Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bouchon Bakery, Las Vegas Nevada

"In the end, a great meal is not about the food and the wine. A great meal is an emotional experience. We try to make it an extraordinary one by creating a beautiful place, one filled with staff who cares about it as they do about their home, and care for you as the most important guest in it...a great meal is not one that fills you up. A great meal is a kind of journey that returns you to sources of pleasure you may have forgotten and takes you to places you haven't been before."

With quotes like that you know his food is not a joke, and I will admit a bias to Thomas Keller's concepts and food. From peanut butter and jelly to quiche to gnocchi to bread and butter to cookies and cakes the man simply does amazing things with food. The best french toast I've ever eaten, the best quiche, the best cookie....and service that never fails to make you feel like the most important guest on earth. With those things in mind my Vegas vacation entailed two visits to Bouchon Bistro and four visits to Bouchon Bakery for mid-day snacks.

On day one, selections after lunch entailed a Red Velvet Cupcake and Keller's seasonal bread pudding. Consumed in the Venezia Gardens/Pool area outside Bouchon Bistro, I can definitely say the cupcake was the best Red Velvet I've ever consumed. Creamy cream cheese and creme fraiche frosting with a hint of cocoa served over (and throughout) a moist and delectable cake with strong hints of cinnamon and chocolate, plus the earthy taste of the beat sugar used for sweetness and color....sublime. Better than Crumbs, Beasley, Yummy, Sprinkles, and even Doughboy's famous version. Even better than Piece of Cake in Columbus, my previous favorite. After the cupcake I shopped Vegas for a bit and then ate the Bread Pudding rewarmed in the hotel microwave. Sweet but savory, dense yet not "wet," and loaded with cranberry, raisin, and white raisin....awesome. Not as good as the french toast version at Bouchon Bistro, but in my top 5 Bread Puddings, for sure.

Day two selections, after breakfast at Bouchon, entailed two beignets and a Macaroon. A flawless Coffee Macaroon was first and was just as flawless as the Caramel one in New York in June. Airy, crisp, sweet, and flavorful. Not as good as the Macaroons at Pistacia Vera, but close, and much larger. The Beignets selected were small filled donuts stuffed with Vanilla Custard and Raspberry jam. Both were light and flavorful, still warm, and the fillings were potent without being overpowering of the buttery beignets. Personally I enjoyed the unfilled Beignets at Bouchon Bistro better, but these certainly best Dunkin, Krispy Kreme, Bob's, or other "donut" shoppes.

Day three, stuffed after dinner before and planning for Alex in the evening, a single Carrot Cake Sandwich Cookie was chosen. As good as the Cupcake and Bread Pudding were, this was the "bar raiser" in terms of wow factor. Having had the TKO and Nutter Butter while in NYC, I really didn't think cookies could get better. WRONG! I like Carrot Cake and I've had some good ones, but this thing was surreal. Smaller than a hockey puck it literally weighed approximately 8oz and was absolutely loaded with the fibrous texture of carrots, yet perfectly balanced and soft like a cake. Hints of cinnamon and vanilla plus the subtle taste of pineapple in the frosting....I wish this recipe were in the Bouchon Cookbook. Actually...why doesn't Keller share the recipes for all three cookies in his next book?

Day four, after brunch at Bouchon with the transcendent French Toast and unfilled beignets, I opted for a single Banana Nut Muffin which I consumed with the coffee at the Palazzo sportsbook while watching Terrell Pryor ascend to king of Columbus back home. After consuming the muffin I only wished Keller would take Bouchon Bakery nationwide so I could consume all of these things back home. Weighing in at likely a pound, the texture was on par with the carrot cake and the flavor equally subtle yet fantastic. Sticky sweet, topped with a cinnamon crumble, and perfectly moist....I was sad that some of it stuck to the paper, despite being overly full.

