“Maybe you’re a little thirsty?” asks Benoît, the sommelier at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, a restaurant that hasn’t seen a lot of food blogger or critic reviews since the international Michelin Star-studded chef opened what’s perhaps the most expensive restaurant in Montreal.
What it has seen is criticism for bringing in a big name from outside the province and country to attract food tourist dollars rather than using a local chef. Despite the complaints, however, I’d never read anything less than complimentary about the food. Neither had I read anything at all about the dedication required to get there.
Certainly, Benoît, we are thirsty after that shlep through the casino, from the main entrance where the Jean-Drapeau shuttle dropped us off to the downstairs restaurant’s lobby. “You haven’t been here before?” Another excellent question, this one from the security man at the front desk of the casino on Île-Notre-Dame, who helpfully described the path that we were to walk in search of dinner: up an elevator to the promenade, along a red line on the floor to the Pavillon de Quebec, then another elevator to the restaurant. But maybe he said escalator instead of elevator, because we had our choice of both, as well as several red lines all leading in different directions. If not for the Joel Robuchon stickers on the floor placed along the path, we would have been lost somewhere between the psychedelia of the slot machines and the bumping blackjack tables, whisked into the hordes of tourists who don’t mind a good shlep for roulette.
We, on the other hand, shlep for foie gras.
Too bad the security man didn’t tell us that only two of the three elevators in the Pavillon du Quebec go to the restaurant on level A, which is down, not up. So we go up in the third, acknowledge the fact that we’re lost, then go back down, change elevators, and go down some more. To be fair, there’s a free valet service, or if you’re all thinking wine pairing, a taxi could drop you off right at the door, but I’m a firm believer in public transit, especially when you’re about to drop $450 on dinner for two.
So yes, Benoît, on a un peu soif, we joke, relaxing into the evening. Because from the moment the elevator doors opened onto the downstairs lobby, the cacophony of the casino disappeared and our attention was drawn to the bar, which winds a Pacman-like path around the enormous open kitchen. Black glass is illuminated by red chile peppers and bright yellow lemons suspended in pillars and the bar itself its illuminated by the iridescence of a fall scene encased in glass.
Benches surrounded by autumn leaves (chile flakes) above green sugar grass, with origami umbrellas, marzipan maple leafs, brooms, red fire hydrants and trees painstakingly re-leaved with dried chile flakes glued to the dried thyme branches. I imagine the artist hand-gluing each chile flake to the branches, swearing each time one falls. The diorama must have taken forever, and it certainly changes seasonally. Our server Jane explains that the artist does this for other Robuchon restaurants and also competes in competitions.
I’m happy to help pay her salary, especially after the food lives up to the expectations set by such a display of artistry.
I’m gluten intolerant a lactose intolerant. Robuchon has a Seasonal Discover menu, seven- or nine-course Experience menu, Tasting Portion menu, Vegetarian menu and À la Carte menu. We ordered a custom Experience menu, which we were called about in advance to check if there were foods we preferred or other foods we avoided.
First, an amuse bouche of deep-fried quinoa balls, made with quinoa flakes, mayo, piment d’espelette and a sliver of chive. Borrowed from the vegetarian menu, the inside is warm and soft from the quinoa flakes that I often eat as porridge in the morning. The Chenin Blanc raised a hint of the pepper flavour just at the end (we did a pairing for every two dishes), but the mayo didn’t taste like anything, adding more creaminess to creaminess since the crunch of ball wasn’t much contrast. I only got salt on the second croquette, which helped, but the chive was still the strongest flavour – a study in subtlety.
Nervous after a dish that LOV in Montreal’s Old Port did better (jackfruit, hearts of palm, quinoa and celery root croquettes with pineapple, ginger and pepper salsa and aioli), I too wondered about bringing in an outside chef, even one with such an incredible reputation. It’s one thing to create the appearance of an incredible restaurant and another to operate an incredible restaurant day in and day out, especially on quiet Sunday nights like this one, when tourist season has ended and locals often think Foodora rather than OpenTable.
But from the next plate onward, there was no question about the Casino’s choice of chef.
Sea bream, hand cut and perfectly placed like a river of chives, lime zest, piment d’espelette, poppy seeds, olive oil, lemon juice and salt. The fish was so thin it was almost invisible in the light from the diorama. The lemon juice, salt and oil were just enough to flavour the raw sea bream and turn it into the most exquisite flesh. The Chenin Blanc fared even better here than with the quinoa, a great pairing.
“How do the chefs cut the fish that thin?” I asked Jane, expecting the answer to involve a meat slicer and frozen fillets.
“With a very sharp knife,” she answered.
