Pecking proverbial milk tops from fine dining establishments across the UK

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, London

13-15 West Street, London WC2H 9NE **

Tasting menu available Mon-Sat -2.15pm for Lunch, 10.30pm for dinner. Seven courses + coffee: £125.


For some reason, L’Artelier de Joel Robuchon has slipped under the Fat Robin’s sensitive radar. For some time now a London institution with two Michelin stars to its name, Joel Robuchon’s outlet in the city should have been high up the pecking order, but instead has remained neglected and untouched: the last hazelnut in the bird feeder. But no longer.

My friend and regular protagonist in these musings Mr B was returning ‘for one night only’ from travels abroad, and it was on his recommendation (B having visited Mr Robouchon’s restaurant in Las Vegas) that he, J and I arranged to meet at L’Atelier one Monday night. After a pint at an old English pub and a gin and tonic at a trendy Scottish bar, it was time to head to France for the meal.

The decor in L’Atelier instantly stands out. The designer has gone for a ‘black and red’ theme, with black walls, dark wood tables, bar and floor with and red lights, serviettes and pictures – as well as various fruits and vegetables scattered liberally around the place. The room is very dark, with much more of a bar / club feel than your standard restaurant with its pastel colours and starched white table cloths. I suppose the idea is that the surroundings reflect the food: modern, edgy, different. It would, I think, be a great place to take a girl on a date. The problem on this occasion was that I was with two other men, so spent probably a little too much time throughout the evening wondering if the waitress thought I was on a date with them (I’m fairly sure that she did).

Having been seated at a table looking over (but not at) the central open kitchen / bar area, we opted for the tasting menu, or menu decouvetre, as L’Atelier calls it. First to come was a ’’Royale’’ of foie gras, port reduction and parmesan foam, served layered in a shot glass. This was an outstanding start to the meal. The intense foie gras was rich and creamy, and complemented perfectly by the sweet and acidic port reduction which cut through it. The parmesan foam , which might have been lost amongst such powerful flavours, rather performed its role perfectly in lightening the dish and leaving the mouth cleansed. There was much scraping of shot glasses with teaspoons before we all accepted that the pre-starter was over, and it was time to move on (9/10).

The next course to arrive was ‘Le caviar’, caviar served on a bed of crab meat and lobster jelly. The first thing to comment on was the presentation, which was wonderful. The dish was served in a Joel Robuchon branded caviar tin - which appeared completely full of the black stuff – and a mother of pearl caviar spoon with which to eat it. Only on cutting through the generous layer of caviar was the lobster and crab revealed below. B, J and I were unanimous in our gleeful, childlike response to these of culinary theatrics. Presentation is always important, but its not often a plate of food can make you smile. With expectations raised, the caviar did not disappoint on the flavour. The caviar was good – no more than that – and the lobster and crab were sweet, combined with just a hint of fennel, which worked very well. The inky caviar popping in the mouth followed by the melting jelly and the tender crab meat made for a wonderfully textured dish (9/10).

While the empty plates (for which read: tins) were removed, a creeping fear began to steel over me, as it always does when going for tasting menus. The ‘rollercoaster of the tasting menu’ had been on the up two courses in a row, and I feared that with six courses to go, we were going to drop at some point. Its happened before – with J once being half way through a tasting menu running out of superlatives for the second starter, and by half way through complaining that the food tasted variously of ‘rotten vegetables’ and ‘stale beer’. With the standard so high, I feared, something was bound to disappoint.

The next course confirmed my fears – through only up to a point. When it arrived, ‘La grosse crevette’ was just that – a single, very large, grilled tiger prawn, served in the shell. The menu promised ‘exotic flavours’, which were imbibed into the crustacean by marinating in a variety of citrus juices and eastern spices. There was also a lime to squeeze over if required. The tiger prawn was well cooked and tasty, but was messy to peel, and disappointing after two carefully balanced and constructed courses. A good tiger prawn is always nice, but come summer, a very similar dish can be found served up chez moi on the barbeque – I even cook them the same way (I know because you could see the broiler from the table). In a restaurant with two Michelin stars, I expect more: after two such excellent starters, even more so (4/10).

