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The duck was crispy, and so nearly was I

Published 5 November 2006
News Review
694th article

Michael and Powers-Freeling at La Cuisine (Joanna Kanska)

Laurel Powers-Freeling, UK boss of American Express, plays the harpsichord, well.

That earns her a lot of Brownie points, if not American Express points, which I get when I use their card.

Last Christmas I bought nine of my staff 26in TVs on my Amex points. The year before some very grand, famous-make watches! This is nothing to do with La Cuisine, the upstairs restaurant at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, except that I took Laurel there to lunch.

There was a great hoo-ha when Monsieur Robuchon came to London. As if it was important. It wasn't. The downstairs, called L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, is highly unattractive. There's a counter facing the kitchen. The tables are in pokey alcoves, or are just pokey. The basic colour is bright red.

They'd reserved me two seats at the bar because, apparently, that's the fashionable place to be. Watching the chefs in the kitchen. I can see staff working at home. I don't need to go out for it. So I asked the very charming general manager (as opposed to the two lady receptionists who were the opposite of charm) what there was above.

Laurent Chaniac led me upstairs to the grander area. One of the most appallingly designed rooms I've ever seen. Here the colour is black and white. A narrow room has been divided by a useless counter, not for people to sit at, just laden with pots and green stuff. Thus punters have two narrow areas either side of this divide.

I was shown a banquette with a view of the kitchen. The heat from the wood fired oven was blasting across me. "I'll be medium rare before dessert," I said to Laurent. I moved opposite.

Luckily when Laurel arrived she didn't seem to mind the heat. Perhaps she was used to it, working for Amex.

First food to appear was carta di musica, crisp Italian bread. I've never had better. The baguette that followed was miserable. Surprising for a French restaurant. It was also offered to me before Laurel. Don't they know the lady should be served first?

The rest of the food was incredibly good, but the place was far from full. I'd read you had to book months ahead. Not only was it not full on the Monday I went, a famous chef went the next day and said it wasn't full, and I looked in five days later when I was having lunch at the Ivy and neither upstairs nor downstairs was remotely full. The premises, in West Street, adjacent to the Ivy, have been a graveyard for many restaurants. Monsieur Robuchon should worry.

I chose, from the a la carte menu, langoustine fritters with basil pistou and then roasted young duck, orange jus and endives. Laurel ordered crabmeat followed by young veal rib (they seem very keen on the description "young" here!), in wood oven, olives and purple artichoke. You could only order a glass or a full bottle of wine. Odd that. The most expensive glass was Geyersville Ridge Vineyards, Santa Cruz USA 2002 at £15.

"You work for American Express, dear, you may as well have an American wine," I said to Laurel graciously. Or not graciously, according to how you look at it. The wine was fine.

We got a freebie mousse of foie gras topped with a reduction of port served with a froth of Parmesan. And some ham. They were both superb. Then I got something else I didn't order - two scallops baked in the oven and served with a citrus and seaweed butter.

The chef here certainly knows what he's doing. I just wish he was doing it somewhere else with a better room design and more atmosphere. My duck was historic, tender, nice crispy caramel surface. Laurel said her veal was perfect.

"There's no need to divide the room so you've got two thin slivers with tables facing and too close to the wall," I dictated. "They should knock the whole thing down inside and redesign it." You got no feeling of being in a community of eaters as you do in the Ivy a few yards away. The food isn't as good there, but the overall experience is much better.

We both chose meringue for dessert. Laurel the chocolate one called le black. I had le white - crispy meringue, lemon and lime sorbet, avocado banana. It was perfection.

After the meal I was introduced to the chef, Frederic Simonin. I told him how absolutely brilliant his food was. He didn't seem to understand a word I was saying. For all he knew I could have been talking about the weather. Which is usually my main topic of conversation anyway.

Winner's letters

You always write affectionately of the Princess, Paola Lombard. Perhaps you're not the bombastic, over-opinionated, insensitive, egomaniac you'd have us believe. I hope Paola makes a full recovery.
Robert Randell, London

Paola's not just witty and delightful and beautiful, Michael - she's stunning! If she says Tuscany's in the middle of Italy, I'm taking her word for it.
Diana Cambridge, Bath

"Undressed you didn't look your best
but a cuddly bear you were.
Now, less three stone
once unique, you're a clone.
Our Michael has gone
he could be anyone!"
Bring back the chef.

Margaret Mercer, East Yorkshire

The Fat Duck impressed me three years ago. Two further visits have been disappointing because there have been absolutely no changes to the menu. Heston Blumenthal is resting on his laurels. Snail porridge is nice, but once is enough. Unless Heston changes, the Fat Duck will become no more than a theme park.
Joshua Van Raalte, Oxford

I'm so impressed with your new, svelte outline, I'm putting you forward for Strictly Come Dancing. But you'll have to get some decent clothes!
Jayne Apter, Buckinghamshire

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk