Saturday January 26, 2013
Haute to awesome
By LOUISA LIM
The chef with the most Michelin stars in the world defies all fine-dining conventions with a casual dining restaurant in Singapore.
IT’S not every day that culinary maestro Joël Robuchon flies halfway across the globe to pay a visit to one of his restaurants. And when he does, you better be sorry that you weren’t there to catch him in action – at least, that’s how I felt after learning I had missed him by a mere 24 hours.
“He has a strong presence. It’s like the minute he walks into a room, you know it’s Robuchon,” gushes Gökhan Herkiloglu, assistant manager at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Singapore.
But apart from a suitably awed staff, Robuchon also left a hunk of Pâté en Croûte in his wake.
Herkiloglu hands me a slice of the traditional French pastry. Here we go, I think, biting into the golden flaky crust plumped with beef, pork, foie gras and chicken liver – all anointed with Robuchon’s magic touch. The gelatinous beef, the melting tender pork, and the crumbly dough: really nice for a consolation prize.
But then again, this is Mr. Robuchon we’re talking about. If you don’t already know, this is the man who has 26 Michelin stars – and counting – to his name. Hailed by even the most ruthless of critics as “the chef of the century”, Robuchon burst upon the fine-dining scene as chef of the Hôtel Concorde La Fayette in Paris in 1974 at age 28 and has been feeding Parisians – and subsequently, the world – in high style ever since.
More than just a celebrity chef, however, Robuchon is a food purist, drawing inspiration from the simplicity of food and safeguarding the sanctity of each ingredient like a culinary equivalent of a Knights Templar. Chicken should taste like chicken and veal should taste like veal, he announced, shaming his molecular gastronomy-dabbling peers. Foodies like yours truly, on the other hand, were enamoured.
But after opening a string of swanky eponymous restaurants around the world, the 51-year-old Robuchon shocked the world with news of retirement. This was in 1996, at the height of his career. The man wasn’t one to idle, however: he soon returned to the kitchen with the idea to create L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. L’Atelier, or “the workshop” in English, is a unique dining concept that marries the simplicity of Japanese cuisine and the casual, vibrant atmosphere in Spanish tapas bars. Situated adjacent to Joël Robuchon (his fine-dining restaurant) in Resorts World Sentosa, the Singaporean branch is making waves in and out of the country for being the first in South-East Asia.
L’Atelier’s interior may, at first glance, seem intimidating with its smouldering scarlet walls and gleaming black furniture. Tables for two or more are snug up against the heavily-draped windows, while along the other side of the room is a generously proportioned counter with seats that overlook the open kitchen. If the place lacks anything, however, it is stuffiness and arrogance: service is brisk and informal, and smiling waiters in black flit back and forth between the high chairs, engaging in light banter with diners.
As it is a Sunday, L’Atelier is in the midst of a busy lunch service. Its recently launched Sunday lunch menu – which enables patrons to customise meals by picking from a variety of appetisers, soups, main course and desserts – is a hit among Singapore’s upper crust, many of whom are regulars. An eclectic music track plays in the background, at a comfortable enough volume to encourage a merry stream of conversation and laughter. The sizzling sounds of a saucepan and chef de cusine Lorenz Hoja’s frenzied barking of orders from within the kitchen contribute to the convivial atmosphere.
L’Atelier may be a radical departure from haute cuisine, but its food remains true to form, thanks to the top-flight ingredients and deft execution. The extensive wine list – carefully curated by experienced sommelier Michael Leitner to sparkle against the intricate flavours of the dishes – is equally impressive. There are close to 1,500 wines to choose from, including an antique bottle of the legendary 1945 Château Mouton Rothschild.
But the best part about L’Atelier? There are no short cuts: even the bread rolls are baked in-house by chef Yoshihiko Tauchi.
As luscious and fluffy as Tauchi’s creations are, nothing compares to the utter bliss one feels when one tastes the amuse-bouche for the first time. The foie gras custard and red Porto wine and parmesan foam is the stuff of dreams, composed solely, it seems, to awaken those taste buds. Next, there’s an appetiser called Le Boeuf – the delicate slivers of beef cheeks and jellied broth drizzled with creamy carrot puree and topped with crisp greens delights with its wonderful synchronicity of taste and texture.
The most memorable dish, however, is Le Cochon de Lait, a swatch of crisp suckling pig which only, moments before, had been slow-roasted over an open fire. This technique is a revelation: the lacquered meat is dripping in its own deep-flavoured jus and, punctuated by strips of braised cabbage, every bite yielded an exquisite crunch and tenderness. Any thought I previously harboured about turning vegetarian completely vaporised in that instant.
But it’s not over. Herkiloglu eases a round bowl containing something resembling thick foam on the glass counter. “Here,” he says. “Try this, the best mashed potatoes in the world.”
Usually, I would just snort and roll my eyes at people who blow their own trumpets, but at this rate, anything seems possible. Rich and yummy, Robuchon’s very famous Purée de Pommes de Terre has been hand-whipped for hours – some say – to give it that soft, velvety texture. It may not be the world’s best (I haven’t yet had the opportunity to taste all the mashed potatoes in the world), but I’m sure it comes pretty darn close.
Hoja is too busy to chat, but he makes up for his absence with a plateful of Le Spaghetti, or L’Atelier’s take on the classic spaghetti carbonara. A simple yet extravagantly flavoured dish dotted with truffle slices, thick strips of juicy bacon and some Parmigiano-Reggiano (a speciality cheese made only in certain regions of Italy), it’s the epitome of soul food for some – although Asians might find it a tad rich.
Finally, Hoja comes bounding out of the kitchen with a spring in his step and a smile on his lips. Towering over most of his Asian staff in size and stature, Hoja – who hails from Germany but possesses none of the mechanised conduct of his countrymen – has a vaguely endearing quality about him. Having previously worked in several Relais & Château establishments in Europe and South Africa, Hoja, like Robuchon, knows how fresh produce has the ability to transform a single dish. All his expertise and charisma are brought to bear in L’Atelier.
Misses are few and far between. I don’t care much for the La Crevette. The clear vegetable broth with prawns tsukune and wild mushrooms is too subtle for my liking. So is La Volaille, or chicken Milanese. Served beneath a bed of greens, the dish is pretty ordinary if not for the ridiculously tasty tomatoes on it (“They’re sourced from Italy; very expensive,” confides Herkiloglu, upon hearing my sighs of bliss).
This is perhaps why my neighbouring diner – who introduced himself as a huge Robuchon fan – is here the second time this week with his wife and little girl. “Ah, you should’ve been here when he (Robuchon) was around. He cooked this beef for us, and it was so good that I would be happy even if I dropped dead right then,” he says, grinning.
He continues: “Of course you cannot compare L’Atelier to Robuchon, because they’re two very different concepts. But I love coming to L’Atelier because of the experience; it’s very disarming.”
As a finale, Les Caraibes appear – a swirl of coconut meringue sitting pristinely atop some rum granite laced with passion fruit. I take a bite of the tropical-inspired dessert, and washed it down with a sip of sparkling Bruno Pallaird champagne. Disarming indeed.
■ Lunch is available at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon from noon to 2pm every Sunday. Set menus start from S$49 (RM121) onwards.