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Friday, December 22, 2017

Eight Years at Seat No.17: L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei

Eight years have passed since L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon opened in Taipei. I still remember vividly my first dinner at L'Atelier in December of 2009. My wife, Maria, and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary. We sat at the middle of the counter and ordered the tasting menu that started with oyster and ended with the sugar sphere. It was clear after the first dinner that L'Atelier was the best restaurant in Taipei, period. At that time it was the only restaurant that could be compared to other fine dining restaurants in major gastronomic cities in the world. In the past eight years, many new restaurants have opened (some have since closed) in Taipei. The overall standard in the city has risen, and L'Atelier has become better as well.

Since my first dinner at L'Atelier I have become a regular. Over the years I can see how the restaurant has steadily evolved. The owners have made additional investments into the restaurant to keep the appearance fresh: new placemats on the counter, fancier clocks on the walls, redesigned uniforms, and more artistic plates from Bernardaud by Prune Nourry and JR. The menu has become more varied and flexible; the most noticeable change is the addition of a vegetarian tasting menu. There are numerous minor changes that all contribute to elevating the quality of the restaurant. But the main reason that L'Atelier in Taipei has improved is because of the continuity of its staff.

This is quite remarkable in an industry where the turnover of personnel is high. Consider the following: the best hotel in Taipei, Mandarin Oriental, has been open for less than 4 years and has already gone through changes in staff on all levels, from General Manger to chefs and managers for the various restaurants; the hotel's Chinese restaurant Ya Ge is on its third chef already. In contrast, the main personnel at L'Atelier: Chef de Cuisine, Sous Chef, Pastry Chef, Sommelier, General Manger, Operation Mangers and Captains have all been at their jobs longer than Mandarin Oriental Taipei has been in existence; some have been at L'Atelier since the opening eight years ago. The simple fact is by gaining experience on the job the staff has become better at doing their jobs.

At L'Atelier I almost always sit at seat 17 which is just to the left side of the center of the counter. From the seat I have a great view of the open kitchen and can see my meal being prepared, starting from the garde manger to the fish and meat stations. Only the pastry station on the left side is slightly obscured. I also get to peek at the dishes coming out from the kitchen for the other diners. Since I sit directly behind the pass of the kitchen, the Chef sometimes delivers the dishes personally and explains the cooking techniques to me, as if we are in a small Japanese restaurant.

For the past four years the Chef of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei has been Olivier Jean. He is the fourth chef to take the rein at the restaurant and the one with the longest tenure. When Jean arrived in Taipei in 2013 he was the youngest chef in the Robuchon group. Now the chefs in Singapore and Las Vegas are even younger. Taipei is the first time Jean became a head chef. Although he wasn't as experienced as the previous chefs, he made up the difference with more energy and hard work. He has trained his cooks effectively to maintain a high level of standard. His efforts have paid off as Joël Robuchon asked him to assist in opening new L'Ateliers around the world. Last year Jean traveled to Montreal and this year to New York City to train the staff and transmit the Robuchon method.

While Jean is strict with his staff in Taipei, he also readily acknowledges the effort by his team, especially his right hand man, Frederic Jullien. He has also been cooking at Taipei for 4 straight years. Previously, Jullien was at Taillevent in Paris and steeped in the classics. He is a very skilled chef and after four years cooking in the Robuchon manner, will probably be promoted to head chef should an opening become available.

A friend once asked Jean what is Mr. Robuchon like? Jean replied succinctly, Mr. Robuchon wants everything to be perfect. While perfection seems like a state that can only be strived for rather than reached, Robuchon's dishes seem pretty perfect. For instance, at L'Atelier, one can order the Robuchon classic from the days of Jamin, Gelée de Caviar à la Crème de Chou-Feur.

The three-Michelin-star chef and former Robuchon apprentice Eric Ripert wrote in his autobiography 32 Yolks: "I still remember the first time that Robuchon taught me how to make a lobster gelée, which we served carefully layered, caviar first, then the lobster gelée, then cauliflower cream, in a tall Japanese bowl lined with brilliant dots of chlorophyll that I had extracted through a complex process that began with puréeing herbs in the Robocoupe. When I first tasted it, I literally scratched my head and said, I have never seen or tasted a dish that good in my life." Thirty years later, after I saw and tasted the dish I had the same reaction as Ripert.

