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

Friday, September 15, 2006

L'artisan du Chocolate

Thank God this store is across the ocean!

On my last visit to London a friend told me that I had to go to L'artisan du Chocolate. I thought sure, sure, but figured that I'd already had the best chocolate in the world so I wouldn't bother with it. Eventually I went, reluctantly, and let me tell you, I am so glad I did.
This has to be the most creative chocolate shop I've ever been to. Let's start with the liquid salted caramels—round dark chocolate balls that ooze out caramel with the slightest hint of sea salt in the finish. Then there are the Mint Os—paper thin after dinner mints infused with fresh mint with an inspiring Moroccan pattern printed on each one. If that does not make you salivate, there is the Corsican lemon peel dipped in milk chocolate.

It goes on and on. I loved the chocolate bars, especially Lumi which is infused with Iranian sun dried lime. The Origin Ecuador has a finish of malt and cream fraîche. Each chocolate bar was perfection and the Organic Milk bar is the best milk chocolate I've ever had.

I almost forgot the scorched hazelnuts. You bite into one and it disappears in your mouth but you are left with a flavor of toasted hazelnuts and deep dark chocolate and the slightest hint of praline.

I've not even gotten to the couture chocolates. Tobacco chocolate?? I have to stop. Next time you find yourself in London you must get to this store. I hear that at Christmas they have the best Easter egg display in the whole world??? I'm going to try and be there then.

Thursday, September 7, 2006

Pappa al Pomodoro, The Last Gasp of Tomato Season

On a gorgeous fall day recently I was invited to a harvest lunch at Castello di Potentino which dates back to 1402 and is beautifully situated in the Montecucco wine region in the Province of Grosseto. The area has a wonderful micro climate which is responsible for its elegant wines and olive oil. Our hosts Sally Green and Sally Horton, a mother and daughter, were busy in the kitchen preparing Pappa al Pomodoro, a dish I do not ordinarily look forward to because restaurants do it so badly. To be done right, as it was here, it should be made in big batches at the height of tomato season, and it should be served at the right temperature-- lukewarm, neither room temperature nor cold. The other secret to the dish is that you must drizzle the best extra virgin olive oil you can find over it and then accompany it with a Sangiovese wine like Castello di Potentino’s 2003 Sacromonte Montecucco Rosso. This is a magnificent wine with expressive fruit and great acidity. It is not yet imported to the States, but you can be sure I am working on that.

It was harvest week and the Woofers, (willing workers on organic farms) who live and work on the property to acquire experience were coming in from the vineyards for lunch. An old friend of the family, Cesare, who was helping to cook, was busy giving the finishing touches to the table. After lunch he gave me this recipe:

You start off sautéing very coarsely chopped onions, carrots, celery, celery leaves, and garlic in a good amount of olive oil until slightly soft. I loved the fact that these ingredients were left quite chunky. Meanwhile peel and chop ripe tomatoes and add to the soffritto, seeds and all and cook for 1 1/2 hours. Season with salt and pepper. Cut day old bread into 1-inch cubes and have that ready. They used a local bread with a great sourdough bite which I think made all the difference. Right before serving, turn off the heat and add the bread, roughly chopped basil, and serve. The art of the dish is the right amount of bread. The texture should be firm not runny. Next weekend I am planning to make this for a group of friends and serve some wine I brought back with me from the vineyard.

So while tomatoes are at their best for a few more weeks and the weather is still wonderful, I suggest you do the same. I know you won’t be disappointed.

Castello Di Potentino