Next, beet tartare with green apple, held together with avocado purée, topped with an herb salad and a wasabi sorbet, Pacojetized (I’d guess) to perfect smoothness (the sorbet, not the tartare). The blobs of turmeric (yellow) and avocado actually having enough lemon to lift them from bland-but-pretty plate garnishes to thoughtful flavours complementary to the sweet-and-sour (mostly sweet) tartare with its cold, creamy and mildly spicy wasabi sorbet. This dish showed the restaurant’s high flavour standards. There are no afterthoughts. Everything on the plate has a purpose, even the balsamic reduction, though I was a bit surprised to find out that the wasabi comes from a purée. I would guess it’s hard to get fresh wasabi in Montreal except that I had freshly grated wasabi at Jun-I restaurant last month.
Fresh crab wrapped with perfectly ripe avocado slices, caterpillar-style, with grapefruit and lemon, a couple more avocado-lemon blobs, plus some curry and vanilla bean blobs (see the vanilla seeds in the light yellow gel on the left). the bitter herbs on top were perfect with the bittersweetness of the confit grapefruit peel and juicy sweetness of the crab.
Everyone does this dish, don’t they? Fortunately, it’s always delicious. Black cod in a red wine, malabar pepper and oyster sauce reduction for a teriyaki-like flavour, prepared specially for us with gluten free oyster sauce from Lee Kum Kee. Underneath, the delicious juices from the beautifully seared cod soaked into barely wilted wasabi spinach. On the left, coconut espuma.
The sauce was so satisfying and rich, but the highlight for me was the wasabi in the spinach, giving a surprise spike of pepper with each sweet bite.
We had a different main course each, a quail and a bison roulade. The quail above is a classic Robuchon dish, said Jane, and came deboned and carefully stuffed with foie gras and a little of that same herb salad. The meat was perfectly cooked, its juices perfect for chewing with the little pot of accompanying skinny, salty fries.
I slightly preferred the bison, which was rolled with foie gras, seared on a teppanyaki grill, sliced and served with its jus and a cherry gel. On the right, a little watercress salad with a deep-fried slice of potato tuile, plus the same little pot of skinny frîtes. The freshly crascked peppercorns on the foie gras side of the rouland with the succulent meat, the sweet cherry hit and the acidity of the watercress dressing and crispy potato was…incredible. Michelin fare.
Any fine dining restaurant worth its Maldon salt can adapt to dietary restrictions, but few will make such an ornate special dessert: a coconut boule with coconut mousse, pineapple sherbet, ginger dots, confit pineapple, meringue kisses and slices and coconut shavings. The pineapple confit were taken only from the interior of the pineapple rings. The rest of each slice went into the sherbet, I imagine, which filled the bottom fifth of the sugar globe. “The shell is made like blown glass, but with sugar,” explained Jane, eliciting an appropriate level of awe from our wine-paired mouths.
The inside of the boule was soft and fluffy, the outside crispy sugar, the cold sherbet at the bottom a sweet-and-sour, icy balance to the creaminess and the tiny dots of ginger little teases of spice.
Speaking of a tease, though, I asked Benoît if there was a prep kitchen behind the large open kitchen, which had about six chefs visible and waiting for orders to come in even on this quiet Sunday evening. There is, he answered, and would I like to see it? Of course, I would. There are in fact several back kitchens, with sliding doors to move between some of them. First, a pastry station, then a dish pit, then the prep area. And way in the back, the wine cellars, which require special key card access.
An Ali Baba’s save of wonders, Benoît showed us the red wine cellar, with its left-side selection of Lafite Rothchild and Chateau Latour (the right side held more everyday bottles, but all quality of course). This is not your typical natural wine bar selection of well priced but funky bottles. Certainly, there’s something here for those looking for orange wines, biodynamics and organics (Benoît called the unfiltered Aloxe-Corton wine I had early on “funky” and it was), but this is one of only a handful of places in Montreal where people will spend $1,500 on a bottle without batting an eye. And they’ll have a number of excellent bottles from which to choose.
“Was it better than Toqué!” my dining partner asked. A shiver ran through me.
I had to think about it. It wasn’t hyperlocal or hyperseasonal. But every dish, minus the quinoa amuse, was exquisite – perfectly presented, presented and balanced. Each dish has been carefully created and probably vetted hundreds of time, probably in other Robuchon restaurants around the world with slightly different ingredients. The kitchen staff come from those places and that training. The wine list is incredible. There’s something to be said for the vision and style that an international chef can bring to an already creative dining scene.
Would I go back?
Now that I know the way through the casino, yes I would. Was it worth $225 a person? Yes, if you have the money to spend and want an incredible meal. Depending on the wine/alcohol you choose and the menu you order, it’s not much more expensive than the top tasting menus on the island. “That wasabi sorbet!” my companion kept exclaiming as we shlepped back to the metro shuttle. “The chile flakes in the diorama, glued on one at a time! And the coconut dessert!”
She’s right, there’s really nothing quite like Robuchon’s Atelier in Montreal.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
Address: Casino de Montréal
1, avenue du Casino
Montreal (Québec) H3C 4W7
Telephone: 514-392-2746 or 1-800-665-2274
Hours: Wed-Sun 6-10pm
How much: $125-300 per person with tax and tip, depending on the menu and wine you choose