Discussion about which way the menu was going to head was cut short by the arrival of the next course, duck foie gras with citrus compote and port jus. This was essentially the mother of the amouse bouche which had gone down so well. The foie gras was served in an unashamed bloc, seared until crisp on the outside and melted (and it must be said barely cooked) in the centre. The result was rich, almost to a fault, and it would have been a challenge to finish the slab on its own. What saved it and made the dish was the well paired citrus compote, which cut through the sticky foie gras and gave a contrasting acidic ‘tang’, and the sweet, sticky, port jus, which added balance and rounded off the plate well. Once again, we were back into good food territory, (7/10).

Next came the first proper main course, an Asian influenced black cod, served on a bed of spinach with wasabi cream, with pureed carrot. This was another exceptional course. The fish was perfectly cooked, tasted very good, and fell apart easily into large, firm flakes. The sweet carrot puree was the highlight of the rest of the plate - smooth and delicious, but the wasabi spinach was much better than I had feared, complimenting the fish well, and rather than overpowering it. Incidentally, it injected some much needed greens into the meal so far. (8/10) and B’s favourite dish of the meal.

The final main course featured foie gras once more (without a whisper of a complaint from the Robin’s corner). The quail arrived in two parts, with a confit leg and the breast stuffed with foie gras. This was served with a quinnel of truffle pommes puree (including a generous shaving of truffle over the top and an extra portion of the potato to serve ourselves as we ran out – delightfully presented in a miniature Staub pot. This was a very well executed classic French plate. The quail was cooked very well, served in a delicious, simple jus. The potatoes were smooth and buttery and the truffle flavour was strong (though as with most pomme puree, this had, for my taste, been over-whipped, so as to become elastic and chewy). It was extremely pleasing to see - and taste - white truffle shavings rather than try and detect a hint of flavour where truffle oil had been used. A good course, although it would have been nice to see a little more experimenting with texture, preparation/ cuts of meat and presentation as this was the main dish of the evening (7/10).

Moving on to desert, we were next offered a green ice lolly on a stick, which, on ‘sucking and seeing’ revealed itself to be blackcurrant sorbet covered in (green) white chocolate. Again, L’Atelier’s sense of fun shone through, and it was for this reason, as much as for the intense flavour and refreshing, palate clensing effect, that we all enjoyed it. Its not often your food will make you smile with sheer joy once in a meal, twice is quite an achievement (8/10).

Desert was a beautifully presented chocolate pot. The ‘pot’ itself was a red glass bowl, with a chocolate disc covering the top. Having broken through this, the rest of the pot was revealed, comprising a white/milk chocolate mousse, sprinkled with milk chocolate sitting on a liquid chocolate base. It was a good desert, nothing to complex, but interesting, a bit of fun, and enjoyed by all, although with so much going on, not one of us managed to finish the lot (6/10).

After the desert, we took coffee at the bar, watching the kitchen processing the final orders of the night and reflecting on the meal just finished. It was without doubt the best tasting menu I have had to date. Some of the best dishes I have ever had featured, and none let the side down irrevocably. There were just not that many misses and a number of hits. This could be because of L’Atelier’s menu concept, where all the dishes are tasting menu sized and all meals are 6/7 courses, so that there is less experimenting and more tried and tested dishes on the menu decouvetre. Whatever the reason, I am ashamed to have overlooked L’Atelier for so long, and can’t wait to return. London’s other two star restaurants have a lot to live up to.

What did others think? L'Atelier on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Koffmann's, London

The Berkely Hotel, Wilton Place, London SW1X 7RL

Open for Lunch Mon-Fri 12-2.30pm, weekends 12 - 3.30pm Three Course: £22.50.


I have been looking forward to visiting Koffmann’s for a long time. Not only was my reservation here booked a month in advance (a rare thing for me) but I had wanted to go to the restaurant ever since the man himself returned for London food week in November last year with his ‘Pierre Koffmann on the Roof’ pop up at Selfridges. A year’s build up meant that, on this occasion in particular, lunch was going to have to be special, and it was with and unusual sense of trepidation that I emerged from Hyde Park Tube and walked the few metres to the Berkley, where Koffmann’s now occupies the space previously inhabited by the Boxwood Café, to meet L three others that made up my lunch companions.

First impressions set alarm bells ringing. Before we stepped through the door, the red-on-white branding, the typeface and the arrangement all suggested a TGI Friday style American diner or Disney ‘café New York’, rather than a fine dining institution. Why this was settled on as the look for the restaurant, I simply cannot imagine. Normally such a detail would be mildly disconcerting; in my hyper-sensitive state, this miss-hit sets off something akin to panic.

