Coasting on past glory ... the failure of complacency. On a chef friend's suggestiong, we went to L'Atelier Joel Robuchon for the chef of the century's menu decouverte, and discover we did; a $340 culinary disaster for two.
Although we do prefer cuisine that's a bit more experimental, one can only afford so much and we therefore indulge mostly in good bistro fare, so classic french cooking is definitely one of our staples. However, classic or cutting-edge, the proper treatment and cooking of food is essential. To our great dismay, this was not the case at this particular Robuchon establishment.
I did some websearching afterwards to gather some reviews and information on this restaurant and found, to my great surprise, that the concept was inspired by Joel Robuchon's tenure in Japan (and it's sushi chef's interactive cuisine with their customers). This was translated in a so-called open kitchen where the chef can react to a customer's ever-changing moods to his cooking. This all sounds very intriguing if it was true. However, L'Atelier Joel Robuchon is nothing of the sort. The open kitchen is there, true. But it's deep down in the belly of the beast, surrounded by a moat peopled only by the waitstaff providing a pretty thick buffer between the eating public and the culinary troops. Add to this that the scale, depth & height of the counters has completely missed its mark (unlike it's Japanese counterparts), and add to this a series of ridiculously large, fake-ice filled, bowls w/apples (don't ask me) interspersed along the counter, and you have a server's nightmare trying to reach over with the least bit of grace & clumsily depoist in front of you dish after dish; or doing acrobatics trying to refill your wine glass.
And the food ... the food. For a $135 lunch tasting menu, it started of with a butter-crumble broiled clam. We didn't expect caviar, maybe an oyster ... but a clam? A finger-food snack I'd expect at a non-cook's party that's trying out a cookbook for the first time. Okay, bad start but it's sure to get better.
Next came a Foie Gras and Veal Pate in a pistachio crust. Now, this was our third day in Paris and since during the first two days, most bistros were closed, we bought a variety of cheeses and charcuterie, including several pates. To our surprise, this one didn't measure up to our local boucher's fare. The slice was overly large for an 9-course tasting menu, with only a small chickpea-sized piece of foie gras.
This was followed by a chestnut/foie gras soup made mostly with cream and butter, and more butter. Yes, we do love the stuff, but it was a bit like covering up substandard food with plenty of msg & salt. And the piece of foie gras floating so appetizingly in the soup was mysteriously completely devoid of any flavor whatsoever.
The langoustine ravioli fared much better. Even though it was also laden with butter, the balance was there. On its own, it would have been a top-notch dish, if it wasn't for the fact that we were having a multi-course menu, and for the fact that the sauce seemed to use the previous dish (chestnut soup) as its base. Hence, not much of a progession.
I learned afterwards that the next dish is a much-loved Robuchon classic. A cocotte of mushrooms and poached egg served in a glass. Rather creamy, a bit like Campbell's soup. Standard mushroom flavor, no wild mushrooms here, no earthiness, no woods. Something out of a child's memory. There was this green paste at the bottom, parsley I'd guess but one couldn't really tell as it had no flavor.
Okay, maybe we expected to discover a bit too much with this "menu decouverte", so we endured. Then things got really bad ... this wouldn't really have bothered us in a normal bistro, but here we were in a michelin-starred establishment doling out a substantial chunk of money for a true culinary experience.
Now keep in mind the sushi inspiration here, and imagine our reaction to a scallop cooked to a completely opaque-white consistency, so blatantly overcooked one had to slice through it as if it was a well-done steak! All this floating in a 1/2 cup of clarified butter. If we were to overcook our scallops when having friends over for dinner, we would not serve them, but do them over again!
For the main course, we decided to try both & share ... thus ordering both the quail and milk-fed pork. Similarly to the scallop, these were cooked to a restaurant-chain-going North American middleclass. The quail was not even medium-rare, it was brown. The pork as white as the milk it was fed ... no pink in sight. The former with a honey glaze, the latter with a typical port reduction. Both were served with an extremely glutenous potatoe puree, or another vessel for butter, and more butter; served out of a bain-marie (from yesterday?).
The first dessert was good, but unremarkable ... rice porage with milk ice cream & caramel. The second was a nice light palate cleansing fruit bowl with basil sorbet and a passion fruit syrup. And palate cleansing we did need.
This horrendously disapointing experience has left us feeling like we're better off giving the old guard a pass. We'll concentrate on the new generation instead since culinary exploits are not an inexpensive endeavor.
It would be interesting for us to see if we are not alone in having experience such a letdown. For those of you wanting to give L'Atelier Joel Robuchon a try, do it at your own risk. We will give his establishments a wide berth indeed.