We’re Lost in Muzak: Bill Borrows Knows How To Lunch At L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
So the soundtrack sounds like something from a lift? It would still be the slickest, smoothest, creamiest lift available to humanity. Going up?
A quick livener upstairs at the Club at the Ivy, for starters. My dining companion is a member and, as I am treating him to lunch, it seems only fair to load up his tab first. Besides, when it comes to pushing the boat out at someone else’s expense, he’s launched more ocean-going nights out than the current monarch and several of her bottle-smashing antecedents put together. In short, he is a man who, when he is not making films and photographing campaigns for expensive gentlemen’s garms, knows how to lunch.
I get there early and order a bottle of 2012 Quincy Sauvignon Blanc (a snip at almost £50). He texts to see where I am, I text back that I’m ordering on his tab at the Club at the Ivy and he appears inside five minutes having jumped a cab on Shaftesbury Avenue. ‘A drink?’ I suggest. ‘Why not?’ he answers rhetorically, but with a perceptible degree of sardonic ire. He is feeling much relaxed 45 minutes later when we arrive, late, at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and less concerned about the model who has just walked off his set with £30,000 of jewellery in her handbag.
Not so much close by as within olive pip-spitting distance of the Ivy, L’Atelier is very dark and lacquered with the remnants of the luncheon trade keeping themselves to themselves. The ground floor is all black and very dark reds and feels like being inside an exclusive nightclub in Puerto Banus circa 1987. Not necessarily a bad thing, of course. The nod to the counter of the tapas/sushi bar with high bar stools facing the open kitchen and small tables elsewhere is replicated in all Robuchon restaurants from Las Vegas to Tokyo and Hong Kong to Singapore.
So yes, it’s a chain but when is chain not a chain? When it has the Joël Robuchon name (and 28 Michelin stars) attached to it. Opened in 2006, and aside from the trademark fixtures and fittings, the London restaurant maintains Chef’s reputation for seasonal French cooking of the very highest quality and an informality that is somehow incongruous but very welcome. ‘Do you have any allergies?’ asks our host. ‘No? Good, then you will enjoy everything.’ A three-course lunch with ‘matching wines’, almost an outlandish suggestion these days, is the order of the day but only after hot bread and olives.
It would be slightly disingenuous and perhaps even uncharitable to suggest that L’Atelier is just about seasonal French cooking – as with the bento box aesthetic, the influences are manifold and fascinating. And so, for example, the lobster spaghetti arrives with a spicy coral emulsion and the samosa of braised lamb shoulder comes to the table in the divine company of a Moroccan aubergine zaalouk. Or would have done had we ordered them. They weren’t on the menu then, but they are now.
Instead, the aubergine caviar with vegetables and a spicy tomato coulis was twinned with a glass of 2013 Pinot Gris Firesteed, a floral white with a hint of walnuts, and was a delicious way to open our culinary account. After that, we went our separate ways – I opted for light, whereas he went rich. Usually I ask my guest to make brief notes about his or her repast but he assured me that would not be necessary. He was wrong. After one mouthful of the John Dory fillet (on a tomato reduction with an avocado ‘virgin’ sauce) I lost all interest in his plate.
In fact, I was somewhere else completely when I noticed an unusual look upon his face – I could say that he seemed lost in orgiastic ecstasy but the more prosaic and frightening fact is that I think I saw a glimpse of his ‘sex face’ and nothing can prepare a man for that over a main course in a Michelin-starred restaurant with his friend. ‘Are you ok?’ I asked. He mumbled something, swallowed and then demanded that I try the mash we had just witnessed being made a couple of feet away from us. It was as smooth as alabaster and set off the duck breast perfectly.
It was too good to rush, he announced, and sought to put off the final forkful with his glass of 2012 Sankt Laurent Weingut Heinrich, a fragrant, almost balsamic Austrian red. The attentive but never pushy staff seemed to understand. It must happen a lot. Eating in the under-utilised space between the lunch and pre-theatre crowds and all the way through, while others slave at their desks, feels utterly decadent and that’s how it should be. The dessert, therefore, ‘Le Dome’, is completely at home here.
The constituent parts are subject to seasonal variations and, on this occasion, it is peach inside a globular confection so light, a dab of raspberry coulis is required to stop it floating into the air and out of the door. Presented with all the ornament of an early 20th-century Klimt and accompanied by a German 2012 Riesling ‘Silberlack’ Schloss Johannisberg served from a double magnum, it is the perfect way to conclude an almost perfect lost afternoon. Almost perfect? I’d lose the muzak, but then I only noticed it as I was leaving.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, 13-15 West Street, London, WC2H 9NE. www.joelrobuchon.co.uk Telephone: +44 (0)20 7010 8600. Reservations: firstname.lastname@example.org.