The Search Is Over, Part One

Dining Room at Joel Robuchon

We sat in a room with purple velvet couches, fresh orchids, and soft piano in the background. Ours was the only party seated in this particular room. The wall was covered in a thick carpet of live ivy and below was a flower bed filled with tiny pink and white azaleas.

The table was adorned with two white linen runners, gold mesh, and over-sized, starched white linen napkins. I don’t mean cotton.

First a tiny stool came to the table for Laura’s purse.

Then a little plate came with two half-dollar sized curls of purest French butter sprinkled with sea salt.

A maitre d’, a captain, a sommelier, two servers bringing bread and 2 kinds of bottled water, and two or three other tuxedo clad professionals all stopped by our table to offer their services. We hardly ever noticed them. There were plenty of other diners, but we were the only ones that seemed to matter to the team of French and Asian service staff there to meet our needs.

Looking back I don’t remember anyone ever once asking, “How is everything?” They didn’t need to–they knew the answer.

This was Joel Robuchon!

In 1989 French chef Joel Robuchon was given the title of “Chef of the Century” by the Gault Millau guide. To date his dozen or so world-wide restaurants have earned 26 Michelin stars, more than any chef on the planet. His restaurant in Las Vegas has 3, which is the maximum rating. Michelin just started rating American restaurants in recent years. Nine other U.S. restaurants have 3 stars…world renowned Charlie Trotter has only 2.

The 16-Course degustation menu is $385 per person plus supplements for caviar and French truffles. We didn’t do that!

We chose a 4-Course menu at $180 per person. When it was all over I would have gladly given twice that. The experience we had was beyond value and without peer!

The night before we had dined at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon. Bouchon is Keller’s more informal bistro, and though I don’t doubt that America’s most revered chef is at the helm on occasion and has well trained chefs doing his bidding in Vegas, I have to wonder if it would match what happened on the same night at the original in Napa Valley.

Scallops at Bouchon

The menu certainly interesting. The service fantastic. But the noise in the place from 200 or so happy travelers and convention attendees was deafening. Robuchon only seats 60, and they don’t come to party.

Every protein at our table at Bouchon was overcooked. Scallops were deeply over-seared on one side and a lighter caramel on the other. Chicken breast was dry. Sweetbreads still had some membrane in them and were crumbly in texture.

A fantastic display of paper-thin sliced cured meats were all store-bought. Duck confit was missing the robust, melt-in-your-mouth flavors of herbs, garlic, juniper, and pepper. Foie gras vinaigrette didn’t taste like foie gras.

Ile Flotante

I do however applaud the Peanut Butter & Jelly Pot de Creme and the Ile Flotante, which is the Keller version of the old-school “Floating Island”, consisting of poached meringue atop a sea of Creme Anglaise. While both were excellent, they both lacked just one minimal twist that would have rocketed them to perfection.

The first night in town we dined at Jaleo which is Jose Andres‘ tapas restaurant in our hotel, the $8.4 billion, two-month old Cosmopolitan. I recalled that I saw Anthony Bourdain interview Chef Andres at his home restaurant in Washington, DC. Andres trained under Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Catalonia, Spain, so one might expect that he knows his stuff. I have not since learned otherwise. Jaleo was perhaps our unified favorite–until last night.

Entering Jaleo one is greeted by a sea of partying diners spilling out into the hotel lobby, some begging for a table. In the back a large circular cooking area contains 3 or 4 separate wood fires atop which are huge pans of authentic paella that are made fresh throughout the evening. It was like being in the fields of Spain where paella is made at lunchtime over open fires to feed farm workers. Unbelievable! The sights…the smells!

We feasted upon 3 or 4 different types of ham made from the famous black-footed pigs of Iberia. Bourdain toured the ham making facilities in Spain with Adria! Honestly, I wasn’t terribly impressed. Tasted like a good old-fashioned Virgina ham to me, but what do I know? I have had some pretty good Serrano hams before, and the one we had at Jaleo I felt was better than the high-dollar acorn-fed black-footed varieties. Serrano is nothing to sneeze at, and not remotely cheap itself.

The selection of Spanish cheeses was excellent, but cheese nonetheless.

