You know that the world takes food seriously when a man becomes famous for his mashed potato. This is what the multi-Michelin starred, French superchef, Joel Robuchon did. Of course, he's done a bit more than that. Ten years ago he closed his original Paris restaurant and over the last few years he has pioneered a style of more informal eating. In his 'ateliers', of which there are branches in Paris, New York, Tokyo and Las Vegas, you are able to get haute cuisine standard cooking in small, tapas-size portions while sat at a bar over-looking the kitchen. In the original ateliers there was a no reservation policy.
Now, five doors up from the Ivy, there's a three storey outpost of the Robuchon empire. The ground floor is the atelier. It has an amazing bright green wall of ivy. On the top floor there is a late-opening bar, but we were bound for 'La Cuisine de Joel Robuchon' on the first floor.
La Cuisine does indeed look like a kitchen. There were a few comments among our party of its resemblence to a Habitat kitchen section circa 1988. Pots and pans are stacked decoratively, behind our table was an array of different types of potted rosemary. The six of us were shown to our pushed together tables - the whole kitchen like set up does give the place an informal atmosphere - the food though is serious.
The occasion for our visit was to celebrate Harry's birthday. Even when ordering our initial drinks a step up in quality from the norm was evident. Some of the party had Bloody Marys, these were listed on the bill as 'Bloody Sound', and they were. Instead of pressed tomato juice, these used fresh de-seeded and de-skinned liquidised tomato, giving the drink a light, (falsely) healthy quality. I asked for a glass of manzanilla and was instead offered an alternative of a glass of Alsace Muscat from Domaine Andre Ostertag which tasted beautifully of that grape (as Muscats tend to do).
We opted for the £80 tasting menu, partly I confess, to simplify the ordering process given the multitude of small dishes on offer.
The amuse bouche was lemon jelly (obligatory post-foam signature of serious cooking) submerged by fennel puree with a tapenade on top. A delicious way to wake up our mouths.
Again, to bypass the agony of choice, we had asked the sommelier to come up with a suggestion of a wine per course. The first of these was a Loire Sauvignon Blanc from Henri Pelle.
The next course was a tourte of crabmeat, concealing a layers of citrus jelly and avocado. It was delivered in a ceramic 'egg' on top of a unwieldy slab of granite - the waiter asked us to dig our spoons to the bottom so as to get all the layers at the same time. The crab was creamy and rich and the jelly was sharp - a good balance of flavours and textures.
Next, iberico ham on a bed of girolles and finely diced apricot, was a highlight. The ham was slightly warmed and seasoned and there was a scattering of rocket on top. All textures were in a similar range of softness but with complementary qualities. With this we were served a lovely Tokay Pinot Gris, Cuvee Marie et Cecile from Domaine Lucien Albrecht.
The scallop here was cooked in its shell and delivered still attached by its stem. It was cooked in butter with seaweed - the butter so delicious one had to mop it up with bread. The wine was a De Trafford Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch, a highlight for all members of the table.
Warm foie gras, one of my favourite things, with roasted peaches. For me the foie gras was slightly overcooked - it had gone beyond a loose jelly-like state and firmed up too much. This was not the consensus of the table though, so maybe I had a (slightly) duff one. Can any amateur botanists identify the leaves? The wine here was a magnificent Tokaji Aszu, 5 Puttonyos. Not cloying at all, the sweetness matched with acidity. On reflection I wonder whether the Recioto di Soave on the menu, with its possible peach and apricot flavours, might have been a better, and less expensive, choice.
After the foie gras I was so keenly anticipating the next course of red mullet, that when it arrived I scoffed it straight away without much gastronomic contemplation and and without remembering to take a photo. By the way, the full size photos for this meal can be found here. The wine here was the relatively unusual choice of a New Zealand pinot noir - red wine with fish. But red mullet is robust and the Ata Rangi was light enough to make this partnership work. Strangely the wine did appear cloudy, though tasted fine.
Two of us opted for quail, which I'd heard was good, with the others opting for lamb cutlets with thyme. The quail came in two pieces, stuffed with foie gras, delicious but somehow not substantial enough. The real star on the table though was a huge bowl of potato puree. It looked like ice cream. In fact if you'd churned it and frozen it it would have made a very acceptable filling for a cone. The ratio of potato to butter must be scary. It's wonderfully gloopy and rich and is whipped (maybe?) so that it forms peaks. The added bonus for those with the quail was some of this, truffled, hiding under a bivouac of sliced truffle. Wine here was a Phileo, Preti Muci Shiraz.
Phew! After that we need a bit of a break and so some cleansing grapefruit and ginger shots were delivered.
These were artfully balanced on the plate using coloured salts in white, green and orange.
Refreshing and bitter I suspect these had a digestive quality too. And so we eased into our chairs and awaited a sweet onslaught. We discussed dessert wines with the sommelier chose a Noble Late Harvest Semillon which would have orange flavours to match the chocolate dessert to come.
The dessert was mostly rich chocolate ice cream with crunchy chocolate bits (I don't think they were coco pops) and layers of darker chocolate. There may have been ganache in there too.
And what were we to eat this with? A plastic spoon. With a scribble of edible gold paste on it (a metaphor for the style of the restaurant?).
I didn't think that this was as amazing as some of the earlier savoury courses, but by now maybe we were tiring?
So, all in all a pretty amazing meal. I must make a couple of late qualifications though.
This meal was expensive. More expensive, per head, than any other meal I've had, that includes a tasting menu lunch at the Fat Duck. I appreciate that this is a central London location and that the Robuchon name carries a premium, but still. One reason for the expense was that we required some substitute courses. One of our party has a shellfish allergy so for him we asked to replace three dishes. They did this, but charged us full price for the extra dishes, but with no deduction for the dishes we chose not to have. I don't know if this is standard practice but we should at least have been warned of this before we ordered.
It's early days at the restaurant and although the service was always helpful it seemed at some points to lack some cohesion. The sommelier is a star, as well as providing well-judged, informative advice on the wine he also seemed to coreograph the service, to a degree. When he disappeared towards the end of the meal, the service became slightly inattentive. At this point it was around 4:00 though and the restaurant had significantly wound down.
These are minor points though and I shall be back to try more dishes on the atelier level.
Nick Lander has a good article about a pre-opening trip to the restaurant here.