Thursday, 24 December 2015

Taipei: L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon

There have been a number of cool new restaurants opening up in Taipei over the last twelve months, highlighting the growing popularity of fine dining in Taiwan.  Andre Chiang is perhaps the most well known of the new breed with the opening of his future #AsiaTop50 Restaurant RAW (See post here), but he is not the first, or best know chef to do so.  

Joel Robuchon is arguably one of the most well regarded chef of the last fifty years, with restaurants spanning the globe combining a total of 25 Michelin Stars across his global gastronomic empire.  Chef Robuchon had obviously seen the potential in Taiwan, opening an outlet of his famed L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon restaurants in 2009.  I'd been lucky enough to have dined at the Singapore  (see post here) and Hong Kong (see post here) L'Atelier restaurants, and wanted to add a third to my ever-growing list of top Asian restaurants I'd visited.

It took my third visit to Taipei to finally convince my buddy to come along and check out L'Atelier in his adoptive land.  The Big Boy had been living in Taipei for quite a few years and it had been a source of contention that he'd continually avoided committing to taking me to L'Atelier.  It was only with the promise of the fromages that I was finally able to convince the Big Boy that a classic French fine dining meal was just the ticket leading into Christmas.

Taipei is quite different from both Singapore and Hong Kong in that very few of the local population speak English.  It was quite a problem for us as we jumped in a taxi and tried to explain to the driver where we wanted to go. Even a call to the base didn't really help us, so we settled for hitting the most well known tourist destination, Taipei 101 and walking the final kilometre to very elegant Bellavita building that L'Atelier calls home.  I'd not been to Bellavita before, but I couldn't help being impressed by the building that looked like it had been shifted from a grand European city and housed a luxury shopping complex.  I couldn't think of a more appropriate spot in all of Taipei for the luxurious L'Atelier to call home.

As we made our way to the restaurant, I was struck by how familiar the setting felt.  There are currently eight L'Atelier outlets around the globe and all are based the original Tokyo design. Atelier is commonly used to refer to 'the workshop of an artist in the fine or decorative arts' and L'Atelier translates to 'workshop'.  That's exactly the feeling as you stride into the dimly lit, stark black and red setting of each of the L'Atelier 'workshops', with the majority of the seating reminiscent of a sushi bar where guests sit around the kitchen area and watch the chefs at work. There's no doubting that the kitchen is the centrepiece at a L'Atelier.

There are numerous options when dining at L'Atelier, you can put your meal in the hands of the chef with the 'decouverte' degustation menu, create your own tasting menu with the 'les carte des plats' which is a long list of smaller degustation sized plates or just order off the 'a la carte' menu. We chose to mix and match it a little bit from each of the menus to get the best possible experience.  Shortly after we'd ordered, the customary bowl containing an assortment of breads was provided, containing a variety of options including mini baguette, basil, milk and cheese based breads.  Unusually though, we weren't provided with any accompaniments with the bread and had to ask for olive oil and butter.

It was time for the Big Boy to talk to the sommilier to discuss wine options for his meal, and after a very entertaining chat, a glass of Domaine William Fever 2014 cablis was poured and gratefully accepted.  It wouldn't be the first time we'd chat to the sommelier throughout the night, as he appeared to also double as the restaurants maitre d'.

Our amuse bouche was a shot glass that contained a velvety and rich foie gras and egg puree with a bacon and parmesan foam.  It was very similar to the small bite from my Singapore visit and reminded me that we were in for a wild ride of incredibly rich French cuisine that would set our tastebuds alight.

I'd learnt from my Hong Kong L'Atelier visit and taken a slightly more restrained approach to my meal, starting off with the Le Homard du Maine, lobster bisque served with crispy bread stuffed with tarragon.  The deep orange of the bisque was offset by splotches of red from the cooked lobster, as well as a drizzling of olive oil.  Served in a piece of beautifully fine china, the bisque was at first wonderfully light, but as the dish progressed, the intensity of the flavour came to the fore.  There was none of the harsh bitterness that can come with an underprepared bisque and the sunken chunks of lobster were scooped up occasionally to add texture to the sweet soup.

The Big Boy had chosen the L'Hamachi, Hamachi carpaccio with lemon dressing and espelette piment (mild peppers), which looked delightful on the plate, but also very simple.  The Hamachi was fresh and seasoned very well, with strong hints of lemon from the dressing.  You could see the red of the pepper on the dish, but it was very mild and didn't ruin the balance from the fish and the dressing, but perhaps could have had just a little more of a hit to enliven the palate.

For my second dish, I chose a transitional dish, in that it also contained a lobster bisque foam. The La Saint Jacques, Hokkaido scallops with 'fregula' and lobster bisque foam was a beautiful dish, both visually and on the palate.  The large and perfectly seared Hokkaido scallop was topped with a little garnish, which visually contrasted with the deep orange of the lobster bisque foam.  If I'd thought my previous bisque was delicious, a new standard was set with the even sweeter lobster foam marrying perfectly with the scallop.  There was extra texture from the fregula, which is a type of pasta from Sardinia that had soaked up the flavour from the bisque foam and really enhanced the favour.  The scallop was the star of the dish, only just, but when combined, the ingredients worked together sensationally.

