbook which was translated into English.)
Walking by the half block long line at L'Atalier after finishing an early dinner there Sunday night I was reminded of K-Paul's in its early days. The two restaurants have more in common than one might suspect.
The restaurant is slick, even swanky-all black, red and stainless steel. With 42 counter seats flanking either side of an open kitchen. Analogies have been made by several to a kind of sushi bar yet I personally felt that an upscale Jersey diner was a more appropriate comparison. At a sushi bar the chef performs across from you. At L'Atalier the open kitchen sits 20 to 25 feet in the rear of many of the counter seats. The counter arraangement itself is rather unusual in that there is space directly in front for the plates and utensils but not enough room for, say, a wine bottle. Wine, which is properly decanted, is left behind the counter and poured only when the waittress or waiter is able. This, for some, may be an awkward arrangement. There is little opportunity for a personal experience or a private conversation with staff-everyone seated to the left or right is part of everything. At times this is wonderful especially when it becomes a shared experience on both sides of the diner. Conversation is easy, friendships are started. Exactly like sharing a table in Louisiana. For a single diner such as myself it was wonderful. For a couple or two couples I'm not certain that all will react the same way.
Waitstaff and kitchen staff, dressed in black, speak French only occasionally describing dishes in English. Understandably there is no English menu. For myself, not so understandably, there is little opportunity for English translations of the dishes. Despite that two thirds of the 42 diners seemed to be American, either tourists or living in France. While many will criticize me for my comments here I found this to be particularly frustrating since when you have table service that is one on one it is easier to communicate. This is really more of a "diner" or food bar kind of experience, there is little time for staff to spend a lot of time reviewing dishes or finding someone to translate. Much of what I learned came from bilingual Americans at the counter. To be honest this is the first time in years of dining hroughout Europe that I found language to be a problem. Perhaps my own unique experience, perhaps the arrangement. Whatever, this surprised me.
For this reason my descriptions of the various dishes are severely limited. I didn't take notes, I just wanted to experience as much as I could. There are 22 first courses, all Tapas size with many influenced by Spain. There are 22 main courses as well as a cheese course (limited tray rather than expansive cart) along with a number of desserts of which only two really seemed to matter. Many of the first courses are duplicated as seconds, only with a larger portion.
Because of my own gluttony (I personally ordered five first courses and three seconds along with two desserts) and the willingness of those around me to share I honestly believe I was able to taste almost half of everything on his menu.
There were two "great dishes," one which was an entree and the second a dessert. There were also a number of outright disappointments along with much that many at the counter thought that was generally "good," "very good," or "it's good but not great." (An advantage of this kind of arrangement is that it is easier to share and everyone will have an opinion.)
Gazpacho soup was "ok." Just nothing exceptional. A "construction" of tomato, portobello mushroom, mozzarella with basil and olive oil was "tasty." But no tastier than most better neighborhood restaurants in Tuscany. Or in Dallas.
Having just come from Germany where sweet white asparagus is in season (and delicious! prepared in any of fifty ways) I looked forward to his interpretation. Green asparagus stalks showed up on a plate with shavings of reggiano, drizzled olive oil and herbs. While this was fresh and enjoyable, it paled compared to what I had a day earlier south of Frankfurt.
The one great dish is his take of langoustine wrapped in phyllo, deep fried and served with droplets of basil oil. This was delicious! Just incredible. Everyone at the table raved about it. It was also US $14.40 for one (12 Euros) langoustine. (Prices in general seemed fairly reasonable with groups in the 6 to 7 Euro range and 12-15 Euro. Second courses were quite a bit higher with groupings in the mid 20's with many in the high 30's and 40, others higher which might include, say, lobster. Most importantly: most of the servings were quite small, again Tapas sized.)
Much of the food really was unremarkable. Several past recreations were interesting: mashed potatoes which must be three parts potato, one part butter and a bit of heavy cream, french fries (fried in duck fat?) and his famous entree of veal with a tuna flavored cream sauce. It tasted exactly like well cooked tuna fish, even from a can.
Foie gras was excellent, lamb chops wonderful, really good tiny clams stuffed with spring onions, garlic and bread crumbs. The one disappointment for me was the Iberian ham, especially since a dozen or so hung from the ceiling over the kitchen area.
Two desserts were outstanding: a mint souffle (in a four ounce or so cup) which was parted with a spoon and a dollop or two of pistachio ice cream infused and his take on baba au rhum which was delicious. The first was fantastic and the hit of the counter; as each person ordered it and reacted others followed, only to react themselves.
As time goes by diners drink more, as they drink more they become friendlier to each other and more willing to explore and share each others' dishes. Looking around the two counter areas for many this seemed to work quite well. For a few others they seemed not to care for this communal "exploration." Most at the counter seemed to order wine by the glass rather than by the bottle. Prices seemed fair, almost a bargain by some Paris standards.
And these last points, I think, are the keys to this restaurant:
For those who are adventurous and open to sharing with others this can be a wonderful experience. Analogies that come to mind include tapas bars, food bars-both perhaps more so than a sushi bar or, frankly, even an upscale diner. But this kind of arrangement for me does NOT suit itself to top rank dining. It is not the proper presentation for a "great dish" or for a bottle of wine. The exact same phyllo wrapped shrimp is going to taste different to me at L'Atalier than it would at, say, Ducasse. The baba au rhum at Ducasse was better because of the presentation of three bottles with the rum poured over the cake at the table. Although the actual TASTE of Robuchon's baba may be just as good. At L'Atalier it is placed in front of you just as it is, really, at a diner in New Jersey. All of the plates are awkwardly placed in front of you or handed to you in the server cannot extend their arm to the counter top.
The restaurant has nothing in common with his original. Even some of the same food will taste different, I believe, because of this. Yet for those who go and accept the concept on its own and, perhaps, lower their expectations this can be a great experience, especially if they are fortunate enough to be seated next to the right person.
Robuchon was there on my visit. He autographed my menu (I have no pride!). He personally supervised every single dish that came out of his kitchen. The ten or so cooks seemed to move fluidly, almost like a kind of ballet if you will with him passing judgment on everything they produced.
If I had walked in off the street or had only waited a short while in line, if I spoke French or had an English speaking waiter or waittress, this would have been a highlight of a vacation. For travelling on business by myself it was wonderful. I would definitely go back. But for those sitting on both sides of me at the counter they all had other restaurants to direct me to, most with two or three stars, all more expensive if I was looking for their efinitive meal of a liftime Parisian dining experience. For them and me this was not it.
For a really interesting and worthwhile experience, yes. But more than, say, 30 minutes in line, no. I don't think the locals will stay around at L'Atalier just as they didn't at K-Paul's. Nor do I think this concept will work if he is not there. (Although Many will try to do their take on this-I guarantee this!) He is what makes this special. Without him, it's really, just the swankiest diner you've ever sat at. Deja Vu? Yes, but not of Robuchon of the '90's. More of the communal dining and long lines at the hottest restaurant in New Orleans, K-Paul's, in 1981. That started some real trends in the U. S. L'Atalier will, too. But again, just expect very good food. Nothing more.