Between Alex, Le Cirque, MiX, Craftsteak, Bouchon, and so many other highly regarded restaurants in Vegas I definitively had a GREAT culinary only regret is that I didn't have more room in my stomach. If I had, I'd have certainly filled it with more goods from Bouchon. Impressive goals often lead to impressive results. "Respect for food is a respect for life, for who we are and what we do." -- Thomas Keller

Craftsteak, Las Vegas Nevada

A fan of Chef Colicchio's simple approach to locally grown high end ingredients and a general appreciation of great food and "vegas-y" steakhouses I was very much looking forward to our experience at Craftsteak - so much so that we left the Los Angeles Kings game (my favorite team since age 5 and the reason we came to Vegas in the fist place) with 10 minutes to go in order to arrive for our 9:30 reservation. I must say, in a weekend that included meals featuring the vision of Stratta, Keller, and Ducasse it was only Colicchio who failed to impress.

Dressed in hockey jerseys and jeans, much like 50% of the MGM that evening, my friend and I arrived approximately five minutes early and checked in. While our reservations were clearly listed on the sheet, the hostess gave us an odd look and suggested our table would be ready "in 15-20 minutes." While I realize Craftsteak tries to be "fine dining," I doubt we were under dressed given the multiple persons inside wearing lounge shirts and jeans, but regardless her attitude was less than enthusiastic. Given the wait, I wished I'd have stayed for the end of the game.

After approximately 10 minutes our table was ready and we were led through the surprisingly huge and equally dark restaurant. While there is certainly something to be said about mood lighting, I much prefer "soft" light like Alex or Spago Beverley Hills compared to darkness like Lola or Mastro's. Seating was comfortable and the table was huge. The decor was heavy with lots of dark woods and the noise level was excessive, but certainly not annoyingly so. As we sat,
water was filled and menus were delivered. All was well so far and then things decidedly went down hill. While the food was certainly good and ample in portion, the service, feel, and attitude left A LOT to be desired.

First off, our waiter (Team #6, Cashier JR T) did not introduce himself for 15 minutes, actively avoiding eye contact when it was sought. Thankfully the water and bread servers were on the ball. When the waiter did introduce himself it was as though it was an epic hassle for him to explain the family style menu. Additionally, though the MGM site lists $100 and $110 menus with chefs vs. personal selection, the waiter acted unaware of these entirely. When he finally
did concede that the site had these options, only the chefs choice was offered.....and stuck to.....without question.

While the online menu suggests three mains, three salads, three appetizers, three sides, and three desserts we were only offered the option of two appetizers with all other items to be selected for us. When I attempted to order the scallops and the foie we were informed that both were out of stock. Fair enough, the place was busy and my buddy already ordered his 10oz Filet cooked rare so I opted for the Yellowtail Tuna with olive and tomato cooked as rare as possible. These choices made our waiter disappeared and we were brought the much hyped bread and butter. While the bread was good, it certainly wasn't on par with the similar version
served at Table 10 or Delmonico and the butter was rather cold.

Salads arrived in a matter of minutes and consisted of the Butter Poached Diver Scallops with Fennel (I thought they were out?,) Satur Farm Mixed Lettuces with Olive Oil and Vinegar, Heirloom Tomatoes, and Prosciutto San Daniele. Admittedly all dishes were good with the scallops and Heirloom tomatoes being particularly excellent. The scallops were butter braised and lightly poached with a perfect sashimi-style inside and lightly crisp exterior. The tomatoes were amongst the best I've ever tasted with a mild olive oil and balsamic marinade bringing out the acidic and sweet flavor of each of the 5+ my buddy does not like tomatoes I was given the bulk of these lovely items and was grateful to oblige.

Soon after the arrival of salads and appetizers we were brought our mains and sides which consisted of the aforementioned 10oz Fillet and Yellowfin Tuna with Olive and Tomato tapanade, Whipped Yukon gold potatoes, Mixed Mushooms (Lobster, Hen of Woods, Shiitake, Chanterelle) in Garlic, and Sweet White Corn. As was the case last year in Vegas my buddy got me to try a piece of steak which he claimed was better than the Grade 12 A5 Waygu at tasted merely like beef to me but he claimed it to be the best steak he'd ever tasted. My tuna was quite excellent and cooked flawlessly with the interesting contrast of sweet tomatoes and bitter/briny olives forming an excellent medley of flavors. Not the best yellowtail I've experienced, but certainly fantastic.

