The first time we visited Paris, we got hopelessly lost in the Seventh Arrondissement.
That’s how we stumbled onto L’Atelier.
I knew of the chef, Joel Robuchon, thanks to a Christmas gift. Years before, my mom had given me “Simply French: Patricia Wells Presents The Cuisine Of Joel Robuchon.” Ever since, I’d dreamt of eating at his L’Atelier.
Last month, I got to. In honor of our 20th wedding anniversary, my husband reserved space (a year in advance!) for the restaurant’s 6:30 p.m. seating.
I have to confess: I was a little nervous. Our French is only cafe-passable. And the last time we ate at a high-end, award-winning restaurant (my Bluestem in Kansas City), we left feeling like wannabes among the popular crowd. If my hometown eatery made us feel like interlopers, what hope did a couple of non-fluent Yanks have at L’Atelier?
I shouldn’t have worried. The wait staff was kind, attentive and utterly charming, walking us through the 10-course tasting menu we ordered and never once trying to sell us “up” when we opted for just a couple of glasses of wine.
The food was divine. (“How tired do you get of people saying ‘amazing’?” my husband asked one of our servers, who nodded and laughed.)
We ate ceviche (yes, my husband shamelessly took pictures of the food but in his defense, everyone’s Smartphone was pointing):
Gazpacho with a dollop of savory ice cream:
Mushroom-stuffed pasta with the requisite foam:
Seared foie gras with cherries:
Cod on a velveteen puree:
And a chocolate creation to top off our three-hour evening:
It was exquisite, inventive food, and it was worth every Euro we spent.
But looking back, those dishes were just supporting players. The evening’s real highlight was the people.
At L’Atelier, you sit at a long, three-sided bar. You get a view of the kitchen … and those eating with you.
This forced intimacy among diners creates a choice: You can either stay to yourself and turn away from the people beside you. Or you can open yourself up to these strangers and engage them as you eat your meal.
I prefer the latter. To my left sat a young man from Tel Aviv. He was born in Israel, and we talked about food and travel, Israeli politics, and the vagaries of living in a land of very real, very present danger. (“You’re very aware of your day,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t go where you’d planned.”) I didn’t get his name, which makes me sad. I would love to have dinner with him again.
To my husband’s right sat a couple from London (and sometimes New York and sometimes L.A.) The wife was Lebanese; the husband was an Armenian whose grandparents died in the Armenian genocide. Their dinner companion was a Brazilian sugar baron.
A few seats away, we met a couple from Portland, OR. They were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. (“Portland has good restaurants,” they said. “But nothing like this.”) The staff raised a glass to both of our marriages.
“Would you do this again?” my husband asked as we walked toward the Eiffel Tower.
“What?” I responded. “Come to Paris or eat at L’Atelier?”
“Both,” he said.
What a crazy question! With food like we ate and conversation like we had, there’s only one answer: