Until last month, Joël Robuchon might have been the greatest living chef never to have cooked in New York. Though he retired in 1996, Robuchon—the youngest chef ever to win three Michelin stars in consecutive years—got back into the game three years ago with an informal restaurant chain. L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon has popped up in Paris, Tokyo and Las Vegas. Here in New York, he’s carved out a small space in the Four Seasons Hotel. The room is fairly casual—men need not wear ties—but the food is extraordinary.
The best spots (about half of the restaurant’s 50 seats) are at the peachwood bar, where chefs work in a pristine open kitchen that resembles the set of a cooking show: Black lacquer surfaces and chrome accents compete for attention with a giant serrano ham and jars holding bright vegetables suspended in liquid. Don’t count on seeing the man himself; Robuchon has left Yosuke Suga, who ran the chain’s Tokyo branch, in charge of the kitchen.
L’Atelier has all the Robuchon hallmarks: Each stunning dish focuses on no more than three ingredients, and individual flavors are heightened to a surprising potency. The menu itself is dense with delicacies like foie gras, lobster and caviar.
But the menu does take some getting used to: One side lists about two dozen small plates, some with asterisks to indicate particularly tiny portions, while the other side details appetizers and entrées. A $160 “discovery menu” features five tastes plus an entrée, but the prices aren’t much different if you chart your own multicourse path.
The beauty of many of the dishes lies in the creative pairings of flavors. Take a cold plate of osetra caviar over capellini. The heap of clean, briny fish eggs served as a hugely expensive setup for the sublimely sweet sauce of tomatoes and basil—delicious, but no tomato is worth a $68 garnish. Lemongrass sauce, foam and stalks infused the excellent panfried loup de mer entrée with so much flavor that the very pores of the fish skin seemed saturated with it. And while the langoustines spring roll was packed with sweet meat, what my taste buds recall most vividly is the fried basil leaf that detonated, unexpectedly, from beneath the wrapper.
L’Atelier also uses temperature to unlikely effect. The lobster ravioli is served cold, forcing one’s attention to the subtleties of the fresh meat, the turnip-spiked filling, and the sweet-and-sour rosemary sauce. Meanwhile, baby Kusyu oysters on the half shell arrived hot, poached and served in a simple yet obscenely delicious salted French butter.
The $16 desserts hit the expected categories—chocolate, fruit, sorbet and flambéed dishes—with one notable exception: a striking sugar sphere (pictured) holding a custard yolk, with rose-and-blackberry coulis. The appearance outdid the taste, but you won’t find anything else like it in the city.
Despite the sheer number of courses, the meal moved quickly. The mostly male servers, dressed in dark Nehru jackets, orchestrated the seemingly endless plate parade stealthily and efficiently. There was always someone bringing out an amuse-bouche, removing a palate cleanser or explaining the food. My only complaint: They decanted virtually every wine I could see from the first-rate French-California list. But my neglected bottle, a mere $80, apparently did not merit the effort.
L’Atelier ranks with New York’s top restaurants costwise, but I never felt ripped off. Cynics may say the place looks dated, that the chef’s just repurposed his classics into a greatest-hits package. Yes, it’s all true. And yet I was happy to be able to eat those hits. Joël, baby, what took you so long?