A Top Chef Arrives in New York (Finally)
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
New Yorkers are close to having their first taste of chef Joël Robuchon, whose restaurants in Paris, Tokyo, and Las Vegas are considered among the best in the world. L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in the Four Seasons Hotel, will officially open September 5. But in the meantime, starting today, the restaurant is in “soft opening” — that means regular New Yorkers have an early chance to enjoy what will likely be one of the city’s most popular high-end restaurants.
Doing a soft opening is a common way of giving restaurant staff some time to get things into working order before the onslaught. Seating will be kept at partial capacity and diners will mostly be by invitation only, hotel guests, and friends of the house. But lucky diners who walk in at the right moment could snag a seat at the counter. Even after the official opening, the restaurant will have a surprisingly egalitarian reservation policy: Reservations will be accepted for the first seatings only, 11:30 a.m. for lunch and 6 p.m. for dinner, and after that it’s first-come-first-served. The same system is in place at its Parisian sister, and it has the French, uncharacteristically, often waiting in a queue on Rue de Montalembert.
“I thought August was a good time to open,” Mr. Robuchon said recently in French. “It would be a little quieter until everyone is back in September.” That might be true for most chefs, but perhaps he underestimates the draw of his name.
Among the international culinary community, Mr. Robuchon is recognized as one of the most important chefs of modern cooking. The French guide “Gault-Millau” named him “the chef of the century” in 1989, and the moniker has practically become his middle name. His two Paris restaurants, Jamin (1981–1993) and Restaurant Joël Robuchon on Avenue Raymond-Pointcaré (1994–1996), held three Michelin stars each. In 1996, at the age of 51, he announced his retirement and closed up shop.
So it was a surprise in 2001 when he opened Robuchon A Galera in Macau, followed in 2003 with L’Atelier in Tokyo, then another in Paris. “I had many very loyal cooks and people who worked with me, who wanted to open restaurants but did not have the means. They asked me to lend my name and come back,” he said. He formed a core group of six partners (three cooks, a sommelier, and a pastry chef) and began a worldwide expansion. “Honestly, I’m not interested in the financial side; I do it because it’s engaging,” he said. He has since opened a second Tokyo L’Atelier and one in Las Vegas in the MGM Grand.
He’s not stopping in New York: In September, Mr. Robuchon will open L’Atelier in a small building in London’s West End. The 30-seat L’Atelier restaurant will be on the ground floor, with a bar on the third floor. His new concept, La Cuisine, will make its debut on the second floor. “I’ve taken L’Atelier and turned it inside out,” he said. The kitchen will ring the perimeter of the room, with dining tables for 35 in the center. “We’ll have a wood-burning fire in the kitchen,” he said, smiling. “It is going to be wonderful.”
The New York Atelier is a departure from the haute gastronomy and formality of his past. “I think the future of restaurants is not just about what’s on the plate, but also the ambiance and spectacle.” Like the other four Ateliers and all Mr. Robuchon’s other restaurants, the new restaurant was designed by French interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon. Built in the space formerly occupied by the restaurant 57/57, L’Atelier’s most striking feature is the Ushaped counter, which seats 20 (there’s room for an additional 30 diners at tables). The counter seats face an open kitchen, a design that calls to mind Spanish tapas and Tokyo sushi bars, which Mr. Robuchon said were his direct inspiration. “Today the international clientele needs to be relaxed, a balance to the pace of city life,” Mr. Robuchon said.
Mr. Robuchon’s cooking has evolved and is very different from the Jamin days. He describes it as simple and “à la minute” (“made to order” in French). Moving away from the elaborate gastronomy of his previous threestar restaurants and the his eponymous restaurant in Las Vegas, L’Atelier’s menu is based on the idea of featuring three ingredients and three flavors on the plate. “I would have never said this 20 years ago, but I think it is perhaps harder to do something simple than sophisticated,” he said.
The menu is organized into four parts: small plates, larger entrées, the “discovery tasting menu,” and dessert. Around the globe, Mr. Robuchon’s Atelier menus are almost identical, including items like the langoustine en papillote with basil and hand-cut beef tartare with French fries. Mr. Robuchon said the menu varies between 20% and 30% between restaurants, to adjust for local ingredients and tastes. The Tokyo outpost, for example, regularly features sea urchins.Though the final menu — developed with his long-time chef de cuisine, Yosuke Suga, who was last at Atelier Tokyo — is still a work in progress, one item is a sure thing: In New York, the chef will offer a pastrami dish.
L’Ateleir de Joël Robuchon, Four Seasons Hotel, 57 E. 57th St., between Park and Madison avenues, 212-350-6658.