Amsterdam Foodie

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris, and the Mystery of Michelin

With 28 Michelin stars, Joël Robuchon is officially the most star-studded chef in the culinary world. He’s got restaurants everywhere from Las Vegas to Tokyo, most of which seem to exude this macho black-and-red vibe that feels somewhat like a classy strip club. Ok, it’s not exactly my taste, but when the Honey Badger told me his Chicago cousins were in Paris with a reservation for L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, who was I to argue? If I can sink several hundred euros flying to Copenhagen to eat at Noma with perfect strangers, then I can make a Michelin-starred trip to Paris for Joël Robuchon, my fiancée and his two cousins. This, dear reader, is why I live in a tiny apartment.

My first surprise was the dress code. Or rather the lack thereof. At 6.30 pm, several diners (ourselves included) were already lined up outside the door. While a couple of us were in dresses or suit trousers, far more were in t-shirts or jeans. Apparently the stiff, French, formal ritual of dressing for dinner is a thing of the past. And while I don’t miss the starched white tablecloths or obsequious waiters, apparently I’m old-school when it comes to Michelin stars and sweatpants. The casual vibe had even permeated as far as the placemats. I’m convinced L’Atelier had the black version of the criss-cross plastic placemats I have at home – I bought them in Habitat about eight years ago. The décor – with its red leather seating and black-lit walls – seemed more Moulin Rouge than Marcel Wanders. Or, as the fabulous Jay Rayner once wrote: it was “like being locked in a PVC fetishist’s knicker drawer”. Touché.

Atelier Joel Robuchon Paris Saint-Germain
Outside L’Atelier… the black and red already in evidence…

But I wasn’t here for the interior design. Robuchon’s menu offers a choice between three basic concepts with many of the same dishes featuring on each: a fixed tasting menu for €189; a regular starters + main courses setup (around €50 each for the former and €60-70 each for the latter); and a variety of small, shareable dishes for around €30-50 each. As we were a group of six (the cousins had brought along two friends as well), the latter option seemed to make the most sense, so we ordered about seven dishes in varying quantities to share as and when they were ready.

Atelier Joel Robuchon Paris - crab
L’Atelier’s crab with turnip

Again, an old-school observation: this modern, informal menu setup didn’t seem to involve any of the usual amuses bouches you’d expect when spending almost €200 each on dinner (and that’s before wine). Perhaps I’m just not Millennial enough to get it, but if I’m shelling out that amount I want value for money and attention to detail.

Atelier Joel Robuchon Paris - foie gras
Foie gras perfection

The best dish we tried was hands-down the foie gras. It was exceptionally fresh, just seared, and served with juicy, sweetly alcoholic cherries. Luckily for me, I was sitting next to two people who weren’t exactly foie-fans, so I got to polish off the lion’s share by myself.

Atelier Joel Robuchon Paris - ravioli
Langoustine and truffle ravioli (note the black plastic placemats!)

Also good were the crab with turnip, and the langoustine that had been turned into truffle ravioli. But for almost €50 for each dish (and with only three mouthfuls on the plate) you’d expect them to be good. You’d expect them to do a bloody striptease on your tongue.

Atelier Joel Robuchon Paris - le burger
The most expensive sliders in the world

From there, things got even less fine dining and even more comfort food. These sliders (mini burgers, foie gas, brioche bun) cost €43 for two, and came with a cup of slightly dry, crinkle-cut chips that’s as small as it looks. Yes, it was a decent burger – but you can get a decent burger at four times the size (with eminently better chips) for a quarter of the price in any capital city.

Atelier Joel Robuchon Paris - lamb
Expensive comfort food: Robuchon’s lamb cutlets and mash

Meanwhile, gyoza were stuffed with chicken, leeks and ginger, served with a pink bouillon that tasted much like any other Asian-style bouillon. Lamb cutlets were juicily seared and served with mashed potato (more butter than potato, of course), roasted garlic, thyme and chervil. All very good quality but utterly predictable. No surprises – nothing to challenge my palate. Nice – no more, no less.

Atelier Joel Robuchon Paris - gyoza
Chicken gyoza with Asian bouillon

But that’s the problem here. I don’t go to two-Michelin-starred restaurants to eat “nice” food. I don’t go to eat burgers or lamb chops or gyoza. Or even foie gras. I’ve eaten these things hundreds if not thousands of times before – sometimes just as high quality and almost always for a lot less money. I go to Michelin-starred restaurants to be amazed. I go to push my boundaries. I go to eat things I’ve never even heard of, presented in ways I’ve never even dreamt of. This isn’t nostalgia for the fussy, pretentious food of 20 years ago – it’s about creativity.

I know the Michelin inspectors are subjective (just as I am) but I don’t get what they’re rewarding here – or who their audience is. If you’re away on a business trip with a large expense account and a craving for comfort food, L’Atelier might be the high-end version of your dream come true. But if you’re a foodie seeking to push your palate – looking for that unique combination of innovation and authenticity that somewhere like Noma has in spades – then you’d be better off spending your savings elsewhere. And whichever category you fall into, you’ve still got to get over the Spearmint Rhino décor.

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