L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (2 Michelin stars)
Add: 3/F Bund 18, 18 Zhong Shan Dong Yi Road, Shanghai 中山东一路18号，外滩18号3楼
Tel: +86 (21) 6070 8888
Hours: [lunch] Sat-Sun 11:30am-2:00pm; [dinner] Sun-Wed 5:30pm-10:30pm, Thur-Sat 5:30pm-11:00pm
Price: [tasting menu] RMB988/1388; [main course] RMB248-598 (+10% service charge)
Visited: July 2016
Will return: Maybe
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, mainland China’s first branch of this renowned brand, was unveiled on the Bund this March amid much anticipation, but found itself in plenty of controversy almost as soon as it opened. With 22 eponymous restaurants from Paris all the way to Bangkok, Mr. Robuchon is perhaps best known for holding more Michelin stars than any other chef in the world. Singapore’s first Michelin Guide, which came out just last month, added 5 more stars to Mr. Robuchon’s trophy room, bringing the grand total to an astonishing 33 stars. But the latest branch in Shanghai has come under fire for being boring and uninspiring, with one prominent critic going so far as to call it a “celebrity cash-in” and a “money-grab”.
Although I often prefer more modern interpretations of French cuisine such as the kind found at Jean-Georges, I have no objection to traditional renditions in and of itself. Indeed, there is something to be said for time-honored classics executed flawlessly – provided that they truly are done to perfection. After sampling a dozen dishes from both the tasting and à-la-carte menus, I am sorry to say that Shanghai’s L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon did not attain that perfection.
The meal started pleasantly enough, with a cold and refreshing Cherry Gazpacho topped with pistachio flakes and frozen ricotta opening the tasting menu. The cherry and pistachio worked well together, but the dish had a strangely powdery texture that I didn’t quite understand. For guests who ordered à-la-carte, the amuse-bouche was a shot of Foie Gras Mousse layered with port wine reduction and parmesan foam, almost the polar opposite of the cherry gazpacho – rich, warm, smooth, and very satisfying, if slightly heavy.
Cherry Gazpacho, pistachio flakes, frozen ricotta
Foie Gras Royale, port wine reduction, parmesan foam
The two amuse-bouches were an intriguing juxtaposition of modernity and tradition. But as the evening progressed, it became evident that the adventurous spirit of the cherry gazpacho was an anomaly, a contrary start that felt glaringly out of place in an otherwise traditional dinner. As the meal wore on, modernity all but disappeared, and imperfections started to seep through.
Joël Robuchon’s famous penchant for butter and cream pays off a lot of the time – their legendary mashed potatoes being the most obvious exhibit – but not so much for the Risotto-Style Soy Bean topped with almonds and threads of black truffle. Rather than fusing seamlessly with the risotto, the cream floated awkwardly on top, and proceeded to stick stubbornly at the back of my throat. I did enjoy the depth of flavor from the earthy mushrooms, but it didn’t quite manage to save the dish.
Soy Bean Risotto-Style, almonds, black truffle
La Caille (348), our meat course from the à-la-carte menu, was something of a signature at Joël Robuchon. The quail breast and wings were beautifully caramelized, but the breast was a tad overcooked. Fortunately, the foie gras stuffed inside redeemed the dry meat slightly, and the wings were perfectly moist and tender without any extra help. Still, I expected a bit more attention and precision in the cookery.
Caramelized Quail stuffed with foie gras
Desserts saw some disappointing misses too. L’Ananas, a palette cleanser with layers of spiced pineapple compote, lemon jelly, Chartreuse sabayon and citrus sorbet, did clean our palettes, but I found the combination of flavors to be rather confusing. A much more serious error came in the form of soggy cream puffs in their Coffee Religieuses – a pity, since the coffee cream inside was actually quite delicious.
Spiced Pineapple Compote, lemon jelly, Chartreuse sabayon, citrus sorbet
Coffee Religieuses & Chocolate Macarons
Luckily, we had a few wonderful hits over the course of the evening. The Lobster Cream layered with wasabi emulsion and topped with fresh sea urchin was one of the most delicious meetings of French techniques and Japanese flavors that I’ve tasted, with the sweetness of lobster and sea urchin moving effortlessly into the sharp and zingy wasabi. The Saffron Risotto (248), in a daring collision of boldness and subtlety, hit us with the rich smell of cheese as soon as it came to the table, but the flavor was actually quite delicate and nuanced, bringing out the low murmur of saffron.
