For his return to New York five years after his intimate L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in the Four Seasons closed, chef Joël Robuchon has raised the bar.
The 12th location of his “casual” concept — that is, if you consider eating Michelin-starred food while seated on a bar stool kicking back — is downtown, next to Del Posto at the edge of the Meatpacking District. And it seems like the 72-year-old French chef, who has acquired the most Michelin stars of any chef during his 57-year career, is almost relaxing. Almost.
Interviewed in a glossy black private dining room in the sprawling, 11,000-square-foot space, Robuchon twinkles and practically vibrates with energy. Part of this he attributes to the vegetable-based diet that a doctor put him on last year, helping him lose 30 kilos. Part of it is the number of new ideas buzzing through his head, whether it’s about the future of fine dining or a new health-driven concept. And part of it is the rush of opening such a high-profile undertaking at a time when New York dining has changed. “There are more and more restaurants, and everything has progressed toward quality,” he said.
When the first Atelier opened in Paris in 2003, small plates, counter seating, and relaxed fine dining were exciting imports (albeit through the lens of Japan and Spain). Today’s Atelier looks remarkably similar, from the rosewood and red-leather design to the menu format of small plates and tasting options, to the open kitchen filled with countless cooks presenting the 34 counter-side diners with what Robuchon deems both “a theatrical spectacle” and “a ballet.”
But what its veteran executive chef Christophe Bellanca and Robuchon offer that other new concepts can’t execute on such scale is the precision and technique that decades of experience in French fine dining bring to the gold-rimmed plate. That's evident in foie gras-stuffed, caramelized quail with potato puree, and an artfully plated salmon tartare with caviar and gold leaf, the thinnest possible toast crisps alongside. Even the bread service, created by 20-year Robuchon baker Tetsuya Yamaguchi, is French perfection, especially the Alsatian-style epi with veal bacon and mustard.
Robuchon, who said that he never wanted to leave New York (the first Atelier closed after disputes with the landlord), is inspired by the changes that have taken place during his absence, particularly in terms of the quantity of new concepts (“More than in Las Vegas!”) and the increased quality of the produce. New York is “paradise for organic products,” he declared, noting a movement toward organic, vegan, and vegetable-focused ingredients that has yet to hit France.
Even food shopping options have gone off the charts: “When I go across the street,” he said, gesturing toward Chelsea Market, “I have as much pleasure as if I had gone to the Louvre.” The clientele, too, has changed. Robuchon said he has noticed a warmer, more convivial and international group, not to mention younger people who are more interested in cuisine. (“Generation Food Network,” he calls them.) And now people are used to sitting at the bar. “In the beginning, no one wanted to sit at the comptoir!” he said.
In the years since that first L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon opened, the concept of luxury has evolved, too. As global demand for exclusive products and experiences has exploded, companies have had to think beyond logos. For Robuchon, who had his first transformative experience in Japan in the 1980s, today’s luxury, in the kitchen at least, starts with something surprising: simplicity. “It’s also the hardest to achieve,” he said. Quality, craftsmanship, aesthetics, and refinement are all essential elements. “Think of a simple salad that becomes exceptional—all of the details that go into it,” he said. Or a humble piece of roast chicken, its skin crisp and its meat tender, with a fragrant pan sauce seasoned just so.
Robuchon sees parallels between what luxury houses like Berlutti, recently bought by LVMH, achieve and what a great restaurant must do. “Savoir-faire is modernity in tradition,” he said. “It’s the same in my restaurant. People have criticized classic dining, saying it’s old-fashioned and traditional, but there is a foundation, and it is this kind of restaurant that will survive. All the other styles will pass by the wayside, like, what was it called? Molecular cuisine. No one talks about it anymore. People want to eat the truth, the real thing. We are creating an emotion with all of the senses. That is luxury.”
Robuchon said that he is a follower of luxury goods, and also of gadgets. “Whenever I get five minutes to myself, I go shopping,” he said with a sheepish grin. In addition to an obsession with shoes (“Shoes determine the personality of a man,” he said), luggage, and watches (he is a brand ambassador for Blancpain and sees many similarities between haute cuisine and the man-made precision of watchmaking), he is also a gadget freak.
“How many phones do you have?” one of his partners asks. Pause. “That are active? Seven.” Computers? “Ten?!” (I was given a look by his team when I mentioned that his new location was around the corner from the Apple store.)
While the restaurant may still look early oughts and feel a tad Vegas, what is served is indeed both a luxury and a really good show. Artichoke heart, sliced as thinly as a truffle, is enriched with curls of pâté de foie gras. A kitschy meringue mushroom served in a trompe l’oeil overturned wine glass is technically perfect, an edible miniature worthy of Escoffier. For those looking for a quick bite and a glass of wine, the (truly) casual front room has a menu with croque monsieurs, veal Milanese, salads, and other lower-key offerings.
During a friends-and-family service a week before the November 1 opening, things were going smoothly. Robuchon seemed to glide on rails behind the counter, joking with former regulars while inspecting his team’s work with his famously demanding eye. He looked more than pleased: He looked relaxed.
85 10th Ave.; joelrobuchonusa.com