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Joel Robuchon Opens in Shanghai. Does It Matter?

On celebrity chefs and a 5,000rmb dinner.
By Apr 15, 2016 Dining

The famous "Oeuf Caviar". 498rmb.

The parade of dishes at my 5,000rmb meal at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, which officially opened on the Bund last week, went like this: butter, foie gras, caviar, gold leaf, caviar, caviar, butter, butter, foie gras, foie gras, butter, dessert. On the menu, they are named things like "L’Ouef de Poule" and "Les Huitres", but other ingredients are secondary. A meal at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, where you can spend 500rmb on a single egg, is heavy. The luxury is gratuitous. The egg, and everything else, is just an excuse for more caviar or foie gras.

The cooking is outdated and boring, and the décor is ugly to boot.

All of this luxury reminded me of the beauty of vegetables, in a roundabout way. After oysters drowned in butter, foie gras strapped to a beef tenderloin, foie gras as a shooter and foie gras weaseled into a pigeon breast, all I wanted was a plate of vegetables. Something green. The 538rmb plate of langoustine ravioli might have done it -- not the fat ravioli themselves, which were suffocating under a thick tan blanket of yet more foie gras, but the promise of “braised cabbage” as part of the dish.

Naturally, the cabbage was cooked in butter. I should have known.

Robuchon, the chef is a deity. Robuchon the brand -- L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon -- is a bore.

The food is luxury for luxury’s sake, and I like luxury. But when the chef won’t even let a virtuous dish like sea bream carpaccio out of the kitchen without spoonfuls of caviar, when you can’t tell the difference between the plug of butter for the bread and a dish of mashed potatoes, it’s just pandering. Of course, this stuff tastes good. It’s all fat. Put this much foie gras on a chicken foot and Michelin will give it three stars. If, as Wikipedia says, that Joel Robuchon’s cooking “was seen as harking back to a more authentic… cuisine… focused on making each ingredient taste of itself” then the lesson from a meal at L’Atelier de Robuchon is this: the natural flavor of everything in the world is either butter or foie gras.

One is butter, one is mashed potatoes. But which?

Stylistically, the food is fussy and outdated. A million perfectly spaced drops of parsley oil around the border of a plate once passed for haute cuisine. Today, it looks like OCD, or perhaps cook abuse. (As each dish came out, fussier than the last, I couldn’t help but say a prayer for the poor soul responsible for the squeeze bottle.) It is franchise fine-dining, operating on a menu that appears to have been standardized in about 1986. The red-black-and-mirror décor might have come a bit later -- 1990s drug dealer chic.

Robuchon is hardly the first person to sell China a stale product. Kenny G. The Eagles tour. Sisqo the “Thong Song” guy playing at Arkham last year. Robuchon is just the latest. He’s the expat finance guy, the expat trade guy, the expat real estate guy all coming to this side of the world with something to sell. He just happens to wear a chef’s jacket, not a business suit.

Neither is Robuchon the first celebrity chef to hear that the pockets of China are lined with gold. The Pourcel brothers laid the groundwork for this, just a few floors up from where L’Atelier de Robuchon is today. (Bund18 didn’t learn its lesson from the success of Mr & Mrs Bund, apparently. Instead, they’ve gone back to boring chefs and chain restaurants, circa 2004: L’Atelier de Robuchon, Hakkasan, and now Ginza Onodera, a Tokyo chain with expensive addresses in Paris, New York and Los Angeles, among others.)

Wolfgang Puck is trying to sell the 1980s in Xintiandi. Alan Wong is doing the '90s at Shanghai Centre. Yves Mattagne did seafood for a while at the long-gone LAN Club. Paco Roncero and Mauro Colagreco are now doing “modern European.” Martin Berasategui sold his name to a historic villa in Xuhui Park several years ago and then ghosted. (I asked him for comment in 2015. His daughter told me he hadn’t been involved for the last year and that he “wasn’t interested in talking about this time.” It’s now closed.) Christian Le Squer, who received his third Michelin star at Paris’s Four Seasons Hotel Georges V this year, is also shilling pastry for Le Cake (below).

