Of all the new restaurants in Las Vegas’ CityCenter, which opened in December, Twist by Pierre Gagnaire intrigued me most. The renowned French chef, holder of three Michelin stars for his eponymous Paris restaurant, joined his French peers Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy and Alain Ducasse in betting on Las Vegas.
Only this time the odds are different. Robuchon, Savoy and Ducasse arrived four to seven years ago, when the high-rollers were rolling at their highest and the pickings were ripe. How hard is it today to woo customers with $50-plus entrees and $180 menus in a hotel (the Mandarin Oriental) with no casino to help defray the expenses and fatten the wine list? More to the point, now that it’s been operational for six months, how well does Gagnaire stack up with his peers, both French and American, in Las Vegas?
To find out, I made a reservation under another name and dined there with my wife last week. A few of the dishes reflected why Gagnaire is so highly respected for his innovation and style, but others seemed to miss the heights expected when they cost what they do. The high-priced wine list offers some nice choices that reflect a sommelier’s point of view, not just the greatest hits, and smart choices that are off the well-trod path. But the size of the list is considerably shy of Robuchon and Savoy, which have Wine Spectator Grand Awards for their Vegas outposts. Service was friendly and knowledgeable, and as for atmosphere, the big picture windows frame the Hawaiian Marketplace and Harley-Davidson across the street, not among the iconic sights of the Strip.
The dishes I loved most included a roast fillet of veal, perfectly juicy, its sweet meatiness playing against the savory dry-orange rub. The flavors of the morel-licorice coulis and Gorgonzola polenta hit a wonderful counterpoint. I also flipped over langoustine tartar, the succulent shellfish creatively paired against ice flavored with wakame seaweed and wedges of spicy grapefruit. A sprinkle of nori chantilly added just the right touch. But this was not a course on its own; it was one of five versions of langoustine served together, each in its separate bowl or plate. All looked spectacular on the table, but only the tartar and a simple grilled crustacean wowed me. Same thing with the Maine lobster main dish, in which the star was not the lobster itself but a foie gras cake served on the side with the knuckles and claws.
A series of canapés failed to amuse my bouche, the flavors surprisingly subdued, but the mignardises at the end were exceptional, especially the multi-colored, brilliantly fruity, tart meringue sticks presented vertically in their own cup. Everything looked great. Someone has a real eye for presentation here.
So why was the execution so spotty? My guess is that the boss needs to show up more often to fine-tune the troops, or choose a better avatar-chef to impose his standards. Or maybe Gagnaire has not yet figured out how to create a successful Las Vegas extension of his restaurant empire, which includes Sketch in London, Pierre Gagnaires à Tokyo, Hong Kong and Seoul, Reflets in Dubai and Les Menus in Moscow.
Faulty execution was supposed to be why famous chefs would flounder in Las Vegas. That's why Steve Wynn insisted that the chefs for the restaurants at Wynn and Encore move to Las Vegas full time. But Robuchon, Savoy and Ducasse have similarly far-flung restaurant empires, and what you get at their restaurants succeeds consistently well at the same high level of their other places.
Ducasse was first up to the plate, opening Mix in 2003 at TheHotel at Mandalay Bay. He struck a partnership with the New York-based restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow of China Grill and Asia de Cuba fame. They never intended Mix to contend for best restaurant. They dialed back on the menu’s ambition, but from the start the food was sharply executed. And those who wanted a high-end experience could get it with a very well done chef’s menu that hit for a high batting average.
Robuchon opened his Atelier de Joël Robuchon in the MGM Grand in 2005, following that up in 2006 with Joël Robuchon at the Mansion there. This two-pronged approach made perfect sense. The pricey but casual Atelier helped create an economy of scale and the sort of steady business that pays the bills and improves the product. That made it feasible to put a highly talented crew in place for both places.
Savoy followed in 2006 at Caesars Palace. Like Robuchon and Ducasse, he partnered with a big casino hotel that could use the high-flying restaurants and deep wine cellars as incentives for their big bettors.
My first meals in all of these places were full of “wow” moments, when the food did that thing that only three-star chefs can achieve, the flavors and textures transcending the sum of their parts to create something new and breathtaking. Gagnaire’s restaurant in Paris works that magic on plate after plate. At Twist, nothing was substandard, even if the "ooh and ahh" moments were few. It's a laudable start, but Gagnaire can, and should, do better.
James Suckling — — July 8, 2010 5:22pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — July 8, 2010 5:58pm ET
Jordan Horoschak — Houston, TX — July 8, 2010 6:13pm ET
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