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Friday, May 30, 2003

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Is it worth the wait? Mais bien sur!


As soon as the hype and crowds at Roppongi Hills subsided (a bit, anyway), we ventured in. Not to mill around alongside the gawping multitudes, but to make a beeline to the door of L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. It's not every day that a new restaurant opens from the man who was hailed in his native France as Cuisinier du Siecle -- Chef of the 20th Century. So we were salivating to see what he has in store for us, now that we're well into the new millennium.

News photo
It's not just the drinks that are served up in glasses at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon

Of course, this is not Joel Robuchon's first operation in Tokyo. But it is very different from the faux chateau in Yebisu Garden Place where (together with that other stellar Parisian restaurant, Taillevent) Robuchon gives Tokyoites the Michelin three-star treament.

Here he has foresworn any attempt to duplicate the pomp and circumstance of haute cuisine (so very last century, dahling) in favor of an approach that is altogether more convivial and contemporary. In fact, in the context of three-star Michelin chefs, L'Atelier represents a remarkable change of direction.

First, there are no tables. Everyone sits at one long counter, perched up on comfortable red leather bar stools, facing in the same direction. You see the chefs at their prep tables, the hanging hams and racks of egg, bread and vegetables, and in the background, half hidden, the kitchen itself.

There's not a lot of elbow room, but that doesn't mean you are slumming it. Quite the opposite, everything is plush and immaculately laid out. What it does mean is that there are no waiters looking down on you or hovering at your elbow. You are at the same level as the staff, and all interactions, from ordering wine to receiving each dish, take place eye-to-eye over the counter-top. At the same time, rubbing shoulders with your neighbors could lead to unexpected conversation. Au revoir straight-laced formality; this is almost izakaya informal.

Likewise, L'Atelier looks anything but staid. The color scheme of ebony and scarlet gives the interior a dramatic, quasi-Oriental feel, which is accented by the careful use of spotlights. The floors and walls and even the kitchen fixtures are black. The ceiling and decorations match the scarlet of the seats and the water glasses. The waiters are dressed all in black; the chefs, too, except their uniforms have red braiding for effect.

Even more innovative is the menu. There is a fixed, four-course menu of the day, but you are under no obligation to order it. The long a la carte menu features two dozen "petites assiettes degustation" -- tapas, essentially -- and it is entirely permissible to sit down, order soup and bread, say, or a glass of wine with a plate of crudites, and then call for your bill. This system applies both at lunch and dinner.

News photo
Hors d'oeuvres and desserts also come in elegant glassware.

But the greatest point of departure is the food itself. Like so many of us over the past decade, Robuchon has fallen under the spell of Spain. Those petites assiettes include plates of jamon serrano (Iberico, of course, the best ham in the world) and tender lomo, another Iberian contribution to the charcuterie hall of fame. You will also find kuruma ebi (tiger prawns) sizzle-fried in Spanish a la plancha mode. And the golden-orange gazpacho is as beautiful to the eye in its clear, conical shot glass as it is rich and lingering on the palate.

There are other influences, too (the brochettes of chicken and leek could be called yakitori, were it not for the dusting of curry), but these are mixed in with plenty of Robuchon's signature dishes. The chaud-froid de coquillages is one of his specialties, and it certainly lives up to its reputation. A martini glass two-thirds filled with a thick, chilled cream of cauliflower, which is covered with warm, butter-rich bouillon and topped with several hamaguri clams, shelled and perfectly succulent. Sheer brilliance.

You can continue like this all evening, ordering a couple of dishes at a time, sipping and savoring your wine, spinning out your enjoyment of the moment. But there is also much to be said for ordering the set meal (6,000 yen), especially since both the chaud-froid and the gazpacho are included as options.

You will start with a small pot of pork rillettes, smooth and not too fatty, served with good, wholesome mini baguettes. Then, as your first course, either the gazpacho or a wonderful caviar d'aubergine, the eggplant pureed to a rich cream, surrounded by lightly vinegared tomato coulis and topped with crisp slices of miniature eggplant.

The choice for the second course is equally difficult. Either the aforementioned chaud-froid; or the delectable ravioli de langoustine -- juicy chunks of lobster wrapped in ravioli skin and served with a wickedly rich foie gras sauce.

The main courses were, like everything that preceded them, diminutive but perfect. The fillet of pork was tender and aromatic, with that distinctive flavor of wild chestnut-fed Iberico pigs, given orthodoxy by the side dish of classic potatoes dauphinoise. The quail was even better, its skin covered with a thick, caramelized sauce that surely included a dash or two of shoyu along with the rich flavor of balsamico. You will want to pick at those fragile bones, to gnaw every last piece of meat from them.

The desserts display as much visual artistry as the hors d'oeuvres, many of them fashioned into short, cylindrical grappa glasses and decorated with concomitant flair. However, at this point you will wish you were ordering a la carte, if only to indulge in the Chartreuse-flavored souffle with pistachio ice cream.

At L'Atelier the style is innovative, the food superb and the prices reasonable. So what's the catch? None, except that no reservations are accepted. You have to get there early or wait your turn. At both lunch and dinner, lines form an hour or more before opening time, and even later in the evening you are likely to queue for just as long (though they may let you nurse a drink or two at the bar if there's room).

Perhaps the only advantage of this policy is that it means L'Atelier is drawing a younger, more casually dressed demographic who are not put off by the long wait. How things will pan out in the long run remains to be seen. But if I lived in the vicinity, I'd be phoning in several times a week to ask them how long the lines are.

Within two weeks of opening at Roppongi Hills, Robuchon opened a virtually identical restaurant (same name, same layout, same policy) in Paris' 7th arrondissement, to great acclaim. No doubt this approach to dining seems far more revolutionary in the home of haute cuisine than it does here in the land of sushi bars and sophisticated kappo ryoriya.

In essence, L'Atelier is a glossy example of what has come to be known in Tokyo as a "dining bar." But it's not just the name that makes the difference. Nowhere in the city will you eat this well in this kind of setting. Is it worth braving the crowds and waiting in line for? Absolutely.

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon
Roppongi Hills Hillside 2F, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku; (03) 5772-7500
Open:Daily 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 6-10 p.m. (last order)
Nearest stations: Roppongi (Hibiya and Oedo lines)
How to get there:From Roppongi Station (Roppongi Hills Exit), take the main escalator to the second floor, turn right and walk straight throught the West Walk mall. Leaving the West Walk (by the Estnation store), you will see L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon on your left.
What works: Robuchon updates his brilliant cusine for the 21st century.
What doesn't:The location, inside Roppongi Hills -- and that long, long wait for a seat.
Number of seats: 46, plus six at the bar
BGM: Classic piano, faintly
Price per head:6,000 yen fixed menu; also a la carte (both lunch and dinner)
Drinks:Beer from 700 yen; cocktails from 900 yen; wine from 900 yen/glass, 3,800 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese/French menu; some English spoken
Reservations: Not taken. You have to get in line and wait.



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