This is both fine and outrageous. Chefs are entitled to cash in too, I suppose, but it would be nice if they put up a warning sign for potential diners: “Just here for the $$$$.”

In Shanghai, the only big-name chefs relevant to an actual dinner, the ones who have a reputation that actually translates into something more than just a paycheck, are Jason Atherton and Jean-Georges Vongeritchen. Atherton, who is currently in the process of taking over Asia, gifted us Commune Social and Table No. 1. Jean-Georges Vongeritchen, who has been here so long the last emperor must have invited him, has given us Jean-Georges, Mercato and Chi Q. The difference between these restaurants and the celebrity cash-ins is that they stay modern and up-to-date. Fine dining -- let’s just call it cooking good food, and forget all the bullshit that likes to ride along (the expensive silverware, glasses and table cloths) -- is a dynamic process.

So, does it even matter that Joel Robuchon has opened a L’Atelier here?

At my most cynical, I find it not just irrelevant but offensive: Robuchon as the Louis Vuitton of the chef world, wringing the last money out of his Greatest Hits, turning himself into a brand for a brand-crazy part of the world. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last, but he irks me the most: a combination of dated food, media hype around his Michelin Stars™, the idea we are being “graced” by his presence, the outrageous prices, and his bald money-grab in Asia.

There is now a L’Atelier de Robuchon in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, and Shanghai, all with more or less the same menu. There’s a reason Joel Robuchon doesn’t have a string of L’Atelier restaurants in Europe -- fine-dining has moved on. In the rest of the world, these restaurants wouldn’t be called a workshop (the atelier part); they’d be seen for the museums they are. Also, Joel Robuchon is 71 years old. What the hell does he need all this money for? Is Asia his retirement plan?

At moderate cynical, I see some positives: he is keeping all the people with more money than sense in one place, so they are easier for the rest of us to avoid, and he is stuffing them full of heart disease.

Catch me on a sunny day, and I’ll even admit that it might be a good thing that a few dozen young cooks are getting exposure to some new techniques. (Though this takes me back to cynical. It will not be long before some of these guys peel off and start covering every dish in the city with foie gras.)

I don’t have a problem with the actual cooking or the chefs, per se. Technically, they are excellent, and that is to be expected. The opening of L’Atelier de Robuchon in Shanghai would only be news if it was a catastrophic disaster -- raw chicken, shouting waiters, that kind of thing. After spending four hours at the restaurant last week, I can say that hasn’t happened.

The machine is working just fine.

It can be annoying, though. Most seats are set around a large Japanese-style counter, which the waiters stand behind, leading to a couple of problems. Every time the staff wants to fill your drinks, they have to lean across the counter, but can only reach far enough to pick up your glass by its lip, leaving their fingerprints (and whatever else is on their fingers) on the rim of your glass. Neither are their arms long enough to easily pick up empty dishes in front of you, which means you either have to help them by clearing your own plates across the counter (and these are not Sproutworks prices), or feel like a dick while they try to get their Go-Go Gadget Arms working. Breadcrumbs and silverware become a similar problem.

So, Shanghai gets another celebrity chef, and he’s got a lot of Michelin stars to boot. Who cares? L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon is for the expense account set and for people chasing brand names, and Joel Robuchon has gone from a once ground-breaking chef to just another boring global brand, taking up space where something interesting might actually happen.

People don’t buy a Hermes Birkin bag just because they need something to carry their things around. And people shouldn’t go to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon just because they want dinner.

"Dinner for two"

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the company that Christian Le Squer worked with. It is Le Cake, not 21Cake.



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  • Alberto88 Unverified User

    Most dishes there don't contain caviar or foie gras, Mr St Cavish CHOSE to order them for the purpose of shitting on the restaurant. Fake cynicism.

  • handoogies

    He's a dinosaur that needs to be put to bed. Robuchon au Dome in Macau was similarly just going through the tired motions. Shout out to Chi-Q, how that place isn't more popular is baffling.

  • danirlopez

    How many people would you say this 5,000 rmb dinner could feed? Seems like a lot of food for one person...

  • 1357908642 Unverified User

    Fine French dinning is not for everyone and apparently not for smartshanghai bloggers ; stick with hotpot and beer

  • TSkillet

    Aside from the cash grab, and extension of one's brand - there is another reason for the continual opening of global restaurants/celebrity chef branded fine dining, and that is to keep giving talented chefs already in the empire a restaurant to promote people into. So your sous-chef needs a place to land after excelling in Hong Kong - now he's chef de cuisine in Bangkok. Stuff like that.

    I have reservations for this Thursday . . . although the prices are a bit shocking. 5000 RMB dinner? Wow - the dinner in Las Vegas was $96 for the set menu, and Hong Kong it was like 600 HKD for lunch.

  • Jon F. Unverified User

    1. SmSh needs better photographers. It's an article on Robuchon, not the jianbing stall on Wulumuqi Lu. 2. A successful restaurateur like Robuchon opening in SH is a good thing for the city, not sure why there's so much hate. 3. Is this about the writer not liking french food in general or just the ones at Robuchon? It reads like the former.

  • Arthur Sleep Unverified User

    Say what you will about the writer, hes still 1000 times better at his job than J.Fischer and I (m a Dj) Louisell

  • Filar Unverified User

    We went for diner with some friends last weekend and we are 100% agree with you Christopher.
    The food was a joke, directly coming from the 80's. We had the feeling to be in a bad remake of 'Back to the future".
    All the food that they serve can be find in any fast food restaurant in France for 10% of what they charge (and there is a good chance that it would be way better)

  • JustinFischer Unverified User

    @Arthur Sleep: Eat shit, buddy.

  • Batcha Unverified User

    somebody's vjay jay hurts real bad : )

  • Le vengeur casque Unverified User

    Turns out your review is totally dishonest. You guys obviously know nothing about fine dining...
    1. If you guys really paid that much, you must have left stuffed as pig (means you understand nothing about fine dining)
    2. I rsaw the comment about food coming from the 80's: do you guys actually know what JR has always wanted to achieve? Respect product, emphasize on original flavor and taste and you know what? Yes original product flavors don't change over decades...Do your homework before going to such a place. But you guys have probably been paid to eat there so you simply don't give a ****.
    3. You purposely mixed the mashed potatoes to make it look like the butter and this is NOT honest. It is not the way I got mine last weekend. Plus you know what genius? Sorry to tell you but that's how traditional French mashed potatoes are supposed to be made. You don't like it, go to the Japanese next door.
    You guys better stick to beer and burgers...

  • peeping tom Unverified User

    the reality is that shanghai is not a mature market for fine dining. this is also thanks to the restrictions of products you can import and the prices on certain import taxes. i completely agree with the author. if you really have good caviar or truffle. you eat it with the simplest o dishes not on a million of ingredients like it happens here in shanghai. you can check any italian or french restaurant. ( btw in italy no one eats black truffle, that is like crap, here in sh it is like da shitz )

  • pipilongstockings Unverified User

    Food is subjective and you're clearly not a fan of his food, which is fine. His dishes are always classic and consistent across the globe, from Vegas, Singapore, Macau to Paris.

    With your chef background I am quite surprised you have little knowledge of classic French food – which is what Mr Robuchon does best, consistently and globally. It sounds like your first time in a Robuchon.

    1. It's misleading the way you've ranted about it as a 5000RMB meal. I had to check the receipt, because unless it's Ultraviolet in Shanghai, there is no other restaurant charging this price. The receipt shows 4 covers, one person ordered the dégustation menu and your other 3 guests ordered à la carte.

    If you divide up the bill, it works out to about the same price you'd pay at Mr and Mrs Bund, Jean Georges etc. So, it is misrepresentation in your article that misleads readers that have never been to Robuchon. (The caption for that photo reads Dinner for Two, this is not correct because it says GST 4 on the top right corner). This is dishonesty on top of misrepresentation for the sake of slamming a newly opened restaurant!

    2. If you want to write like an established food critic and carry weight, first please proofread and spell check, you've spelt Oeuf wrong both in your English and Chinese translation of the article. It's written there on the receipt you posted if you don't know how to spell or google.

