by Christine Cunanan-Miki

With so many world-class restaurants in Tokyo, it’s hard to name a favorite. When my husband and I want a great dinner with a particular set of good friends (a French-Filipino couple, to be exact), however, you’ll probably find us on a Saturday night at one of the window tables at the L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Roppongi Hills.

I’ve long been a fan of the master chef since his days at Jamin, his Parisian restaurant, and all through his various endeavors in Tokyo including the Taillevent Robuchon and most recently the Restaurant Joël Robuchon and La Table de Joël Robuchon in Ebisu. Yet, it is probably L’Atelier (LJR) which is his most successful concept yet. It’s enjoyable dining in volumes as much or as little as you please, and in an atmosphere that promotes—if not provokes—banter between staff and guests. And the LJR concept is the same, whether you are in Tokyo, Paris, London, New York or (next) Hong Kong; although with its high ceilings, blond wood furnishings, comfy tables for four, and divinely dressed reed-thin clientele, LJR New York is definitely the swankiest of the lot.

Anywhere in the world, LJR is somewhere you can go alone with a book or with a rowdy group of friends, and you can dress up or dress down as you wish—although at these prices (we’ve never left the place less than ¥45,000 lighter per couple in Tokyo, while in New York last week, my share of the bill came up to $120 without wine or tips included), I still prefer to put on a little black dress and some jewelry even if many other customers are in jeans and t-shirts.

One thing’s for sure, though—apart from excellent food and wine, you’ll never know what to expect at an LJR. I recently sat through a five-course lunch in Paris by myself, desperate for a last proper French meal before 12 hours on the plane back to Tokyo, sandwiched in-between a Portuguese banker in town for the day who wanted to retire and design dresses instead, and an elderly French couple who said they ate here once a week because otherwise life bored them to tears. Another time, my husband and I came just for plates of spaghetti with tomato and basil (one of the best I’ve had!) and ended up participating in a discussion started by a young New Yorker who announced that she had played a bit part in the US sitcom Sex and the City. In New York, I lunched with a passionate gourmet who was probably one of the restaurant’s best clients, because we kept getting all these freebies courtesy of the chef (and still my bill for two courses and half of a dessert came up to $120), while all around us men and women who looked like they had stepped out of Vogue nibbled on tapas.

LJR in Tokyo is just as fun and expensive, unless you take advantage of the lunch set menus or are prepared to eat very little. The food is dished up with the same French verve, although somehow the taste and presentation are much more refined—perhaps because this is Japan.

Our most recent meal, a multicourse tasting menu (Decouverte, ¥12,600), began with two divine palate-teasers (and artery-busters): a glass of smokey foie gras flan topped with foam of parmesan cheese, followed by the fattiest and most delectable slices of Iberico ham I have had in recent memory. Interestingly, this very same foie gras flan was served to me in LJR in New York a week later, and it had a stronger, punchier flavor perhaps to suit the aggressiveness of the city and its residents. The Iberico ham and I also encountered each other again in New York, but it was definitely Tokyo’s version that got my heart thumping.

Because this is not really fine dining, the rest of the Decouverte menu was hit-and-miss, but many were scrumptious and the others were at least enjoyable. Standouts included Robuchon’s take on Coquilles St. Jacques (and in this case, fresh scallops were seared to perfection and then left to sizzle with herb butter in their shells, rather than served with cream); a thick marron soup with shaved truffles, chunky bits of bacon and very discernible pieces of boiled chestnut; and a fatty, juicy entrecote of beef that came covered with truffles and served with garlicky mashed potatoes. I am not a potato person but even I found myself scraping the bottom of my little pot.

The Menu Decouverte (¥12,600) is a great way to sample Joël Robuchon’s specialties. Also, this is a French restaurant but so far I’ve never had spaghetti I didn’t like in an LJR anywhere in the world. The sauce changes with the seasons, but right now they may still have spaghetti with regular truffles (¥3,600) or with the famous Alba truffles (¥11,500).

Diego Requena, newly-arrived from Paris and never without his fashionable pair of Alexander McQueen glasses, is the chief sommelier. Look for him, mention the name “Bertrand” and ask for unusual, good-value wines that will complement your orders. He only orders small lots from France and has many interesting options in his cave.

We like the tables for four by the window and can sit here all evening. Book in advance if you can.

At least ¥ 5,000 per couple for a proper dinner and a bottle of wine.

L’ATELIER de Joël Robuchon
Roppongi Hills Hillside
6-10-1 Roppongi
Minato-ku, Tokyo
Tel. 03-5772-7500