Our special culinary treat for this Parisian adventure was Christmas lunch at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Etoile, a two-star Michelin restaurant at the top of the Champs-Elysées, a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe. Christmas is a good time to visit, as the restaurant’s dominant colours are a deep red and black with metallic accents, making it look like the workshop of the restaurant’s name could very well be Santa’s. If Santa was a famous French chef with a small empire of restaurants worldwide.
We rode up the Champs-Elysées, which was surprisingly packed on Christmas day: the bustling Christmas market, and particularly the car showrooms, Citroën and Renault! After parking our Vélibs, Paris’s nearly free bikes, we hopped across the street in search of the Drugstore Publicis, which appears to be an ultra-modern shopping villa, with a pharmacy, bistro, wine store, caviar counter and a Ladurée macaron stand. The restaurant’s entrance, surprisingly, was in the middle of all of this, a private staircase leading down to a fairly modest-sized restaurant, an open kitchen surrounded by counters, and one small room off to the side, with only six tables. That’s where we sat! There were various choices on the menu, the very expensive á la carte options, and lunch combinations where you could choose your preferred entree, main and dessert, ranging from 3 courses to 6.
It was splurging time for us, and, following a glass of Veuve Cliquot, we had the special Christmas menu, which was 9 courses… for 175 Euros each. Over the next two hours plus, the dishes served were amazing and delicious with not a low point.
Two themes: foam and gold. Joël likes both. To demonstrate the first, a surprising and amusing mouthful to start with: parmesan foam, on top of a thin layer of berry, we thought, cranberry or raspberry though perhaps with a hint of balsamic vinegar, and a custard of foie gras below. Impeccable.
Next, the thinnest possible melba toasts (how did he do that?) with tiny cumin crackers, two delicate deep-fried parsley leaves, all to accompany a salmon tartare with shiso leaves covered in black caviar and… a gold leaf. The French description sounds even better: Le Caviar Imperial de Sologne en symphony de tartare de salmon aux pousses de shiso á la feuille d’or. I like salmon tartare but sometimes it can be a little bland. The caviar and shiso made it sing, and everything together was sublime.
Next, a truly interesting dish: very thin shavings of black truffle on top of pearl rice (slightly sticky, and seared on the bottom so it was slightly crispy as well) with a perfect sunny-side-up quail egg. A leaf or two of rocket and some grated parmesan. I suspect the intense shiny and savoury sauce was also a parmesan flavour. The textures here, the yolk and rice and parmesan together, were glutinous, in a great way. No foam, and no gold leaf, but the yolk and rich sauce looked pretty golden to me.
We were in heaven with this dish without even tasting the roast lobster. The foamy bisque itself (‘sea butter’) was so extravagant that adding the texture and taste of the lobster to it was… if you like lobster, you can imagine. Look how perfectly they’ve extracted the meat from the claw!
I think we best go to the French description again for this: Le Zephyr au Fromage: compromise sensual entre soufflé et crème renversée, au coulis de truffe noire. A sensual compromise between a souffle and baked custard… a tiny parmesan crisp on top and a truffle sauce. Mon dieu! This was S.’s favourite.
Fried bass with lemongrass was something that the description on the menu didn’t particularly excite me… but whatever this sauce was (leek?), with perfectly cooked fish, slightly dense, full of flavour (also because it was coloured with turmeric), some fine shredding of lemongrass, deep-fried or dried so that it was edible, and some mysterious tasty foam… Mmm… The tiny red roll here was capsicum, we think, a nice bit of contrast. This dish was a hit with me.
At this point (the home stretch), we’re back to the gold theme. Given a choice between milk-fed lamb or duck, we chose both! Then we did the move that we often do at fancy restaurants and just assume that people will ignore us: we switch plates halfway through. I think the French are particularly good at ignoring behaviour such as this… (as they also ignored me taking quick photos with my iPhone).
The lamb cutlet was in some ways simple, but perfect. I love interactive food: the little bunch of thyme and one roasted garlic clove to season the lamb oneself.
The duck was more surprising, cooked until tender and falling apart and somehow combined with foie gras, I couldn’t tell when one started and the other finished. Along with a small compote of seasonal fruit seasoned with ginger verjus, it was incroyable… I was kind of love with the gold plates too… ah, and the dishes were each served with a bowl of mashed potatoes that may have been butter and cream with very little potatoes. That’s why we like the French.
Phew. So, we made it to the end of the savouries. I haven’t mentioned drinks yet… After the coupe de champagne to start with, we simply had one glass of white and one of red each, the recommended house wines for the day: the white was an IGP Cotes de Gascogne 2013 from Domaine de Ménard; it was fruity with some body, a Colombard-Sauvignon mix. The red was the light and tasty ‘Bernard Magrez’ from the peaceful sounding Domaine de Tranquillite, a Pays d’Oc wine from 2009. They were reasonably priced too, considering the restaurant we were in, 10 Euros for the first and 7 for the second.
I was delighted to see that our first dessert was an individual Buche de Noel, or a yule log. Though they’ve made it look like Santa’s sleigh, calling it ‘Le Traineau: parfait glacé á l’arielle, crème de marron de l’Ardèche, meringue croustillante’. The meringue cracker was a miracle of engineering, the star was of white chocolate, the splotch of chestnut cream (a very French flavour) with… that gold flake again, and a tiny ice cream log wrapped in red.
Finally, a version of the traditional Opera pastry with a polar bear on top (a bit of chocolate mousse with a fine coat of white powder. It was super creamy and buttery and I kind of missed having a bit of textural difference with something crisp or crunchy, but I was too busy eating the additional treats they brought – a caramel chocolate and my lemon madeleine – to complain.
You know our verdict already… Thumbs up.
It was a wonderful meal with intense and rich flavours, whimsy in the presentation of foam, gold and other little touches, beautiful portions, solid service and very consistent. Every dish made me comment aloud how good it was (or make a similar sound, probably annoying to the very composed French people around us). In comparison to the three-star Michelin restaurant we tried during late summer, Près d’Eugenie, the setting of Etoile was certainly more humble, and the service, food and presentation was dialled down, just a notch, from a 10 perhaps down to an 8.5 or 9.
The waiters who would take our plates would ask how the dish was with a ‘Ca y est?’, which I translate (possibly incorrectly) to: ‘Was that OK?’ I decided try out a new word to reply – astounding or flabbergasting: époustouflant. But I just got a confused look in return. Oh well, I’ll use it here. For a special occasion, Etoile was pretty sensational; for Christmas lunch, in Paris: époustouflant.