    Whatever your agenda is to destroy a new business that has just opened, you need to learn to fact check, spell check, write honestly and represent things correctly.

    Maybe it is the fault of your editor, but this is very unfair and unkind of you to put your personal prejudice ahead of fair representation.

    My only guess is that you were presented the bill and had to fork out money for it because your declaration of writing the review at the end of dinner and expecting a free meal for all four of you was declined – this is very typical behavior of “writers” for expat rags in China. I worked with one and I know there isn't budgets for fancy meals like this, much less for FOUR people.

    There is nothing wrong in making a prior appointment to have mutual understanding that it would be comp’ed, but this just feels like ungracious behavior on your part and with all the lying, there really is no credibility in this article. Shame on you and the publication.

  • SmartShanghai

    Let me clarify a few things for people who think I have a hidden agenda, and to address the charges of dishonesty.

    Here’s how the mechanics of this review worked.

    SmartShanghai asked me to visit and give my opinion on the place.

    I never review restaurants through an “arrangement” and I don’t tell restaurants what I’m doing in advance. I made a reservation at L’Atelier the same way as anyone else would, I went anonymously, and SmartShanghai covered my expenses. That might not be how it works elsewhere, but it is how it works at SmSh, and how it has always worked.

    The bill was for two people, not four people. I don’t know why the check says “GST 4” but you are welcome to call them and ask.

    Some people think I inflated the bill on purpose in order to knock the restaurant, or I ordered in a way that would make the restaurant look bad.

    The reality is that I asked two wait staff what other people were ordering, I looked at what other diners had ordered for myself and I asked what Robuchon's signature dishes were (since there are no dishes specific to Shanghai — I asked this as well). After all of that, we decided that one of us would have the 7-course tasting menu, which is what a lot of other people were having, but in order to get a broader overview of the menu, it would be redundant for the two of us to have the same menu. I told the staff as much, took their suggestion for the egg and the langoustine, and they offered to put together a second 7-course tasting menu with more of the restaurant’s signature dishes (in tasting size, when they could).

    Altogether, we tried about 15 dishes (there’s an amuse bouche), and that was enough to get a sense of the restaurant’s food — unnecessarily embellished with luxury ingredients at every turn, in my opinion. It’s not just in the dishes I mentioned, but it’s boring to run through every one.

    The 7-course tasting menu is 1,388rmb, or 1,527 rmb with the 10% service charge. With drinks — let's say two glasses of wine and a bottle of water for one person, which is actually fairly restrained for a place like this — that would come out to about 1,900-2,000rmb. Our dinner was 2,400 per person. Clearly in the reasonable range of how many people are ordering at the restaurant. I’m sure many bills are higher.

    As you can see on the check, we ordered a bottle of wine and then another glass to go with the final savory course. Pretty typical ordering at a fine dining place. The Sancerre we drank was 660rmb for the bottle, and that’s one of the cheaper options on the wine list. Much of the list is in the four figures.

    Can you come to Robuchon, order two dishes, drink filtered water and spend less? Sure. But when I went, that’s not how I saw people ordering and that’s not going to give you an idea of what Robuchon does.

    I like the accusations that I clandestinely “mixed the mashed potatoes” to make the restaurant look bad (how would I have done that, exactly? and why?) and that I tried to extort the restaurant at the end of the meal.

    Some people assume I have an agenda. What I have is an opinion. Dining is not an objective experience, and an “objective review” is a false goal. Restaurants provoke emotions, and I hope I explained the ones that Robuchon provoked for me, and why.

    If I have an agenda, it is this: diners deserve an honest appraisal of a restaurant. I am on the customer’s side, always.

    One of my main issues with L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon is the marketing. Robuchon is held up as a sacred cow. He is sold to us as the “Chef of the Century” and the “most successful chef” — as if these things can be quantified. His Michelin Stars are supposed to tell us “this is great food” and the high prices intimidate people into agreeing. It’s easy to forget that Michelin is just one opinion. It is sold to us as fact. And who wants to risk looking stupid after spending so much money by saying, “actually, I didn’t like it”? That’s my role as a food critic, in this case.

