After deciding to spend the holidays in Taipei this year, Brett decided we needed to go out for a nice dinner since it was just the two of us. He has wanted to go back to L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon again since there is a new executive chef and sommelier, and surprisingly, Brett was able to secure a reservation at the counter for Christmas Eve. In celebration of Christmas, Robuchon was offering a special menu for NT $8,880 (about $304 US), which included one glass of Champagne.
Someone from Robuchon called several days prior to confirm our Christmas Eve reservation and find out if we had any food allergies. Brett asked to have a copy of the menu emailed, however, it never arrived so we showed up with zero idea of what the menu included for $300 per person. No worries though — it’s Robuchon, how could any of the courses be bad? We’ve read some interesting reviews lately that suggested the quality of food was not worth the price and they were from the last days of Suga’s tenure so my curiosity was definitely piqued.
Upon arrival, we were directed towards the end of the counter where we had minimal visibility into the kitchen, but we could still see a little of the inner workings. At least I had an empty seat next to me for all my camera equipment so I was set!
The special Christmas menu was already at the place settings, printed on silver metallic paper, and rolled up with Joel Robuchon signature ribbon. We opened the menu to discover it was a ten course dinner featuring some delectable sounding dishes. Prior to arriving, we spent a little time researching the new sommelier, Benoit Monier, and decided to put our trust in his hands and go with his wine pairings for each course.
Not pairing wines with a degustation menu of this caliber is where many diners go wrong. I realize the dinner is rather pricey, however, if you are willing to shell out $300 a person for dinner, spend the extra to get the right wine(s)! Ordering a cheap bottle of wine does a disservice to the chef’s menu and your overall dining experience. Picking the wrong wine can alter the taste of your food, leaving you less than enthused with the cuisine. Sommeliers are trained to find the best wine for your taste, budget, and the foods you are ordering. It is quite a misconception to assume that a sommelier will immediately pick the top priced wines on the wine list. Many will ask your budget — if they do not and price is a major concern, let the sommelier know what your budget is!
In our case, Benoit suggested we split a glass of wine for each course, which was fine with us. The glass of champagne included with the special Christmas menu was a Bruno Paillard Brut “Premier Cuvee” served from a magnum. As Benoit explained, Champagne houses prefer the magnums over 750ML bottles. It seems that the magnum size allows the wine to age more slowly, allowing for a fresher, more crisp taste.
Our first course was “amuse bouche” which is basically a bite-sized hors d’oeuvre. For this dinner, our amuse bouche was a shot of pureed onion and some type of Taiwan vegetable, topped with onion foam and Espelette chilies. Espelette is a small village in the Pyrenees region of France noted for its special chilies. These are harvested by hand and strung on cords. Benoit said the signature element of this tiny village is the countless strands of chili pods adorning the building walls during harvest time. I would imagine the contrast of the white buildings and red chili pods would be a sight to behold!
La Saint Jacques
The next course was Hokkaido scallop carpaccio with Oscietre caviar. Oscietre caviar is also known as Ossetra, which comes from the Caspian Sea and has a stronger taste than Beluga. With this course we finished off our glasses of Paillard Champagne since champagne pairs beautifully with both scallops and caviar.
Le Crabe – Paired with 2007 Louis Cheze Marsanne
The next course was “crab steam egg with saffron mousse”. For this, Benoit suggested a 2007 Louise Cheze Marsanne. Marsanne grapes are most commonly found in the Northern Rhone region. I was a bit worried about this course as it had egg and Brett does not eat eggs, but he was a trooper and seemed to enjoy this course. The plating was so simple, yet elegant.
Le Foie Gras – 2006 Wwe Dr. H. Thanisch Riesling
Foie Gras!!! The Menu description said seared foie gras with caramelized Marsala flavored seasonal vegetables. Benoit suggested a nice Riesling from the Mosel Valley region — one of our favorite wine regions in Germany. The Rieslings found in Germany far surpass nearly every one we have tried from New World wine regions.
Although the English translation on the menu noted vegetables, the plate (and French translation) had fruits, which were fine with us and certainly paired nicely with the Riesling. The soft creaminess of the foie gras with the crisp Riesling was such a nice contrast.
Le Risotto – 2004 Domaine Michelot Meursault
The next course was a pumpkin and red shrimp risotto. Given the new executive chef is Italian, I figured this would be one of the best risottos we’ve sampled and it certainly did not disappoint. A nice touch was the crunchy pumpkin seeds added to the risotto.
Benoit paired the risotto with a Domaine Michelot Meursault “Les Grands Charrons”. Meursault is from the Cote de Beaune subregion of Burgundy in France. We were somewhat surprised every course had been paired with whites so far, but we really enjoyed the wines Benoit paired with them.
Le Merou – 2005 Bourgogne Hautes Cotes de Nuits
This course was a seared groupa (assume grouper) with Bouillabaisse. According to the French notes on the menu, it was to have more of the Espelette peppers as well. I was excited to see the plating for this course — sounds weird, but this was one of my favorite dishes from our first visit. The bowl is so simple, yet elegant and has jagged gold edges. The juxtaposition of the delicate fish and broth served in this giant edgy bowl was very attractive.
