After doing a bit of research on fine dining in Montreal, I decided to give L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon another try. I wasn’t overly impressed with it when I was in Hong Kong, but I had delayed planning a nice dinner until late in the game and I couldn’t find a reservation that would fit into our overall schedule. L’Atelier it is! I didn’t realize, until the day of the reservations, that the restaurant is actually in the Casino, which honestly, if I had known, I likely would have changed my plans. Casino food can be hit or miss and if I wasn’t sold in the excellence of L’Atelier from a previous visit, I was sure the locale wouldn’t make it better. Plus, it was too late to cancel without a forfeiture fee.
I roll into the casino about 5 minutes before my reservation and like all casinos, it was like a maze finding the restaurant. Eventually, after a few escalators, an elevator and a flight of stairs, I walk up to the Maitre d’ and was greeted by name. The restaurant was booked full and I was a single diner showing up about 10 minutes after my reservation time – process of deduction lead them to me.
The welcome crew was great, no comment about my tardiness – there were a couple of single seats around the counter, of which I had my choice. Selecting a corner seat gave me extra elbow room and only one opportunity to have a talkative neighbor.
As I sat down the menu was delivered and before I could even get situated, I was presented a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and was asked if I’d be joining in a pre-dinner glass of champagne. OUI! Madam, OUI!
As I sipped my champagne and perused the menu, I finally got a chance to check out the restaurant. It looked remarkably like the Hong Kong version, bar seating, highboy tables around the perimeter, although this restaurant looked out on the river and was quite bright and sunny, despite the deep red and black lacquer finished.
I had basically decided I’d be doing the tasting menu this evening. The final decision was which menu to try, the Decouvert de Saison or the Experience. I was pushing for the Experience, but I didn’t want the sweetbreads and I couldn’t swap out a course, so it was the Decouvert for me. It wasn’t a big let down, I just really wish I could have had the canard – I love duck.
I decided to do the wine pairings as well – why not, right? So I sat at the bar, alone, enjoying a 10-course tasting menu with wine pairings, and I couldn’t be happier. First up, an amazing bread basket was delivered. I knew I wouldn’t eat all that bread by myself…but I did a damn good job. I just left one of the olive loafs behind. So perfect, so buttery, so not needed based on the amount of food I was eating!
Service was surprisingly smooth and knowledgeable. I kept replaying the dinner in Hong Kong and how disappointing it was. Not at all like that here. The service was well timed – a glass delivered, then the wine poured with about 20-30 seconds of explanation of the grape, the region and why it was chosen to pair with the next course. I’d have about a minute or two to smell, taste and admire the wine before the plate was delivered – again with a 20-30 second explanation of the dish, then I’d be left to enjoy it in peace. Dinner continued like that for about two and a half hours.
By the time the L’Asperge Blanche was delivered (which was SCALDING hot by the way), a couple sat next to me. She was loud and brash. She ordered a double spicy, extra horseradish Bloody Mary. The server confirmed and gave her fair warning that that drink would likely destroy her palate, truly diminishing the tasting menu. She ordered the tasting menu…and a second double spicy, extra horseradish Bloody Mary…before the champagne was served.
Despite my initial frustration with this woman, we ended up having a really great time chatting. Her husband (boyfriend?) was more of the silent, look at his phone type of guy and she was a chatty Kathy. She ended up being quite respectful, when my dish would arrive, she’d turn and lavish attention on her date, who couldn’t care less about her (or so it seemed) and once I was done, she let me savor for a moment, then she’d jump right back into her story, without missing a beat. It made for an enjoyable experience.
Finally the petits fours were delivered. Eric Gonzalez, the head chef, came out and chatted with me for about 15 minutes. We spent a lot of time talking about port (I love a beautiful Portuguese fortified wine) and about proper duck preparation and how he doesn’t really dig the whole duck press service. I loved pressed duck, but many places do it so poorly.
My early dinner came to an acceptably timely close a little before 22h00, which gave me plenty of time to head back to the hotel, change and meet up with my friends that evening. The L’Atelier in Montreal is head an shoulders better than the one in Hong Kong. I was thoroughly disappointed in so much of the Hong Kong experience and despite the casino location, this team did a phenomenal job. I’d head back and dine here in a heartbeat — but will I dine in Paris, or Shanghai or Taipei or any of the other cities with a Joël Robuchon restaurant? Time will tell.
Have you dined at any of the incarnations of Joël Robuchon’s restaurants? What did you love? How was the service?