Lobster Cream, sea urchin, wasabi emulsion
Risotto flavored with saffron, vegetable couscous
Mr. Robuchon’s famed mashed potatoes – or, in keeping with the general air of fanciness and luxury, Potato Purée – came with both of our meat courses, but none of us complained at the repetition. The lavishly smooth and silky texture is achieved by using an exorbitant amount of butter – I believe the ratio of potato to butter is 2:1 – and passing the purée through a very fine sieve twice. This little dish was the most memorable part of my meal at Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong last year, and it didn’t disappoint this time around either.
La Mangue Exotique was a beautiful stack of fresh mango, sea salt caramel, and passion fruit mousseline. Although the menu described this as a “mille-feuille,” the texture was actually entirely different, but no less enjoyable – smooth cream melting against the fleshiness of mangoes, with texture supplied by the thin caramel crisps. Unlike the palette cleanser, this dessert was amazingly coherent and delightfully summery.
Mango “Mille-Feuille”, sea salt caramel, passion fruit mousseline
But the highlight of the meal was probably – and rather unexpectedly – the fillet of Pan-Fried Amadai (a.k.a. sweet sea bream) sitting in a clear tomato broth. The fish was perfectly cooked, crispy-skinned with a flaky and succulent center, while the clean but flavorful broth was punctuated by the lively brightness of tomatoes.
Pan-Fried Amadai Fillet, tomato broth, fresh herbs
Perhaps it was no coincidence that our favorite dish of the evening was also arguably the simplest. The understated elegance and delicious restraint of the amadai stood in sharp contrast against the frequent – and sometimes meaningless – displays of luxury that reared its fancy head time and again throughout the meal.
Foie gras was a sensible and delicious complement to the strikingly tender medallion of beef tenderloin in Le Bœuf Wagyu, another one of their signature dishes, with a compelling depth from the jus and port wine reduction, but foie gras-filled mini tortellini were an entirely unnecessary addition to the accompanying cup of beef broth meant for cleaning our palettes. Their richness would have undermined any palette-cleansing quality of the fragrant ginger in the broth even if they had been al dente instead of overcooked and mushy.
Wagyu Beef Tenderloin, foie gras, vintage port reduction
A dizzying amount of caviar could be said to have added at least some barely perceptible bursts of saltiness and umami to the delicately seasoned Salmon Tartare it covered – although one couldn’t help but wonder if the top of a salmon tartare is the best place to showcase the caviar – but the generous blanket of black truffle on the Steak Tartare was completely lost among the tangy mustard and capers, and the gold foil covering the quail egg yolk and flecked around the tartare did little to improve the aesthetics of the dish. Adding insult to injury, the tartare itself had an almost puréed texture – which, I later discovered, was not far off from the truth, for the steak tartare here is not hand-cut. I guess I should have known as soon as I saw how perfectly it had fit into the ring mould…
When many guests ridiculed the kitchen for sending out plates that bordered on OCD (such as cauliflower cream meticulously piped into a million evenly-spaced dots), I merely viewed the tendency as a harmless quirk. But when the same kitchen decides to put their steak tartare in a blender instead of making it au couteau, their priorities need to be re-examined. For a restaurant of this caliber, I expected more integrity. The only compliment I can give their steak tartare is that it came with some of the best fries I’ve had recently. I would take Franck Bistrot’s steak tartare over Joël Robuchon’s any day.
Salmon Tartare, Imperial caviar, shiso flower
Steak Tartare, baby lamb’s lettuce leaves, traditional French fries
When I visited Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong last year, I remember being impressed by their faultless execution, if not quite excited by the concepts. Excitement was just as elusive at Joël Robuchon’s Shanghai branch. I would have loved a good deal more energy and spirit, but I understand that energy and spirit have never been Mr. Robuchon’s modus operandi. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se. I could appreciate old-fashioned and somewhat boring dishes if they were cooked perfectly, or I could forgive a few missteps if the food were inspiring. Sadly, Shanghai’s L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon achieved neither.
Like most global franchises, the Joël Robuchon brand thrived by sticking to a formula. A few years ago, sticking to the formula might have been enough to put L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon at the top of Shanghai’s fine dining scene. But Shanghai’s culinary map is vastly different from what it was a few years ago. With restaurants like Taian Table and Jean-Georges around, Joël Robuchon wouldn’t be high on my list even if the execution had been flawless. And while my evening at Joël Robuchon could be called many things, flawless is not one of them.