Friday, September 29, 2006

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Who's in Charge?

When you eat in a dive, it's the food that matters. When you go to a moderate to expensive restaurant you have a right to expect a decent ambience and good service in addition to good food. A super expensive restaurant raises the stakes: food, ambience, and service all better be perfect, period.

My recent visit to the new L'Atelier Joël Robuchon restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York was a huge disappointment, and I left feeling sad. In my opinion Joël is one the greatest chefs in the world. I've eaten his food over the past 20 years beginning with his first restaurant in Paris, going on to L'Atelier, also in Paris, and finally at his latest venture in Las Vegas. They have all been fabulous. My meal at Robuchon in Vegas last year was one of the greatest meals of my life. I am Joël's biggest fan and I know what he is capabable of and this new restaurant does not come close to that mark.

Let's start with the fact we sat next to a guy who was making a business deal on his cell phone and yelling so loud that I could not hear the waiter. He had call waiting so he occasionally interrupted his business deal to give directions to someone who wanted, God knows why, to join him at the restaurant. When I got up to ask the maitre'd to get him to stop, I was told, "It is the policy of this restaurant to allow someone to use a cell phone unless someone complains". The fact is cell phones do not belong in any restaurant, especially not one charging these prices, and pity the poor diners at Robuchon who are not bold enough to object when some boor on a cell phone ruins their meal.

The room looks like Robuchon's other L'Ateliers, black and red decor, jars filled with various foods, but there are more tables in front of the counter here so you cannot see the cooking as you can in his other places, and that's part of the fun.

The service was shocking. I never got a handle on which of the miscellaneous servers was our waiter, which our captain, and which our sommelier. When we finally got our bread, we asked for some butter. "Of course madam." Three more tries and no butter. It still had not arrived when we were getting our espresso. Is it a policy of the restaurant not to serve butter? If so, say so. One of the servers came to describe the amuse bouche and his delivery reminded me of the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode in which Larry David goes to a restaurant and the waiter rattles off the specials in Italian, and when asked to explain, he does…again in Italian. Three tries and I never learned what was in our amuse.

Okay, it wasn't all bad. Justin and Cameron did stroll in and sit at the counter which was fun for a second. But when we ordered a great bottle of Chateau Rayas, we were ten minutes into our entrees before the wine was decanted and poured. Oh, and they got our orders wrong, served food to the wrong people, and brought desserts we did not order. The service at Four Seasons Hotels is usually magnificent so what is the problem here?

The food? Great but not memorable, and when you consider that your bill runs into the four figures for five people, it is disappointing. Besides various appetizers, two of us ordered the Kobe beef ribeye which is sold at $8.00 an ounce. It was cooked perfectly though I ordered too many ounces, not their fault. Kobe is so rich that 3-4 ounces would have been enough. It comes with the famous pureed potatoes which are also so rich that I couldn't eat them. Two friends ordered the steak tartare which is the finest I've tasted, absolutely perfectly seasoned and finely diced, not ground. It came with handcut fries which were deep fried and light as a feather. Robuchon's idea here is to have tasting/tapas style eating, hence there are no vegies or sides. The desserts were great, especially le sucre which is a pearl-like ball, that you break open to savor the surprise that awaits you. And yet, after the meal everyone said that they would probably not come back.

When I asked Joël in Vegas who was going to be running his various restaurants, he told me that he has a core group that travels together and opens the restaurants so that there will always be someone in charge who knows what Joël wants and expects. Well, yesterday it seemed to me that person was nowhere to be found.

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon_57 East 57th Street_NYC_212. 758. 570


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