[FoRK] The $300 prix-fixe (wine not included...)

Rohit Khare khare
Wed Oct 26 17:34:54 PDT 2005

... and yet, will we end up there at some point nonethless? :)

It does deserve a separate off-casino-floor entrance, though, doesn't  
it? --RK

On High-Stakes Tables in Las Vegas: Fish, Not Chips

By R. W. APPLE Jr.

Published: October 26, 2005

JO?L ROBUCHON and his creations travel very nicely, thank you.

His newest venture, Jo?l Robuchon at the Mansion, which opened on  
Monday in the MGM Grand hotel here, represents a leap back into the  
rarefied realm of haute cuisine, from which he "retired" in 1996.  
During the tryouts preceding its official debut, the restaurant  
served the best food in Las Vegas, by a decisive margin, and some of  
the very best French food I have ever eaten on this continent.

This is no revolutionary Robuchon, like his Ateliers (including one  
here and, soon, in New York), where one eats at a counter and talks  
to the chefs. It is no casual, scaled-down, moderately priced  
Robuchon, like La Table de Jo?l Robuchon in the chic 16th  
Arrondissement, and its counterparts in Monte Carlo and Asia. This is  
full-scale, damn-the-torpedoes, three-stars-or-bust Robuchon,  
worldly, luxurious, costly.

Getting there is none of the fun. You walk through the crass clamor  
of hundreds of slot machines, past a Starbucks and other lesser  
diversions and into a bombastic stone doorway more suited to a  
central bank than a casino. But inside you are in Paris, in a subdued  
neo-Deco room lighted by a glamorous Swarovski crystal chandelier,  
furnished with handsome chairs in the fashion of Ruhlmann and graced  
by Lalique vases.

A small glass of lemon gel?e flavored with vanilla and topped with an  
anisette-infused cream sets the tone straight away - a complex,  
entirely original and appetite-rousing prelude to the many delights  
that lie ahead, and a vivid demonstration of the French master's  
familiar maxim that three tastes in any one dish are quite enough.

Mr. Robuchon's arrival signals another step in the evolution of Las  
Vegas as a culinary capital, and the onset of a struggle between two  
visions of its future. Will it specialize in a kind of ghost cuisine,  
conceived but seldom cooked by absentee chefs who made their names  
elsewhere, or will it nurture its own kitchen superstars?

Steve Wynn, whose gigantic new $2.7 billion casino opened in the  
summer of 2005, helped put Las Vegas on the world's gastronomic map  
in 1998 when he lured luminaries like Julian Serrano, Alessandro  
Strata and Sirio Maccioni to the Mirage and Bellagio, the Las Vegas  
resorts he then owned. Mr. Serrano and Mr. Strata moved here, and  
their food profited from their daily attention. But many of the chefs  
and restaurateurs who followed in their profitable wake did little  
more than phone in menus.

Mr. Wynn said that one evening in 2000 he ran into Jean-Georges  
Vongerichten at Prime, the Bellagio steakhouse that bears Mr.  
Vongerichten's imprimatur. Mr. Vongerichten, who is involved in  
restaurants in New York and around the world, told the casino boss  
that it was the first time he had cooked at Prime since it opened two  
years earlier.

That set Mr. Wynn to thinking, he told me, and he decided that "the  
only thing that matters is who's cooking dinner, not whose name  
appears on the door." As a result, most of the nine fine-dining  
restaurants at Wynn Las Vegas (among 22 food operations) are run by  
younger chefs, well known in the cities where they formerly cooked  
but not nationally celebrated. All have relocated to Las Vegas as a  
condition of employment, except Mr. Strata, who has moved over from  
the Mirage, and Daniel Boulud.

"A sense started spreading that something was fishy here," Mr. Wynn  
said. "If Steve Wynn paints a painting he doesn't get to sign it  
Picasso. So we're going down a different path. It's a bit of  
adventure, and I admit I'm not sure it'll work."

Gamal Aziz, who ran Bellagio's food and beverage operation and who  
considers Mr. Wynn his mentor, thinks not. Now the president of MGM  
Grand, the Egyptian-born Mr. Aziz is still reaching for stars. He  
persuaded Mr. Robuchon to set up shop here, where the chef is  
contractually required to spend just two weeks a quarter.

"I think it's an uphill battle to bring in these relatively unknown  
chefs and introduce them," Mr. Aziz said. "Most of our clients come  
to the desert for four or five days, not long enough to get used to  
new faces. They want to recognize names. I think we gain a  
competitive advantage by associating ourselves with the very best,  
and it will not be easy to top Jo?l Robuchon."

