I thought last night (a Sunday in August) would be a good time to get into Atelier Robuchon in its soft-opening phase, when they take no reservations and operate strictly first-come first-served.
They're supposed to open for dinner at 5 or 6 (I forget which). I got there at 6:20. There were a couple of people sitting at the counter and nobody at the dining room tables. I figured (gleefully) that I'd be able to stroll right in. But the hostess took my name and told me they'd be able to seat me in an hour. I looked around and saw there were a lot of people waiting outside. Apparently, they didn't open right on time and then they trickle in the first seating while they're firing up. At least now during the soft opening.
I had left myself some chores to run in the neighborhood in anticipation of this possiblity. When I can back about 55 minutes later, the hostess, with a very broad smile, led me to the counter, where I had my choice of two (noncontiguous) open seats.
The cocktail menu was shocking. It's all classics -- no chef-generated special cocktails here -- at $20 apiece. I was very thirsty, and so ordered one (a Singapore Sling, after I searched the room carefully to ascertain there was no one I knew there who would see me drink it). It was ordinary. I was getting a bad feeling.
One glance at the $160 seven-course tasting menu was enough to convince me to order it. It had two dishes that I very much wanted to try -- the uni dish and the so-called langoustine fritter -- which the preview in Frank Bruni's blog noted were both extremely expensive (something like $39 for the uni, a very small plate, and somewhere in either the $50s or the $70s for the langoustine). $160 for seven courses, when those were two of them, seemed like the clear way to go.
I looked briefly at the a la carte menu. All I can say is that it's very confusing, what with the different categories of dishes, and that prices were all over the place: every which way but low.
I asked if there were wine pairings, but that turned out to be nothing more than my server and me conferring on which by-the-glass glasses I should get to go with which sequences of dishes. The server's enthusiasm (more about this later) made that a fairly fun process, though. By-the-glass prices are high, however ($12 for a California viognier and $18 or $20 for a Rully).
Painful as it will be, I guess I'm bound to do a dish-by-dish runthrough.
1. Amuse: a lemon-vanilla gel, with a layer of fennel foam topped with a bit of olive paste. This is when I began to get turned around in favor of this place. An extraordinary blend of flavors, with a beautiful blend of textures, the silkiness of the gel standing out. And the sweet/tart/salty flavor combination was piquant.
2. The Famous Uni Dish: uni in a lobster jelly, topped with a layer of cauliflower cream dotted with parsley reduction. A great uni dish. Maybe the jelly was rendundant after the amuse. Maybe it was all so good I didn't care.
3. Capellini in a very light tomato sauce topped with caviar. A simple dish including a big mound of caviar. But it really worked. Not as a luxury ingredient gratuitously ladeled on, but rather as a completely unexpected flavor element that turned out to work beautifully.
4. Crispy Langoustine Fritter: what this really turned out to be was the meat of a langoustine served inside a (greaseless) fried wonton, with some pesto inside as well. If Joe Ng served something like this, we'd all be bowing before him, singing the praises of his subtlety and technique. So, too, here.
5. Softboiled Egg on Stew of Eggplant. This was, in its way, my favorite dish. Favorite because unexpected. The eggplant stew was very spicy (I wish I knew enough to say with what). The egg on top was like a poached egg on top of a serving of corned beef hash (I am one classy food analyst, aren't I? nothing but the most refined comparisons here), having the same effect of moderating the full flavor of the matter underneath.
6. Cod fillet, with something like a steamed dumpling skin covering it, in a chicken broth. We've all been served a lot of cod lately. (Oddly, as I had thought they were nearly fished out.) Here's a fish where, if you overcook it even a little, the rubber comes in. This was as perfectly cooked a piece of fish as ever I've had. The cliche is to say it was like silk -- but it was. The highly flavorful chicken broth in which it was served wafted up fragrance as I ate the delicate fish (cod isn't a fish you necessarily think of as delicate, but I swear this was).
7. Quail stuffed with foie gras served with truffled mashed potatos. My least favorite course. Dare I say that the quail (described on the menu as "carmelized") was a bit greasy? Also, just from a menu-planning point of view, I thought it was a little late in the multi-course meal to start in with the foie gras and a bowl of potatos that were something like half butter. Also, the foie gras didn't add as much flavor as I'd have expected. This wasn't bad, but it wasn't of the highest excellence.
8. Green yuzu granite with Vervain jelly. More jelly. The have a calling here. This was an excellent palate-cleanser. But, like a six-month-old looking at a mobile from his crib, what I found most interesting about this item was how they contrived the dish so that red light was reflected up from the red glass plate under the clear serving dish so as to sort of illuminate the bottom of the granite, making it look like it was glowing red from within. It was a beautiful and fascinating effect. Having stared at my food, I did not go on to play with it.
9. Souflee with cherries and almond ice cream. They know how to make souflees here. They also know how to make ice cream.
What is there to say about all this? The food was all amazingly well prepared. In terms just of technique, I've never had anything in New York to exceed it, and little to even match it. In terms of the conceptions of the dishes, they seemed to me to be extremely well-thought-out and unstinting but not overcomplicated, avoiding, say, what can occassionally seem (to me) to be the overeleborateness of some dishes at Jean Georges. It's food obviously conceived of by one of the great chefs in the world, but simplified a bit to avoid a lot of the rigamorole.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the price issue. You might very reasonably say, why pay top dollar for pared-down cuisine? Especially since what is pared down is not only the complexity of the food, but also the surrounding ritual.
To me, the answer is this. The value question comes down to, is this experience, in its entirety, worth the money to me? As for the food, I can't get this food elsewhere. It's different enough from other similar food on offer in New York to make it something with no competing replacement product. It's not like Chinatown Brasserie, where they're charging at least twice as much as places that serve fairly similar food that isn't materially worse. This is more like, I could go to EMP, which I like almost if not equally as much and it costs less -- but it's different. I could go to Jean Georges, which maybe I like a bit more -- but it's different. If I want THIS food, I have to go here. And at least the tasting menu price doesn't seem out-of-line to me for the quality and quantity of what you get.
As for the non-food parts, let me put it this way. It isn't like Cafe Gray, where the ambiance and service are so actively unpleasant as to diminish your experience of the excellent (but expensive) food. To me, sitting at the counter was sort of fun, if not the absolute height of comfort. (For solo dining, it's optimal, in fact -- better than eating at the bar in most places.) (Not that the [Michelin] three-star version of a Robuchon-type place would even have a bar.) But even looking at the tables, it wasn't the kind of thing where the setting would diminish your enjoyment of the food. At worst, it wouldn't augment it.
And as for the service, it had this one impressive aspect. Everyone appeared to be retrained holdovers from Atelier's predecessor in the space, Fifty Seven Fifty Seven. And their excitement at being involved with this new level of product was palpable. The woman who took my order and doled out the wine was visibly excited. So was the busboy who brought the food. His smiles when he presented each dish weren't feined. He was psyched. That was fun, too.
So is it a four-star restaurant? My answer is, I don't give a fuck whether it's a four-star restaurant. What I care about is, did I like -- I mean, REALLY like -- my dinner? The answer is, yes. Did I feel ripped off by the price? The answer is, no. (The FOOD price, anyway: I'm NOT happy about the beverage prices.) Is it the best restaurant in New York? I'm sure it's not -- but I don't see how that conceivably matters. What matters is that at least the tasting menu is well worth trying.
Edited by Sneakeater, 21 August 2006 - 02:21 PM.