Friday, March 18, 2011


Delivering, in its own cloud, Le Saumon: Organic Loche Duarte Farm salmon tartare with caviar.
by Carol Joynt

Back when L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon opened in The Four Seasons Hotel on East 57th Street, back in those lush outsized days before the crash, when money seemed to grow even on dormant trees, the restaurant was open for lunch and dinner, and lunch was the thing. It was practically a club for those of us who loved to sit at the lacquer counter, alone or with a friend, and indulge in culinary fantasia while the Manhattan lunch hour buzzed beyond the big windows.

We watched the open kitchen make magic, ogled what each other ordered and smiled conspiratorially. Prices be damned, the serene and satisfying experience trumped the occasional sticker shock of the tab.
At the counter at L'atelier de Joel Robuchon.
At the time I owned a restaurant and as a restaurateur I took in the experience with admiration and envy; as a food lover I was in heaven. Every visit to New York included one meal at that counter, usually with me fresh off the train, sometimes with my bag parked at the door, because I couldn’t wait, having contemplated the meal for days.

Then, in July 2008, as if having spotted the economic meltdown on the horizon, Robuchon closed for lunch. Going forward it would open only for dinner. Dinner? What would we lunch fans do? In fact, we mourned. The day before the last lunch several of us, all strangers, broke into conversation at the counter, sharing our similar stories of L’Atelier addiction.

It took me a while to get over the loss, but I survived. Dinner is a different scene from lunch but I’m here to report, after a revisit last week, vive la difference! Truthfully, the only major alteration is darkness rather than daylight outside the windows, but with summer an early reservation will solve that. Otherwise, a meal at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon is as fantastical as ever. My dinner companions were my son and our friend Tiffani Caillor, who, as Director of Public Relations for the hotel, invited us as her guests.
Tiffani Caillor with L'atelier de Joël Robuchon general manager Estelle Lamotte.
Sommelier Jason Wagner makes a presentation.
Tiffani Caillor ponders the Robuchon menu. The counter at Robuchon, where dinner for one is a comfortable as dinner for two or three or more.
A martini, fresh from the shaker.
Some of the offerings at L'atelier de Joël Robuchon.
The view for patrons at the counter.
As we took our seats at the black and red counter and were handed the small but packed menus, Tiffani spoke the most encouraging words: “Order what you want.” We did, everything imaginable, including burgers. Yes, hamburgers, aka Les Burgers, which are perfect little mini-burgers of beef and foie gras and lightly caramelized bell peppers. The menu is diverse and clever that way, from burgers to L’Oeuf de Poule, which is a big dollop of caviar over a crisp poached egg and smoked salmon. My favorite menu items include the soups, the seafood, the pasta and the steak tartar.

For example, Les Spaghettis is a bowl of fresh pasta carbonara, with the pancetta in nice chunks, topped with grated Parmesan and a glistening poached egg. When the egg is broken and the yolk spills into the noodles the dish goes from a little rich to sumptuous, the best possible union of flour, water, egg, bacon and cheese. It seems simple, but it's not. Just like the potato salad, or La Pomme De Terre, which amps the flavor volume with black truffle and foie gras. Les Huitres is a dream for oyster lovers, with the baby Kushi oysters poached in salted butter.
The bread, up close.
A glass of sancerre. La Pomme de Terre: Robuchon's interpretation of potato salad, featuring black truffle and foie gras emulsion.
L'Aubergine: eggplant scented with cumin, porcini, arugula, mozzarella, garlic chips and ham.
Le Homard: Maine Lobster in sherry vinaigrette, méli-mélo of vegetable maki style.
Le Ravioli: Langoustine Ravioli with Savoy cabbage and foie gras sauce.
Les Huitres: Poached baby Kushi oysters with salted butter.
Le Calamar: Sauteed squid with violet artichokes and chorizo in tomato sauce.
In all we had at least 13 items, not counting the amuse-gueule of foie gras emulsion or the various desserts, complemented by an assortment of wine pairings chosen by Sommelier Jason Wagner. As Tiffani’s guests we had no idea what the bill came to, but it had to be huge. Typically, though, a meal for one person comes to about $150. If you have the scratch, and the passion, and perhaps a special occasion to celebrate, it’s worth it.

