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L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Saint Germain, Paris - 2 Michelin stars

Rating: 91.
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Extraordinary (96-100)
Outstanding (93-95)
Very good to Excellent (89-92)
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Very few chefs become a global brand in their own right. Paul Bocuse, Alain Ducasse and Gordon Ramsay come to mind. So does Joël Robuchon (b. 1945). One of the emperors of international gastronomy, he presides over a realm, studded with Michelin stars, that currently consists of establishments in nine cities: Paris, London, Las Vegas, Monaco, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Macau, Taipei and Singapore. There are boutiques, bars, salons, ateliers - and restaurants too. Until 2012 he also had a restaurant in NYC. You would almost forget that this extremely successful entrepreneur and peripatetic restaurateur had a long career as a chef - one of the greatest chefs of France in fact, but that was in a previous life almost.

In 1981 this Meilleur Ouvrier de France opened his famous restaurant Jamin in Paris (in the 16th arrondissement) and only three years later he had been awarded three Michelin stars. In 1994 Robuchon moved to hotel Le Parc and the name of his restaurant was changed into restaurant Joël Robuchon. He announced his early retirement in April 1996, stating that to continue without progress was not his style. He was 51 when, later that year, he handed the reigns of his restaurant to Alain Ducasse (39 at the time) of three-star Louis XV fame; obviously the restaurant had to be renamed again - to restaurant Alain Ducasse.

In 2003 Joël Robuchon came out of retirement and opened l'Atelier Joël Robuchon in Saint Germain. The restaurant, designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon, has a very modern style with its signature black and red colour scheme. In this swanky ambiance, 40 guests can sit down at two kitchen counters overlooking the open-plan kitchen where the food is prepared in front of them. Ten years ago, casual fine dining was still quite a new theme; the various trends (movements, some might call them) to bridge the gap between casual eating and fine dining hadn't really started yet. Loosely basing itself on a Japanese sushi bar, Robuchon's Atelier with its informal setting and "small plates" concept became one of the forerunners of casual fine dining and its creator one of its godfathers. There are now numerous other Ateliers but the one in the Rue Montalembert on Paris' left bank remains the original;  it sports two Michelin stars and it occupies the number 24 spot in the World's 50 best restaurant list 2013.

This Atelier de Joël Robuchon is open daily for lunch and dinner. The restaurant offers a 'Degustation' menu with a large selection of small dishes, a 9-course seasonal tasting menu for €169, an a la carte menu and usually there are some (seasonal) specials on offer. I had lunch at l'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Saint Germain with my husband on Sunday 28 April 2013. We shared a few dishes from the Degustation menu and some daily specials.

One of the specials that day was a dish with Pertuis asparagus. Asparagus from Pertuis, a town in Provence in the south of France, are considered the Rolls Royce of asparagus (although some in the Wye Valley might beg to differ). You don't see them on menus outside of France that often, so I simply had to order them. Al dente cooked fat and juicy asparagus spears, served with a basic vinaigrette and sprinkled with some Piment d'espelette. The flavour and bite of the asparagus was extraordinary. Possibly the best asparagus I have ever eaten.

Around the same time a seabream carpaccio arrived. Perfectly thin slices of creamy sea bream, served with a light and tangy dressing of olive oil, lime juice  and Piment d'espelette and sprinkled with some finely chopped chives. Lovely bright and clean flavours.

This convincing overture was followed by three more dishes. First up were Gyoza dumplings. Japanese dumplings cooked a la plancha with a delicious moist chicken filling and served with an elegant and aromatic broth, delicately flavoured with sesame, mint and coriander and coloured with dehydrated hibiscus flowers.

Then came a wonderfully rich and moreish dish of langoustine covered with an earthy and creamy truffle and foie gras sauce, served with some braised cabbage.

Finally a 'mille feuille' of grilled aubergine, courgette, mozarella cheese and confit tomato, served with some reduced balsamic vinegar. A lovely combination of fresh flavours with a touch of richness from the caramelisation on the vegetables.

Robuchon's famous 'Le Burger' was up next. Two marvellous beef, foie gras and tomato sliders, accompanied by some delicious chips and an umami-rich tomato, soy, sesame and Armagnac sauce.

Dessert was 'Le Mont Blanc'. A lovely dessert, comprised of a chestnut biscuit base (soaked in rum), chestnut ice cream, chestnut crème and crispy meringue pearls, served with an intense pistachio puree and a nice and tart eglantine sauce.

My visit to l'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Saint Germain left me with mixed feelings. The food is good, no doubt about that. The kitchen brigade, under the aegis of Belgian born head chef Axel Manes (with Robuchon since 2006) produces well-prepared, eclectic dishes which focus on simplicity, made with exquisite ingredients that are treated well. Service was friendly but the pace at which our various dishes arrived was a bit erratic - or should I say casual? Basically this Atelier delivers exactly what it says on the tin, so nothing much to complain about.

Does it deliver quality at the level suggested by the accolades awarded to it? Not necessarily, I would say. And I have experienced meals with a better quality price ratio too. Once you open the Robuchon tin (so to speak), life gets pretty expensive. The asparagus dish was € 60 - a lot of money for a (generous) portion of veg. I guess having a meal at Robuchon is like purchasing a designer handbag. The quality is good, it looks beautiful and it conveys a sense of luxury - of privilege even? But what you purchase is about brand and marketing as much as it is about the product itself. You pays your money and you takes your choice! 

Posted 09-08-2013


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