Grilled Asparagus Salad at Jaleo

We must have tried and shared 20 different small plates, each one a painstaking lesson in passion for food that is clearly shared by Andres’ huge staff of culinarians. There were scallops, mushrooms, octopus, asparagus, romesco, olive oil, shrimp and much much more. Veal cheeks with morels was a must-try, but though the veal was so delicately and deliciously flavored, it was like chewing something that spent its short life chewing.

An amazingly simple salad of warm brussels sprout leaves with ham and apricots will undoubtedly find its way to one of my future menus in some form or another.

Then came dessert…

A friend had recently told me about a combination of vanilla ice cream, sea salt, and olive oil. I thought to myself, “YUK!” Chef Jose put together a couple things that sounded so wild that we couldn’t resist. One in particular, Olive Oil Ice Cream with Grapefruit.

New paragraph…

Olive Oil Ice Cream with Grapefruit

When in Las Vegas go to Jaleo and order olive oil ice cream with grapefruit. I don’t care if you don’t like grapefruit. Most people don’t. I don’t care if you don’t like olives or olive oil. It doesn’t matter that you can’t get your head around this concept. Buy it and eat it. It doesn’t taste like olive oil or grapefruit. It has a texture that you’ve never experienced before if you’ve only ever been to planet Earth. I will spend the next weeks and months obsessed with duplicating this dish because it was the best, most sensational, most delicious, most unique thing I’ve ever eaten…until last night.

The next night had us at Alain Ducasse’s MIX in THEHotel at Mandalay Bay. Ducasse has always been one of my idols because 1) He’s one of the world’s best chefs, and 2) He once said, “If you want art go to a museum, food is meant to be eaten.” I love his attitude towards contrived, over-handled food.

Gnocchi at Mix

We climbed (well we didn’t climb, we took a terrifying ride on a glass elevator) to the top of the hotel where we were treated to an amazing view of the Vegas “strip” and a stylishly ill-lit table surrounded by an enormous and surreal mobile of hand-blown glass spheres that conjured images of jellyfish silently, gracefully floating through a tranquil sea.

An incredible assortment of freshly baked bread was brought out with perfect squares of butter and homemade peanut butter (butter blended with hand-ground roasted peanuts). My first pet peeve in a fine restaurant is when butter is brought out that is too cold to spread. Table butter should be just below room temperature. This wasn’t, but I couldn’t stop sampling the peanut butter. What a great idea! It warmed up eventually and we kept asking for more bread.

Slabs of perfectly seasoned foie gras were displayed cold with toast points and then hot with roasted green papaya. I had a dish of soft potato gnocchi that mingled with veal jus and Parmesan cheese producing a flavor with such depth that I was seduced by each bite to take the next one. This was one of the most sensuously flavored dishes I’d had in years, if ever!

A roasted lobster was taken out of its shell, stacked, and covered with an equally seductive sauce of curry in an Asian or Thai style. Paper thin shavings of toasted hazelnuts completed the dish both texturally and flavor-wise. The lobster was a little tough and I wondered how this could be in an era of sous vide cookery and “butter poaching” at low temperatures to keep proteins silky smooth. Alas, the lobster was yummy and no tougher than I would have probably made with no more forethought than I gave it at the time.

My dining companions had sea bass and fresh hearts of palm, and roasted rack of lamb with quinoa. All were simple but elegant presentations with flavors that made us all wanting more long after the plates were licked clean!

Mix Candy Bar

Dessert brought a chocolate souflee with pistachio ice cream, a caramelized apple napoleon “tatin”, and my MIX Candy Bar–a handmade bar of chocolate, hazelnuts, and crispy feuilletine enrobed in ganache and accompanied by a quenelle of intensely flavored coconut/lime sorbet. Light and refreshing as dessert should be.

With the check came freshly baked madeleines with a dish of warm chocolate/hazelnut Gianduja (similar to Nutella) for dipping or spreading.

I would go back to MIX! I might go back to Bouchon to see if we just hit a bad night. Jaleo would be an oft visited culinary refuge were I living in Sin City. And you should come back tomorrow to read more about the most fabulous food experience this chef has ever had!

Until then…