new york in winter part five

from here we strolled back down along the eastern edge of the park. it was almost time for dinner in midtown. our final destination was l'atelier de joel robuchon in the four seasons hotel. this is one of a small string of these restaurants across the globe, designed to offer a less formal setting in which to partake in this legendary chef's craft. centered around a pearwood counter seating twenty guests at high stools overlooking the kitchen, it is a beautiful room across from the bar of the hotel. after a slight misstep on the part of the hostess, we were shown to our seats at the counter and greeted warmly by our waiter.

the visible kitchen is mostly for show and is decorated with stunning arrangements of fruits and vegetables in glass vases and bowls. it is done up in black lacquer with red accents, everything polished to a high gloss. the blond wood of the counter is set with black rubber placemats, red water glasses, signature chargers and futuristic silverware.

we decided that a series of small plates was the way to go, rather than traditional appetizers and entrees. we wanted to be able to taste as many different things as possible--plus the fact that we had already had a good-sized lunch. our amuse-bouche was once again a verrine, this time layered with foie gras and port gelee. the bread basket proffered wheat rolls, black olive focaccia and the most perfect miniature baguettes imaginable.

the first plate was a tower of roasted slices of zucchini, japanese eggplant and tomato, layered with buffalo milk mozzarella. this was dressed with a summery little basil sauce. nothing spectacular here (i.e. no luxury ingredients), but the elements were all perfectly cooked and seasoned and clearly assembled with great care. next we were presented with a gold leafed charger onto which had been lain a geometric oblong of smoked foie gras and lightly caramelized eel. atop this had been showered shavings of black truffle, while the plate was decorated with precise lines of finely ground pepper and and dollops of cream.

we had both wanted to taste the langoustine, but had only ordered one serving, figuring we would just split it. the kitchen generously sent a second plate of it, much to our surprise. i tasted mine first, biting through the incredibly thin shell and the basil leaf beneath it, into the sweetness of the shellfish's flesh. it was simply astounding! i resisted the temptation to slap drew and cry out, "this is the best thing i have ever eaten!" i just sighed and stopped to savor the experience instead. moments later, i was smacked out of my reverie by drew, having the exact same reaction. this dish was truly transporting....unlike anything i have ever eaten in my forty-some years. the only garnish was a dab of intensely colored basil puree, and even that seemed superfluous.

what followed was a plate of classic vitello tonnato. the paperthin slices of veal were rosy pink and fork tender, napped with a luxurious, creamy tuna sauce and sprinkled with a few pearls of capers. the rim of the plate held a lightly dressed half of a baby romaine heart, which offered the textural contrast needed to make this plate of richness not seem overwhelming. we also tasted an onion tart, the base of which was the just the barest whisper of crisp puff pastry. topped with meltingly sweet onions, tomatoes and some fresh field greens, it also benefited from a dusting of black truffle shavings.

the plates cleared away, the silverware removed and our placemats wiped down, we were ready to think about dessert. we started with a complimentary pre-dessert of grapefruit gelee, a fresh raspberry and lychee syrup. then we were given another complimentary plate with a nage of fresh fruits, all cut into the tiniest, most perfect dice imaginable and plated with lemongrass broth and a scoop of basil lime sorbet.

next came the desserts we had actually ordered...bracingly sour pink grapefruit supremes, garnished mint sorbet, two different creams, lemon foam, cubes of elderflower gelee and a shard of frosted sugar-glass inlaid with sliced almonds. it was absolutely stunning to look at and even more rewarding to taste. the other dessert was a warm souffle of yuzu plated with a quenelle of raspberry sorbet. as in the case of the the vegetables and the langoustine, there was nothing inherently special about this dish. it was in the execution and presentation that we glimpsed perfection.

we lingered with the last drops of wine (an outstanding 2001 chateauneuf du pape) and our cups of coffee, which were presented along with a caramel and seasalt filled chocolate. the sadness at being at the end of this meal (and the end of my visit) was mitigated by the knowledge that this one would rise into the pantheon of some of my best meals.
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