Well, Guy Savoy, another Paris heavyweight, holder of three Michelin  
stars, may come close if he wants to. His Las Vegas entry, on the  
second floor of the new Augustus Tower at Caesars Palace, a  
kitschfest even by Las Vegas standards, is set to open early in 2006;  
Mr. Savoy's son, Franck, has arrived to oversee it.

Some equally big names have decided not even to pretend to reproduce  
the food they serve at their home bases. At Wynn, Mr. Boulud runs a  
brasserie, not a replica of Daniel, his brilliant Manhattan  
establishment (although the executive chef, Philippe Rispoli, who  
grew up near Lyon, like Mr. Boulud, makes a rough-textured p?t? de  
campagne, unctuous pork and goose rillettes and other dishes that  
would evoke cheers in New York).

Thomas Keller transplanted his bistro, Bouchon, not the French  
Laundry or Per Se, to the Venetian in Las Vegas. And the omnipresent  
Alain Ducasse, with two Michelin three-star restaurants, in Paris and  
Monte Carlo, eschews French classicism for a more populist approach  
at his local spot, Mix, perched on the 64th floor of a tower at  
Mandalay Bay. With sensational views across Sin City, it is much more  
endearing than its recently departed New York namesake. Thai beef  
salad and curried lobster cohabit happily on the menu with the best  
baba this side of the Atlantic, served with a choice of three premium  
rums. Hanging from the ceiling, thousands of shimmering Venetian  
glass baubles, said to have cost $500,000, remind you that you are in  
the world capital of wretched excess.

"Trying to replicate a Paris three-star on the 64th floor, maybe  
anywhere in Vegas, would have been a big mistake," said John Cunin,  
Mix's general manager.

Obviously Mr. Aziz and Mr. Robuchon don't think so, and for now at  
least they seem to have brought it off. Mr. Robuchon took an almost  
obsessive interest in the design of the menu and the kitchen and put  
two seasoned Breton friends in day-to-day charge: Lo?c Launay as  
general manager, and Claude Le Tohic, who worked at Mr. Robuchon's  
side during the glory days at Jamin in Paris, as executive chef.

Mr. Le Tohic holds the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best  
Craftsman of France), a coveted distinction awarded by a jury of his  
peers, so no one doubts his credentials. Seven cooks and six front-of- 
the-house people also came from Robuchon operations in Paris and  
Tokyo. Only time will tell, however, how long they will stay and who  
will replace them when they go.

Two set menus are offered at Jo?l Robuchon at the Mansion, 9 small  
courses plus coffee for $165, and 16 small courses plus coffee for  
$295. Many items are also served ? la carte. The 750-entry wine list  
includes risibly expensive items, presumably for those who have hit  
several jackpots, such as 1978 Le Montrachet from the Domaine de la  
Roman?e-Conti at $8,845 a bottle. But for mere mortals, 2002 Puligny- 
Montrachet from Dujac at a modest $108 should more than suffice. It  
did so for me.

Though relaxed, service is in the grand French style, with main  
courses delivered on silver trays (or carved at table side, in the  
case of the lobster and turbot and delectable roasted guinea hen with  
foie gras). Breads, cheeses (all French, all ripe), digestifs and  
after-dinner treats roll to the table on handsome wooden carts. The  
lighting is subtle, the air-conditioning far less overpowering than  
the Las Vegas norm; the tables are well spaced. Only 40 people can be  
seated in the square dining room, centered on a black fireplace with  
gas-fired flames, with room for a dozen more on a side terrace and 10  
in a small private room.

If the gel?e amuse-bouche attested to Mr. Robuchon's unflagging  
creativity, a mille-feuille consisting of two triangular layer cakes  
of fresh king crab, Fuji apple, watercress and bibb lettuce with  
perfectly fitted tomato lids bespoke his artistry. They rested on a  
red disk formed by a coulis of tomato and P?rigord verjus  
(unfermented juice of unripe grapes), delightful in its balance of  
acid and fruitiness, with minuscule green dots of parsley-infused  
mayonnaise around its circumference. So precisely was all this  
applied, each dish reportedly requiring 20 minutes to complete, that  
I thought for a second that it was part of the decoration of the  
plate. Magic.

I could not resist trying langoustines, a Robuchon specialty, which  
are not often seen in the United States. Pulled into tight circles,  
enveloped in ephemeral ravioli cases with more than a few slivers of  
truffle, and cooked for only a few instants, these were meltingly  
sweet and ultratender. A hillock of barely steamed baby Savoy cabbage  
shared the plate, along with a slick of glossy veal reduction.  
Nothing else.

