L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
MGM Grand (last visit: October 2007).
L'Atelier opened in September 2005, at the same time as did its next door neighbor, Joël Robuchon at the Mansion. Robuchon is a food god in France. He retired a few years back, then un-retired and opened L'Atelier in France. Now there's a second L'Atelier (and since then another in Tokyo, and yet another in New York).
I ate at L'Atelier on opening day, and another four times since then. While the excitement of going to a great new restaurant is gone, the quality remains.
The menu offers choices of types of dinners:
· small plates. The same concept as tapas. Order 3 or 4 or 5 and you have a meal.
· regular a la carte meals. Appetizer, main course, and dessert.
· menu degustation. A nine course tasting menu, it provides a sampling of the best that L'Atelier has to offer.
Wines are available by the glass, many in the range of $10 - $15 per glass, some much higher.
There are no rules when ordering. One couple decided to order one tasting menu for the two of them. Someone else ordered a couple of small plates, and a main course from the a la carte menu.
L'Atelier is the less formal of two restaurants opened by Joël Robuchon. The adjacent, more formal (and much more expensive) Joël Robuchon at the Mansion opened a day after L'Atelier. There are four tables at L'Atelier, seating up to four people each. However, the real action is at the food counter, with its 24 stools. Just behind the counter is an open kitchen, and it's fascinating watching everything that goes on.
The feeling at the food counter is very relaxed. At any given time there may be a mix of solo diners, quiet couples, and lively groups of three or four. Service is attentive.
The Tasting Menu
The best way to sample what L'Atelier has to offer is to get the Menu Degustation - the tasting menu. In 2005, I had the tasting menu twice within a period of a month. It was nearly the same each time, so I've provided my review of the first meal, with changes the second time around marked in red. In the ratings that follow, I've been stricter in my grading than for most places. Otherwise, everything would get an excellent rating. E = excellent; VG = very good; G = good.
Not a single course was merely good. Everything was beautifully presented. At almost any other restaurant, any of the courses I had at L'Atelier would have been a star of the entire meal.
- An amuse bouche - "Vegetable Fondant Topped With a Delicate Avocado Cream." It was a small martini glass with a layer of tomato gelee, soft yet firm, smooth, bright red, with an intense tomato flavor. On top, thick avocado cream/puree, bright green and delicious. Take a spoon and get a bit of both layers; it looks beautiful on the spoon and tastes just as good. Rating: VG+.
- "La Langoustine Carpaccio With Roasted Poppy Seed Dressing." A rectangle (about 2" x 2-1/2"), paper thin, with micro chives, pepper, and lemon oil. It's a tiny portion but with strong flavor and a soft, melting texture. Rating: VG+. This course was a little bit better this time around. The flavor was a little stronger still, and the texture was a little firmer while still being smooth. Rating: E-.
- "Les Huitres: Poached Baby Kumamoto Oysters With French Echre [sp?] Salted Butter." Three tiny oysters with salty butter on top, with black pepper; warmed briefly. I don't like oysters, but these were terrific! Perhaps I've been eating oysters in the wrong places. Rating: E.
- "L'Oeuf: Egg Cocotte Topped With a Light Mushroom Cream." Another dish served in a martini glass. In the bottom, some bright green parsley puree. Next a raw egg. The glass is then steamed, cooking the egg white but not the yolk. On top, a frothy, flavorful cream of mushroom soup, with a couple of pieces of chanterelle mushroom on top of that. Another wonderful combination of flavors; another case where I wasn't so sure I'd like it, but did. Rating: VG+.
- "Le Foie Gras: A Piece of Foie Gras Served on a Citrus Gelatin." The foie gras was rich, soft but slightly brown on the outside. It was served on a gelatin containing pieces of citrus (orange? grapefruit?). I loved it. My favorite foie gras was at Picasso; I rate this a close second. Rating: E. Same rating, but a slight change: the foie gras was served on a bed of apple and grapefruit.
- "Le Morue: Fresh Cod Filet in Vegetable Broth." The broth had a drop of basil oil, giving it an interesting flavor. The cod was barely cooked through, with a very thin piece of ravioli on top. Rating: VG. Definitely improved this time. The broth had more flavor; the fish was cooked all the way through, but still was tender; the thin ravioli was neatly wrapped and folded around the fish. A favorite this time around. Rating: E.
- An extra treat, compliments of the chef: a papillote of langoustine. This was a generous piece of langoustine wrapped in a thin layer of phyllo dough, and quickly fried. Good flavor, not greasy. Rating: VG. No extra this time!
- "La Caille: Free-range Quail Stuffed With Foie Gras, With Truffled Potato Puree." Two small pieces of quail, good flavor, firm but not dry. Rating for quail: VG. Now about the potato puree - potatoes can't be this good! They take raw potatoes, and rub them against a fine sieve. They're pureed with lots and lots of butter, and some snippets of chive are added. All of this is covered with a layer of thin truffle slices. Rating for potatoes: E+. [Note: this was the only course where a choice was offered - L'Anglet, aka Hangar Steak. The couple next to me raved about it - but they didn't get the truffled mashed potatoes.]
- This time, I chose L'Anglet - Hangar steak with caramelized and fried onions, with potato puree. For a tasting menu, the amount of steak, served as slices, was generous. The flavor was pleasingly strong; the meat was a little chewy. Rating for steak: VG+. The potato puree was as above, but without the truffle slices. Still gets a rating of E.