With the grouper, Benoit paired another white from the Hautes-Cotes de Nuits. This is a sub-region in Burgundy, known mostly for reds and roses (Pinot Noir) and whites with Chardonnay as the main grape.
This was another excellent pairing. The fish was so delicate with a nice crisp.
This was the course Brett was most looking forward to. He spotted the Pan seared Australian Kobe beef right off the bat. Since we had not tried any red wines yet, we were prepared to ask Benoit if he could pair a couple wines with this course, but he beat us to it! Before we had a chance to say anything, he suggested we try two different reds with the Kobe. In talking about the wines and the contrasting picks for this course, we ended up going for three different ones as we were curious on his New World choice.
The first wine was a 2006 J.M. Boillot Pommard. The second wine was a 2003 Chateau Tour Seran Medoc. The New World wine pick was not what we expected. It was a 2006 Meritage Table Wine from Hahn Estates, located on California’s Central Coast. Benoit suggested we try them in the order above and it was quite evident how the wines progressed. The table wine from California was much stronger and spicy over the other two French wines. The Pommard was soft and silky, while the Medoc was definitely bolder. But when compared to the Hahn, the Medoc was still much softer and more well-rounded.
Le Yuzu Vert
This was basically the palate cleanser before dessert. This was quite tart, but nice. It was Verbena jelly and yuzu granite with cachaca mousse. The tartness came from the yuzu, which is basically like a small grapefruit. Cachaca is the distilled alcohol used in Brazil’s famed caipirinha.
Le Chocolat Noir
The dessert course was a heavenly chocolate delight. It was a flowing chocolate coulant with coffee mousse and milk ice cream. When the plate arrived, there was also an orange flavored sorbet and a dusting of pistachio nuts on the plate. Unfortunately for Brett, he’s allergic to pistachios. He is not severely allergic so he was able to eat around them with no issue.
For the dessert course, we opted to each get a glass of dessert wine and wound up sampling two incredible wines that were complete opposites of each other. The first was a Muscat that Benoit suggested we try with the orange sorbet. The second was a great surprise — 1979 Pedro Ximenez Gran Reserva. We absolutely love Pedro Ximenez and actually became engaged over a glass of it! LOL! Trying a 1979 was quite a treat and definitely a bottle I want to track down more of.
Le Cafe Express
Sadly, we had come to the end of dinner and it was time for the coffee and macaron. The night had flown by! For one last treat, Benoit brought us something rather unique to try — Guatemalan rum matured in barrels used to produce Bourbons, Sherries, and Pedro Ximenez wines! The rum was quite strong, but smooth. I am not a fan of rum straight up, but this was nice.
As usual, we were one of the last two parties in the restaurant. I felt bad since it was Christmas Eve, but was relieved when Benoit pointed out there was another couple finishing up dessert. Being one of the last has always seemed to work in our favor as we often get the opportunity to chat with the chef and this was no exception. The new Executive Chef, Angelo Agliano, came out to say hello and we had a few moments to chat and thank him for the ultimate in Christmas Eve dinners.
Both Chef Angelo and Benoit were definitely highlights of our evening. Sitting at the counter, you have the opportunity to watch staff interactions and how the kitchen progresses, and without a doubt, Benoit was running the show. From helping bring out plates and staying on top of courses for the next wine pairing, to engaging in banter with a majority of the restaurant patrons, Benoit is a definite asset to Robuchon. He brings such a down to earth attitude to wine and will be the first to help educate you on the wines versus judge you.
We’ve met a number of chefs and restaurateurs over the years, and Chef Angelo is one of the most down to earth. Working for Robuchon, who is one of the most decorated chefs in the world, you might expect Angelo to be aloof, but he is anything but. To give you an idea of how personal he is, both Angelo and Benoit walked us out to the elevators to say goodbye. Gourmet dining is not defined by the food alone. The staff, sommelier, executive chef, and attention to detail play a big part in whether the entire experience is a success. Chef Angelo and Benoit bring all the class you would expect from a branch of a renowned Michelin starred restaurant, but with the personal touch and comfortable feel of hanging out with them at your favorite neighborhood cafe. They are genuinely nice people, not because they are expected to be.
In comparing this visit to our first, we were even more enchanted this time around. At least for the special Christmas menu, there was definitely more emphasis on French and Italian cooking styles versus the heavy Asian influence under Chef Suga. Our last menu had a heavy influence of strong Asian flavors that are not always appreciated by western palates.
As I mentioned initially, we’ve read reviews and interesting reports on Robuchon’s success after a year and there was discussion about lowering prices as the reception by the Taiwanese market was not as great as expected. I question whether it was really the prices or the menu offerings. The people who frequent Robuchon are not looking for seaweed infusion in every course, but looking to experience fine French cuisine.
We are looking forward to visiting Angelo and Benoit again soon. We are definitely not waiting another year before coming back — hopefully we will visit again in March after we return from our upcoming travels.
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