The langoustines had been flown across the Atlantic, of course, but  
the milk-fed veal was all-American, from the highly regarded Four  
Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania. Listed on the menu as a veal chop,  
it was in fact two rectangles, less than half an inch thick,  
judiciously cooked to a uniform pink from edge to edge and moistened  
with deeply flavored pan juices. This time the accompanying act was a  
nest of taglierini made from carrots, zucchini and broccolini and  
lightly sauced with pesto. Somebody somewhere may do a more succulent  
veal dish - there are lots of restaurants in this world - but if so I  
have never sampled it.

Everything I ate was thought-out and free of frivolous gestures. Each  
combined delicacy with a certain muscularity of taste in a most  
unusual equilibrium. And each left my palate fresh as the dawn.

THINGS have gotten off to a bumpy start at Wynn. Its nightclubs are  
already being revamped, its computer system has been plagued by bugs  
and one of its regional chefs, Jimmy Sneed, formerly at the Frog and  
the Redneck in Richmond, Va., left before the resort even opened,  
after personality clashes and a dispute over what style of food he  
should cook.

Some of the other restaurants still seem a little ragged, including  
Okada, where the gifted Takashi Yagahashi cooks European-influenced  
Japanese food.

The look of the place is a bit of a letdown as well. Whereas  
Bellagio's lyrically swaying fountains evoke Busby Berkeley musicals,  
Wynn's ersatz Yosemite, waterfalls and all, comes straight out of B- 

But Wynn has had its triumphs as well, including Alex, the new domain  
of Mr. Strata and his rich, layered Franco-Italian food, which is one  
of the town's handful of truly successful haute cuisine restaurants.  
Its two steakhouses are booming, too; Las Vegas has always loved beef.

 From my viewpoint, Paul Bartolotta's Ristorante di Mare is as  
thrilling as it is unexpected: an Italian seafood trattoria smack in  
the middle of the American desert. Although forewarned, I leapt with  
surprise when he wheeled out a trolley banked with bright-eyed orata,  
branzino, triglia (red mullet), spigola and other fish - even ugly,  
fiery red scorfano, the rascasse so vital to bouillabaisse - from  
Venice, Sicily, Liguria and other maritime parts of Italy, which come  
directly from a Milanese broker.

Milwaukee-born, trained in top kitchens in New York, France and  
Italy, Mr. Bartolotta, 44, made Spiaggia in Chicago the best Italian  
restaurant between the coasts. When they met, Mr. Wynn said, "I  
wanted a normal Italian menu - you know, veal piccata - but he  
insisted on doing something different and wore me down."

So seafood it is: steamed mussels with cannellini beans, tender  
octopus salad, linguine with clams and tomatoes, charcoal grilled  
lobster or langoustines and those beautiful fish, simply poached or  
roasted whole with olive oil and perhaps a touch of grapefruit for  
balance, dressed with herbs and some simple condiment like salsa  
salmoriglio (olive oil, lemon, garlic and oregano) - real seaside  
stuff - with a few token meat dishes like rabbit, chicken and rack of  
lamb. No veal piccata.

"I'm shooting for extreme simplicity and explosive flavor," Mr.  
Bartolotta said, and he is hitting those targets.

Another veteran of the Chicago restaurant wars, Taiwan-born Richard  
Chen, who won acclaim at the Peninsula Hotel's Shanghai Terrace in  
Chicago, also seems to have hit his stride in Las Vegas. He cooks  
Western-inflected Chinese food at Wing Lei at Wynn, including a  
fabulous Peking duck salad that owes a debt to a similar dish at  
Hakkasan in London, a lobster spring roll, thinly sliced abalone with  
a spicy green papaya salad and a memorable Dungeness crab slow-cooked  
with ginger, scallions and garlic in a clay pot.

All fine eating - and a joy to look at as well, as is the miniature  
garden that lies just beyond a wall-size window, with a pair of 100- 
year old pomegranate trees and a big black Fernando Botero sculpture.

Still, the question remains: as important as dining has become to Las  
Vegas, where gambling now accounts for only 40 percent of revenues,  
can a rootless place with no indigenous gastronomic traditions and no  
local raw materials (except for the odd blood orange and sprig of  
rosemary) ever be a great restaurant town, as opposed to a resort  
town with good restaurants - "a Disneyland for foodies," as the  
restaurant consultant Clark Wolf calls it?

"I doubt that you will ever have a true food culture here, in the  
sense that Lyon and Venice and San Francisco have food cultures,"  
commented Elizabeth Blau, executive vice president for restaurant  
development at Wynn Resorts, who is considered one of the savviest  
food people in the city. "Nothing is local."

I asked Mr. Aziz whether Las Vegas is yet a great restaurant city.

"No, not yet," he replied, "but we've made some quantum leaps. We've  
built a strong foundation, and eventually we'll get there. This is a  
large, prosperous region now. We have the economic means to support  
not only great restaurants in the casinos, but also the bistros and  
other places that are popping up in the neighborhoods."

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