Entering the restaurant, I’m relieved not to see any motorcycles, American flags on the wall or wooden planes hanging from the ceiling. The décor is entirely what one expects of fine dining – if nothing more. The restaurant applies the standard palate of whites and creams, crisp linen and starched tablecloths, with pastel green upholstered chairs (perhaps as a nod to the chef’s signature soufflé) and a selection of (amusingly shaped) dried gourds as a colourful centerpiece.

Shortly after being seated, a selection of onion topped filo pastry slices arrived. These were quite satisfactory, and rich enough to get the tastebuds working, but not particularly inspirational. Worse, a number of toasts had to be left uneaten because they were overcooked (I won’t say burned), a worrying early indication of quality control in the kitchen (2/10).
Things looked up as soon as the bread proper arrived, however. The bread here is all made in house and was delicious. As well as the normal wholemeal rolls and miniature white baguettes there was a wonderful walnut bread and (by far the star of the batch) an onion and bacon bread of which we could not get enough (6/10 overall – 7/10 for the onion and bacon bread). Thankfully, the waiting staff appreciated this and, in true French style, kept bringing more and more.

Starters arrived promptly. For me, a leek, Roquefort and walnut salad. This was beautifully presented, with baby leeks cut crossways and arranged as a wonderfully green mosaic, sprinkled with the cheese and walnuts. The leeks were well cooked, with just enough bite, and contrasted with the saltiness of the cheese and the texture of the walnuts. A light and simple way to start the meal (5/10) L had French onion soup, which was always going to be good. A classic French dish executed by a classic French chef. Rich, dark and sweet, but without losing the acidity of the onions, this was topped with a crouton oozing and overflowing with gruyere (5/10).

I was by now eager with anticipation at the main dish, roast coquelet, stuffed with provoncale herbs, served with roast potatoes and baby vegetables, which arrived after an interlude just sufficient to eat a little more of the delicious bread. The chicken was excellent, moist and succulent with a very crispy skin which added a satisfying texture and much to the flavour. The pungent herb stuffing was extremely good, but subtle enough not to dominate the flavour of the chicken itself. The roast potatoes were perfectly adequate, crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle, which is more than can be said for most of the soggy offerings in high quality restaurants. The baby vegetables came served in miniature side-dishes, which is not a method of which I’m a great fan. By the time everyone had worked out which veg went with which main course (the vegetables were placed seemingly at random around the table) the mangetout and carrot were slightly cool and unappetising. This could not detract from the fact that the chicken, perfectly cooked and wonderfully prepared, was a demonstration of the very heights of bistro cooking, and one which I am surprised does not feature as a regular item on the restaurant’s ala carte (6.5/10).

L had bravely followed her instincts and gone for a classic sounding Koffmann dish: calves head. This came in two parts, presented rustically on the plate. On the bottom was a ‘cake’ made up of the meat boiled away from the head, bound together with the gelatin and marrow seeping from the bones. Compacted and slow cooked, the richness that this element of the dish offered almost defies description. The meaty flavour was intense, with the marrow coating the inside of my mouth after every bite. Atop the cake was the brain (an unexpected addition) deep fried whole (I imagine) and presented in the manner of an offal scotch egg. Again this was intensely flavoured and beyond rich. The brain was satisfyingly crunchy on the outside, and thereafter melted almost instantly in the mouth. As a culinary experience, this was an awesome dish; a real assault on the senses. My only criticism, however, was that without a piquant source or some other acidity to cut through the richness and gelatinous textures, L could only manage about half of the dish even with my willingly given help. On a tasting menu, this dish would steal the show. As a single main course, it needed to be tweaked (a reluctant 7/10).

When pudding arrived, it did so after a 20 minute delay, which is the time, explained the waiter, taken to cook Koffmann’s signature pistachio soufflé with pistachio ice cream from scratch. Having avoided the pigs trotter with the main course for the sake of variety, the soufflé for dessert was inevitable. When it arrived, the words ‘worth the wait’ hardly seem enough. This was the best dish of the day. The warm soufflé towered over the top of its ramekin, and, as it was served, the waiter plunged a spoonful of the accompanying ice cream into the . The soufflé was superb.Llight, foamy and wonderfully flavouorful. There were no ground nuts in ice cream or soufflé, so that the cold ice cream melted seemlessly into the soufflé in my mouth: a wonderful texture (8/10).

L had a selection of cheeses, supplied by premier cheese, which were served from the trolley with walnut bread. A very good selection as you would expect (7/10) Special mention should also go to the Ile floatent, an enormous meringue floating on a generous helping of crème anglais, which, although I did not taste it, I am assured was exceptional.

