The opportunity to read the daily, handwritten specials on the menu outside The Ivy has long provided one reason for cutting through West Street, between Covent Garden and Cambridge Circus in London's West End. Last week these included puffball mushrooms with sautéed ducks' eggs and roast grouse.
But for the past seven months there has been another reason as black hoarding first began to cover the site of the former West Street restaurant at number 13/15 and then rapidly disappeared to reveal the arrival of an outpost of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London, a week after a New York branch had just opened in the Four Seasons Hotel.
But as I stood outside the restaurant the day before it was to open for dinner for friends and the following day to the public it looked just like a normal working day. There were no builders to be seen and the only vans outside belonged to companies delivering wine and olive oil. Inside, too, all seemed calm as the waiters wiped the plates down and laid them out as though customers were arriving in an hour and not the next day. One chef was rather anxious about the quality of the scallops that had just been delivered while another, recognising me from Paris, asked where they could buy the best British cream and butter and we were later to make a brief sortie to Neal's Yard Dairy where he was thrilled with the quality on offer.
Robuchon's L'Atelier (or workshop) differs from a normal restaurant in that the main seating is round a counter facing an open kitchen allowing instant contact between the chefs and the customers. This was how they evolved originally in Tokyo and Paris but in response to customer demand for more privacy, separate tables have been added in London and New York and so too has the concession that one can book in both new Ateliers, albeit only at 18.00 in New York and at 17.30 in London.
The black and red interior is just as plush as in Paris with extremely comfortable seats at the counter (slightly lower in London to make them easier to get on and off) and a wall of green ivy on the far wall, the result of an obviously successful collaboration between French architect Pierre-Yves Rochon and London's lighting guru, Arnold Chan. Food is still the main decorative motif with jars of marinated peppers on the shelves, trays of fresh peppers under the bar and a huge glass container of brown eggs by the open kitchen. Most invitingly of all are a dozen red apples floating on a bed of ice cubes within another large glass bowl in the middle of the main counter.
This L'Atelier differs from the others in that it is on more than one floor and, as a result of a partnership with two Lebanese businessmen who have spent over £5 million on this conversion, Joël Robuchon's creative skills have been further extended. On the third floor is a bar with a valuable late-licence while on the first is an extension of L'Atelier, now known as La Cuisine or the kitchen, a restaurant where one can book for both lunch and dinner.
It was here that I was to meet Robuchon although no sooner had I sat down at a table by the open kitchen that is also a feature of this floor than I was asked to move seats. "M Robuchon will want to sit there," I was told, "so that he can keep an eye on the kitchen." I duly obliged.
Two minutes later Robuchon arrived, ordered a Diet Coke and promptly cast his eyes over the two young chefs selecting the best herbs from that morning's delivery. As he did so, I could not help but remark on what seemed to me the most obvious change in him since I first interviewed him a dozen years ago that despite now having five Ateliers with another due to open later this year in Hong Kong he looks younger than when he was behind the stoves of the one that bore his name in Paris. "Thank you," he replied in his very clear French, "but now I work very differently. The L'Atelier company comprises six partners, chefs who have been me with for years, and we undertake every opening together with one of us then assuming specific overall responsibility for one of the sites."
But which site, I wanted to know, had been the most difficult? Robuchon turned the question around, "I think that actually London has been the easiest of them all to open. Ever since I came here to look at possible sites I have been amazed by the buzz of the restaurants and the shops in this city. In this respect it is very like New York and Tokyo. I suppose the most difficult, although it pains me to say so, has been Paris.
"It is because I think people living in London are so receptive to new ideas that I decided to introduce La Cuisine alongside L'Atelier. I opened the first L'Atelier in Tokyo rather than anywhere else because I had come to realise from cooking there that the Japanese are so curious, so keen to try something new and I hope La Cuisine will have the same response. What I have done here is rather the reverse of L'Atelier with our customers sitting in the centre of the room and the open kitchens all the way round the outside. I have added a wood-fired oven, too, because I think it generates such clean, intense flavours. But it's the same ergonomic principles: there is to be direct and immediate contact between the kitchen and the customers. I want my chefs to see if, and when, a table is waiting too long for its food and not have to depend on a report from a waiter. And I want my chefs to see the reaction on the faces of the customers as they eat their food and then when they leave. I want them to see the pleasure I hope we will generate here."
The only obstacle I can envisage to this happening at this stage is purely physical. La Cuisine has been designed to resemble a kitchen with black and white tiles, a conspicuous clock, pans on the wall and glass bowls of faux meringues and marshmallows around the pastry section in the opposite corner to the main kitchen but there is too much clutter in the central display to allow a clear view into or out of the main kitchen. That, however, was certainly no obstacle to the delivery on only its first full day of some extraordinarily intensely flavoured food: finely diced crabmeat with avocado and tomato jelly served in a porcelain 'duck egg' on a small but cripplingly heavy slate of Japanese lava; sautéed girolles, their sweetness enhanced by diced apricot, topped with slices of Joselito ham; and quail stuffed with foie gras and truffled mashed potatoes were three highlights from the six-course, £80 tasting menu.
L'Atelier's menu is similar in many respects, just as intense in the flavours it generates, but somewhat lighter to allow anyone to call in for a quick lunch or a bite to eat pre- or post theatre. Its other charms include sitting there and watching the chefs prepare your meal and the interaction between diners sitting next to one another. On the night we were there one lone diner abandoned his crossword for a conversation with his neighbours. Across the open kitchen it is fun and instructive to see the fish being grilled, the tuna being so finely sliced and the langoustines fried in wonderfully clean batter while in the corner of the kitchens of both floors there is a solitary chef continuously whipping copper pans full of the pommes purées for which Robuchon has become so famous (think of them more as butter with potatoes rather than the reverse).
As we left L'Atelier Robuchon came out from behind the counter to ask, somewhat unnecessarily, whether we had enjoyed our meal. He also wanted to know whether I knew the people who ran The Ivy. "I tried to go there once but I couldn't get in," he explained, "but as we are now neighbours I would like to invite them in for a meal." Given the hugely beneficial effect I believe his and his team's presence will have on the already high standards of many of London's restaurants, I felt the least I could do was put these high-profile neighbours in touch with each other.
Three courses in L'Atelier or La Cuisine £40-£45 per person without wine.
Open lunch and dinner 7days.
L'Ateliers de Robuchon worldwide:
The original, in Tokyo, at 2F Roppongi Hills Hillside, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku 03-5772 7500
In Paris, next to the Hotel Pont Royal, 7 rue de Montalambert on the Left Bank, 220.127.116.11.56
In Las Vegas, alongside a more formal Robuchon restaurant within the MGM Grand Hotel, 702-891 7358
In New York, in association with Ty Warner at the plush Four Seasons Hotel on W 54th Street, 212-350 6658
And, most recently, in London, at 13 West Street, WC2, 020-7010 8600.
This article also appears in the FT.