Dining: Back to Basics

  • Scott Haas

Few chefs remain on top of the Paris restaurant scene for long, but Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon have proved their staying power. Earlier this year, both opened establishments that serve simple dishes in a casual atmosphere, though neither has turned his back on haute cuisine. On the contrary, these chefs have adopted a stripped-down approach that reflects the philosophy upon which haute cuisine was built. Chefs who practice this philosophy place the utmost importance on procuring the finest ingredients and treating them with respect in their cooking.

After more than a decade of dominance with his Paris establishment, Robuchon retired from the French restaurant scene seven years ago at the age of 51. (Many found it significant that Ducasse opened a restaurant in the space that Robuchon vacated.) This past May, Robuchon instigated a frisson of excitement by opening L’Atelier du Joël Robuchon. Located beside the Hôtel Pont Royal on the Left Bank, the restaurant has 42 seats, no tables, and accepts no reservations. Some have waited in line outside for hours before taking seats on stools that face an open kitchen. Chefs cook and assemble dishes in full view of the diners. For a chef of Robuchon’s stature, this is nothing short of radical.

The lure that drew Robuchon back to the restaurant arena was simple: He loved it too much to stay away from it. “Joël Robuchon is like an actor who retires from time to time and who comes back to play on the stage, needing the spectators’ contact and recognition,” says Jean-Claude Vrinat, who partnered with Robuchon on Taillevent, a restaurant in Tokyo. “He had nothing more to prove, but he wanted to please himself while making his numerous admirers happy.”

Dining at L’Atelier is all about the basics. The gazpacho is a perfect red, accented with ribbons of olive oil. The density of the foie gras is unlike any other, with rich textures and powerful flavors in each bite. The roasted chicken and potato puree free the diner to meditate on the flavors of the meat and vegetables without the distraction of superfluous spices or plate arrangements. The tastes are pure. 

Ducasse chose a different route to culinary purity through his new Paris bistro, Aux Lyonnais, which he relaunched in collaboration with the owners of the highly regarded bistro l’Ami Louis. On the surface, it might appear that Ducasse is embracing the pedestrian. After all, the bistro’s raison d’être is the same as that of the American diner: to dispense familiar, tasty dishes at reasonable prices in a comfortable setting.

The relaunch is significant in Paris, where neighborhood bistros are being absorbed by large restaurant chains or falling victim to the growing popularity of fast food. Ducasse found the bistro and accepted it as it was, declining to change its decor, design, or name. “Aux Lyonnais is going one step further for me in showing that simpler regional cuisine has pride of place in French gastronomy,” says Ducasse. Its menu is laden with classic French comfort food such as white asparagus in a vinaigrette, roasted turbot, and seared steak with fries. It does not expand the palate, but delights it with well-known favorites.

In opening these scaled-back restaurants, both chefs demonstrate that memorable dining relies on the principle that underlies haute cuisine: respect for superior, fresh ingredients. 

Aux Lyonnais, + 33.1.42.96.65.04
L’Atelier du Joël Robuchon, Hôtel Pont Royal, + 33.1.42.22.56.56

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