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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Retour à L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei

Since I ended my last post on L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon with the hope of returning as often as I can, Maria and I didn't wait too long and went back twice recently on different weekends for lunch.

I like going to lunch at restaurants for several reasons. One, we don't have to ask our baby sitter to work overtime. Two, many restaurants offer a cheaper menu. Third, unlike dinner, lunch provides more possibilities and variations depending on the plans for the rest of the day. The British Chef Fergus Henderson puts it best, "Lunch is the first aperitif of the day. By the time you have lunch your body is totally woken up. Supper is the punctuation mark of the day before you go to bed, whereas lunch is about the rest of the day, about the potential ahead. Lunch is a launch pad for who knows what- it is fantastic."

In short our two recent lunches at L'Atelier were both fantastic.

Similar to last time, we asked to sit at the bar instead of at a table. It is more fun and closer to the action, not too different than being at a sushi restaurant. Actually, L’Atelier is setup for customers to sit at the bar, unless it is a large party, sitting at the table defeats the purpose a bit.

As usual, the restaurant started us off with a variety of different breads in a basket; to be precise in a silver Alessi Mediterraneo holder designed by Emma Silvestris. All the breads were good, even better than last time; maybe Robuchon’s theory that a boulangerie requires seasoning is true. I was particularly fond of the epi with bacon. I also liked the small baguette. Both of them had crisp crust and good chewy structure inside. The breads were so good that I had to remind myself not to finish them all and fill up my stomach before the food arrived. In fact I was not the only one with this problem. The person sitting next to me had the similar concern and actually asked the server to remove the bread basket since he didn't trust his self control.

The menu for lunch and dinner is the same: à la carte, Menu Club, and Menu Decouverte. For lunch there is an additional Menu Express, which consists of one main course and a dessert. Given that we had the Menu Decouverte last time, for our first lunch we opted to order à la carte. Since I don't take pictures of my meals at restaurants - I believe that takes away from the enjoyment of the meal - I will just have to describe them from memory. I am sure there are photos of the dishes somewhere on the Internet.

The amuse for both lunches was a shot glass of diced chicken with steamed egg topped with a wasabi foam; good flavor with a little hint of heat which provided a nice start to the meal.

For my first lunch, I went with the Le Canard: a gorgeous slice of pâté with duck meat and foie gras served with a small salad on the side and two slices of toasted baguette; L'Oeuf: a soft boiled egg served on top of a spicy eggplant stew. The egg was perfectly cooked with a velvety yolk; L'Amadai: a pan fried piece of fish with a crispy skin with scales. The scales popped up considerably and provided an interesting textural contrast with the filet. The fish was served in a yuzu broth with lily bulbs. It was a subtle and very fragrant dish. It was also one of the rare instances where I actually enjoyed eating the scales of a fish. I couldn’t help but recall that Gordon Ramsay said Guy Savoy always insists leaving the scales on the fish as he believes the flavor is better.

Maria’s lunch consisted of L'Oursin: sea urchin on top of a carrot mousse; Le Foie: a piece of sautéed foie gras served with a grapefruit mousse; Le Cochon: pieces of roasted suckling pig served with its own jus and a little mustard and topped with some crispy cracklings. This was an excellent dish as the pork was very good and well cooked. It was also a well balanced dish in terms of flavors and visual composition.

Similar to the previous meal, the sommelier César Román, picked out red and white wines by the glasses to compliment the dishes.

The end of the savory parts of the meal was followed by a small pre-dessert: fruit compote topped with coconut cream. For desserts I tried Le Baba and Maria had Le Soufflé. One thing I find interesting with the desserts at L'Atelier is chef Kazutoshi Narita plays around with the classics, dishes that sounded old but are modernized. Le Baba is actually almost equal part baba and caramel ice cream. Both are topped with a rum sabayon. The soufflé is served unmolded with a scoop of ice cream and fruit compote.

For my second lunch, I ordered the Menu Club, which has four courses, each with three choices. I went with L'Asperge: a panna cotta-like cold dish with asparagus; Le Foie: a consommé with foie gras ravioli. The fragrant broth came with chiffonade basil and mint and was thickened with whipped cream spiked with a bit of pimentón. The spices and the richness of the ravioli contrasted nicely with the soup; Le Veau: braised veal cheeks that were perfectly cooked with just the right balance of fat and lean meat served in a thick red wine sauce. The dish was served with Robu’s famous purée de pomme de terre; L'Île Flottante, the dessert of the day was my last course. The meringue was well cooked with good texture. While I enjoyed this dessert I thought it was perhaps a bit too simple, at least compared to some of the other ones offered on the menu.

Maria ordered à la carte again and she had Le Foie, same as mine, and Le Burger. Maria's burger was excellent, so I was told. I couldn’t verify the verdict, as it was so good she refused to share any part of it with me. The dish is actually two sliders. Each slider had a nice piece of foie on top of the meat; almost impossible for it not to taste good. Maria was full and chose to skip dessert and went straight to coffee and mango macaron.

For this lunch instead of having wine by the glass, we ordered a bottle. I asked César to pick out a low priced red wine and he happily obliged.

Meals at the L’Atelier in Taipei are not cheap. Basically, the menu prices are more or less like the ones in New York. For instance, Le Burger is NT$1280 in Taipei and US$38 (roughly NT$1210) in New York. L’Amadai is NT$1180 in Taipei and US$36 (roughly NT$1150) in New York. Desserts are NT$580 in Taipei and US$17 (roughly NT$540) in New York. Since one has to add the sales tax of 8.875% and the 15 to 20% service charge in New York, while in Taipei the tax is included and the service charge is 10%, the final prices one pays in Taipei are a bit lower. I suppose one can ask the question that given the cost of labor and overhead are typically lower in Taipei than in New York, why should the prices be the same. However, if one compares the prices in Taipei with the ones in Hong Kong, they are not too far off. While Le Veau is a little more expensive, NT$1480 in Taipei and HK$330 (roughly NT$1350) in Hong Kong, Le Foie is a little cheaper, NT$780 in Taipei and HK$198 (roughly NT$812) in Hong Kong. The desserts are also a bit cheaper, NT$580 in Taipei and HK$150 (roughly NT$615) in Hong Kong. I will leave the discussion on the economics of restaurants to another day. Moreover, prices can always change. I remember when L’Atelier first opened in New York, the desserts were US$20 instead of the current US$17. For now I will just say the quality of the meals in Taipei is no different than the meals I had in New York a few years ago.

Unlike last time, these two times there were no problem with the pacing of the meal. It was actually just right, not too fast and not too slow. There was enough time between the courses for us to have some conversations without dragging the meal too long. It seemed to me that perhaps after a few months, the staff is a bit more at ease as well.

After our second lunch, we had a chance to speak briefly with Chef Yosuke Suga, who watched over both of our lunches. We asked if he had to change his cooking to adapt to the local taste. We were relieved to hear he didn’t have to change anything. So often western restaurants in Taipei don't stay true to their flavor profiles and try to adapt to the local tastes. In the process of doing so many restaurants lose their identities and tend to decline in quality. This is not the case just in Taiwan. One only has to look at the various Chinese restaurants in New York to see how inauthentic they are; most of them acknowledge that they are cooking for the westerners and not making the real food they believe in. I hope L’Atelier will continue to stay true to its own standards. As the seasons change, I will surely return and hopefully try some new dishes. Next time maybe we can forgo the menu and kitchen will just cook for us.

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