Like the mains and appetizers, the sides were delectable and featured a stockpile of woodsy mushrooms simply presented and delectable in taste - I was particularly thrilled to get such a large lobster mushroom as it lags behind only a morel as my favorite fungi. The corn and potatoes were equally simple yet wonderful with the corn almost 'sugar-sweet' and the potatoes velvety, buttery, and wonderful.

The meal was slightly sabotaged here, once again, by our server who committed multiple mistakes.
Number one: My friend ordered a half bottle of wine for $65. Once again in his avoidance of us the waiter forgot (admitting this and apologizing later) until after appetizers were consumed and mains/sides delivered....and considering we were essentially rushed out the door by 11:15 (we received mains at 10:25) wine consumption was anything but leisurely.
Number two: More bread was was never delivered. When sides were given and we were asked "is there anything else you would like?" I stated we'd like to try the Sweet Potatoes.....they were never delivered.
Number three: Well, read on...

Dessert was next and given my love for bread pudding and souffle (and the rave reviews I'd read of each) I specifically explained to my waiter, in great detail, that these were my favorites and that I'd heard good things about the versions at Craftsteak. In response to my accolades the waiter simply noted "we do lots of great things" and proceeded to serve us NO bread pudding or Soufflé. Admittedly the desserts that were served were quite good and consisted of melon and fresh strawberries with grape and raspberry sorbet, Cinnamon Monkey Bread with Pecan
Toffee and Caramel Ice Cream, and Chocolate Lava Cake with Espresso Ice Cream. While the melon and grape sorbet were misses for both of us, the Monkey Bread was sublime and tasted like a more natural and more delicious cinnamon roll while the chocolate cake simply oozed with delicious filling when poked and was quickly devoured by my friend who ate past the point of satiety just to finish the cake. Sure, these were good, but to rub salt in a wound the neighboring table received the souffle which looked amazing and I got a glimpse of the bread pudding being
enjoyed by a diner at the bar on the way out. All told, the food was excellent, though not any better than steakhouses like Nero's and Mastro's where I can get what I ask for.

From a chef that demands perfection, I felt Craftsteak was anything but perfect and in a city with hundreds of hundred-plus-dollar meal options it would be very difficult for me to justify a return visit. While I certainly didn't expect the exquisite service of Le Cirque or Alex, I do expect my server to treat me with respect and do his/her best to make my experience memorable.

While I'm not the sort to complain after a meal, my disappointment and hope that this wouldn't happen to future visitors led me to E-mail the restaurant my opinions. Two days later I was contacted by the General Manager with an apology and an offer to refund our entire meal cost. Feeling uncomfortable with this I politely rejected and simply told him I would very much appreciate if my thoughts could be forwarded to Colicchio himself as not to taint his beautiful concepts and cooking. The manager agreed to this and invited me back for "special" experience
on my next visit to Vegas and promised to make amends...I'll consider it, but honestly with all the options in Vegas and my living in Ohio I don't even know that I'd return for free.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sensi, Las Vegas Nevada

To be fair, Sensi really didn’t have much of a chance....not that it tried too hard either. A meticulous planner, my dinner reservations going into Vegas were mapped out months in advance and my breakfast details planned out extensively. While my lunches were unscheduled, I generally knew where I wanted to go and generally went there. When my best friend decided at the last minute that Enoteca San Marco wasn’t something he was interested in and suggested “something asian maybe” I remembered hearing good things about Sensi and turned to it as an alternative since my buddy had been so agreeable to places like MiX and Alex which weren’t really his “scene.” Tucked in the back of Bellagio and pretty tough to find, unfortunately Sensi wasn’t tough enough to find.

Seated immediately near the admittedly awesome bread prep station, our ‘waiter’ Jeremy W briefly asked “sparkling or flat” and my friend stated flat. We were brought an already opened bottle of Fiji and two glasses of ice. When I suggested tap water would be fine, the ‘waiter’ stated “Well, the bottle is already opened.” The bottle cost $8 and was not comped despite our not wanting it. Approximately ten minutes later menus were brought and essentially dropped off without explanation. The waiter then returned approximately 10 minutes later with some Naan to go with our empty condiments (every other table was served fresh soy, salt, mustard, and tomato pepper chutney with their Naan…I had to stand up and get my own. Orders were taken and this was the last we’d see of Jeremy until he delivered the bill.

