Fifteen minutes before the time of our reservation at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei, my friend calls me and says he is stuck in traffic and running late. He says he still needs to go home and change since he is in shorts and t-shirt. Knowing my friend, it is not some fashionable shorts. My friend asks if L'Atelier will mind if he shows up as is, because if he doesn't have to go home he can conceivably show up on time. I reply that I don't think they have a dress code. While you may be the first person to show up in athletic shorts and Kristene at the door may have a good laugh, but she probably won't refuse to seat you. Why don't you just come. We will be sitting at the bar and perhaps not too many people will notice. Five minutes past the reserved time, sure enough my friend shows up looking like he'd just come from the gym.
While my friend is severely under dressed, just about all the other patrons in the restaurant are dressed casually; I don't remember seeing anyone with a jacket, though it is 30-plus degrees Celsius outside. L'Atelier is not a formal place but the food served over the counter is expertly prepared and very refined. Herein lies the great thing about L'Atelier: it is fine dining in a convivial setting without the formalities.
In my recent meals at L'Atelier I tend to order from the various set menus, which provide good values and a set sequence. However, the set menu provides only a limited number of choices for each course. For this meal, I want to order à la carte. In a certain way we are following the original intent of L'Atelier, which is modeled after the tapas bar where one can construct a meal in any manner that one likes.
Chef Angelo Aglianò starts us off with a Robuchon classic, Le Caviar Oscietra, which consists of layers of crab meat, lobster jelly, and caviar served in a tin. This is actually the first time I am eating this wonderful concoction; just delicious and a dish, actually a tin, that makes one smile in both presentation and taste. After this course, my friend and I go off on different paths.
I order another classic dish, the langoustine carpaccio, translucent slices arranged in a thin disk shape topped with roasted poppy seeds. This is as good as I remember it from the last time I had it, which was over a year and a half ago. I follow up with a fried polenta-coated soft-boiled egg topped with caviar and placed on a small bed of lettuce with smoked salmon on the side; a beautiful dish with seductive combination of colors, shapes, textures and flavors. I then order the risotto with sea urchin and tomato confit. As always the risotto is cooked wonderfully al dente and all'onda. My last savory course of the night is a tête de veau with the combination of veal cheeks and tongue. The garnishes are arranged as a red circular line around the meat, almost like an art piece. This is served with the classic pairing of ravigote sauce. I just love this dish. The ability to cook offal is actually the true test of the chef's skills.
My friend selects the crispy frog legs which were beautifully fried into a golden color. He follows it with some Hokkaido scallops served in the shell. When this dish is served my friend offers to let me try one of scallops. Before I have a chance to stick my fork in his dish he finishes all of them. I assume it is very good. My friend then veers into his beef mood as he orders the burger with fries follow by the Kobe beef. I wouldn't have ordered two consecutive beef courses myself, but there are no rules at L'Atelier.
It is clear that Chef Aglianò has the kitchen crew operating at a high level. We order a variety of dishes that require a wide array of techniques, ranging from raw seafood, risotto, burger to offal, and everything is expertly prepared.
As usual I ask the sommelier Benoît Monier to pick a wine for us. He always asks me what do I want to drink and stresses that it is more important to drink something we like instead of worrying too much about pairing wine to food. I tell him I am in the mood for some white wine and he picks out a nice Meursault for us.
After finishing the wine we order desserts. My friend chooses the dessert of the day while I go with a classic: Crepe Suzette, a dish that was invented in the late nineteenth century. I haven't had this dish in a long time and it is nice to see it on the dessert menu. Grendy, the manager, set the alcohol on fire at the counter side and pours it on top of the cooked crepe. Not too many restaurants do this dish anymore. For me this dish always conjures up images of a very serious waiter in a very formal but old fashioned restaurant. Here we are in 2011, the dish is still delicious and a dramatic way to end a meal, yet we no longer feel constrained by the rules and formality of an old way of dining.
After we finish our coffees and macarons, Benoît treats us to some Chartreuse to end the night. As my friend and I comment on the alcohol level of the liqueur, Benoit jokes what do you expect from reclusive monks. We all have a good laugh, which is really one of many we share throughout the night. As I get up from my seat to leave the restaurant, I cannot help but smile and think how enjoyable and fun the night is. It really doesn't matter that my friend looks like a gym rat. What matters is eating delicious food, being in a friendly ambiance, and having a great time.