In this job, it pays to be suspicious. Things are not always what they seem, as new kitchen technology and sleights of hand turn traditional dining on its head. Witness the tart with no pastry, the sandwich without bread, and the soup that is half-hot, half-cold.
Now, in the glossed-up surroundings of London's new L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, I am ready for an update on the latest culinary conceits and double-entendres.
"So, what is 'Atelier-style' spaghetti?" I ask. My waiter tells me it is spaghetti carbonara. This is not enough information.
"Is it actually spaghetti?" I persevere. "Or is it Parmigiano-flavoured consommé set with agar-agar as it is at El Bulli? Or strands of squid, as at New York's WD50? Or clarified egg yolks and puréed borlotti beans in the manner of Cracco Peck in Milan?"
"No sir, it is spaghetti. With ham, cheese and a touch of cream."
This is an unexpected development. L'Atelier is said to be the brave new edge of French gastronomy, but it appears to be the brave old edge instead. Spaghetti is spaghetti; steak tartare is steak tartare; and there is even a crumbed whiting Colbert.
What is relatively new is the dining experience. In 2003, Joel Robuchon, once hailed as the world's greatest three-starred chef, came out of a self-imposed retirement, and immediately set the restaurant world on its ear. In love with Spanish tapas and Japanese sushi, he opened a glossy, red-and-black lacquered diner in Tokyo with counter seating, an open kitchen, a small-plates menu, and no bookings. A queue formed, and the concept rolled out into Paris, Las Vegas, New York, and now London.
With its long, sleek dining counter, lined with hugely comfortable chair-stools, the ground floor Atelier makes this dead-end space in the shadow of The Ivy work for the first time in years. Colours are unequivocally red and black, and everything is burnished, glistening and gleaming, reflected in mirrors and polished granite. Even the diners - rich expats from Paris, Washington and Beirut - are shiny, glossy people. An open kitchen glows red like the gates of hell; and the whole effect would be cauterisingly glamorous, were it not for the overly decorative vases and bottles filled with red chillies and sweet peppers that scream Lakeland catalogue.
On the first floor lies La Cuisine (where bookings are accepted), an open-plan "kitchen" of work stations and tables designed to reduce the distance between diner and chef, and, above that, a rather hysterically decorated salon bar/holding pen.
The menu divides into small, medium and large servings, with a separate £55 tasting menu. A serious commitment to quality produce is evident in a platter of sweet, nutty, soft jamon iberico (£9), expertly sliced by hand and served simply on waxed paper with a triangle of grilled bread "iced" with fresh tomato dice. Another oblong platter holds a precise line of gleaming squares of marinated raw tuna (£11), scattered with flecks of tomato confit and crunches of sea salt. The impeccably fresh fish melts on the tongue like butter. A hash of pig's trotter on Parmesan toasts (£11) leaves a lovely, grubby, rich, fatty feel in the mouth; and a whole langoustine spring roll (£10) is supersweet and fresh.
The pricing structure is a nightmare, because you never quite know what you are going to get. A single, breathlessly delicious ravioli of langoustine in Savoy cabbage costs £15, the same as a man-sized steak tartare main course. Richly seasoned and hand-chopped to order from the French chef's favourite cut of meat, onglet, it arrives with a pile of extremely crinkle-cut, almost corkscrew fries miraculously cut with a specially designed ripple-bladed chopper.
The style then leaps from bistro to classical, with a main course of tender, meaty quail stuffed with foie gras (£24), luxed up with the famous Robuchon summer-truffled pomme purée, a silky, svelte concoction of three parts potato to one part butter. And after all my suspicions, the spaghetti carbonara (£11) is indeed a hefty serve of pasta, albeit in the French style: soft, creamy and mild.
The wine list is richly endowed with choices for the equally richly endowed, but I stop at £38 for an Allegrini La Grola IGT, a vibrant, and full-bodied Valpolicella. Desserts (£9) tend to be either kitsch or classic: well-made but polite wedges of the day's tarts, or a peculiar layered coffee thingy in a glass.
Dining at the world's sexiest chain restaurant is a bizarre experience. On one hand, it is great fun. On the other, it is not cheap, which takes some of the fun away. "Separate tables" types will dislike the forced conviviality of the counter, but I love it, because I feel I am sitting right on the edge, caught 'twixt dining-room and kitchen. I also love the sheer quality of the food, and the meticulous precision of the cooking.
This, I think, is Robuchon's mission, to merge food of great style and finesse with a more liberal, modern dining experience. Mission accomplished.
16/20 Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, 13-15 West Street, London WC2, tel: 020 7010 8600 (no bookings after 7pm). Lunch and dinner served daily. Around£150 for two including wine.
Second helpings: More counter intelligence
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