We’re at L’Atelier for a dinner in honour of my friend’s birthday, but it’s becoming ever clearer that she considers the sommelier her real present. ‘It’s important to lean in very closely when he talks’, she tells me with an air of great wisdom, ‘because his voice is a lovely whisper, and also, he has all the wine.’
True on both counts. And ominous, because we’re only on the first wine of the evening. There are five further wines lined up for our dinner; if she’s leaning in this closely at the start, there’s a good chance by time we reach the sixth she’ll have vaulted the counter that separates us and made real inroads into his personal space. Unaware of the danger, he and his Spanish burr narrate us through an El Tresillo sherry from the Jerez heartlands, dry enough to cut cleanly through the fat of the jamon iberico de bellota, nut-flavoured enough to bring out the acorn in the ham.
That kicks off a sequence of perfectly matched wines for carefully grouped dishes – we order a host of sharing plates, and our host performs a deft, ‘If I may recommend?’ rearrangement of the running order to bring the flavours into greater harmony. All the freedom of running wild among the sharing plates section, with a degree of curation you’d normally only get from a tasting menu.
In fact, this dinner is a very curated experience all over: we’re seated at the edge of what looks initially like an open kitchen with a counter for diners, but turns out to be more of a square, walled stage. It’s prime position for the sommelier’s whispered confidences, and the in-depth food narratives delivered with each dish by our host. If you wanted less commentary, more privacy and to gaze directly on the face of your beloved, you could choose one of the high tables for two against the walls of the restaurant. Or make a booking for the first floor; same menu, standard banquette seating.
But then you’d miss out on the food-theatre taking place in front of us. L’Atelier is a many-tentacled beast, with bases from Vegas to Taipei, and Head Chef Xavier Boyer is a veteran of several. That shows in the smoothness of the operation he’s running here; what unfolds behind the counter is half science lab, half Swan Lake. Watching the choreography of the tiny space is hypnotic; that’s a lot of sharp knives and warm bodies to be whirling around each other at such high speeds. Enhancing that surreal effect is L’Atelier’s signature gloom – apparently the same across every restaurant in their stable – and the intensity of the décor. That’s signature L’Atelier as well – red, black and leather in quantities you’d normally find only in Ann Summers, dim lighting, a wall covered from ceiling to floor in eleven layers of living ivy, and adorned with jars of whole bell peppers suspended in transparent jelly.
Of course, if all that styling were smoke and mirrors to distract from anodyne food it’d be just an irritiation, but it’s clear from the first bite – a shot glass-sized trifle of foie gras, port reduction and parmesan foam – that the food outstrips even the décor for high-design intensity. What follows is a series of invariably rich, vastly ornate plates with a motif L’Atelier describes as modern French classic. I’m allowed to call it a motif, because that’s only pretentious if it refers to a menu you could reasonably consider as easier to pull together than, say, a Baroque concerto.
And that’s not the case at L’Atelier: we follow that amouse-gueule with – take a deep breath – that jamon iberico, and burrata with tomato coulis and avocado shavings. A stack of crabmeat, paper-thin ravioli, turnips and rosemary. A saffron risotto with chorizo, chicken wings and baby squid is my hands-down winner from a series of fiercely impressive and toweringly complex plates, though it’s met with stiff competition with the arrival of the crispy ravioli filled with confit veal shank. Having waxed lyrical about the tasting menu feel of the meal it’s worth noting I’d happily have eaten only that risotto all night, possibly all week. My friend argues eloquently in favour of the John Dory fillet with aubergine caviar, but that’s a debate cut short by the arrival of the desserts – a chocolate mousse with dark chocolate sorbet and Oreo crumbs, and a passion fruit cream with caramelised banana.
We prise ourselves from L’Atelier at a late hour. Neither the small door that shuts behind us, nor the quiet West Street location, remotely hint at the bizarre, compelling interior – or the highly-wrought feats of food art being crafted inside by Boyer and his team.
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, 13-15 West Street, London WC2H 9NE. Tel: 020 7010 8600. Website.