- "La Framboise: Raspberry Jelly Madam Yuzu and Citrus Cream." The jelly was not too sweet, not too thick, with very intense flavor. The citrus cream was thick and delicious. There were several very large, ripe seedless raspberries. Rating: VG+. Not as good this time. The raspberries had a few seeds, and the jelly was not as intensely flavored. Rating: VG-.
- Another treat from the chef: a glass of a sweet sparkling rose. Very tasty! No extra this time!
- "Le Chocolat: Chocolate Sensation Cremeux Araguai, Oreo Cookie Crumbs." Yes, a second dessert; my kind of place. This was a tiny portion that is in the running for my favorite dessert ever. At the bottom was (I think) a bit of bitter, thick caramel. Above that, thick, very dark Valrhona chocolate. Above that (or to the side) was something like a ball of ice cream - I can't describe it very well, but it was delicious. Finally, some finely crumbled Oreo cookie, and a thin piece of chocolate in the form of a ring, forming a cover with a hole in the middle. Rating: E+. Compared to last time, very disappointing. There was no caramel, and the chocolate layer was more like a regular chocolate mouse. Rating of VG - very good, but nothing like the dessert last time.
- The meal ended with a choice of cappuccino or espresso; I chose cappuccino. It was rich, not bitter, and came with rough cubes of brown sugar and white sugar.
I failed to mention wine. There are a number of wines by the glass, and I asked for a recommendation - a white wine with a little sugar but not too sweet. The wind steward said this was a fortunate request, as they had a German Riesling (Graff) that not only fit the bill, but which they usually recommend as a good choice that goes well with a variety of dishes - like the tasting menu. The wine was served only slightly chilled, as it had a delicate flavor. Excellent choice, at a reasonable $9/glass.
In October of 2007, I tried the tasting menu yet again. The menu has changed a little: halibut instead of cod; excellent gazpacho; new desserts (plus extra desserts for returning customers); a much smaller portion of potato puree. However, it's not that different, and the quality is as good as ever. Thus, I'm too lazy to provide any more details!
Regular Meal #1
I opted for small plates:
I asked for a drier wine this time around. A Sauvignon Blanc was recommended. Very dry, fruity; very good.
- First, compliments of the chef, a papillote of langoustine (see my prior meal for details).
- "Le Foie Gras: Traditionally poached cold foie gras served with toast." My server noted that the hot version was better (he was right), but I told him that I had the hot version last time. This version was rich rich rich, very firm, with a pronounced but not too strong liver flavor. Rating: VG.
- "Le Thon Rouge: Lightly seared tuna belly with fine aromates." Rich, slightly cooked, soft, strong flavor of olives and capers, topped with fried onions. Using tuna belly made it much richer and more tender than regular tuna. Rating: E.
- Pureed Potatoes. I had mentioned how wonderful these were the last time, so the chef sent out a crock of them gratis. No truffle shavings, but still to die for. Rating: E.
- "La Lisette: Fresh mackerel on a thin tart with Parmesan shavings and olives." Almost like a tiny, thin pizza. The flavors were strong; the very thin crust was very flaky. Simple food wonderfully prepared. Rating: VG+.
- "Le Ris de Veau: Veal sweetbreads. Reasonably firm yet creamy - but somehow it just didn't seem special. "Merely" G - VG.
- Pureed Potatoes. Oops, the kitchen made a mistake and sent out another order free of charge. My kind of mistake.
- "Le Chocolat 'Sensation' - cremeux a l'Araguai, biscuit Oreo." The same dessert that was on the tasting menu, under a slightly different name. I just couldn't resist. One pleasant surprise - the a la carte version was larger than the tasting menu version. Rating: E+ again.
Overall, the meal was excellent. If I hadn't been here before, I would have been wowed. However, the tasting menu was even better. I rate this meal below the tasting menu.
Regular Meal #2
This time I opted for a more traditional three course meal:
This was the least interesting of my meals at L'Atelier. It started off well, but disappointed at the end. It was still a very good meal - I'd definitely get the lobster again - but you can do better at L'Atelier.
- Le Homard: Maine lobster salad with a sherry vinegar dressing. A very generous amount of sweet lobster, in a strongly flavored but not overpowering dressing, served on top of greens. Very simple, but expertly prepared. Excellent.
- Le Thon Rouge: lightly seared tuna belly with fine aromates. Tuna belly is fattier, richer tasting, and softer then regular tuna. Served as a small rectangular block, it had excellent taste and texture, but got a little boring. Overall, still very good.
- La Chartreuse: green chartreuse soufflé, pistachio ice cream. I had heard good things about this, but was a little disappointed. It was a very light soufflé, but didn't have much flavor. The pistachio ice cream was good, but not outstanding. Overall, good but not great.
L'Atelier isn't cheap, but it serves the best food of any restaurant in its price range. If you like innovative food that tastes great, you owe it to yourself to try this place.
Since ordering is free form, it's hard to nail down prices. The menu degustation is $135, plus drinks, tax and tip. Other meals will probably run about the same amount, although it possible to get away for half that if one chooses carefully, or eats lightly. It's also possible to spend more, as I did when I ordered lobster and tuna belly (both luxury items) in one meal.
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