I didn't really know how my next dish of L'Encornet, iberico chorizo and squid skewer with lemon confit would look like, but it presented like a weird Spanish pice of art, all angles and bright colours.  Coming with a rich romesco sauce, the exquisitely cooked squid was able to hold it's own against the strong flavour of the chorizo and the powerful romesco.  It was another case of the perfect balance of ingredients working together and becoming more than the sum parts.  The balance actually surprised me as I'd never have thought that the squid could stand up next to the chorizo and the flavours sat on my palate for some time after I finished.  I didn't really want to sip any water to remove that lovely after taste.

We were completely surprised by the Big Boy's dish of Les Noix de Saint Jacques, a seared Hokkaido   and endives salad with lemon dressing.  It was huge and came with three massive scallops that really dominated the plate.  It was almost large enough to be a main in its own right and even through it was very tasty, the Big Boy actually struggled to get through the whole dish (no easy feat for a guy who is 6'5").  I helped him a long a little, but knowing what we had coming next, I really didn't want to ruin my appetite.

I'd been raving on about the La Caille, free-range quail stuffed with foie gras and served with potato puree for so long, there was a risk that it wouldn't live up to my memory, or expectations. There was never any fear of the dish disappointing though, it's one of the classic Joel Robuchon dishes that helped make him one of the most recognised chefs on the planet.  The dish was even better than I remembered, the sweet sticky jus was perfect with the foie gras stuffed quail.  The gamey flavour was strong and needed the even stronger jus to do it justice, but what really helped the dish stand out was the insanely good potato puree (with is 50% butter), which was topped by shaved black truffle.  I could not have been happier with the dish and it was same with the Big Boy until a pivotal moment.

He found a thick black hair in his jus!

It killed his meal, but thankfully he had eaten most of the dish before finding the hair.  He quickly made an exit to the bathroom and while he was away, I pointed out the issue with our Maitre d' slash sommelier.  Look, accidents happen in a kitchen, it's just a reality, so while we weren't happy there was a hair in the food, we were happy with the immediate response to replace the dish.  We were pretty full by that stage and didn't really want another round, but they wouldn't hear about it.

On the bright side, we got some more of that insanely good potato puree.

It was time for dessert, but we weren't sure if we would be able to order, the kitchen had mostly been cleaned down and it was only just past 9pm.  We marvelled at how quiet it was in the restaurant, so early in the night, but we were able to get our dessert orders in.

The Big Boy had been fixating on the fromages and despite the warning from our friendly and honest Sommelier slash Maitre d' that it would not be up to the standards we'd expect from a French fine diner, he went ahead with the order.  Yep, it was cheese and it was probably not up to the standard that you'd expect from a Joel Robuchon restaurant.  I guess the question would be, why have it on the menu if it's not up to standard?

I'd been fixating on the Le Soufflé, Valrhona chocolate soufflé with pistachio ice cream, and when it was delivered I had high hopes that it would be spectacular.  I mean, it looked spectacular, perfect, almost too perfect though.  A soufflé should be light and fluffy but the Taipei L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon version was over cooked, and quite dense, especially down the base of the ramekin, more like a cake. I did love the pistachio ice cream, which was creamy and had clear pistachio flavour and worked beautifully with the Valrhona chocolate, but it was definitely over baked.

By the time we'd finished our meal, it was practically empty in the dining room, with just a few stragglers still enjoying a few bottles of wine.  It felt a little weird, it was just past 9:30pm and the place had a deserted feel to it, definitely different to our last visit to RAW, which was still pumping by the time we'd left.

I'd been very impressed with most of our meal at the Taipei outlet of L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, I'd probably enjoyed the meal more than our Hong Kong visit, but not quite as much as my first L'Atelier visit in Singapore.  Oliver Jean was noted down at the Chef de Cuisine, but wasn't in the kitchen on the night of our visit, but there was another French chef looking after proceedings and I didn't quite catch his name (it looked like Frederick Julian - if anyone can update me, please let me know!).  Of course, finding a hair in your food is a huge detractor, but it wasn't so bad that it ruined my meal, although the Big Boy did feel a little queasy straight after.

It's interesting to think that Joel Robuchon has been able to dominate the food scene in so many countries and has been awarded so many Michelin Stars.  Especially when you consider the Michelin rating system is not in Singapore or Taiwan, so his tally of 25 may be a little under done in reality.

I guess I'd ask the question if the Michelin System was in Taipei, what would be the impact of finding a hair in your food...

I didn't try the Big Boy's chestnut soup with truffle, but he said it was sensational
My souffle was just a bit dense and over cooked
Our Sommelier was first rate.  He'd also worked at the opening of the Hong Kong L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon
Our Chef for the night

The very distinct and stylish black and red of L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon

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