His name is still on the restaurant, right above the Michelin stars. When L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon opened last year, food writers clamored to cover a huge opening from one of the most Michelin-decorated chefs in the world. It didn’t take long for L’Atelier to be awarded two stars, along with one for the downstairs lounge, Le Grill de Joël Robuchon.
The “chef of the century” died from pancreatic cancer a year after his NYC outpost opened. He had more than a dozen restaurants that shared 32 Michelin stars. In the wake of his death, his team strives to continue his brand of excellence. One protégé, Alain Verzeroli, is becoming a star in his own right with new solo projects Le Jardinier and Shun, and another, Christophe Bellanca, is on an even more pressured mission: re-creating Le Grill de Joël Robuchon as a stand-alone concept called Le Club.
“With chef Robuchon’s passing, the opening of Le Club is an opportunity for me to take all that I learned from him and put forth my own creativity as a chef,” culinary director and executive chef Bellanca says.
Like L’Atelier next door, Le Club possesses a dark, sophisticated aesthetic in reds and blacks. Nondescript music and snatches of French conversation waft through the room with the tinkling of ice and cocktail stirrers. Pierre-Yves Rochon designed the space with rich velvets, and modern light fixtures literally spotlight the small plates and beverages.
In addition to bottles including the $185 Krug Grande Cuvée Brut, the cocktail list is impressive. The bubble bath texture of egg whites typically leads me away from these sorts of drinks, but the Romance Criminelle contains a luxurious creaminess, tinged with jalapeno. In contrast, the Mountain Jam is a refreshing blend of cognac, St. George Spiced Pear, Verjus Blanc, peach and yuzu.
Le Club recommends three to four dishes be shared between each couple; I’d argue more like five or six, including dessert, to feel full. Tender like pork belly, the eggplant nasu is a good first course with its rainbow of sauces, and mushroom velouté is served in a shot glass-like container with a parsley emulsion that gives life to the dish.
Oyster and Champagne will tempt diners with their fennel mousseline, but the hamachi especially impresses. The fish is downright silky atop crispy coconut rice and avocado. Duck meatballs are one of the heartier plates with a perfectly creamy accompanying sauce. But the dish of the night was foie gras creme brulee, an inventive take on the French classic. The bruleed sugar made for a dazzling combination with green apple foam and the salty, sumptuous base, which resembled a Japanese chawanmushi custard.
L’Atelier pastry chef Salvatore Martone, who is famous for his whimsical confections, designed the dessert menu at Le Club, including a cloud of cotton candy suspended with wire over chocolate raindrops and an edible umbrella. The wisps of candyfloss help dry out the taste of the rich chocolate.
While L’Atelier remains open with Robuchon’s name and star on the wall outside, Le Club sealed itself off from its famous brother. Its charm is in its technical perfection of small dishes for relatively low prices, whereas diners at L’Atelier can content themselves with $85 Dover sole.
I regret that I never had a chance to eat a dinner by Robuchon, but I did sample his cooking once. He was hosting a party for the launch of L’Atelier and, though he wasn’t a fluent English speaker, appeared to charm everyone in his circle. Amuse-bouches circled the guests, and I remember thinking it amazing that so much taste—and maybe a chef’s legacy could fit inside this one small bite.