Friday 21 February 2014

Lunch at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon

Flush with cash from three days of minimum-wage data entry work and anticipating more to come, I looked upon my sudden lack of Friday shift work as a miraculous event, a precious free day during which I could spend all my hard-earned money. It was even sunny out, which was all the excuse I needed to flounce out of the house. Little did I know that I would (Alas! Alack!) be unceremoniously dumped from my position the very next day under the flimsiest of excuses, but on this Friday I was Queen of the Universe. I was going to dress up and dine out in style. 

While deciding where to go, a number of web pages I'd opened were all aggressively plugging the lunch sets available at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, and it immediately brought to mind the documentary I'd once watched on an SQ flight tracing his history as a chef all the way to the opening of a branch of his L'Atelier restaurants in Singapore. The universe (With help from the Google Marketing Bots) had spoken, so I rang them up to ask for a table of one. I also made sure to juice up my phone, so the entire Alain Ducasse debacle wouldn't happen again. (If you ate at a Three Michelin starred restaurant with absolutely no way to document it, was the experience real? Discuss, incorporating Lacanian principles.) 

D is one of those people who cannot eat alone, which is why he has a steady rotation of makan kakis (Food buddies) for every occasion. For all that we're otherwise effectively the same person, just a generation and a gender apart, in this sense I take after M, who understands the beauty of not having to deal with a dining partner every once in a while. L'Atelier is perfect if you're trying out solo dining for the first time - as with many Michelin-starred restaurants, the staff here (Mostly French - you feel a little like you're in Paris all of a sudden) are excellent and will go out of their way to make sure you're at ease. With the open kitchen designed with traditional tapas bars in mind, if you get a seat by the bar (And you probably will), you'll also get a full view of the cooking and dish assembly process, which is deeply engrossing in and of itself. 

The meal began with bread in a basket that resembled both corals and the creeping tendrils of fire, with a mountainous pat of French butter. Soon after, I was served the amuse of foie gras custard topped with a really good port wine reduction (The note on my phone just says 'Mmmm'.) and a delicate Parmesan foam. The spoon had to go in all the way to catch a bit of everything, which was good training for the appetizer of oeufs en cocotte, served with parsley sauce, red wine sauce, mushrooms, snails and potato foam, garnished with pepper, chives and a savoury sliver of bread. I don't even like egg yolks and usually fob the stuff off to someone else, but in this perfectly constructed medley of flavours, everything I hate about yolks wasn't apparent, and it added a really nice touch of richness to the dish. 

The first course was paired with a dangerously drinkable white wine from Gascony. When the sommelier first poured it out, he told me how excellent it was, and warned that I'd probably end up asking him to pour me a little extra. Before the course had even arrived, I'd sipped half the glass away and did, indeed, end up asking very nicely for a top-up. He very generously acquiesced, and before floating away asked, "Do you know why this wine is so good?" When I asked him why, exactly, he winked and said "That's because it's French."

One thing I enjoy about going to Michelin-starred restaurants is asking for dish recommendations from the waiters, and then ordering what they suggest, because they always part with compliments on how you have excellent taste, truly. I always get so amused by it. This time was no different, and I wound up trying the pan-fried duck breast. Cooked to red, juicy perfection (The only proper way to do it, sniffed my waiter), it was served with white asparagus and made for a truly satisfying main course. It was also accompanied by a small pot of mashed potatoes, the taste of which I can't get out of my head. 

The culinary world has mostly moved away from the almost overwhelming style that characterized high end cuisine in the 70s and 80s towards one that harks towards highlighting the integrity of the produce. A little remnant of the days of more cream and more butter lives on though in Joël Robuchon's signature dish of mashed potatoes, where that sort of thing really works. I've seen a clip where he's very excitedly telling another chef to add "More butter! More butter!" to potatoes, which is quite endearing. With a ratio of 2:1 on potatoes and butter, what you end up with is spoonful after spoonful of happiness and rainbows and good things

For dessert I had the choux stuffed with praline cream and yogurt, accompanied by caramel sauce and brandy ice cream. The perfect choux pastry is light, crisp and airy, and this one ticked all the right boxes. Praline cream and yogurt seemed like an odd combination, but really worked. This is a dessert meant to be eaten with all parts engaged at once, so I had a bit of fun dragging bite-sized bits of choux through the caramel and swirling them in the ice cream in cloud-like patterns. 

I ordered a pot of tea, and was given the option of enjoying it at the Salon Bar. By this point the kitchen was slowly winding down and there wasn't much to see, so I jumped at the chance to go upstairs. I had my pick of the seats, and plonked myself on a chair that faced the bar. The only other occupants were two ladies having a discreet tea and chat in the corner, so I practically had free reign over the place. 

The dessert wine that accompanied the choux was far too sweet for my tastes, and when the sommelier noticed my nose wrinkling as I contemplated it, he took the offending glass away and furnished me with a far more pleasant alternative, which was reminiscent of Japanese grape gummies. 

The atmosphere at L'Atelier is decidedly sleek and modern, without being cold. All that black and red isn't quite like the emo phase you went through at 14, but more like Spanish Flamenco dancers.

After finishing my wine and tea, I volunteered to be a guinea pig for the new concoctions being dreamed up by the mixologists at the bar, and ended up taste-testing a very dry and very floral gin-based drink that really brought out the hint of rose in Hendrick's. Most people tend to play up the cucumber notes in the drink, but this brought out a whole other side to the gin. After much struggling, the bottle of Elderflower liqueur was finally opened, and 10 ml of that was stirred through my half-finished glass, resulting in a much rounder and more elegant cocktail. While nursing my drink, I had a lovely chat with the mixologists (Who were from Lithuania and Poland - Gotta love London diversity) on everything from History to Cider, which was a really lovely way to round up the afternoon before heading to school. 

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