    I didn’t like it and I explained why. I think the food is overpriced and both the food and décor are outdated. I object to this being sold us to as “modern French dining” and I object to the apparent idea that Robuchon is above criticism. I don’t think what is on the plate matches the marketing: 26 stars! Chef of the Century! I don’t like the implicit message that ‘Shanghai has arrived’ because we’ve been graced by Robuchon’s presence.

    Robuchon is undoubtedly a legendary chef who deserves respect for what he has done in the past. But that does not mean we can not talk critically about what he is doing now, which is turning fine-dining into a chain experience and doing it in a part of the world that doesn’t have as much experience with Western cuisine. There many other thorny issues here but I’m not going to get into every one.

    I don’t have anything against chains and I don’t have anything against profit. But I do have a problem with the way L’Atelier is sold to us as something supposedly bigger and more noble than a business venture. Shanghai is smarter than that. All you have to do is pay attention to what’s on the plate.

    —Christopher St. Cavish

  • smoteshanghai

    Media in Shanghai can be so toothless (political climate, relationships with advertisers) that people here can't recognise good criticism when it's force fed right down their goose necks. Disagree with the opinions if you want -- criticism should generate debate -- but you're crazy if you think the author has an agenda. I can't think of a single critic in the city, food or otherwise, who holds him/herself to higher standards.

  • must

    CSC has my vote for this city's top food writer, and one of a very small group that can be considered professional. I also know that Smart Shanghai values editorial independence way above making friends in the F&B business (and I've professionally been at the receiving end of their sharp tongue), but this is why people read this site before's clear that none of their opinions are paid for.

    A restaurant review is not fact, its's opinion. Agree or disagree, but suggesting that a bad review is the result of the restaurant refusing to comp the check is not a comment worthy anyone who is trying to raise the bar of professionalism in this city.

    A lot of commentators here seem to be personally offended...either because they are associated with the restaurant, or for some reason they see it as an attack on their country's cuisine. Sour Grapes guys! Shrug it off and move on. If you believe in what you do, keep doing it. In the end, one bad review on SS is not enough to cause this restaurant to fail. Very few writers have that power in the world today, not with the proliferation of user generated blog sites like Yelp. But I for one value the opinion of CSC over a whole gaggle of Yelp reviewers.

    I'll still go for dinner though, one day, if it survives. Just so I can say that I did, and so I can make up my own opinion, and because, I do love the 80's.

  • funkatudinal

    CSC is the city's most honest, unbiased reviewer.

    I'm sure his comments sting but I am sure there are plenty of people who will still dine at L'atelier based on its fancy-pants reputation alone. The 911-driving mistress and laoban audience probably has not read the review, nor will.

  • Mr Ree Unverified User

    CSV is the ONLY good food writer in Shanghai, honest and with no agenda..wish all you other food writers/bloggers could learn a lesson

