I decided I couldn't go to Paris and not at least have one meal at a great restaurant, my problem was that I didn't have much time so I needed somewhere quick. Joël Robuchon's restaurant is famed for its bar-stool seating and small tasting plates, it therefore seemed to fit the bill ideally. Plus, because I had to check in at Charles de Gaulle by 8pm I guessed I wouldn't need to book if I turned up at the restaurant at 6.30pm.
There were several striking things when I walked in, and only the dark wood design was related to the restaurant. The other things related to the customers. With the sole exception of me, everyone in there was American, in their sixties and looking very confused. The menu seemed to throw them and they were perplexed how they were supposed to eat at a bar rather than at a table - this is France after all, home of haute cuisine. One couple went so far as to complain to me that it was bar-stools rather than tables. The staff were excellent, with unlimited patience when dealing with ridiculous questions and requests - the best being the man next to me, who when offered the sublime mashed potatoes, looked horrified and said he'd eat anything except potato. Paris is not the place for the Atkins diet.
One more point on the staff, apart from being patient they are extremely accommodating. Initially I was sat in the only one of four seats that isn't at the bar but looks out onto the street. They assured me that if a booking failed to turn up they would move me, they were as good as their word, I was soon moved to a plum position at the bar.
I hadn't realised that there is more to the menu than the small tasting plates, with larger main courses also being offered as well as a menu degustation. Because I was in such a hurry, I stuck with the tasting plates. The waiter recommended three to make up a fair sized meal, so I went for five: anchovies; gazpacho; l'ouef cocotte; legumes confits and of course mashed potatoes. This was washed down with a glass of 2002 Mâcon les Combettes and a bottle of finest Evian.
I can only give simple descriptions because however flowery my language I won't do the meal justice. Everything was simple, uncomplicated and delicious, the best ingredients cooked with minute care.
The presentation of the anchovies reminded me of a game of noughts and crosses. The anchovies were laid out on the plate, side-by-side, each anchovy separated from the next by a thin sliver of marinated red pepper. Either side of the five or six fillets was a large X of what I think was a salsa verde. Very pungent and a good foil to the vinegary (but not face alteringly sour) anchovies.
The gazpacho (or as they spell it gaspacho) was intensely tomatoey, with just the right garlic hit. The three drops of olive oil sitting on the soup thinned it out nicely. The one thing that was slightly strange was that I could have sworn that I tasted Worcestershire sauce, which frankly wasn't the most pleasant thing.
L'ouef cocotte was something new to me, which was why I'd ordered it. It came in a martini glass and looked like a glass of milk with a few brown bits floating in it. The brown bits were girolles that when eaten with the cream and the soft egg, hiding in the middle, together made a delicious, nursery food feel, but with a strong salty undercurrent giving it that grown-up slug. Not a hug in a mug, more a bear hug in a martini glass.
Salt seemed to be a bit of a theme as the mashed potatoes were pretty salty as well, but this balanced out the creaminess perfectly. The only downside to the mashed potatoes is that for the rest of my life I'll strive to make potatoes tasting like this and these potato perfections will no doubt be elusive.
The mille-feuille of confit vegetables was good, the tomatoes especially stood out - the most tomatoey tomatoes I've tasted outside of Italy. But it has to be said, this was the one let down of the meal for me, although that could have been because I knew it was coming to an end and I would soon be flying home, rather than the unexciting combination of tomato, aubergine and mozzarella.
As I keep saying, it was a great meal that I thoroughly enjoyed, you just need to get your head round the concept of small plates of food, no structured courses and eating at a bar - all very un-French and from the confusion of my fellow diners, un-American too it would seem.
L'Atelier du Joël Robuchon, 5 rue de Montalembert, 75007, Paris, France
Tel: +33 (0)1 42 22 56 56
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