A Robuchon Revolution, A Return

PARIS -- One common trait among very creative and very successful people is the ability to constantly reinvent themselves. Chef Joel Robuchon – who “retired” from the restaurant business but not the food business in 1996 -- is back in all his glory.

If you are someone like Robuchon, the reinvention is a good thing. Particularly with chefs, one becomes easily bored with delivering their 10 Greatest Hits day after day, as I am sure they do, too.

Robuchon “retired” at the top of his game. He said goodbye before we were ready for him to go. He knew he was generally considered the best chef in the world, and decided to leave on his own terms.

He is back, with a restaurant that is new, a concept that is new, a look that is new. At L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, the kitchen workshop comes alive. No more stern maitre d in starched white shirt, bow tie and formal black suit. No more tables or starched linens, snooty sommeliers who hold the wine list at arm’s length. This is 2003, Europe, and JR is reinventing what it means to dine out.

There is just room for 42 diners, all seated at oversized and comfortable red leather stools, with plenty of room to dangle your feet at the bar. The décor is all black and red and stainless, with real food assembled like still lives throughout the dining room. Chefs are in black, not white, the staff is bright red. You sit face to face with the sommelier, the wait staff, with JR himself, who wanders by to see what everyone has ordered, and wants to know if it pleases.

Here he is, the timid one, the chef who NEVER ever emerged from the kitchen for all those years, never went table to table in the dining room as chefs have done for so many years.

The kitchen itself is “open” but discreetly so. Ever since the day he left his eponymous restaurant on Avenue Raymond Poincairé Robuchon has been plotting and dreaming of this restaurant . Cleverly, he took on restaurant consulting assignments and carefully placed his top men in place: Sommelier Antoine Hernandez and chef Erick Lecerf at the Astor, where they achieved two Michelin stars. Philippe Braun, at Laurent, where he achieved two Michelin stars. The fourth chef, Eric Bouchenoire, remained at his side as Robuchon, they are all equal partners in the affair.

And the food: It’s a something for everyone menu, a world menu, filled with the new and the daring, the tried and true, comfort food and some of the dishes he made most famous. On opening night, May 5, we began with a trip down memory lane, with a few carefully prepared servings of his famed crème de choufleur aux huitres, creamy, sweet, and memorable. But the dish had a new look: Rather than being served in porcelain tea-cup sized bowls, a clear martini glass did the trick.

Everywhere, there are new and different looks of china, glass, some imported from Japan, everything diminutive in size.

Robuchon takes influence from Spain, where he spends his time off, and so there are lots of dishes “a la plancha” or cooked right on a fiery hot griddle, such as oversized langoustines seasoned with coarse salt. There is gaspacho and paper-thin sliced ham from Spain, spaghetti carbonara and an outstanding Vitello tomato from Italy, steak tartare and frites “bonne-maman” from France.

Robuchon classics -- such as his merlan frit Colbert (deep fried whiting), look just as welcome and at home seated at a stool as at a stiffly starched linen-covered table.

Perhaps what’s best is the ambience. The great sounds of a lively bistro, yet everyone is talking, making friends with the stranger who sat down next to you a few minutes ago. Robuchon wants to break the mold of the formal restaurant, bring quality to more casual dining.

Prices are reasonable, and one can come in for a simple serving of gaspacho at 6 €, then a giant spring vegetable salad for 20 €. Or, one can have a multicourse meal, beginning with two or three tapas style starters – such as fresh avocado rolled around spoonfuls of crabmeat or irresistible sweetbreads decorated with fresh bay leaves and served with a lovely rendition of Swiss chard, a single wilted leaf wrapped around crunchy stalks, bathed in a creamy white sauce. Lamb, beef, veal, tuna and fresh cod make up the main course offerings.

During these opening days, no reservations are being accepted. And, bravo, there is no smoking allowed in the restaurant, ever.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
5, rue de Montalembert
Paris 7
Telephone: 01 42 22 56 56
All major credit cards.

A la carte, about 50 € per person, including service but not wine. Open daily from 11:30 am to 3:30 pm and 6:30 pm to midnight.