Browsing the restaurant I must admit the décor was beautiful and watching the chef prepare the Naan was interesting. After one basket of the delightful and doughy yet crisp bread topped with spicy chutney a non-descript server arrived and removed our basket, later returning with fresh bread. This was the best service we received at Sensi.

After around 20 minutes our mains arrived, myself ordering Oven Roasted Diver Scallops with Basil Risotto, Zucchini, and Eggplant and my friend opting for the Shrimp and Beef with Duck Fried Rice. All things being equal, the food was decent but certainly no better than I’ve had at far cheaper restaurants with vastly better service. My scallops were a tad overdone but certainly fresh and tasty while the Risotto was soft yet consistent and contrasted well with the vegetables. My friend additionally noted his dish was “pretty good.” Portion sizes were adequate but certainly not excessive considering the $20+ pricetags.

Another 15-20 minutes passed after the meal and thankfully I was seated close to the server’s station where I was capable of filling my own glass with tap water because during that time no on arrived at our table. Eventually Jeremy reappeared and without asking about dessert or anything else he delivered the check and collected our dishes. “Have a great day” he said. To be fair, it wouldn’t have taken much to be a great day after such a disappointing meal with such lousy service. The total bill was $56.03 and our most affordable meal of the trip. No tip was left as no tip was deserved…I’ve had better service at Denny’s.

The only plus of the meal was that on the way back to the sportsbook and gaming floor we had to pass by the beautiful Bellagio gardens and Jean-Philippe where I ordered the best Tiramisu I’ve ever had. Moral of the story? If you’re on your way to Sensi just stop, grab some tiramisu and gelato and watch the chocolate fountain.

Bouchon Bistro (2), Las Vegas Nevada

As I am a very healthy eater approximately 29/30 days each month as part of my lifestyle, I haven’t even experienced the 20 best restaurants in Columbus, my home city. With that in mind, as a rule I generally don’t revisit restaurants, especially when on vacation. How is it that I found myself back at Bouchon only 2 days after my original experience you might ask? Because dollar for dollar it is the best restaurant in Vegas. It’s the same reason I found myself at Bouchon Bakery four times in four days. Call me obsessive if you like, I consider it a pursuit of perfection and as of yet I’ve not found anything in terms of food or service that Thomas Keller does less than perfect.

Arriving for Saturday brunch around 7:50am the night after dinner at Alex one might assume I was both happy and full…and difficult to impress. One would be correct. With those things in mind, the Buckeyes and Gophers game was starting at 9:00am and I was meeting friends at the Palazzo Sports Book so an early trip to Bouchon was ideal. Seated outside I was once again greeted by the same fantastic service I received on trip one and was presented the specials including a phenomenal sounding Lobster gratin, Lorraine quiche, Strawberry croissant, and Cauliflower soup. While the gratin was incredibly tempting the draw of the French toast bread pudding was simply too much this time around and my neighbors had the cinnamon beignets which appeared heavenly. One French toast, one order of beignets, and a coffee please.

Unlike the first time, for this meal I was started off with Keller’s famous epi-baguettes which I first experienced in NYC back in June. Still wonderfully crunchy on the outside and soft and buttery within and served with that sinful sweet butter and raspberry preserves the baguettes were gone by the time my beignets arrived.

The beignets, as expected, were incredible. Having tried the custard and Raspberry filled versions at Bouchon Bakery the day before I opted for the donut-esque versions this time around which were served with a beautiful apricot jam and a pot of warm Nutella. Light, airy, sweet, and still warm/glistening the beignets were much more than a “donut” and when dipped in the Nutella were even better than Ducasse’s famous madelines from two nights prior. Magical. Losing myself in the morning sun, wonderful taste, and bold coffee I slowly indulged until all the jam and nutella was spent.

