I expected more from L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon

When you know you’re going to a Michelin-starred restaurant, it’s only natural that your expectations for a great experience are as high as you expect the bill will be. Perhaps that’s why when you walk away from a lackluster experience it feels all the more disappointing.

On a mid-week evening one of my best friends and I decided to see for ourselves whether all the fuss about this Covent Garden restaurant was worth it. From the very start, we felt uneasy: the restaurant is very dark, with deep red and black decor throughout that felt very visually severe and striking. We were seated on high stools at what appeared to be a a bar area; we had explained to us that a feature of the restaurant is the open kitchen and this way you can peek in and see the chefs at work. Well, you can spin it any way you like, but I know that at least in part it was designed this way to maximise covers so that space is not needed for a separate, closed off kitchen area. Quite frankly, if I wanted to sit at a bar and eat facing food as it’s rolling out I’d have gone to Yo Sushi…

The ‘bar’ area facing the chefs at work. Feels like a posh hibachi experience.

Not being shy wallflowers, my friend and I raised our displeasure with the seating arrangement and were moved to a table for two. It was then that we could fully absorb the dim, harsh decor, the plastic placemats, the red tumblers, and the leather (or very possibly pleather) stools that made up the seating everywhere at the restaurant (not just at the bar). And this is when it dawned on me that this restaurant was designed by men, for men: it screams bachelor pad in every possible way. It felt as if the target audience was men flying in on business trips to London dining solo, with pricey food that could be expensed and seats at the bar so as not to feel so lonesome dining alone. The only ‘soft’ feature of the restaurant was the vertical garden in the back which, I am almost certain, is artificial. The stool seating was incredibly uncomfortable for both my friend and me, dressed in a ladylike manner with skirts and heels.

Bread and butter served first
Amuse bouche: the first of multiple appearances of foie gras on the menu

But let’s talk about food… the menu options included a selection of smaller taster dishes of which a customer could choose a few, or the a la carte menu, or two taster menus each priced at £85 and £120 respectively. We opted for the £85 menu “Le Menu Experience” because quite frankly, chocolate: this menu had a chocolate dessert where the other had some kind of mango sweet which simply didn’t appeal. For the rest there was little difference aside from the mains: the £85 menu provided a choice of quail or pigeon and the £120 offered lamb. Otherwise, the overabundant use of foie gras on both menus was was not lost on me, right from the start with the amuse bouche (above) consisting of foie gras and parmesan emulsion with port reduction. It was, however, quite delicious. It made a promising start to our meal and helped offset the slight disappointment with the bread which we had hoped would have been served warm.

Chestnut velute’

Next on the menu was the chestnut veloute’ with celery and bacon which, while I enjoyed it overall, was a bit over-seasoned. This was followed by the next appearance of foie gras: the foie gras terrine with fig and port wine coating (served with warm toast). I have to chuckle a bit because in the menu this is described as a ‘delicate’ fig and port wine coating; in reality the coating was not so delicate. In fact, the sweetness was simply too much and overpowered the foie gras flavour. By this point in the meal it was becoming obvious that the attention on the dishes was unfortunately more focused on plating and presentation than the balance of flavours. I suspect that the ‘showroom kitchen’ of chefs at work only encourages this.

Foie gras terrine with fig and port reduction coating

The next dish, the Saint-Jacques, was the scallop on smoked potato mousseline and sage jus. Yes, I said scallop, in the singular. I fully appreciate this is a tasting menu but the single scallop on the oversized plate looked a little ridiculous. Fortunately, I am happy to overlook this because it just happened to be the most delicious dish of the menu. The scallop was cooked well (15 more seconds wouldn’t have hurt though) and the smokiness just lifted the entire dish. I could have eaten just this (albeit in a bigger portion).

Saint Jacques. Delicious as it was tiny

This is probably a good point to mention a little pet peeve of mine. My friend is originally from France and speaks perfect French; our main table attendant for the evening was also French. I may not be French and may speak French with a bit of an accent, but my friend would wholeheartedly tell you that my French is of a pretty high calibre. And so, if I am conversing with her and you in French, I find it a little insulting if you respond to me in English. I don’t need the translation, thank you.

Moving on… the next dish was the caramelised quail stuffed with (yet again) foie gras and truffle mash potatoes. So, here’s the thing: the quail – all two bites of it – were quite tasty but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what the difference was between this caramelisation and a teriyaki sauce. And the ‘truffle mash potatoes’? Yes, there were two shavings of truffle over the potatoes. But there was absolutely no flavour to the mashed potatoes. At All. And let me be clear: not only could I not taste the truffle, but I couldn’t even taste the potato! All it tasted of was melted butter in a mush consistency. And we all know truffle has a very distinct flavour and smell: if it was in the mash, you’d know it.

I know I may not be a professional flavour consultant, but I consider myself to have a better than average palate for flavours; I’ve dined in restaurants and can appreciate menus that have earned even multiple Michelin stars. But by the time I’ve made my way this far into the menu, if I am still unimpressed, we are not doing well.

Now, I can sometimes overlook a less than stellar dining experience if the customer service compensates for its shortcomings. However, this was not the case. I think our low point came when I was asked what I thought of the quail dish and I shared my feedback on the potatoes. The response I would have expected was an apology. Instead, the gentleman in question simply walked away silently, and came back a few minutes later to inform me that the chef is sure that he put truffles in the potato (the implication being that it must be me in the wrong) – and he could bring me out some more (perhaps presuming that upon another taste I would see how I was wrong). Less than an ideal response.

Chocolate mousse to finish

Surprisingly, the dessert dish of the menu – the chocolate mouse topped with Oreo cookie crumbs – was incongruous with the rest of the menu given an inappropriately oversized portion was served. I am a chocolate lover by all means, but this was a ridiculous serving that was impossible for my friend or myself to finish: the sugar rush kicked in only halfway through the dish. As a final note on this dish: I appreciate this is a personal opinion, but serving your dessert with your restaurant name all over it is tacky and gauche. If your dining experience is that good, you don’t have to remind your diner where they are.

Chocolates and madeleines at the end of the meal

The dinner concluded with chocolate truffles and madeleines served on a creative wooden board and, I am pretty sure those aromatic madeleines were baked on the premises so that is a nice way to soften the blow of the bill which, once water and service charges were added, came to a total of £102.77.

Overall? We walked away a bit deflated and disappointed: we both have had far better experiences at other fine dining establishments as well as some more simple, local or family restaurants. We will most certainly not be returning.

*Calories: honestly, when you’re doing a tasting menu, don’t even try to figure it out. Just accept you’re going to blow your calories. If I had to make a guess, without wine, this meal comes to something between 1,600 and 2,000 calories.

Food taste: 3 / 5 (What was good was good, but in general the flavour balances were off)

Food/table presentation: 2.5 / 5 (Not more than average, with those plastic placemats, but points for dish presentation/plating)

Service: 2 / 5  (Not particularly friendly and edging on pretentious)

Atmosphere/decor: 2 / 5 (Like being in a Wall Street broker’s bachelor pad from the 80’s)

Value for money: 2 / 5 (Not because it’s expensive, but because the experience isn’t worth the sticker price – and you’re not supposed to walk away feeling that at a restaurant of this calibre)

Overall rating: 2.3 / 5

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