Cigar Aficionado

Joel Robuchon, Paris

It's never worth rushing a great meal or a great cigar, but if you wish to have one of France's great gastronomic experiences, you better get to Paris as soon as you can. Despite opening a majestic, new restaurant in January, superchef Joël Robuchon still claims that he will hang up his kitchen whites soon after his fiftieth birthday, which he celebrated in April. "I am not sure what I will do but I am sure that I will stay in gastronomy," he says. "But the life of a chef is just too severe."

His notion of severity, however, produces some of the finest cuisine in Paris, day in and day out. Chef Robuchon is always in the middle of it, orchestrating his chefs like a player-coach of a world-class football team. He gets everything he can out of his staff, which in the end means amazing food arrives at your table. Creating ultra-flavorful, intense food is his genius. People who have a preference for light, healthy food--hold the salt, thank you--have no business booking a table here.

A recent lunch started with a rich--yet somehow light on the palate--cream soup with puréed white beans and truffles. The opulent flavors of the creamy soup magnified the decadent character of the black truffles. It was almost a meal in itself. The next course was a sea bass fillet, which had been pan-seared, then baked and served over a reduced sauce of grape juice. The fresh acidity in the sauce enhanced the delicate flavors of the fish. A pigs' feet dish stuffed with black truffles was equally impressive as was the truffle risotto surrounded by tiny morsels of sautéed sweetbreads in a veal-based sauce.

Although we didn't order it, the chef insisted that we try his gratin of macaroni, truffles, celery and foie gras, which is best described as a cottage pie, Beverly Hills-style. One mouthful was enough. It was one of the richest dishes I have ever eaten. There was very little room for cheese and dessert, although both are excellent, especially the chocolate tarts, cakes and ice creams that arrive at your table.

There is no problem with finding a great bottle of wine at Joël Robuchon. Just a year ago, Robuchon had the worst wine list of any of the Michelin three-starred restaurants in Paris. However, since leaving his old restaurant, Jamin, he has added a cellar stocked with wine worth more than $1 million. Robuchon's wine list, with more than 600 selections, now ranks with the best in the city.

Bordeaux takes up the most space on his posterlike list, with more than 200 selections including key vintages from the '60s, '50s, '40s and '30s. Red Burgundy is the second-largest category with 120 selections. White Burgundy and Champagne are well represented. Less-traditional French wine lovers will not be disappointed with Robuchon's new list either. There are plenty of interesting wines from the Rhône, Alsace, Loire, and even the Midi, Cahors, Madiran, Bandol, Irouléguy and Corsica. Sweet wines are equally interesting with a solid selection of Sauternes--Y'quem back to '45-- late-harvest Alsace and an amazing set of sweet Vouvray back to '21. Prices range from about $16 for a simple bottle of red to nearly $2,000 for a great wine from the '30s or '40s. However, $50 to $70 will get you a fabulous bottle.

Don't worry about finding a wonderful cigar after your meal. Our choice included a Hoyo de Monterrey Churchill, Epicure No. 2, Romeo y Julieta Churchill, Rafael Gonzales Corona, Fonseca Perfecto, Partagas 8-9-8 and El Rey del Mondo Taino. Cigar prices are about 15 to 20 percent above Paris retail. Strangely, there were no Cohibas, even though they are found in just about every other top restaurant in Paris. However, the maître d'hotel, a keen cigar aficionado, said he found them overpriced and preferred his current selection.

A Hoyo de Monterrey Churchill was perfect, and the ambience of the turn-of-the-century parlor room harkened to a time of private clubs and aristocrats. About $5 million went into the restaurant's decor, which has dark wood paneling. Robuchon asked his friend Alain Weill, a noted expert on the period as well as cigars and turn-of-the-century posters, to oversee the project and make sure everything was done to specification. The one problem with Joël Robuchon is that the restaurant seats only 57 people; so it doesn't leave much room if you plan a visit before the master himself retires from the kitchen.

--James Suckling

Joël Robuchon
9, avenue Raymond Poincare
75116 Paris
Phone: (33) 1-47-27-12-27
Lunch and Dinner: about $160 to $210 per person without wine