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L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong (Nov ’15): “high-end fast food”

19 Jan

Joel Robuchon needs no introduction. Voted Chef of the Century in 1989, his restaurant Jamin in Paris in the 1980s and 1990s was considered among the best restaurants in the world. He retired in July 1996 due to concerns over the stress-wracked lifestyle of a chef, but came up the Atelier Robuchon concept, a counter-dining fine-dining concept, while eating in sushi bars in Tokyo: a sexy restaurant, dressed up in black and red, with counter-seating allowing diners to see dishes being finished and assembled in a show kitchen.

Robuchon made his official comeback in 2003, opening two branches of L’Atelier Robuchon in short order, first in Tokyo in April 2003, and Paris in May 2003. Since then, he has gone back into full-concept fine dining with “full-service” Joel Robuchon restaurants, which currently exist in Las Vegas, Tokyo, Bordeaux, Singapore and Macau. His Ateliers occupy a wider footprint – existing in Bangkok, Paris (two of them), Singapore, HK, Taipei, London, Tokyo, as well as London (a New York branch also once existed). His Ateliers have been unflatteringly described as the “McDonalds of fine-dining”, where a revolving door of chefs, largely anonymous workmen while in his employ, create a standard array of Robuchon dishes using ingredients from the Robuchon larder. His Atelier’s are generally pegged at a one-star rating, with the exception of the St Germaine branch in Paris, and this branch in HK, which has three Michelin stars. The successful Atelier project is probably the inspiration for similar casual fine-dining chains today, such as David Thompson’s Long Chim.

That the 3 Michelin star rating for L’Atelier HK is over-inflated, no one disputes, not even Joel Robuchon himself, who hypothesizes that it may be down to the wine list or the decor. This is usually cited as the main piece of evidence for the unreliability of the HK guide, because the Ateliers are the one restaurant you can actually benchmark across countries..

My meal at L’Atelier:

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  • L’Amuse-Bouche (foie custard with cheese foam, potato croquette)

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  • La Langoustine (Langoustine carpaccio, beetroot and apple salad with green mustard sorbet) (3/5)
    • The contrast between the green mustard sorbet (which was quite good, fresh and piquant, good enough to serve by itself on the parallel vegetarian menu), and the langoustine could not be more stark. The langoustine was not very fresh, to the point where when we tried to use a fork or spoon to get it off, the raw langoustine simply disintegrated into chunks. We could not get any single piece to lift whole onto a spoon. It tasted fine, but the texture was offputting.

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  • Le foie gras (Pan-fried duck foie gras with pear and celery) (4/5)
    • Decent and classic combination of foie and pear. Reliable crowd pleaser. For a foie-pear dish that really sets the bar, see my review of Bareiss (upcoming)

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  • La Saint-Jacques (Pan seared Hokkaido scallops with baby artichoke puree and curcuma emulsion) (4/5)
    • Not bad. This was served with Robuchon’s famous mashed potatoes, which were indeed very buttery.

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  • Le Marron (chestnut mousse with pecan dacquoise and vintage rum ice-cream)
    • I had a work call midway through (it was a crunch week), and they served dessert while I was away. The ice cream had partially melted by time I returned. It tasted fairly good, but I won’t rate it since I didn’t have it in its optimal state.

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Overall L’Atelier in HK is a decent fine-dining restaurant. I appreciated the nice touches of the bacon baguettes and lemon cakes, but it wouldn’t be my first choice for fine-dining in Hong Kong (not especially since a branch can be found in Singapore and most major cities in Asia). That would go to Dynasty Restaurant for Chinese food; or Ta Vie, Neighborhood, or Bo Innovation for an interesting Western-ish meal. At heart, L’Atelier is a restaurant designed to serve Robuchon experience in a scalable way. This is reflected in the dishes, which are similar across different countries (Le Caviar, the geometrically pleasing Robuchon dish, is as consistent a fixture in each of the Robuchon restaurants as the Big Mac is at McDonald’s). It probably impacts the construction of the dishes, most of which are uncomplicated and can be executed capably by local line-cooks.

If a cookie-cutter fine-dining experience is what you want, L’Atelier will provide it. But for me, the Ateliers just seem a bit soulless. I’m still not sure what is the point of dining there. At that price point (>=HKD1800 with a glass or two of wine), you can get so much more than a cookie-cutter fine-dining meal.

Notable links:

Restaurant rating: 15/20

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