Plates cleared and table dusted off for posterity, my coffee was refilled and returned along with the French Toast. Smaller than expected, yet delicate in appearance I dug in slowly expecting to be amazed…and amazed I was. While small, the taste was compact and potent with a creamy texture of butter cut by the texture of spiced apple and the fragrance of cinnamon. Syrup was utilized sparingly, yet wonderfully to create a masterpiece without overpowering with sweetness. While not a “true” bread pudding in the sense of the one served at Bouchon Bakery, this is my second favorite bread pudding ever behind only Nancy Olson’s life-altering version at Gramercy Tavern.

Meal finished I paid my bill and thanked my server for the wonderful meal. All things being equal I would have returned for a late brunch around 2pm in order to check out the gratin or chicken and waffles, but after hanging out at the Sportsbook for a few others my buddy made other plans. Oh well, at least I made my fourth and final stop at the Bakery on my way over to the Palazzo for some mid-game snacks.

Two meals in four days, four stops at the Bakery, and a previous visit to the NYC location back in June…certainly not normal for me…then again, there is nothing normal about Bouchon; it is fantastic. With fellowship interviews coming up later this year I fully expect myself to wind up on both coasts for interviews…if schedules work out, a trip to French Laundry, Ad Hoc, and/or Per Se is almost a guarantee. Until then, Thanksgiving will certainly feature the Bouchon Cookbook quite prominently.

Alex, Las Vegas Nevada

Two beautiful young women simultaneously open the large wooden doors, one offering welcome and the other offering to take a picture; this is how dinner began at Alex. Entering the opulent dining room two more greeters appeared, one checking the reservation and the other escorting us down the staircase to our seats. Arriving at our seats, another two individuals appeared, one to check my coat upstairs, the other to assist us with our chairs. Water - crystal or sparkling? Crystal. "Very good, doctor." To be fair, this meal was months in planning and my friend and I were upgraded to "VIP" status by a friend at the restaurant, but regardless of that fact the stellar service was above and beyond what was expected.

Menus were received along with a wine list and approximately 5 minutes later the first course of canapes arrived from the kitchen. As we browsed the menu and debated the stellar tasting vs. the incredible list of ingredients on the prix fixe the experience began with a scallop chip piled with otoro and caviar, a Berkshire bacon wrapped Granny Smith apple, roasted heirloom pepper soup, and a gruyere cheese puff. While all four were absolutely sublime, particular favorites were the otoro and caviar with its fatty salty balance and crispy chip as well as the gruyere cheese puff which literally melted on the tongue and clung to the palate.

After much perusal and debate, selections were made and the somellier stopped by to chat with my friend about wine pairings for the choices. When my buddy admitted his naievety the somm, not pretentious in the least, suggested it was okay since he "just made it up as he went along." Two wines were selected by the somm and my friend stated both were excellent, albeit $30+/glass. After orders were taken, course two of canapes arrived including a Cucumber and salmon bouche, Carrot and spicey ginger soup, a king crab BLT, and a torchon du Foie Gras with apricot and pistaccio. Once again, all choices were explosive and dynamic with the carrot soup and its heavily layered flavors as well as the Foie presenting most prominently. The foie was so good that it almost made me wish I'd selected it as an apetizer....almost.

Breads and sweet butter next appeared consisting of four types served by our attendant. Choices included Orange Rosemary Ciabatta, Buckwheat, Toasted Corn Bread, and Cranberry Sunflower seed. Each selection was tried once with an additional slice of cranberry sunflower seed selected with my main and all were superb with their crunchy crust and moist/dense substance inside. Just after bread, a final amuse arrived in the form of a Kampachi Rillet with raddish, daikon, and savoy cabbage slaw topped with lotus root over balsamic - creamy, sweet, acidic, and beautiful.

For course one I selected the European blue lobster with Savoy Cabbage and Coral-Verbena Sauce while my friend chose the Napoleon of King Crab w/ Sweet Carrot Sauce, Jicama, Fuji Apple and Avocado. Given the rarity of blue lobster, I simply could not resist the opportunity and honestly it may have been the best dish I have ever tasted. More textured and sweet than its Maine counterpart, the butter poached tail rested atop whole claw similarly poached and wrapped in cabbage. The whole presentation was then drizzled with an incredibly creamy yet savory sauce with a hint of vanilla. It was mesmerizing.

