A Night at Joel Robuchon with the Chefs

L’Atelier Joel Robuchon has always provided a great dining experience in New York and I am proud to be one of its unabashed fans. Ever since a lengthy lunchtime, life changing meal at Jamin, Robuchon’s *** Michelin restaurant in Paris some decades ago (before Robuchon retired for the first time), I have so admired the man who is probably the greatest living chef. Robuchon’s cookbook, authored with Patricia Wells, is so worn out in my home that the pages fall out in sections when I take the book from the bookshelf.

L’Atelier Robuchon is not Jamin but Jamin was a restaurant of its time, as l’Atelier is of our time. Robuchon foresaw what David Chang later came to create with Momofuku—gastronomic cuisine served in an informal setting. After all, where else can one eat absolutely perfectly prepared Kobe beef, served by Salah, our server behind the counter, who invites you to dine sometime with him and his wife in Queens as he prepares an Egyptian banquet, his country of origin? There is no place like l’Atelier Robuchon, and I absolutely love it.

The genesis for Tuesday night’s dinner began at the celebration party for the awarding of four stars from The New York Times to Eleven Madison Park. I found myself sitting beside my friend Gabriel Kreuther, who is Chef at The Modern in NYC and he was also celebrating the great success of Chef Daniel Humm and EMP. Gabriel and I were talking about great chefs and great restaurants, and of course Robuchon’s name came up. “You know he is coming to New York at the end of September” he said. With a twinkle in my eye, I asked if he was going. “Of course” he said, “I’ve already discussed it with Stephane” referring to Stephane Colling, the General Manager of Robuchon NYC. Just at that moment, Colling walked by and Gabriel cornered him—“He wants to come too” Gabriel said, pointing to me. “Fine” said Colling, as he handed me his card. The next morning, I sent Colling and Chef Kreuther follow up emails to be sure everything was in order. When Gabriel and I mentioned to Daniel Humm what Gabriel was up to and asked if he’d like to join, the reply was immediate. With that, it was set—the three of us would go to dine at l’Atelier Robuchon one night when Robuchon was in the kitchen at the end of September.

Finally, the night we had all been waiting for arrived—we had emailed and text messaged each other with great anticipation—“This is going to be a great night” we kept saying to each other as the days grew nearer. We were seated at the counter, when out walks Chef Robuchon. The effervescent Rita Jammet, who owned La Caravelle in NYC, herself, was dining at the counter, got up and took Chef Robuchon by the arm over to where we were sitting and introduced him to us. I whispered to Daniel, “When his jacket says ‘Joel Robuchon’ its not referring to the name of the restaurant”; a statement all too obvious but one that was sort of like pinching oneself to be sure the moment was real. Robuchon was such a friendly man—and full of vitality, spark and verve. He joked with the chefs, noting that every chef says the food is wonderful in front of the guest chef, and the minute they leave, they list for each other the failings of the restaurant. “Not so tonight” said Daniel Humm to Robuchon. I told Chef Robuchon about my meal at Jamin, and how I still remember the rouget with tiny morels that went beautifully with the Burgundy our sommelier recommended. The sparkle in Robuchon’s eyes seemed to grow even a bit brighter.

We were offered champagne—Roederer—as an aperitif, while we studied the menus. “Do you suppose he would cook for us?” Daniel asked Philippe Braun, the corporate chef of l’Atelier. “Of course” and with that, away went the menus and the 5-hour meal was to begin.

Our ringleader and fellow wine geek Gabriel Kreuther selected the wines. Stephane recommended we start with the 2003 d’Auvenay Aligote. We had been looking at grand cru Burgundies, but Stephane encouraged us to try the Aligote. When he brought the bottle, he said, “Look at this bottle—it’s the weight of a grand cru” and he pointed out the deep punt. We savored the wine—“This is not like any other Aligote you’ll ever taste,” said Gabriel, and I had to agree. The wine was full, rich, and coated the mouth. It tasted of a much higher pedigree than a mere Aligote—the meal was starting off right.

The amuse they brought was a small shot glass filled with a crème de foie gras that really did awaken the palate by saying “There are lots of complex flavours coming.” I don’t know exactly what was in the amuse but it just had the complex flavours of foie gras and a slightly tart red fruit—genius.

Next up was a dish of cepes in a watercress or similar emulsion (I don’t have a list and these were dishes that not on the standard online menu) with crunchy Jamon Iberico on top. The cepes were incredible—they reminded me of a great dish of sautéed cepes I once had at l’Ami Louis—but with far more sophisticated preparation. The pungent Iberico just hit the spot, and the crunchiness of the ham preparation gave it the perfect texture. Bravo!

By now, we had gone to our third bottle of wine (after the Roederer and Aligote)—a 2002 (I believe that was the year, if I recall correctly—I did not take notes) Domaine de Chevalier blanc. I love Domaine de Chevalier—my only wish is that it had been a vintage of more age that showed what the wine could do. But it had tons of stuffing and is a wine clearly meant for the long haul. It was a perfect pairing with a dish of sea bass with lemongrass foam and baby leeks (this is from the regular menu). The flavours of the lemongrass permeated the entire dish and just lifted it from being something more than a beautifully prepared sea bass.

