Prelude: Man takes a little squirrel-hair brush and begins to lightly brush the corners of a rectangular plate with some kind of flash gold coloured paint.
Once, one of the most exciting things you could possibly do for the money, was go out to dinner to a posh restaurant. This was because restaurants were once different. They were a truly magical world, where for one night and for the right money, you could be anybody.
If you saved up, planned in advance, you could dine pretty much anywhere (private clubs obviously excepted), and enjoy the same cosseting service, eating the same food, at the same table, in the same surroundings as, say, The King of Greece. The tables and tableware would represent the kind of unobtainable splendour and riches you hoped you might one day be able to afford when you were much older, or you might be transported into a super flash, hyper designed work of a clever contemporary designer, challenging, exciting, fun.
These days it’s different. Restaurants are no longer really like this.
Any kind of grandeur now a generally slick pastiche of a well known brasserie format, perhaps crossed with a gentlemen’s club. Squint your eyes and it works, look closely and you spot MDF under the faux mahogany, and paintings which turn out to be printed fakes.
The worst bit though, is that ‘flash’ is dead. Flash is not cool. London restaurants today are all designed to make you feel not guilty about eating out. The decor, food, menus, staff dress, everything is a highly sophisticated plan to make you believe you haven’t actually left your flat, yet it is a plan so clever that parting with £50 for the experience is accepted. Nobody questions the value of an undecorated room, minimal non-decor is style, not austerity. No tablecloths are a lifestyle choice, not a weekly saving of how-many-hundreds of pounds which will be passed on to the customer.
The biggest restaurant style revolution of the last 20 years I would say started with St John, where I imagine back in the late 90s the ‘institutional chic channelling One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ white tile-n-concrete look was a funky new departure from the hyper-naff Asian-fusion clubby style hang-outs that posh restaurants were all climbing over themselves to do. This was this era that spawned the square plate - the one tableware design that has felt the butt of jokes more and more over the last 10 years as fickle restaurateurs clamber frightened onto whatever bandwagon is trundling along at the time.
Ouch! I here you say. Wince! Nobody would actually dare use one of those one-stop illustrations of naff?
Well no, they probably wouldn’t. But then as it is with all trends, things are only cool until someone uncool says they’re cool. Like your dad, or your teacher when you’re 15. Then what you think is cool becomes uncool. Kind of like when The Daily Telegraph says something’s uncool. It’s times like this you suddenly know something’s really cool.
So thanks to William Sitwell, the square plate is now cool again. Good, I say, because if I see another worthy floor length aproned waiter presenting their little pile of monk’s beard and smoked butter on an ironic chintzy plate again I will have to throw up in the establishment’s reclaimed Belfast sink.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon was, until 4:16PM BST 13th May 2014, probably the least cool restaurant in London.
If anyone’s not aware who Joel Robuchon is (as I, quite franky wasn’t) he’s kind of a big deal around the world as one of those international French chefs who rolled out his brand in the form of super-slick celebrations of that kind of 1980’s high precision Michelin style food that people who didn’t live in cities called ‘nouveau cuisine’.
L’Atelier is flash. It’s an enormous four or five storey building, painted entirely in black, with a teenage boy’s wet dream red & black with mirrors interior decor. It’s like a Bond villain had his more dastardly cousin repay him for once mentioning he didn’t like the colour black. It’s on that little street which at one end has Pizza Hut and The Ape & Bird, and the other end has The Ivy. So what with poor fat tourists, pub goers who don’t like pubs, and ageing luvvies and celebs catered for, L’Atelier takes care of the others.
The management had obviously read the Telegraph’s style commentary square plate piece and skipped for joy at suddenly being the most radical, pre-zeitgeist joint in town and thought: I know, let’s celebrate by inviting some bloggers down to see what we’ve been doing while you’ve all been squinting over a refectory table in an imitation government building like a sort of George Orwell fantasy. That’s why I was there.
The staff were well trained and friendly. Friendly is the new aloof, of course. After making ourselves comfy, which is what you may do in uncool restaurants, meeting our (has to be said, quite hot) waiter Alex and having our arms twisted we agreed to a perfectly out of fashion glass of Veuve Clicquot, another brand ripe for rediscovery.
We were given the option of having the chef choose our dishes for us, and provide us with a 4 course dinner with matched wines - no-choice is utterly anti-hip - so of course we went for this.
We got an amuse bouche. We all know how sad the term ‘amuse bouche’ is right now don’t we? It’s ‘snacks’ everywhere now. Not here. This was a little shot glass of something creamy and foamy with foie gras. Bloody lovely. What a bloody delicious naff amuse bloody bouche. Yes. Scraped the bottom of the tacky little glass - not retro, rustic, hand blown or anything - with my tragically aspirational teaspoon.
The starter we had been watching being prepared in front of us in the open kitchen. Salmon tartare topped with Caviar, which of course was to be eaten with the posh mother-of-pearl spoon and the thinnest of thin toasts and a glass of Pully Fumé.
This was delicious, and about as anti everything I’ve been served in a new restaurant for about 5 years.No little compost heap style pile of earnest local seasonal ingredients here. Square plate? Tick. Fancy edible decoration on plate? Tick. Out of season ingredients flown in from another part of the world? Tick. Gold leaf? Tick. Fabulous.
Then it was asparagus with chorizo and aged comte, a beautifully balanced dish with the comte and chorizo not overpowering the delicateness of the asparagus.
Then black cod with miso, green peas & mint. (Still in debate as to what black Cod is. Wikipedia says not normal Cod. Advice here please). Not my favourite but I still finished everything.
Excuse me for the fawning description, but the dish that arrived next was so close to heaven I was seeing stars – a roasted quail breast stuffed with foie gras, served with a roasted leg and the world famous mashed potato, with an extra pot of in on the side in case we needed more. It took most of my will power not to make weird satisfied sex noises at the table. This mash is made with so much butter, it’s whisked and whisked (by hand) until it resembles a mousse.
|Looks boring. Tastes not boring.|
They decided that our tastes were different for dessert and we got a different wine and dessert to each other. Mine was a raspberry mousse, Lychee coulis, light pistachio custard cream and white chocolate that was so girly I could have entered it into a Miss World contest. Now we know I’m not a huge fan of too much dessert – gotta keep an eye on the thigh – but I loved this and upon tasting my friend’s, I discovered that we did indeed have different tastes, he much preferred his lemon bubble with lemon custard, yuzu marshmallow and yogurt ice-cream to mine.
One of the things that makes London so brilliant is that it can handle a seriously flash place like L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. It’s not to everyone’s taste but Londoners are not as sheep-like as I sometimes think. But truly individual, visionary style is damned rare, and in restaurants, the comfort of keeping to the fashions is too easy.
Food: 8/10. Safely refined and delicious international French.
Value: No idea as I wasn't paying. I imagine it can be quite expensive.Style: 11/10. Where you would take a very expensive escort, your divorce lawyer after winning, or a business deal where someone arrives with their briefcase handcuffed to their wrist.
L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
13-15 West St, London WC2H 9NE
I was invited to review L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon