When I was planning our recent trip to Paris and Italy, I admit that I was much more excited about the food scene in Paris than I was about the food scene in Rome and Florence. Having indulged in so much good food the last time I was in Paris and having done extensive research of the city’s must-visit restaurants, I was more than ready to tackle Paris with my eating partner-in-crime, B. With limited time, we wanted to aim high so we booked ourselves dinner at L’Atelier Saint-Germain de Joel Robuchon. According to Wikipedia, Chef Joel Robuchon has 28 Michelin stars – the most of any chef in the world – and this particular restaurant is rated the 24th best restaurant in the world, according to San Pellegrino. It was a no-brainer to book dinner here.
L’Atelier Saint-Germain takes a less formal approach to fine-dining with an open-plan kitchen and wrap-around seating (although there are a few dining tables available). Whilst I was curious about this take on fine-dining, I must say that it didn’t enhance the experience for me, in fact, I think it distracted us from the experience.
When I am visiting a fine-dining restaurant and ordering a tasting menu, a vital part of the experience (for me) is the attention that you get from the server (one-on-one service, small chats), but also the surprise upon the arrival of each dish. When you are sitting side-by-side next to other diners, you (for better or worse) get to peek at their dishes when they arrive. If you are experiencing a tasting menu, like we were, then you may see the dishes being presented to other diners before you get yours, which inevitably ruins the surprise when you finally reach that dish on your tasting menu. This happened to us. We were also able to view dishes that were being presented to diners that hadn’t ordered the tasting menu, which also takes away a small part of the pleasure that you are experiencing because you may start comparing your dishes to theirs (particularly when their dishes are covered in freshly shaved truffles).
My other complaint was that I felt like I was on an airplane as I was sandwiched between two people. When you are cutting your dinner and your elbow is digging into the stranger next to you, things get awkward. Personally, I am not a fan of the communal, sit-next-to-your-fellow-diners. Give me a private table any day.
Thankfully, and more importantly, the food was flawless and beautifully presented. My favourite dishes of the night were: the tomato gazpacho, the St Pierre fish, the Black Angus steak and the lamb chops, which were served with the most heavenly truffled potato puree. The truffled potatoes alone are worth a return visit. Please note that the menu was in French so I’ve tried my best to describe the dishes with the limited information that I have.
The oddest dish of the night goes to the egg and mushroom dish (served in the cocktail glass). The runniness of the egg was off-putting at first but thankfully there were mushroom pieces to add some texture. Texture was also very important for the foie gras dish, which was paired with beans which provided some firmness to balance the softness of the foie gras. There is no doubt that the food was the highlight, as it should be. However, I also expect good service when eating out, particularly when the restaurant is as highly-rated and as expensive (the tasting menu was €175pp/$245CAD) as this one is. Unfortunately, we found the service wasn’t as good as the food.
In the beginning, there appeared to be only one server for everyone seated at the bar (about 20 people) and the poor thing was over-worked and appeared to be unable to keep up with all of the orders. Because of this the service started out sloppy; lack of attentive service, forgotten wine menus, wines showing up late into the meal, etc. We also noticed that the French diners in the restaurant seemed to receive far more attentive service than the North American diners (there were three Americans seated next to us that seemed to have even slower service than we did).
I know that nitpicking over such small things at a wonderful restaurant makes me sound like an asshole (it is certainly a first world problem) but I stand by it because the restaurant has set customers up to expect a certain quality (by charging the prices it does and by having two Michelin stars). I can’t help but think that the slow/inattentive service and the claustrophobic seating could possibly be the reason that L’Atelier Saint-Germain dropped from #12 to #24 in a year on the San Pellegrino list. By no means was it a bad meal, it was a pleasant evening and the food was outstanding, however for the price, I was expecting better service and a better overall experience. Having said that, I would likely go back but I would most certainly request a table, rather than dine at the bar.