I’m probably forgetting a few courses, but during almost every course, Chef Robuchon would stop by and see how things were going and the evening proceeded as the hours passed. “An Asian woman was here last night who said I must go to your restaurant” said Chef Robuchon to Chef Humm. I knew he was referring to our own fellow wine geek and gastronome extraordinaire Christine Huang, who had been to the restaurant the night before. Sadly, the entire conversation between the chefs and Chef Robuchon was in French, and I got only about 1/3 of what folks were saying, but the body language of all of us said what needed to be—we were in heaven. “I’ll have what they’re having” pointed a young man with a Wall Street swagger and a young blond draped on his arm to Salah who had handed him a menu. Chef Braun, the corporate chef, was standing in front of me, and turned to him and in his French accent said in a very polite tone, “I’m sorry, but I do not believe we have enough ingredients to do that but we can serve you the tasting menu.” Once his meal started, our Wall Street neighbor at the counter and his date settled in and seemed awfully happy with their meal.

We proceeded onto our red wines—a 1996 Leoville Poyferre and a 1996 Pontet Canet. I preferred the LP over the PC, and as Gabriel noted, the Pontet Canet had a bit more acid and seemed to be more of a food friendly wine whereas the Leoville Poyferre could stand on its own and was a pleasure to drink just with nothing else. Cigar box, tobacco, a touch of menthol, layers of mature fruit just filled the mouth.

We had the quail stuffed with foie gras and summer truffles, which was great—it went beautifully with the LP but I did say to the Chefs that as great as the Bordeaux was, I would have loved Burgundy with the quail.

There were one or two more dishes in between, but my memory fails me—I will find out and report back.

“We still have more red wine!” said Daniel Humm to Chef Braun, who was supervising the dinner. “How about the Kobe beef?” I said. All heads nodded, and off they went to prepare it. “Its not really Kobe beef” said our skeptical Wall Street friend to the server. “Oh yes, it is” was the reply. “But its not from Kobe, Japan!” again said our doubting Thomas. “Oh yes it is” replied Salah.

That Kobe beef, with the two ’96 Bordeaux, was absolutely perfection defined. I can still taste the rich, rich beef cut by the Leoville Poyferre. I savored every bite.

Daniel, again, said “More!” as an indication of our enthusiasm, and next came steak tartare with hand cut French fries. Being Dutch, I asked for mayonnaise with the fries, and out it came. They had a great flavor—we were guessing what they were fried in; I guessed duck fat and Daniel guessed peanut oil. We didn’t think later to ask, so I’m not sure. But the steak tartare was perfect—it was hand chopped, so it had just the right texture. Flavors of Dijon mustard and cream were there, but they said apart from the egg, there was no dairy in it. Perfect!

With the tartare, we had ordered a wine from the Languedoc—a 1995 Mas de Daumas Gassac. “This is the Petrus of the Languedoc,” said Chef Kreuther, and I thought it so right. “Lilac and lavender” I said—I could picture fields of lavender growing near the vineyards. This was another terrific showing of a wine that night.

“How about a cheese course?” I begged. Out it came, about 5 cheeses on individual plates. They were excellent, and were served along with a wine Stephane had chosen—a 1995 Vouvray from the Loire Valley. I didn’t write the name down but I’ve had the wine before and have always enjoyed it.

Finally, the desserts (3 of them) with tea. The pastry chef came out, as did the Spanish chef of the New York l’Atelier. But by this time, it was nearing 1:30 and we were all close to hitting the wall. Two of us had meetings at 9 and one at 10. “I’m finished” said Daniel, and we all nodded. We chatted briefly with Nick, a chef at the restaurant who is a friend of Todd Ginsburg, a chef who many of us in NY know, who used to be at Alain Ducasse. I told Nick and the gang there it was time for them to go home but they were still working hard. “I tell my wife she won’t see me for a week, when Chef Robuchon is in town” said Stephane, no doubt only slightly exaggerating.

With that, we pushed our chairs away from the counter and bade farewell to the restaurant, to new friends, and to a new memory of a lifetime.

I might suck at blind tasting but I’d be great at blind reading - this kind of thing couldn’t have been written by anyone but Wilfred!

Whoa! Awesome dinner!


Great report on an unforgettable evening, Wilfred!

Fantastic. Great read. What a pleasure.

​NEW YORK, Thursday, October 1st, 2009

​en fine gelée au parfum de corail servi en surprise
​Ossetra caviar in fine fragrance of coral served in surprise

​en royale avec un cappuccino de persil simple
​Light custard of cepe with a parsley cappuccino

​poêlé à la citronelle avec une étuvée de jeunes poireaux
​Pan seared sea bass with lemongrass foam and stewed baby leeks

                                                                     LA CAILLE

​caramélisée avec une purée de pomme de terre
​Free-range caramelized quail stuffed with foie gras, potato puree

de Kobe poêlé avec shishito grillés
Kobe beef “a la plancha” with shishito peppers

en tartare et ses frites à l’ancienne
​Steak tartar with hand cut french fries

de France sélectionnés par nos soins
​Our selection of fine imported French cheeses


Very nice, Wilfred [welldone.gif]

Beautiful writing! My keyboard is awash in drool, and now I’m starving.

awesome. did it leave as much of an impression as jamin so many years ago?

A tasty write up, Wilfred. I must check out that Aligote.

A fine evening Wilfred… all I can say is that I wish I were there…