Robuchon's New Counter-seating Hotspot and Wine Club
By Florence Fabricant
It's true that most American wine shops can also give pairing advice. But how many of them are associated with a Michelin three-star chef?
Since last summer, the only restaurant with any buzz in Paris has been L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, a counter with 38 seats and a no-reservations policy. The buzz has been such that Parisians and visitors willingly endure a wait of 30 minutes or more for a chance to dine on food created by Robuchon, who closed his fancy, eponymous Right Bank temple of gastronomy nearly six years ago, pocketed his three Michelin stars and retired.
In his new place, he has created a formula that top chefs everywhere might envy. (Indeed, an Atelier has already opened in Tokyo.) The place is small enough to allow exacting standards, careful preparation and a certain amount of experimentation to prevail. Touches of Spain and Italy enliven a menu grounded in classic France. And its very informality—bar stools and paper placemats, and an open kitchen that permits chefs to interact with customers—dispels the reverent hush so often found in the atmosphere of three-star bôites. Buzz indeed.
L'Atelier's movement away from its precursor's stuffiness is especially evident in the wine list. Though the list emphasizes France (especially Burgundy), Italy, Australia, Chile, South Africa and California (think Kistler, Ridge and Shafer) are also represented. For Americans this international approach to the wine list is hardly a novelty. But in France, and certainly in Paris, it's still not the norm.
L'Atelier sells almost 50 wines by the glass, ranging from Château Latour 1997 ($68) to the bargain-priced Domaine de la Grande Olivette 2001 La Jasse, a Vin de Pays des Cevennes ($5.50), which is a favorite of sommelier Antoine Hernandez. Hernandez has been a sommelier for Robuchon for 20 years; you'd do well to heed any suggestions he may have.
The menu, which features a wide array of tasting portion-sized small plates, is an invitation to sip wines by the glass. The wine you might enjoy with the the warm coddled egg enveloping earthy chanterelles may not be the same you'd savor with what might be the world's best clams, baked in their shells with young garlic and mushrooms. Tasting portions range in price from $6.75 to $27; an appetizer-sized bowl of velvety gazpacho, and entrée of langoustines roasted with basil in parchment, are more expensive ($11.50 and $51, respectively). In the open kitchen with Robuchon, when he's on hand, are Philippe Braun from Laurent and Eric Le Cerf from L'Astor, both of whom worked with Robuchon and garnered two Michelin stars for their restaurants.
Though the seating is all at the counter, the subdued, dark brown, black and burgundy décor of L'Atelier creates an elegant and intimate setting. The best seats, if you're not dining alone, are at the corners of the sleek, almost ebony, counters, making for easier conversation. The open kitchen-and-counter seating arrangement affords diners ample opportunities to talk to servers and chefs, who are all dressed in black jackets instead of classic kitchen whites, to avoid distracting customers.
For those who might want to purchase a wine that complemented the meal, there is also a wine club, La Cave de L'Atelier, which will deliver most of the wines from the wine list at less than half the restaurant price. There is a 24-bottle minimum, and shipping is extra. For now, this service is only available in France. But with it, for those who can plan ahead, there is also the opportunity to receive wine-pairing suggestions from Hernandez and his team. What, exactly, should you serve with grilled rougets with eggplant, followed by a veal shank in red wine? The experts at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon will provide the answer. And the wine.
L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, 5-7 rue Montalembert in the Hôtel Pont Royal, 6th Arrondissement, Paris. Open for lunch and dinner daily. A meal for two, with wine, is about $120. Telephone 011-33-1-42-22-56-56. Information on La Cave de L'Atelier is available from 011-33-1-40-62-73-79 or email@example.com. —Florence Fabricant