L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon

Breakfast at L’Atelier du Joel Robuchon, the stylish new restaurant in Landmark, isn’t exactly having breakfast at Tiffany’s, as Audrey Hepburn did in the eponymous movie a few decades ago, but it’s close. A Tiffany outlet is just directly downstairs from the fourth-floor aerie where Robuchon, one of the world’s most celebrated chefs, opened his signature restaurant last November.

Schoolboy French speakers know an atelier is an artist’s workshop, and Robuchon, in an interview not long ago, said that “it is just that, there is a bar where people can sit and eat, it is not haute cuisine, more contemporary. You can see the chefs cooking, it is not based on complex recipes, it is simple ones based on the quality of the products you have to prepare.”

But this is hardly an artist’s garret. L’Atelier is a gleaming, lustrous confection of red light, black marble, chrome, black leather and dark wood. Scores of identically-filled bottles of peppers and other vegetables repeat the color scheme. Even the bread is artfully stacked and the hams hanging from the ceiling add ambience. The idea is to give diners – audience is probably a more apt description – a square surrounding vantage point on high red leather-and-chrome stools from which to watch the black-clad chef and his staff at work. It is a carbon copy of other ateliers in Las Vegas, New York, Tokyo and Paris, with the counters designed with Japanese sushi bars in mind. One floor down sits a Salon de the, a tea salon, where shoppers can rest and nibble on some of the restaurant’s superb pastries, or buy them to take away.

Joel Robuchon has never done anything halfway. Named the chef of the century – the 20th century – by the French guidebook Gault-Millau, Robuchon turned away and “retired” from his three-starred Michelin restaurant in Paris in 1996, only to reappear just about everywhere – on French television, writing, lecturing, producing cookbooks.

Then, in 2001, he startled the culinary world by opening Robuchon á Galera in the Hotel Lisboa in Macau, a bizarre establishment bearing some resemblance to a birdcage crossed with a wedding cake. Whatever the hostelry looks like from the outside, however, Robuchon á Galera, with only 10 tables seating 55 diners, instantly became probably the finest French restaurant in Asia, an unheralded burst of luxury that goes largely unnoticed by the throngs in Macau’s casinos.

L’Atelier is supposed to be in marked contrast to Robuchon a Galera, and it is. But not in the ambience, the glamour, the level of service or the quality of the food. There is plenty to tell about the lunch and dinner menus at l’Atelier, which feature such items as Robuchon’s own celebrated version of mashed potatoes, which contain equal amounts of cream, butter and potatoes, for instance, and the restaurant’s 70-page wine list .

But now Robuchon has departed again from Hong Kong’s culinary establishment, becoming the first of the city’s really top restaurants to offer breakfast – power breakfasts, the staff will tell you, designed to lure Hong Kong’s masters of the universe from the lairs of the financial world that surround the Landmark Hotel in the Central financial district. Certainly, they can afford to pay.

Despite the astronomical cost of the meal, the brilliance of the décor, and the assiduous attention of a superbly trained service staff, both Robuchon himself and the staff at L’Atelier insist this is not haute cuisine. They don’t serve breakfast in haute cuisine restaurants, so it must be so.

But this is no noodle shop, and when breakfast arrives, it bears precious little resemblance to the bacon-and-egg staples served by even the best of Hong Kong’s hotel restaurants. Le Petit Dejeuner Joel Robuchon is so stylish it is painful to pick at it.

There is plenty of power in the power breakfast, starting with a bowl of muesli accompanied by a strawberry-raspberry yoghurt. This is not mass-produced supermarket yoghurt but a dish so fruity and flavourful that it is difficult to find the yoghurt itself.

After that comes an assiette du marche --a plate of cold cuts including salami, mortadella, roast beef, corned beef , turkey and cheeses artfully arranged and dappled with edible flower blossoms. That is followed up with eggs to order. The omelette is a wise choice, filled with mushrooms, cheese, ham and herbs, along with perhaps the lightest, airiest croissant I have ever eaten, a buttery masterpiece folded 27 times and re-folded before it was baked.

There is a smaller variation of the power breakfast – basically a continental breakfast including a bread basket, some cereal with yoghurt, seasonal fruits and juice –for HK$230 plus 10 percent. It’s advisable to go for the big one if a friend is along. There’s plenty for two, and breakfast with a friend is a nice way to start a weekend day. At more than HK$300 for a single plate, it’s expensive.

There are alternative dishes prepared by Chef Philippe Groult, a two-star chef in his own right who runs the kitchen. (Robuchon drops in on a quarterly basis to correct the sauce.) One of the most spectacular of these is a delicate crab dish, l’avocat crabe en feuille chinoise – perfect slices of whole crab, bound together with avocado slices in phyllo dough and surrounded by what the menu calls “Chinese leaves” as well as edible flower blossoms.

Breakfast isn’t served at the counter, partly because the breakfast dishes are complicated enough that they must be laid out on a proper table. It’s served in a quiet dining room with a view of – believe it or not – a lawn and plants espaliered onto skeletons of world globes that makes you forget you’re five floors up in one of the most crowded cities on the planet.

“We are not haute cuisine,” says a restaurant staff member. “The whole concept is out of the tradition we perceive of as French cuisine. The whole concept is borrowed from a show kitchen, where customers sit around and have direct contact with the chef. Chef Robuchon really wants to emphasise the ambiance of the dining area. It is a dining place where you can expect everything to be done perfectly.”

Certainly, it’s a fine way to start the day.

This originally appeared in The Standard of Hong Kong.