MONTRÉAL, Canada – Restaurants in Paris, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, London, Macao, Monaco, Montreal, Shanghai, Singapore, Taipei, Tokyo. Soon: Geneva, New York, Miami. A chief colour scheme. Same décor for each location. Same staples on the menu, with a few regionalized dishes according to locale. Menu items that follow current consumer tastes and culinary trends.
I bet you’ve heard that one before, have you?
But at L’Atelier Joël Robuchon, instead of beef patties, milkshakes and Big Mac sauce, we’re talking about caviar, foie gras and gold leaf.
L’Atelier will soon have 14 locations around the world. One of them is situated in Montreal, at the casino. There, Mr. Robuchon’s food is served by chef Eric Gonzalez, a French-come-Canadian with an extensive résumé in the world of fine dining.
Talking about extensive résumés, this restaurant is associated with one of the greatest names in the history of fine dining. Joël Robuchon is a French chef who holds a total of 30 Michelin stars. All the way back in 1990 (27 years ago!) he was named “chef of the Century”, alongside Paul Bocuse, Eugénie Brazier, Marc Veyrat, Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller. To call him a “heavyweight” would be an understatement.
L’Atelier Robuchon in Montreal – Caviar, Foie Gras, Gold Leaf, Truffle
Indeed, every single location of L’Atelier has the same concept and décor: Black walls, red neons, wood paneling, stainless steel open kitchen, and ingredients in transparent flowerpots filled with water for decoration. Tasting menus, wine pairings and luxury ingredients across the board. And L’Atelier is supposed to be a more casual dining experience than “Joël Robuchon Restaurant”, another of the chef’s ventures and allegedly a different feel altogether.
And so chef Robuchon’s staples are on the menu. His ultrafamous potato purée is on there for every single restaurant. The langoustine ravioli, which I had in Montreal, is on the menu in London too. The king crab and avocado cannelloni is served both in Canada and in Hong Kong. The bellota ham and toasted tomato bread seems ubiquitous in each Atelier. Chef Robuchon’s boulanger, Tetsuya Yamaguchi, showed up in Montreal to show how to bake the breads for the restaurant.
In fact, if there is a theme – both in Montreal and in other Ateliers – it’s the presence of certain luxury ingredients, namely caviar, foie gras, gold leaf, black truffle. It seems like every other dish has one or all of them on the plate.
My favourite dish was at the very end of the meal, where a tenderloin of local deer is stuck to a big lobe of foie gras using transglutaminase. “I showed the deer to Mr. Robuchon, and he thought it was a stunning product, so I had the luxury to swap beef with local deer for this dish”, explains chef Gonzalez. The superlean deer and the extra fatty foie combine to create a best-of-both-worlds scenario. A sip of red wine brings it all in. Superb.
I loved the ingenuity behind the king crab and avocado cannelloni: the pasta is swapped for paper-thin slices of avocado; on the inside are big chunks of king crab; the ends are closed using squid ink tuiles; diced citrus lay on top; beautiful purple edible flowers are added for colour contrast. The tastes of this dish are all very delicate, and it looks like a million bucks.
A deviled egg of crab, caviar and gold leaf is perfectly executed. And it’s very photogenic.
There was a tiny shot-glass filled with a foie gras cream and a Maury espuma. This was extremely tasty, probably the most assertive dish of the whole menu. The foie gras tasted all of the thick livery creaminess and none of the gaminess of certain foie dishes. The cheese espuma reeked of intense tasteful flavours and made everything pop.
Chain-restaurant references aside, L’Atelier Robuchon in Montreal manages to avoid all of the possible potholes on the road to a good fine dining meal. The service is attentive, but not gaudy. The sommelier even allows himself a couple of jokes, which is refreshing. Even if it’s not their forte, there’s at least some attention to seasonality and local products. And the setting is somewhat adapted for the very special location of the restaurant: the back wall is a large window that, come summertime, gives a direct view of the Montreal F1 Grand Prix. In fact, the paddocks will be right below the window.
At L’Atelier Robuchon in Montreal, whether if sitting at the counter or at one of the few tables, service is fast. So fast in fact that chef Gonzalez asked Mr. Robuchon if it was possible to slow it down a bit compared to what the great master wanted. “In (L’Atelier in) Las Vegas, a 7-course meal lasts about 90 minutes, he says. I told chef Robuchon that Montrealers wouldn’t like that. We managed to slow it down a bit, but he still wants this meal to go, go, go. We’re located in a casino, people don’t want to linger for hours, they want to gamble!”
Even if there’s a timelessness about certain dishes, some of them created by chef Robuchon many years ago, the restaurant is also very much up-to-date with current fads. Recessed lights have been installed right above every dining area for ideal Instagrammable lighting. There’s a full vegetarian menu. The salmon is organically farmed.
It’s that organic salmon that is used to make a tartare that includes a healthy helping of caviar and a gold leaf, for contrast.
There’s a halibut with deep-fried shiso leaf, accompanied with a delicious, unctuous, ideally iodine squid ink risotto.
And one of the desserts is a creativity masterpiece. Under a cloche, a Supermario red mushroom made out of white chocolate and a long list of different ingredients, ready to be destroyed and eaten.
Joël Robuchon is, for sure, a great chef. But he’s also a great businessman who’s chosen Montreal over Toronto or Vancouver. And that in itself should be commended, no matter what certain columnists might think.
I’ll finish this blog post with a blast from the past… when chef Robuchon had a TV show. Here he is making a pea soup with another giant of the culinary arts, Alain Ducasse.
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
Casino de Montréal