Friday, May 24, 2013

Asking too much? Evening at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon

We headed off to L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon at Landmark for dinner for only the second time (since it first opened). Well I know it's been awarded 3 stars in Michelin Guide, called the best in Asia by Miele etc etc, but our last visit a few years back was downright horrible in everything you can imagine that we just didn't bother to return afterwards. Well we had similar experiences with other restaurants in town in the beginning only to realize afterwards that those places have made significant improvement since then, so we decided to give it a second chance and hope it would prove ourselves wrong.

Our booking was for a Saturday evening, and we were seated at the far corner of the U-shaped show kitchen table which offered the view of the hot station of the kitchen with bar dining style high table and stools. The stool was actually more comfortable that I thought, even though I was surprised they didn't allow any significant space in between seats so the entire time I was sitting with a stranger right next to me - so there went any privacy. Not a big deal to me actually, but I did find the design of the table made it extremely difficult for the waitstaff to serve - it's too narrow for the guests and too high for the waiters to reach over to bring us anything.

Le French GourMay is a month-long festival as part of the Le French May program in Hong Kong, which offers a series of events and activities to promote French wine and dine culture, with many French restaurants offering special menus in conjunction. At the L'Atelier, the Le French GourMay menu was a 4-course dinner with focus on the Burgundy region. That's what we ordered plus we picked one more dish each from the a la carte menu to make it a 5-course meal.

Overall food-wise I would call that average - already better than last time from my vague memory. I personally love our third course of lobster fricasse with green asparagus in lobster and tarragon sauce. The sauce was buttery and strong and went along well with the firm and rich lobster. The additional dish that I ordered from the a la carte menu - a sea urchin risotto with artichokes in tasting portion (our second course) - was beautifully made. Rice cooked perfectly and infused with the pleasant sea urchin flavor - so creamy and delicious.

Those were the high points as far as food was concerned. Other than that, there was really nothing much to write home about. The L'Amuse-bouche was hit and miss - I love the warm, savory panna cotta served with intensely-flavored tomato foam with a slight hint of spiciness and also the mango mayonnaise served with the croquette alongside with the small cup of panna cotta. But the croquette itself - with just mashed potatoes coated with bread crumbs and deep-fried - was forgettable - a far cry from their signature whipped potatoes in terms of flavor and texture. I was hardly amused.

I wish our second course of Ballotine of Bresse chicken stuffed with foie gras, mustard and white wine jelly tasted as good as it looked. The chicken was perfectly cooked, but I can't taste anything from the chicken meat and foie gras at all. The mustard sauce was too overpowering and I didn't get the point of the jelly which didn't taste much of both the mustard and wine, or actually anything. Jello from a supermarket pack tasted better. So that left us with baby romaine lettuce and thin slices of radish being the best part of the dish?

There's nothing special about our main courses either. My beef chuck (said to be cooked in classic "Bourguignon" style) came pre-cooked in a plastic pouch - talk about classic - and pan-fried on the grill in the open kitchen. It's served with mushrooms (morels, shimeji and ceps), sauteed pearl onions and jus reduction (which was great, by the way). The texture was alright, except it's slightly under-seasoned. Charlotte's Kagoshima steak - A5 grade as that was being emphasized to us a few times - was pulled from the refrigerator under the counter, cut and weighed by an apprentice chef (evident by the way he held his knife), and put on the same grill right in front of us. I wonder if a chef at Benihana would have done the job just as good if he's given the same piece of meat; well at the very least I would think he's probably more entertaining in the show kitchen. Both were served with a side dish of the restaurant's signature whipped potatoes in a mini casserole - I know everyone's asking for it and it tasted great, but I actually would have appreciated something less predictable and generic. Well both main dishes were alright - but nothing stood out to suggest these came from a Michelin 3-starred restaurant.

We finished our meal with the dessert of lemongrass icecream with citrus fruits and lemon cream. It's simple yet quite decent, in the whole scheme of things. The icecream was creamy and rich, and every component worked in harmony and was refreshing and tasty.

The menu came with a matching wine option originally but we turned that down and picked directly from the wine list instead, though we followed the same Burgundy trend and chose a red from the region. Its wine list is probably one of the most impressive in town - I can't imagine anywhere on this side of the globe would have a wider selection of every Bordeaux and Burgundy appellations and also good choices from the rest of the world than the two Robuchon restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau.

After going hardly a portion of the 100-plus page wine list, we settled with Domaine Dominique Laurent's Clos de la Roche 2006. Opened up with bright aroma and black fruit note, which slowly dissipated to reveal an oak dominant character. Medium-bodied, with smooth, fine tannins and a long pleasant finish. Not bad for this price range at all and at this age. But apparently that didn't merit any attention from the sommelier, who didn't bother to stop at our table all night after opening the bottle for us, not even when my glass was near empty a few times he happened to walk by - well guess he either thought we were cheap skate Burgundy drinkers whom he couldn't be bothered with or too busy chitchatting with other waitstaff on the need to sell more wines to meet his sales target.

Once again, we were let down by the service the rest of the evening - just like our first visit. At a 3-star restaurant we did expect 3-star service but this time it's far from it, again. From taking 5 minutes to bring us some wet towels after we asked for it, to letting my wine glass went empty on multiple occasions without refilling, to the sommelier rolling his eyes when I told him I needed more time to study the wine list (and turned down his recommendations), to staff holding the serving plate in one hand in mid-air expecting us to bring it to the table ourselves, to almost stabbing me with a steak knife when he brought us the silverware, to describing the white wine jelly on my Bresse chicken dish as "that yellow 'thing'" in Chinese, you made your pick what's worst. Apart from those "isolated" incidents, I felt their services were aloof and inconsistent for the entire time from the moment we walked in until we left the restaurant, which we found strange for a restaurant of this level.

Well our dining experience wasn't to the point that it dampened our mood for the evening, but my verdict to this restaurant stayed the same. It's not bad per se but definitely didn't justify the hype - there are definitely far better places everywhere, including its sibling restaurant in Macau that blew us away last year. Tough luck - to them and to us, as I so wanted to be proven wrong.

When? May 18 2013
Where? L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, 4/F, The Landmark, Central, Hong Kong
Menu highlights? Le Hommard, Maine Lobster fricassee with green asparaguses in lobster and tarragon sauce
Drinks? Dominique Laurent Clos de la Roche Grand Cru Cuvee Vieilles Vignes 2006


Peech said...

I haven't bothered with dinner at L'Atelier HK since 2007… and I don't even go for lunch nowadays

gary s said...

Sigh. Even with my lowered expectation we still left the building in disappointment.

Unknown said...

I had the crappiest service ever during my last visit. Been meaning to go back but anyway - after a few meals in Paris last year I just couldn't bring myself to...

Rather spend it in Europe and not get disappointed. The surprising thing about HK L'Atelier is that the food always look superbly presented. But the taste just isn't there (compared to say Japan or Macau), and even the mashed potato is slightly worse off...

And the service was absolutely intimidating to me I felt like I wanted to crack it right on the spot. Which I am capable of but I refrained, as I was feeling a bit sick that night