The same can be said for a more recent creation, Le Filet de Bœuf et Foie Gras en "Rossini". Instead of cooking the filet and foie gras separately in the manner of Marie-Antoine Carême, the two are bound in tubular form and cooked together by sous vide. The technique is ideally suited for the lean filet and retains the fat of the foie gras. The dish has superb ingredients, harmonious flavor, and perfect execution. Served on the side is Robuchon's signature La Purée de Pommes de Terre. Is there a more perfect side dish? What's remarkable about the potato and butter emulsion is the transformation of humble and simple ingredients via brilliant technique, making the dish simultaneously extravagant and soulful.

While Jean and Jullien faithfully execute Robuchon's dishes, there is still room for personal expression within the system. After all, the word Atelier means a workshop or an artist studio, a space to create things. Again to quote Ripert from his autobiography about his time at Jamin, cooking with Robuchon's righthand man, Philippe Braun (also known as the Californian surfer): "For so long, my time with Robuchon had been about executing the boss’s vision. But with Philippe, I began to see that you could still have a vision of your own. It was up to each of us to imbue the work with our own meaning and style." Often times, instead of choosing from the menu, I simply ask Jean to cook for me omakase.

Jean and Jullien know I love the classics and anything en croûte or with puff pastry. Over the years, they have made several off-the-menu dishes for me. I like to think the first Beef Wellington or Filet de Bœuf en Croûte Jean made in Taipei was for me and my mushroom-averse friend two and a half years ago; Jean replaced the typical duxselles with chestnut. In the past years Jean has made numerous Beef Wellington, especially for large parties. Now, Beef Wellington is also offered in the L'Ateliers in Shanghai and New York. Wellington is a classic but it is not necessarily easy to make. Often times Jean sears the beef and assemble the ingredients himself. Jean had also once made a Vol-au-Vents with Sweetbread, a recipe that dates back to the 18th century. When the weather gets a bit colder, Jean and Jullien will make a Pithivier or Tourte with duck and foie gras. I am enamored with traditional dishes especially ones that have been perfected. I am always reminded of a slogan used in an advertisement 20 years ago by the American television company, NBC: “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.” There are so many historical dishes that people of my generation or younger have never enjoyed. Instead of chasing the latest trend such as eating ants on a plate, why not enjoy the classics?

Traversing in the aisle in between the counter and the kitchen pass is the sommelier Benoît Monier. He has been in Taipei for seven years and with the Robuchon group for over 20 years. Prior to Taipei, Monier spent years in Hong Kong and Tokyo. He is certainly familiar with customers of Asia, but Taipei is probably his biggest challenge. Taipei is an extremely tough city to sell wine in the restaurants. The L'Atelier in Taipei is probably the only restaurant in the Robuchon group where the table setting doesn't include a wine glass, at least until Robuchon opens a branch in an Arabian city. The problem with customers in Taipei is two-fold: one, most people didn't grow up drinking wine with food, thus don't see wine as integral part of the meal; two, instead of letting the sommelier help select a wine to pair with the meal, the customers like to bring their own wines.

French food is meant to be paired with wine. The Chinese has a saying, 畫龍點睛, which translates literally as to paint a dragon and dot in the eyes; add the touches that bring an artwork to life. Wine is like the final touch that elevates the food. Since Monier is trained as a cook before choosing to be a sommelier, he has a great sensitivity for wine and food pairing. Customers not having a conversation with Monier about wine really misses part of the joy of dining at L'Atelier.

Monier once remarked to me that anyone can recommend an expensive bottle of wine. It takes more skill to find a bottle that is reasonably priced, aged properly, and ideally suited to the food. I couldn't agree more. Once he asked me, do you know Romanée-Conti? I said, of course. He said, I am going to pour you a wine that's next to Romanée-Conti but at a fraction of the price; tell me how you like it. Another time he asked, do you know Petrus? Try a glass of wine from the vineyard (Vieux Chateau St-Andre) owned by Petrus' winemaker, Jean-Claude Berrouet. Sometimes he pours two different glasses of wines for me to try with the same dish, to show me that the expensive bottle doesn't necessarily work the best with a particular food.

In the early years, Monier always asked about my preference for wine. I invariably said I was happy to drink any wine he picked and for two reasons: I have no preference. I like most wines just like I eat everything; second, if I go to a friend's house for dinner, I am not picking out the wine. I will drink what my friend has selected. I suppose my only preference is to not have too many repeats. I trust Monier's judgement. But Monier has taught me to trust my palette, develop my own judgement, and to look beyond the famous vineyards. While in a blind tasting I still won't be able to distinguish the difference between Pinot Meunier from Pinot Noir, I have grown to appreciate wine, especially when taken with food.

The pastry station on the left side of the kitchen has been under the direction of chef Kazuhisa Takahashi since 2012. He took over the position from the opening pastry chef Kazutoshi Narita. While Narita's signature dessert, Sugar Ball, is still on the menu, Takahashi has now made more variations. Instead of a pure form, the shape has become more figurative, such as apple and pears. The imitation of nature fits within the longstanding tradition of French cuisine. These blown sugar creations never fail to impress and always elicit a wow from me. The contrasting texture of the sugar shell and the custard inside is just perfect.

In Ripert's autobiography, he wrote about Robuchon's observation of Japanese chefs after one of Robuchon's trip to Japan thirty years ago. Robuchon told Ripert and his colleagues: "You all suck! In Japan, the chefs are ten times better than you. They’re more humble than you. They are more skilled, more precise, more gifted. Better, better, best! They are better, and they are the best!" Thirty years later, the quote is still valid and Takahashi certainly seems to fit the description. The desserts at L'Atelier Taipei always seem to be flawless.

The dessert menu at L'Atelier changes frequently with new creations. But while Takahashi has one foot in the contemporary, another foot remains in the historical world. Some of classic dishes from the 19th century, such as Baba and Soufflé can usually be found on the menu. A perfectly executed Soufflé brings me a great deal of joy every time. What was good will aways be good.

For my wedding anniversary dinner in 2013 he made a pulled sugar flower to accompany a cake. The flower was so pretty that I took it home. Kept in a glass jar with silica gel, the flower has sat on my bookshelf, a version of the Enchanted Rose from Beauty and the Beast. Most of the time the memory of a meal only exists in the mind and in pictures, but with the rose I have a memento.

The ringmasters of L'Atelier Taipei are the General Manager, Vincent Hsu, and his deputy, Grendy Yang. They have been at their positions since the opening of the restaurant in 2009. They are the two most professional front-of-house restaurant personnels in Taipei. Unlike many restaurants in Taipei, Hsu and his team provide a level of service that is on par with fine dining restaurants in major cities in the world. Sometimes providing good service is the easy part, the challenge is how to handle adversities and problems that inevitably arise. On the rare occasion that I have a complaint, Hsu is always available to listen. He doesn't avoid criticism. And I appreciate that the restaurant has a person in charge that I can always turn to.

I always marvel at Robuchon's ability to have all the L'Atelier operating at a high level. Taipei was the seventh L'Atelier that Robuchon opened. There are now 12 L'Ateliers in the world, with two more to come in the next years. While other three-Michelin-star chefs, such as Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller, run their restaurants groups like fashion designer Giorgio Armani with different lines (Giorgio, Emporio Armani, Collezioni, and Exchange) at different price points for different clienteles, Robuchon doesn't operate cheaper and simpler restaurants such as a bistro. He only has one mode: three-Michelin-star. Although L'Atelier is casual in setting, the standard for the food and many dishes are the same as the formal restaurants.

While Robuchon's standard is the same for the L'Ateliers, according to the Michelin Guide, the quality of the restaurants are different. Of all the L'Ateliers that are inspected by Michelin (some cities do not have a guide), the ratings range from from three-star in Hong Kong, to two-star in Tokyo, Paris, Shanghai, and Singapore to one-star in London and Bangkok. I haven't been to all the L'Ateliers and cannot dispute Michelin's ratings. Clearly there's a range.

In March 2018, the Michelin Guide will debut its Red Guide for Taipei. It will be interesting to see how Michelin rates Taipei's L'Atelier. The Michelin inspectors work in secrecy, but the criteria by which restaurants are judged are well published: quality of the products; mastery of flavor and cooking techniques; the personality of the chef in the cuisine; value for money; and consistency between visits. Of the five criteria, three are the same for all the L'Ateliers: the personality of the chef is all Robuchon; the techniques are the same; and the price across the various Atelier is about the same. The eight-course Menu Decouverte is 189 Euros (about NT$6,650) in Paris, 1,498 RMB  (about NT$6,800) in Shanghai, 318 SGD (about NT$7,100) in Singapore, and NT$6,880 in Taipei. The two criteria that may be different between the L'Ateliers are the quality of the products and consistency.

Since Hong Kong is the only L'Atelier in the world with three stars, one can only assume the restaurant is consistent and uses the best ingredients. All the top restaurants in Hong Kong can get frequent and regular air shipments of the best ingredients from around the world. This is reflected in the prices as Hong Kong has the costliest Menu Decouverte of all the L'Ateliers at 2080 HKD (NT$8,000). Nevertheless the city has enough clientele who appreciate these ingredients and can support the restaurant.

Some of the quality of the products used in L'Atelier in Taipei cannot match the ones used in Hong Kong. The reason is not entirely monetary. Compared to Hong Kong, Taiwan has far more restrictions on the import of food. For a long time, it was illegal to import Jamón ibérico from Spain. Only in the past few months did the government allow Wagyu beef to be imported from Japan. Previously, the restaurants can only used Australian Wagyu. The L'Atelier in Taipei uses a number of local products. While some of them, such as pork, can be considered one of the best in the world, others cannot. For instance, the ducks from Yilan County are of a high quality, but they have a very different flavor from the famous ducks in Challans, France. The same can be said for the local chicken, which is not as good as the French chicken from Bresse. For the criteria of "quality of the products" Taipei probably will not score three stars.

In terms of the final criteria of "consistency between visits", I can say as a regular customer, I never had a bad meal at L'Atelier. My theory is the restaurant is unfailingly consistent because it has more capacity to meet the demand. The disheartening fact is the quality of the restaurant doesn't guarantee success. On most days L'Atelier is not completely full. Furthermore even when the restaurant is full it doesn't turn table. The irony is since the restaurant is not super busy, the staff can take very good care of the guests. Sometimes on a slow night, Chef Jean can even cook a few dishes himself, instead of just standing at the pass expediting, finishing, and inspecting the plates. The same be said for the front-of-house staff, often times one can see multiple servers looking over the guests.

Based on my own experience and analysis, I have my own idea about the number of stars L'Atelier Taipei should receive. But the Michelin Guide works in mysterious ways and we will just have to wait and see.

No matter how Michelin decides next year, the impact of L'Atelier can be felt through the entire restaurant industry in Taiwan. L'Atelier has not only set a new standard for Taipei but became a trailblazer, unleashing a number of Michelin-starred chefs, including three-star Yannick Alléno and Seiji Yamamoto, to setup restaurants in the city. L'Atelier also trained numerous local cooks and front-of-house staff. Many took what they learned from L'Atelier and went to other restaurants or opened their own places. Some cooks probably needed more time at L'Atelier before venturing out on their own. But overall, the western dining scene has benefited enormously from L'Atelier.

Eight years is not a short time. Operating a fine dining restaurant in Taipei remains as difficult as ever. In the past couple of years, Alléno's STAY has opened and closed already. Angelo Agliano, the former chef at L'Atelier in Taipei, has also closed his eponymous restaurant with aspirations for Michelin stars; Agliano has moved to Hong Kong. The French restaurant at Mandarin Oriental has abandoned all ambitions for fine dining and became a buffet restaurant. The market for fine dining in Taipei is shrinking and may get worse with the recent decrease in tourists and the dormant economy. While the overall environment may get darker in the near future, I am glad that L'Atelier remains a beacon of light and is shining brighter than ever. For me, dining at L'Atelier is a mini-staycation and a refuge from daily life. When December comes around, I will be at L'Atelier sitting at No. 17.

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