Ducasse and Robuchon - Battle of the giants

13 Jul 2003 by JR

Paris over the past 200 years has witnessed some extraordinary culinary developments, not least the birth of the restaurant itself, but it is unlikely that the current simultaneous opening of two new eating places by two of the world's greatest chefs, neither of which takes reservations, is something that even this magical city has never witnessed before.

As just as surprising is the fact that the chefs involved, Alain Ducasse and Joêl Robuchon, are as a consequence most likely to meet one another next not in either restaurant but in a law court.

But before dealing with this less appetising legal detail here is a quick appreciation of what these two culinary genii have been up to with two very different approaches that contradict the opulent Michelin-starred approach which has made their reputations - although both of which, whilst creating considerable enjoyment and pleasure, contain significant teething problems.

One of Ducasse's great strengths - for which he is hugely admired by his peers worldwide - is his ability to strip food back to its simplest building blocks, to imbue his staff with the training to ensure the highest quality and then to present these various options to his customers to allow them a far broader choice than most chefs. He has done this with French food, Italian food and with various cuisines under the Spoon label.

Now he has turned his extraordinary talents to bread and sandwiches and opened the first of what I hope will be many a boulangépicier in the 8th. It is a paradigm of the corner shop. The bread, of which there are 15 different varieties, is terrific as is all the viennoisserie whilst the sandwiches bear little resemblance to what the gambling Earl created so innocently in the late eighteenth century. One in particular, an open sandwich of perfectly cooked vitello tonnato topped with capers would win any sandwich of the year competition and the same high quality applies to a wide range of soups, salads and desserts.

If that were all then I would unquestionably give this place full marks but I feel that in this particular instance Ducasse's enthusiasm has got the better of him and that by introducing an épicier the whole is less rather than more of the sum of its parts. The problem is that the épicerie, the grocery shop, takes up too much space along the back wall where there is a large, open refrigerator along one side wall and whilst these contain absolutely top-class products from around the world (there's tomato ketchup, Basque spicy ketchup and an even spicier condiment from Chicago's Charlie Trotter) as well as a range of ready-prepared food together they cramp the small eating space in the middle. This generous food deserves a more generous space.

Whilst Ducasse has turned his creative skills to our most basic foodstuff Robuchon focuses on the basics not just of the restaurant, particularly one opened by such a high-profile chef and therefore likely to be swamped from the outset by the media, but also how consumers want to eat this century.

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in a very chic hotel on the very chic Left Bank attempts to solve these problems with three different approaches. Firstly, it does not take bookings; secondly, it will in due course be open from 11.00 to midnight continuously although at the moment it still closes in the afternoon and reopens at 18.30, and, finally, it offers two distinct menus, the first a series of smallish tapas dishes inspired by Robuchon's visit to Spain, the second a more conventional series of dishes but with Robuchon's trademark emphasis on freshness and flavour.

All this is delivered via a Japanese-style U shaped sushi bar which seats 36. Whilst customers sit outside waiters patrol inside and behind them is a brigade of highly qualified chefs who have carried the Robuchon flag for years. The expense incurred and the quality of the workmanship are obvious although the lighting and heavy preponderance of black do give the restaurant a definite nightclub feel.

Even in its early days the kitchen is producing some stunning dishes and the wine list, under Claude Douard's direction, is equally good. We concentrated on the tapas side, ordering three per person of which the best were a wonderfully creamy 'oeuf cocotte' in a creamy soup of morels served in a short martini glass, four gleaming clams stuffed with new season's garlic on a bed of sea salt and a panache of lambs' sweetbreads and kidneys with girolles. Desserts, particularly a soufflé of Chartreuse and the plate of six small slices of six different tarts, are of the same quality. It looks tapas but not like any I have ever eaten before.

The problem is how one can best use L'Atelier. Because it does not take bookings it is not particularly useful for a business meeting; because you are forced to sit next to one another rather than face to face the restaurant certainly precludes romance and, because the chairs are comfortably broad, if you go in a party of more than two you have to speak behind peoples' backs to reach the rest of your party. The large window which separates those eating and drinking with pleasure from those queuing hungrily to take your place does not add to the comfort factor, either.

But these are, I am sure, teething problems that will be resolved, particularly when L'Atelier stays open the entire day when it will make a particularly convenient venue for anyone arriving hungry off Eurostar.

And whilst boulangépicier and L'Atelier will benefit those who want to eat well they will also, it seems, benefit certain French lawyers. Under dispute is the use of the word 'l'atelier' which Ducasse claims to have patented before Robuchon opened. It is a case obviously crying out for a culinary King Solomon who would decide the case with an approach both chefs must appreciate on whichever of them were to produce the finer tarte aux citron.

boulangépicier
73 Boulevard de Courcelles, 75008 Paris (tel 01 46 22 20 20, web www.boulangepicier.com)

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
Hôtel Pont-Royal, rue Montalembert, Paris 75007 (tel 01 42 22 56 56)

Two useful hotels:
Hotel Thérèse, 5-7 rue Thérèse, Paris 75001 (tel 01 42 96 10 01, web www.hotetherese.com)
Hotel Lenox, 9 rue de l'Université Paris 75007 (tel 01 42 96 10 95, web www.lenoxsaintgermain.com)

 



Restaurant of the Week

The kitchen at the back of Tavola, a stunning food shop in W11 that was a bookmakers' until several months ago, produces some of the very best pasta sauces in London.

But rather than being home to an elderly Italian couple who have perfected their wares, Tavola is home to a very chirpy, slightly greying Lancastrian with an impish smile and an able assistant.

He is none other than Alastair Little, the chef who led the charge of the young, self-taught British chefs in the early 1980s before going on to open two eponymous restaurants in W1 and W11.

Little has now severed all connections with these restaurants and, having fallen in love with Italian food a decade ago (where he runs a cookery school in the summer) has now turned his considerable culinary skills to producing a range of foods that any citizen of Bologna, Milan or Florence would be happy to find on their doorstep.

The fridge holds the pasta sauces: pesto Genovese; a rabbit sauce for pappardelle; a Neapolitan tomato sauce and a rich beef ragu for tagliatelle and pots of beetroot and chive, asparagus and lentil, lemon and spinach soups as well as Little's rendition of classic Italian desserts, caramelised blood orange salad, panacotta and a baked lemon and ricotta cheesecake.

A large, wooden table holds the slabs of foccacia, the terrific sourdough loaves Little bakes and trays of the day's specials, chicken breast with chilli potatoes, roast rabbit and sage and peppered rib eye. Around the walls are shelves of pasta, Italian ceramic bowls and paperback copies of Little's seminal cookbook 'Keep it Simple'.

Retired from the pressures of a restaurant, a great chef is finally free to do what he has always most enjoyed - cooking great food.

Tavola
155 Westbourne Grove, London W11 2RS (tel 020-7229 0571)
1000-1930 Monday-Friday, 0930-1700 Saturday

Tags:  paris
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