I’ve been lucky to be at L’Atelier when the great man himself, Joel Robuchon, was on the scene, working the counter, working the stove, too, but as an early “superstar chef,” earning to date a record 26 Michelin stars, he is a traveling mogul with restaurants in nine other cities, including Paris, London, Las Vegas, Tokyo and Hong Kong, plus assorted tea rooms and pastry shops.
Le Spaghettis: Spaghetti carbonara, poached egg and parmesan cheese.
Les Spaghettis after poached egg has been broken and blended into the parmesan. To accompany the pasta.
La Gambas: Tiger prawn warapped in kataifi with herbs and orange jasmine sauce.
Les Burgers: Beef and foie gras burgers with lightly caramelized bell peppers. The French fries, which come with the burgers and the Steak Tartare.
La Sole: Steamed Dover sole with asparagus and lemon emulsion.
Appropriately, the Robuchon website has his monde in a virtual whirl. With or without him, the New York restaurant hums along just fine, the handpicked chefs welcoming his occasional visits, but not relying on them to maintain the Robuchon standard. They are well trained, as are the servers, who work from behind the counter, making suggestions, taking orders, delighted to talk food with the patrons. That’s part of the fun of the counter.

Years ago, when it first opened in Paris in 1981, I dined at Robuchon’s first restaurant, Jamin. Though conventional in design because there was no counter, only tables, it was hailed as modern and innovative, a “nouvelle cuisine” departure from the classic French mold. He also opened a restaurant in his own name. He claims to have retired in the mid-1990s at age 50, but fortunately that didn’t last, because he still had to create the concept of the counter meal that became the first L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, which opened in Paris in 2003.
Pre-dessert minted cream.
La Banane: Caramelised Banana with Rum, Milk Chocolate Mousse, Crispy Rice Praline, Banana Cotton Candy.
La Sphere: Golden Bubble Filled with Champagne Sabayon, Mandarin Sorbet and Orange Supreme.
La Sphere, broken open to reveal the chunks of citrus inside.
Le Tendance Chocolat: Chocolate Cream, Bitter Chocolate Sorbet and Oreo Cookies.
While there are tables in the dining room at any of his L’Atelier restaurants, including New York, go with what the regulars know: reserve a seat at the counter. As Robuchon points out, it adds conviviality to the gastronomy.

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
57 East 57th Street
The meal finishes with cappuccino and ...
... and signature candies.

Benoit was always one of the most famous bistros in Paris. Small, chic, great for lunch or dinner and, especially, delicious. In 2005 the 93-year-old restaurant was sold to Groupe Alain Ducasse, and soon enough Ducasse created a version of it in mid-town Manhattan, in the West 55th Street location that was the final resting place of La Cote Basque.

Benoit NY is a cheerful but intimate destination for fans of traditional French cuisine. It also has Bruno Jamais at the door. We first met when he was running the room for the first Daniel on East 76th Street, before he opened his own “club” on East 81st street.
Benoit is on West 55th Street but could easily be in Paris.
Le menu.
Benoit's friendly bar.
The dining room.
A table for two at Benoit.
The table settings are pure Parisian charm transplanted to NYC.
At my invitation I was joined at dinner by friends from Washington, Lloyd Grove and Tara Palmeri. Both have long since transplanted to Manhattan. Lloyd came to New York from The Washington Post to write a gossip column for the New York Daily News. That fizzled and he’s now a featured player at The Daily Beast/Newsweek. Tara is at Page Six, having jumped ship from her own column at The Washington Examiner. The three of us were into catching up and eating well and we accomplished both, but there was as much dish in the conversation as on the table. But no, none of it can be repeated.

While the room is transporting—yes, it could be Paris—the menu is, too. Classics prevail. The hors d’oeuvres come in a choice of three or five to the order and include Leeks in Vinaigrette, Lentil Salad, Egg Mayo, Cod Brandade, Rillettes and Pied de Cochon. Further down the menu there’s Escargots, Pate en Croute, Foie Gras Terrine, Charcuterie, and a frisee salad with poached egg lardons and croutons.
Lobster and Avocado Salad.
Escargots -- hmmmm, smell the garlic!
A trio of salads: lentil, artichoke hearts, egg mayo.
Scallops with cauliflower.
Lobster with Savoy cabbage and chestnuts.
The steak ...
... and the frites. Benoit's head chef, Philippe Bertineau, is the former executive chef at Balthazar.
For entrees we ordered a mixed bag. I had the Roasted Maine Lobster, which was given a late winter earthiness with cabbage and chestnuts. Tara had the Diver Sea Scallops with cauliflower, and Lloyd had the classic Steak Frites.

Our choices were excellent but I was tempted also by the Hand-Chopped Tartare, the Vegetable Cookpot (a Ducasse signature), and the Rack of Lamb, which comes with wild mushrooms and Thyme seasoning. They offer side dishes of creamed spinach, mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, and haricots verts; also there’s a selection of mature cheeses.

Tara and I took the plunge on dessert: she had the chocolate soufflé while I chose the Vacherin. Both were the ideal ending to a satisfying meal.
The dessert rotates like a ferris wheel.
Dessert menus.
Chocolate souffle.
Nougat Glace.
A pear and vanilla Vacherin.
Note: you’ll want to leave with a bag full of the gorgeous signature bistro plates. Not possible, but at the door patrons are gifted with a delicious take home meringue.

60 West 55th Street

Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

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