While I cannot comment on the flavor of my friend's dishes, he claimed that the apple was the predominant flavor and secondarily the crab. Regardless, it was beautifully presented and quite large in portion.

As part of our 'VIP' status we were next provided a second appetizer on the house, my friend receiving the Parmigiano Risotto w/ Roasted Porcini Mushrooms and Crispy Chicken Oysters and myself lucky enough to receive the Veal Sweetbread Piccata with Roasted Porcini Mushrooms, Parmigiano, Arugula. While I missed the sweet component of other presentations, my dish was fantastic with two large pan-seared and crispy sweetbreads along side two enormous Porcinis and atop Arugula with shaved Parmigiano on top. My friend's dish which he graciously allowed me to taste was incredible with a level of creaminess almost unfathomable and a texture of silky perfection offset only by the woodsy mushrooms and crunchy chicken.

More chat with the attendants, waiter, and somollier followed the second appetizer and our mains arrived in short order. For a supplemental charge of $70 my friend opted for the A5 Japanese Wagyu Beef Loin w/Parmigiano-Bone Marrow Custard, Black Mission Figs, Arugala, Red Wine syrup from the tasting menu as his main while I chose the Wild Turbot w/ Stuffed Razor Clams, Shellfish Fricassee and Chateau Chalon Sauce. While my friend was duely impressed with his beef and the wine pairing, he noted that all told he felt A5 Wagyu was a case of diminishing returns; fantastic, but not THAT much better than American Kobe. Not the most adventurous eater, he also opted to avoid the bone marrow custard which I decided to taste...unique, but much like lardo, certainly not something I'd opt to order in the future.

While my friend was less than thrilled with his option, my choice was a success on all levels with the wonderfully mild fish poached to perfection, the razor clam shelled and floating in the savory sweet broth with calamari and black mussels, and the stuffing crispy with hints of wine and saffron.

Following our mains the plates were again cleared and while my friend sipped his wine we were brought a palate cleanser of Marscapone Panna Cotta with pear and sautern gelee. Like all other aspects of my meal, this dish again impressed in both presentation and flavor. Additionally I was brought a simple yet fantastic coffee to go with my dessert.

For dessert, two chocolate options were selected with my friend choosing the Malted Chocolate and Banana Napoleon and myself opting for the Crunchy Chocolate Caramel Bombe with Vanilla and Chocolate Sorbet, Chocolate Gnache, Crispy Rice, and Hazelnut cream. While I did not taste my friend's option, his oohs and aahs during its consumption likely told the story for me and the presentation was brilliant. As for the Bombe, all I can say is wow. Flawless and smooth gelattos served over thick and intense gnache was only the prelude to the incredible cylinder which cracked with pressure to reveal mellow hazelnut cream, chocolate cake, and liquid caramel. Salty and sweet...a definite contender for best dessert ever.

Full but not stuffed, 5 petit fours were brought with the check and Alex's famous warm madelines in a silver box. The fours consisted of a Rhubarb Cylinder with fresh rhubarb compote, a warm Smore, a tiramisu truffle, a vanilla Cream Puff, and a Strawberry cookie with creme fraiche. While all were good, only the tiramisu truffle was truly exemplary and the madelines simply couldn't stand up to the Ducasse's option at MiX from the night before....or perhaps the amazing desserts simply left us jaded. After paying we sat and chatted with the service team for a little while and were given a short tour of the restaurant including the chef's table. No pretense, no stuffiness, just graciousness and greatness....just like the meal.

From start to finish, nothing was flawed and no desire left unfulfilled. When asked about the goals of Alex, chef Stratta states that his goal is to make the customer's favorite restaurant their second favorite restaurant. While I'm not sure that I can say Alex is my "favorite" from a trip that included luxurious foods from Le Cirque, Keller, and Ducasse, the overall experience is definitely in my top five all time and there is no doubt that Alex deserves its status amongst the world's greatest restuarants. A five star experience that is worth every dime.