  • Unverified User

    To all the bloggers, haters, food critics and food lovers, separately or together, . Why being critical of one person's opinion because you disagree. No one is expected nor expecting you to believe or agree with the writer. Who makes you kings or Queens of the world to decide that the writer is right or wrong. The writer in what I read express his opinion about a chef, a restaurant or a dish. he actually complimented the chefs techniques but did not like the over use of butter or Foie Gras as if to be a fine dining or French Dining you needed to over use luxury ingredients to demonstrate what needn't. If you are a name such as Robuchon but allow your guest to be serve as poorly (and this is my personal experience) as badly and with a food quality that has nothing to do with the reputation in which your name was build, then yes I do agree, one must ask why opening a restaurant if you can't deliver the quality promised and deliver elsewhere, and saying that it is because we are in China is offensive. This industry is not just about the chef, or the food, it is about the total experience offered in restaurant. wether it is a dim sum place or a fine dining, you can't anymore expect to hide behind the fact that you are in china therefore it should be accepted to have a lesser quality. Is the price cheaper in China than other place where Robuchon opened restaurants? Are the customers in China worth less than the rest of the word to allow anyone to say that its less good because we are in China? I hate and I feel insulted that anyone dare saying those things. Yes there are challenges in China and yes it id difficult to do a good consistent quality here especially in area like food and beverage. But if you decide to open a restaurant then you must have look into the possible outcome and you know the difficulties. therefore if you open, and you decide to have prices comparable to other countries or cities then I am expecting nothing less than what you would serve in Paris, New York or Japan. Now if you do a new concept because you can't offer the same quality and decide to open a restaurant using your fame and what not, explaining carefully what is to be expected and deliver according to it then please be my guest, use your name, your fame and everything you have and give me the best experience you can with what you have. but for all i know if you come and promise me a fine dining michelin star experience and you deliver nothing as expected than don't expect me to be nice just because you have a name. Robuchon is most definitely and rightfully so an admired Chef. However this does not give him the right to be condescending to the Chinese costumers nor to anyone, it doesn't give him the right to overcharge and under deliver more than any other chef. If anyone else was serving the food I ate in his restaurant in Asia, it will be call by name that couldn't be publish. but because it is Robuchon no one can say anything? I agree with the writer it has nothing to do with the man personally but if you sale me your name as a brand and tell me it is a michelin star experience and/or a fine dining experience then leave up to your reputation and give me a little bit of respect as a guest. And for those who wonder I worked in michelin star restaurant and I worked in China, delivering excellence is difficult but not impossible many chefs have proven it in Shanghai or Beijing or Shenzhen and many other cities but to do so you need to be there with your staff and drive them to excellence and not just take the money form your guest and expect that your name alone is enough. Chinese costumers and expat in China are far away from being stupid and they know what is good. You can fool them at the beginning but eventually they will know if they are being serve fairly or not. And maybe Robuchon will find a market that like that style, the nostalgia of the french food from the early 80's but lets face it, China is moving forward and eventually Robuchon will have to adapt and respect his newly founded costumers in Shanghai or like many others before him will disappear into the conversations where we say "Do you remember when that restaurant open?". I usually disagree with most food writer or bloggers as often they judge without understanding food or chef but in this case I have to side with CSC because that we agree or not with his taste and opinion, he did nothing but to comment his experience objectively.

  • FDE

    "Why being critical of one person's opinion because you disagree. No one is expected nor expecting you to believe or agree with the writer. " I agree, no need to be critical of one person's opinion IF it is on a subjective topic, all the comments from Christopher made about "The cooking is outdated and boring", "the décor is ugly", etc. are all just one person's opinion. That's fine.

    However, if I go to Robuchon and "all I wanted was a plate of vegetables", please don't blame Robuchon but blame on your own ignorance OR stupidity in particular you have a "chef background". e.g. You claim to work in the movie industry but watch Terminator3 while expecting it to be a romance film - Two reasons: 1) You got no clue that Terminator2 is one of the all-time greatest action movies nor heard of a person named Arnold Schwarzenegger (i.e. Ignorant) OR 2) You are aware that it is an action movie but continued to pay money, spend time, and still somehow hope it will end up to be a romance file (i.e. Stupid). I don't care if you are 1) or 2) or both, but I hope it's only 1).

    My concern is Smart Shanghai isn't that smart to allow someone who's ignorant or stupid to write a review! And because of this, it allows people like Christopher to express misleading opinions, this is a serious issue.

    - Title of "a 5000RMB dinner". Please don't mislead this is the food price per person! It's actually the price for two including wine!

    - You described the meal as "butter, foie gras, caviar, gold leaf, caviar, caviar, butter, butter, foie gras, foie gras, butter, dessert", why did you intentionally exclude all other ingredients??

    - One of the key focus of "The egg" course is the caviar (sturgeon fish EGG), it is not an excuse to use caviar! So don't order a caviar dish if you don't want caviar.

    Too many examples and I won't go through one by one. Smart Shanghai, please check all your future reviews carefully. The introduction of this review is already an obvious indication that this reviewer isn't appropriate to judge this meal objectively. The reviewer should focus more on the quality and combination of ingredients, how well did the kitchen team cook the food, then the service and the ambience (which will be all subjective opinion of the reviewer and that's perfectly fine) rather than focusing on something that's completely not related to that actual meal itself.

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