To say that I was excited to go to here is an understatement, and, as the Arctic Monkeys tell us, “anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment.” No such fear with Koffmann’s, however. This is convivial bistro dining of the highest quality, with a few stars thrown in. I still think the branding is off, and the décor is too boring for a place which can produce such a wonderfully eccentric menu de jour (which actually does change daily), and some of the details were missing at times. But in the end, as the name indicates, you come for the chef; which means you come for the cooking, and while the details were missing at times (to an extent which would be an issue at a 2 star restaurant) where it counts – in the classics and the signature dishes - this restaurant delivers.

What did others think? Koffmann's on Urbanspoon

Friday, 5 November 2010

Yauatcha, London

15 Broadwick Street, Soho, W1F 0DL *
Open Monday to Saturday 12pm -11.45pm Sunday 12pm-10.30pm. No lunch menu. This meal £55 per head


I did not arrive at Yauatcha in the best of spirits. Rain, roadworks and a taxi journey from the innermost circle of hell meant that by the time I entered the chic Soho venue I was out of breath, wet and 20 minutes late to meet L. This was not a good start to a visit to a restaurant about which I was already apprehensive. On the one hand, I had heard nothing but good things about this Michelin starred Chinese restaurant. On the other, Yauatcha was started by a certain Alan Yau, at whose most famous creation, Hakkasan, I had a disastrous meal in Abu Dhabi only 3 months ago. Although both restaurants have left his empire, this common thread was unnerving.

When I sat down, two things immediately reassured me that tonight would be better than that spent in the gulf. First, L had ordered me a perfectly mixed Bombay Sapphire and tonic which was waiting at my seat when I arrived. Secondly, the restaurant itself looked breathtaking. The main dining room is underground. Dark, with carved black wood predominating and tasteful lighting throughout, the place is nothing if not achingly hip. The crowing glory, though, is surely the tropical fish tank-cum-bar which dominates the east side of the room. Tacky? Not here. It works.

The delay meant we were both hungry, and quickly ordered a good selection from the menu to share. First to arrive were the venison puffs; slow cooked juicy venison in flaky, crisp puff pastry. These were delieghtful morsels, intensely flavoursome, and enough on their own almost completely banish memories of Hakassan in the UAE (7/10).
Next to come were the dim sum proper. Scallop shui mai were tasty; the scallop cooked just right with a little hint of spice which did not overwhelm the it, all in and a perfectly steamed parcel which seemed to melt in the mouth (6/10). The char sui bun arrived next, which was almost identical to the ping-pong version of the same with which I have long had a love affair. Fluffy white exterior and incredibly intensely flavoured centre of hoi sin pork (6/10).

The char sui bun was followed by a prawn and beancurd cheung fun. This was not a dish which I had had before, nor one which I would have ordered but the attentive and helpful waiter recommended it as a personal favourite and we chose it accordingly. The cheung fun arrived in the form of a long rice noodle roll,sliced like a California sushi roll and covered in a sweet soy sauce. There was ample for two on the plate. The dish was simply exquisite. The prawn was succulent, meaty and full of flavour – comparable to lobster tail. The bean curd gave a satisfying crunchy texture which complimented the prawn beautifully, and both worked perfectly with the sweet sauce (8/10) So good was it, that we promptly ordered another.

Shortly after came an order of fried chili squid with wheat flake and curry leaf. This was another triumph for Yauatcha. The squid had been sliced and lightly scored before being deep fried. The spices were subtle, with the curry leaf detectable just and a very satisfying kick of chili heat. The golden fried wheat flakes were generously scattered over the whole dish (along with more chili flakes) adding a very pleasing crunchy texture, with both L and I picking at them with our fingers long after the squid had disappeared (7/10).

The final course to arrive (at the same time as the second portion of cheung fun) was a portion of crispy duck rolls. This was a very pleasant version of the best thing on any Chinese takeaway menu, served with a generous number of pancakes, crisp vegetables and a good hoi sin source that I was only slightly too full to enjoy properly (6/10).

If my trip to Yautscha found me arriving frustrated, it left me leaving happy. Not only is the price outstanding but here is a restaurant whose food is truly deserving of its Michelin star. Add in a pitch perfect décor and friendly, knowledgeable staff, and I can only say that the hype surrounding this restaurant is all that it deserves. Mr Yau, for Abu Dhabi, you are forgiven.