I visit a Michelin two-star in Tokyo

By | March 22, 2008

Joel Robuchon has been cooking fine meals for longer than I have been alive. Starting with a single restaurant in France, he has slowly built up an empire with restaurants around the world. In Tokyo, he is the only foreigner to have received the coveted Michelin Star – an exclusive award whose criteria makes as much sense as a flying-purple wombat. The last time I was in Tokyo, I decided to see just how good his L’atelier de Joel Robuchon really was. Little did I know what I was walking into.

Amuse The interior is nice enough and the menus are simple. Order from the a la carte menu or the set menu. I decided to place my trust in the chef and ordered the top of the line set menu which rang in at 13,500 yen. What a mistake that turned out to be.

An amuse was served to kick things off. Tomato based with a Chili Foam, it was an interesting mix of contrasts that didn’t quite seem to come together. Nevertheless it left your mouth watering for the courses ahead.

The next dish was “Le Jambon” which in plain English translates into Ham. It was decent, but no better than any good prosciutto that you would find in a fine Italian Deli. The shot glass you see in the background was a cold tomato soup drizzled with some basil oil. The flavors were intense and the oil really brought out the freshness of the tomato, but this dish didn’t really blow me away.

The bread on the other hand, was spectacular. The dinner rolls had a rich buttery flavor to them and much time was wasted flattening the bread only to watch it spring back into shape. The little baguettes has a nice crunchy crust with a moist tender interior though I would have preferred the crust to be a little thinner. Nevertheless, I was quite happy.
The next dish was a Sea Urchin Jelly. When harvested fresh and served as a Sashimi, Uni has a sweet flavor with a delicate texture. This in theory would have combined nicely with a jelly to present the diner with a nice light appetizer. Unfortunately, execution is 90% of an idea and this dish ended up tasting more like sea than it did Uni goodness. It’s not to say that the ingredients weren’t fresh mind you. I have no doubt in my mind that an establishment such as this would use nothing but the freshest of ingredients – it’s just that the dish didn’t work out very well.
The soup that came out next was easily my favorite dish of the night. Starting with a seared piece of Foie Gras, the chefs then proceeded to combine them with chestnuts and cream to make an incredibly flavored broth. The dish was then topped with black truffle shavings and celery leaves to really kick this dish up Emeril style. Bam! If you visit this restaurant (despite having read this review), then order this dish and only this dish.
Having been thoroughly impressed with the soup, I was beginning to think that perhaps this venue would deliver on its reputation for excellence. Unfortunately, this was as good as it would get.The next dish was a pair of frog legs (or was it a single one cut into two?). Lightly battered and fried, the meat was juicy and the batter crisp. It really wasn’t too bad at all, but still not as good as the soup.
At this point in the meal, I think the student chefs came on to cook for the diners because I just cannot think of another reason as to why this dish was murdered so badly. Fish is really something that isn’t hard to cook. You sear the skin to a nice crisp and then cook it until it’s nice and flaky. Simple enough right? Instead, I got an overcooked piece of rubber with an anemic sauce that tasted more like oil than it did vegetables. If I was the head chef of this kitchen and that kind of crap came out, I’d be laying down a verbal whoop-ass Gordon Ramsey style.
Just when I was thinking it couldn’t get worse, it did. Duck, like fish, really isn’t a hard thing to cook. In fact, I imagine that given enough time, you could probably train a monkey to do it. Apparently, the chefs at this restaurant are not as smart as monkeys. For them, cooking duck ranks up with there in difficulty with advanced multi-variable stochastic calculus.What you see here is a fatty, gamey excuse for a duck breast. I’ve cooked better in my kitchen before and I’m really not that good a cook. On the bright side, the sautéed mushrooms accompanying this dish were damn good. A nice mix of chanterelle and champagne mushrooms, the accompanying sauce and truffles finished the side off nicely.

The side was amazing. The main was not. See something wrong here?

With that train wreck out of the way, it was time to move onto the trio of desserts. Things were kicked off with a sour, but refreshing vegetable sorbet on top of some fresh berries in a champagne mix. Next up was an ice cream stick covered with a sugar lattice and some grapes served with a berry sauce and foam. The final dish was a nice tea (pekoe I believe it was) along with some chocolate coated jellies with an almond crisp.

For those of you keeping track, there were 11.5 dishes including the bread. Of those 11.5, I really enjoyed 2 of them. – namely, the bread and the soup. The frog legs, prosciutto and dessert were acceptable with the rest ranging in rankings from piss monkey poor to merely disappointing. The food itself wasn’t too great, but the thing that really made my rating of the restaurant sink like the American Dollar was the service or lack thereof.

Running around like chickens with their heads cut off, the service was disorganized, inconsistent and at times, downright unfriendly. I realize that everyone has their bad days and that having to deal with irate customers who insist on having their steaks done perfectly rare at a temperature of 30 degrees would be enough to put anyone in a foul mood, but you really just need to fake it if you’re going to be in the service industry. While most of the staff were friendly (or could fake it reasonably well), there was this one waitress in particular that really ruined the mood with her downright miserable face.

The other thing that stood out for me was the time it took to fill up my water. Again, as with cooking duck breast, it’s not rocket science. Every once in a while, check on the customers cup. If it’s empty, then add water until full. I’m sure I could have flagged a waiter down to get me some water, but just for kicks, I decided to time how long it’d take for them to notice. It took them a whooping 30 minutes. 30 minutes! For crying out loud, we went to a Japanese Izakaya that had better service than that!

To add to that, the timing of the kitchen was completely off. At times, we’d have food minutes after finishing a dish and other times, it took up to 20 minutes for the food to come out. That’s completely unacceptable in a Michelin Two-star restaurant. In fact, I felt a little a Bear Stearns shareholder. I bought in with high expectations, but was punished for believing in the company’s culinary assets.

If you enjoy spending lots of money for crappy food and a piss poor experience, then by all means go to L’atelier de Joel Robuchon. Otherwise, stick to the baked goods. I recommend the coconut tuiles – always a favorite back home (if they last that long).

2 thoughts on “I visit a Michelin two-star in Tokyo

  1. gizmar

    Really sad to go through all of that and come out feeling let down – The trouble with foodies is that they just seem to know when they’re getting a really crappy meal.

  2. JennDZ_The LeftoverQueen

    That is terrible! You must have so been looking forward to this meal – and then to have such a lackluster meal. I am so sorry – it is truly a pity!

    Welcome to The Foodie Blogroll! 🙂


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *