Las Vegas has seen so many big-name chefs open for business in the past few years, the list reads like a who's who of the cooking world. Wolfgang Puck, Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller, Julian Serrano, Bradley Ogden, Emeril Lagasse and Jean-Georges Vongerichten are already here. But the real gourmets are salivating over the arrival of Joël Robuchon, whom some consider France's greatest chef.
Robuchon is consulting for two restaurants at the MGM Grand, the super-luxe Joël Robuchon at the Mansion and the more casual l'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. The official opening isn't until Oct. 25, but I visited the new restaurants anonymously in mid-October, about three weeks after they opened. Early returns are impressive.
|Joël Robuchon may be France's greatest chef.|
Joël Robuchon at the Mansion is bigger news. It's billed as the celebrated chef's first restaurant that aims for a three-star Michelin experience since he closed his eponymous Paris restaurant in 1996. (That would make it more ambitious than the eponymous restaurant he opened in Monte Carlo in 2004.)
The "Mansion" in the name refers to the 25-villa enclave attached to the MGM Grand where suites start at $5,000 a night. And yes, the restaurant is, hands down, the most expensive place to dine in Vegas, with a tasting menu at $295. At 65 seats, in a town where 120 is considered cozy, it is the smallest and most exclusive of all the big names. And in a city where nothing succeeds like excess, Robuchon takes the biggest risk of all. He brings a subtlety to his new restaurants that is unlike anything else in Vegas.
It's something of a cliché to say that a French chef is subtle, but in Robuchon's case it's the essence of his craft. Not for him the flash and dash of bitey flavors and food done up to resemble something it isn't. Robuchon is all about making it look and feel natural, turning simple food into something luxurious. He is famous for his ultra-buttery mashed potatoes, and his signature dish is a cauliflower soup topped with fresh caviar.
Robuchon at the Mansion drips with French luxury, finished in a tasteful modern veneer. A massive Swarovski crystal chandelier hangs over a central banquette in a rectangular room, lighting a Rodin sculpture. Swing-era music dances in the background. The colors are subdued—deep brown, cream, black, even in the modern art on the walls—which makes the wall of green ivy visible past a faux terrace (it's not outdoors, it just looks like it) all the more brilliant. That terrace, by the way, with its half-dozen tables, is where you want to be for a romantic dinner. The tableware has an almost Japanese refinement, which fits Robuchon's uncomplicated presentations. Many of the plates look like folded origami. Some of the food comes on rough-textured black wooden planks.
The French word "finesse" is overworked, but Robuchon's food has exactly that. The ingredients look like themselves, the flavors are true, cooking is executed carefully, but in the best dishes, something magical emerges that is greater than the sum of the parts.
There is a $165 option for an abbreviated nine-course degustation, but I opt for the full 16-course extravaganza to see what the kitchen can do. As it turns out, the three best dishes are only on the $295 menu, which leans more on fish and seafood. If you are enticed to return for a second meal, you'll be offered a short à la carte menu, which includes the cauliflower and caviar (at $200 a pop). The other items range from $35 for vegetable soup to a $160 roast chicken for two.
The degustation starts slow but builds as it unfolds. The best dishes come midway through, and there is no letdown after that. This itself is something of a contrast with most American restaurants, which try to wow you from the first bite, then too often fade. Robuchon has the confidence to start slow and let things crescendo.
Among the first several courses, one stands out. Two perfectly butter-poached asparagus spears, their stalks split but ends intact, are filled to overflowing with osetra caviar. Melisse, a French herb, adds a faint aromatic touch.
But a fragile lemon gelatin is marred by a bit too much chopped black olive, and a layered "cake" of thinly sliced tomato, bread and king crab meat is just a bit too tough to cut. And when an otherwise flawless tuna tartare has leathery strips of over-dried ham framing it, and separate courses of lettuce soup, langoustine ravioli and frog-leg fritter are all undersalted, it gets me wondering if this Vegas experiment might not work.
But then comes the star of the menu, one of the most sensational dishes I have ever eaten: sea urchin flan, so light and creamy, singing of the sea's freshness and tang, the flavors just distinct enough to raise up in relief like a cameo. It is stunningly presented in a wooden Japanese bowl set off-center on a textured saucer.
Two courses later comes another fabulous Japanese-inspired dish: amadai, a Japanese snapper, its skin sauteed to a fragile, papery crispness, resting in a lily-bulb broth. The simplicity and jolt of pure flavor is memorable.
Easily the most creative dish on the menu features lobster. The meat, just north of raw, hides under a saffron custard layer that, when submerged in hot seafood bouillon, goes through several stages of ghostly wispiness until it disappears. It is fascinating to watch, and even better to eat, the juicy lobster to sigh for. A generous slice of rosy veal chop in its own jus gets a lift from a little pile of pesto-infused taglierini.
My guess is that chef de cuisine Tomonori Danzaki, who worked with Robuchon in Paris and Tokyo, gets the credit for the brilliance of the Japanese-inspired dishes. Maybe when Robuchon comes in for the opening he will get the first half of the menu up to the level of the fish and meat courses.
Pastry chef Kamel Guichida, from Switzerland, presents witty desserts. Strawberries in lime syrup combine with tequila sorbet to make a deconstructed strawberry margarita. A crunchy layer of chocolate plays off mint ice cream to make a high-class peppermint patty.
The wine list of 750 choices has some impressive choices, but the markups are breathtaking. A nice Bordeaux like Château Calon-Segur 2001, available at retail for $50 to $60, is $183 here. Big spenders can go for aged jewels such as Château Latour 1929 ($8,040), Léoville-Barton 1899 ($6,370) or Le Pin 1985 ($4,725). I opted for a couple of half-bottles that proved to be decent values: Domaine P. Matrot Meursault 1997 ($54) and Clos des Menuts St.-Emilion 2000 ($45). Service is knowledgeable and glassware appropriate.
At the adjacent but totally separate Atelier, most of the seats are at a long counter surrounding the open kitchen, and reservations are only taken for 5:30 p.m., when it opens. After that, it's first-come, first-served. They use the same high-quality ingredients as next door, and presentations are gorgeous. Prices are much less daunting, too. A friend and I ate well for about one-third of what it cost for my dinner alone at the Mansion.
It's fun to sit at the counter and watch the chefs building the plates. They set delicately poached oysters in their shells into crushed salt formed into a log. They shave prosciutto into paper-thin slices and arrange them on a pristine white rectangular plate. They cut thin lengthwise avocado slices and drape them over yummy peeky-toe crab salads (better than the crab dish at Robuchon). Creamy-textured sweetbreads come speared with a laurel branch. These dishes are all good, and the tasting portions, most priced under $20, are generous enough so that two or three should satisfy most appetites.
The larger main dishes run from $30 to $48. An extremely rich, deeply flavorful seafood paella is big enough to serve two, and it contains some high-class langoustines and scallops. Desserts are all $10. High marks for the chocolate "sensation" with Oreo cookie crumbs.
The wine list of some 400 choices is not just an abbreviated version of the big list next door. It aims for less exalted territory and has some options, such as the Dopff & Irion Tokay Pinot Gris 2003 ($41), that was fresh and lovely with all the food. The markups, or at least the prices, seem lower.
Few restaurants are this good after only a few weeks. It's scary to think how good these can be when they really get their feet under them. Another icon of French cuisine, Guy Savoy, is opening at Caesars Palace next spring. Comparisons will be inevitable, but the real question is not who's better but whether this injection of top-end French cuisine will challenge the other serious restaurants in town. If we're lucky, it will only push them all to improve.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions