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Saturday, January 2, 2010

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei

The first time my wife, Maria, and I ate Joël Robuchon’s food, it was at his L’Atelier in Paris in 2003. I decided to go there after reading an article by R.W. Apple Jr. in the New York Times. It was one of our best and most memorable meals in Paris. Ever since that trip we kept wondering when we would be able to return to L’Atelier. It turned out we didn’t need to go to Paris to go to L’Atelier because Robuchon started opening branches everywhere: Tokyo, New York, London, and Hong Kong. All the L’Ateliers seem to operate at the same level of quality and receive ample amounts of Michelin stars. As the New York chef Mario Batali once commented on Robuchon, “He has an amazing way to make his food consistent and delicious in every place where I ever had it.”

It was in June 2008 when I first learned about Robuchon's plan to open a branch of his L'Atelier in Taipei from an article in The Independent. Since then there was very little news about it and I kept wondering whether it was for real or not. Moreover, I wonder when L'Atelier opens whether it would be as good as the other branches. My concerns were allayed in March 2009 by a little bit blurb in the New York Times, which reported that Chef Yosuke Suga, the executive chef of the New York branch of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, will move to Taipei to be in charge of the new L'Atelier. This was great news because not only was Robuchon coming, he was bringing one of his right hand men. I had been to the L'Atelier in New York and seen Chef Suga in action. The food in New York was really good so I was now confident that the L'Atelier in Taipei would be a great restaurant.

Eight months later in November, L'Atelier finally opened its doors in Taipei. As much as I wanted to go try out the restaurant immediately, I waited because no matter how good the chef is, any restaurant needs time to work out the kinks. After almost two months, Maria and I finally went to L’Atelier. When I made the reservation over the phone several weeks before, the receptionist asked if this was for any special occasion. Indeed it was, as we planned to celebrate our wedding anniversary.

The restaurant is located on the fifth floor of the new shopping mall, Bellavita. This setup reminds me a bit of the restaurants in the Time Warner Center in New York. To get to the restaurant, you need to take one of the three elevators located near one entrance of the mall. When the elevator opens on the fifth floor you are directly in the reception of the restaurant with a view of the dining area located behind a glass partition. The receptionist took our coats without issuing tags and led us in. In fact, I will say this is the first restaurant in Taipei where I encountered a coat check room. The dining area is essentially in two parts: tables on the one side and bar and open kitchen on the other side. Unlike the setup in New York and Paris where the bar is more U-shaped surrounding the kitchen, the L’Atelier in Taipei is more like the one in Tokyo, where the bar is stretched out linearly along a folded line. The overall aesthetics of the restaurant is similar to the other branches with black and red as the two dominating colors.

We were seated near the middle of the bar with a good view of the entire kitchen and more or less diagonally behind the pass where Chef Suga stands. After we sat down we were handed the menu with three choices: menu découverte, menu club, and à la carte. Since we were celebrating, we went with the expensive menu découverte.

We started with some sparkling water (Badoit, one my favorites) instead of champagne. The sommelier, César Roman, came to see if we wanted to have some wine. We told him we are not big drinkers and would like just a little wine. Since the wine list didn’t have any half bottles, the only option was wine by the glass. César suggested that with the tasting menu, perhaps we can have one glass of white for the first part and a red for the second. We readily agreed. César actually poured Maria and I two different white wines to try. Maria’s was fruitier while mine was more robust.

The server brought a basket of a variety of breads, all of which were pretty good. The meal began with an amuse bouche: a spoon full of a piece of blood sausage with apple sauce. This was followed by a large oyster with a quenelle of caviar. As we were eating the oyster, we could see the garde manger chef, who seemed to have worked in the New York branch as well, preparing our next dish, langoustine carpaccio. This was a great dish, fresh, light, and well balanced. It was also beautifully presented in a thin disc-like shape. Next came the foie gras course, another beautifully plated and delicious dish. The foie along with fine dices of pig knuckle were wrapped in a cabbage leaf and further encased in a thin crispy shell. Up to this point, everything was really good. My only complaint was the dishes came too quickly, with hardly any pauses in between. We ate four courses, counting the amuse, in less than twenty minutes. Even though Maria and I are not slow eaters and we had to go home relatively early to relieve the babysitter, this was a bit much. I had to tell the server to slow down.

After a brief moment, at least enough time for Maria and I to exchange a few words on the décor and see what other people were having, we moved into the two more substantial protein dishes: hamachi and kobe beef. The ingredients were great and all were cooked perfectly to the right temperatures. The fish was served with tubes of burdock. The beef was served with Robu’s famous purée de pomme de terre à la truffe on the side in a small Staub pot. I thoroughly enjoyed both courses.

Afterwards a cheese course was served. This was the only course throughout the night that I must register a bit of disappointment and complaint. This course consisted of one thin slice of bread and one slice of goat cheese on a small black plate. Both pieces were very good but just seemed a bit paltry to me. I would have preferred to see the restaurant provide a small selection of three cheeses, or a more composed cheese course with a bit more components like the ones served at Per Se and French Laundry.

A small pre-dessert came along with a complimentary lemon tart, with “Anniversaire de Marriage” written in chocolate lines and a little candle. This was a nice touch. What made us happier was César poured two complimentary glasses of Moscato d'Asti to drink with the desserts.

The last course of the meal was Le Sucre, a sugar sphere filled with berry custard. This is a great dessert with fantastic flavor and texture. I first knew about this dessert when it was served in the New York L’Atelier. It was later taken off the menu there when the pastry chef Kazutoshi Narita left. I am glad it has reappeared in Taipei along with Chef Narita. Seeing the dish again was like seeing an old friend.

Our meal ended with a nice espresso and a violet macaron. This was easily the best western meal we had in Taipei. While I think there are still a few things to be worked out, especially the pacing of the meal, the restaurant is already very good, certainly way beyond most western restaurants in Taipei. Can the restaurant earn a Michelin star? I am not an inspector and Taipei doesn’t have a Michelin guide, but I would say without a doubt it would easily grab one star. With the transplanted New York team led by Chef Suga, it should only get better. I hope to return as often as I can.


  1. now i wonder if the L'Atelier in NY is as good as it used to be when chef Suga was here? maybe we'll go try it when Henry's birthday comes...

  2. awesome post! i'm sort of celebrating a special occasion in march. do you have any recommendations for restaurants which are similar to l'atelier (upscale, any cuisine, good food)? Thanks!