Philip and I dined here on one of our last nights in Tokyo, encouraged by the excellent reputation of Joel Robuchon as a chef, and of the ‘Atelier’ sub grouping of his restaurants. There are a number of his establishments in Tokyo, ranging from the simple Café la Joel Robuchon in Mitsukshimae, to the three Michelin starred Chateau Joel Robuchon in the Ebisu district. The vast majority of his restaurants are within a single folly of a structure – a fake French Chateau that sits awkwardly next to the shocking modernity of Tokyo itself. The effect is a little jarring, and whist I can understand the logic behind such a move, it makes the experience a little like stepping into Disneyworld; for however much the materials might feel like they belong in the Dordogne, and that your eye convinces you as such – you know if your heart that behind it all it would be plywood and not much substance.
Interestingly, that’s very much an allegory for my experience of this restaurant; the food acts as a sort of veneer – albeit a beautifully prepared and elegant variety – which attempts to hide a number of frankly unforgivable failings that despite my efforts to ignore, much like the Disney illusion, eventually started screaming at my subconscious and made themselves plainly known. It is the only three Michelin starred restaurant that I have left in a hurry, and with a biter taste in my mouth.
In the spirit of fairness, I’ll start with the positives. As one would expect from a French restaurant of this pedigree, the wine list is both extensive and impressive, with a good number of mid range and more expensive bottles on offer. They also had a excellent selection of half bottles, allowing me to try a few different varieties that took my fancy. Interestingly, there didn’t seem to be a wine pairing option for any of the courses, and when I enquired I was told that the Sommelier could select a few bottles for me to have with my meal – though the Sommelier never made an appearance so I made my own choices based on experience.
The quality of the food is also excellent – again as one would expect. However, I would say its on the ‘safe’ side of Michelin dining – very traditional classic dishes and techniques, which might put some of the more adventurous gastronomes off. That being said, and despite the litany of criticisms I am about to unleash, the meal itself was good – and easily 3* Michelin standard.
Now for the negatives.
I had an inclining something might have been a miss when the waiter who was looking after our table asked for the second time about Philips dietary restrictions, particularly has I had reconfirmed the with the restaurant less than 24 hours previously. Apparently the chef couldn’t accommodate our request, and could we not choose a different menu from the one we had chosen (for reference, there are three). After I sent the waiter away to check what he was talking about, another waiter came back and said that they could accommodate, but not on the more elaborate of the menus – without then explaining why this was the case. After this waiter then left with our order, the first waiter came back and said that they still couldn’t accommodate us. At this point I had already pretty much decided that this was destined to be a farce – and a French one at that – and asked him, in an exasperated tone, to check with his colleague who had vanished earlier. After they had a brief chat around the corner, the first waiter came back – and I am not exaggerating in the slightest – listed every single ingredient, on every course, to see if Philip could have it put on his plate. After we had established that we could indeed eat at the restaurant, he made his apologies and disappeared. This whole routine begs the question why I had to fill in a ‘Guest Requests’ form on their website – if they then fail to read it, or cannot make changes some four months out from our booking.
The rest of the meal was littered with poor examples of service; plates not being cleared for a good five or six minutes after we had finished, despite waiters hurrying back and forth past our table; wine and water not being refilled once, and no offer of a top-up once the water had been exhausted, and regularly failing to present the correct plates to the correct patron, requiring Philip and myself to swap dishes on more than one occasion.
What really bothered me however was that the Chef, whose name escapes me, was doing his rounds of the tables that night – spending a good 5 minutes with each table before moving onto the next – completely blanked myself and Philip throughout our meal. There was no acknowledgement of our custom, not even a cursory glance. The only acknowledgment we got from him was when I had paid the bill – which was north of ¥200000 – and he scurried after us as we made our way to the door. It seemed like an afterthought; an obligation rather than an effort to engage with his patrons. He should take lessons from Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, or Christopher Koscow of The Restaurant at Meadowood in St Helena, California – both of whom were warm, engaging, and offered us a unique insight into their kitchens and minds.
My parting comment is that this is true example of how a restaurant cannot rely on the quality of its food, or the providence of its Wine selection to be great; it has to engage with the diners, make them feel unique, and most importantly, make them feel like they simply aren’t the next pay check to walk though the door.
Dinner for two, including wine, was ¥220000.