Pretty much anyone who knows me realizes how I feel about Thomas Keller's approach to the culinary arts. Truely a "chef's chef" I've always respected his desire to remain authentic, to not let his empire spread too far or too wide, and his strong dedication to the progression of America's culinary scene - donations to the Culinary Institute, working with the US Culinary Olympic team, etc. Without overstating, though I still rank Alinea as my favorite meal of all time, I consider Keller my favorite chef. Having been to each of Keller's restaurants except for Per Se in 2009 it was only logical that I make my way back to Bouchon for Saturday brunch on my most recent trip to Las Vegas - especially since it was only 2 floors away from my hotel room.
Having received six free continental breakfasts when we checked in and hearing from my buddies that the breakfast had "a bunch of pastries baked by that bouchon bakery you like so much" I once again woke up early and made my way to the strip for a long run. Feeling great I came back and grabbed one of the free vouchers after my shower and made my way to the Venezia lounge where I found a beautiful grand room with lush furniture and a few plasma screens - plus 2 types of coffee, multiple fresh juices, 10+ types of tea, a large fruit basket, and a tower of mini-pastries (approximately 1/3 the size of those at the downstairs bakery) from Bouchon. Making my selections and grabbing mug number one of about five cups of coffee I grabbed a copy of the Times and took a seat to watch some ESPN Gameday (the best part about Pacific Time - College Gameday at 6:30am!) Beginning with a buttery smooth and still warm pain au chocolat I was reminded of just how excellent such a simple pastry could be as the chocolate ribboned the fluffy pastry as opposed to sitting in a glob like MAG. Second, a small apple tarte with maple glaze tasted like a buttery and soft fritter crossed with a traditional apple pie. Third, a raspberry brioche muffin with hints of lemon in the batter – perfectly fresh berries, buttery and sugary brioche – melt in the mouth. Finally – and best of all – a remarkable cinnamon roll with raisins and drizzled cream cheese frosting. A veritable tasting of Bouchon pastries for free – had I not had breakfast plans I’d have stayed for a second round.
Finishing up my pastries I made my way back to the room where my buddies were still asleep - asking them if they were interested in getting breakfast I was met with a mumbled "no," so I made my way to the Elevators for some more Keller action. Arriving at the doors of Bouchon around 7:50 there was already a line of 8 people waiting and by the time the doors opened at 8:00 there were nearly 20. Browsing the sign of specials I thought the crabcakes benedict sounded good, but not nearly as good as what I'd come for originally. Making my way into the restaurant and meeting with the hostess I asked for a table for one outdoors if possible and was swiftly taken to the precise table I enjoyed the previous year. Handed a menu to browse my coffee was filled (so much better than the coffee at the continental breakfast) and I was brought a water after declining a cocktail.
Returning after a short time my server explained the specials and asked if I had any questions - stating no I placed my orders and requested some of the infamous epi-baguette to go with the house made butter and fresh preserves (strawberry this time) that were already on the table. Receiving a “branch” of two pieces – and later two more – these wonderful pieces of carbohydrate reminded me again of just how good a simple baguette can be when using quality ingredients. Creamy and grassy the butter went largely underutilized instead opting for the jam which displayed the very essence of strawberries and a small cup of nutella (an unexpected $2.50 surcharge.)
Beginning the meal along with my second cup of coffee was a slice of Almond Brioche. Served piping hot from the griddle the bread was buttery and sweet with perfectly toasted almonds contrasting well with the soft bread. Similar to the brioche served with the foie gras terrine at The French Laundry (plus almonds) this was toast at its very best.
My main course, arriving with another refill of my coffee (yes, I have a caffeine problem) was the dish I knew I’d order the moment I decided to return to Bouchon – Keller’s Chicken and Waffles. Unobtainable at any other Thomas Keller restaurant (much like the French Toast Bread Pudding) the mere thought of this dish had me excited and it certainly didn’t disappoint – better than Roscoe’s, Crops, or Seldom Blues…by far. The chicken, instead of being traditionally Southern fried was instead marinated in thyme and rosemary, then slow roasted for 13 hours and pan-flashed to crisp the skin. Perfectly smooth, incredibly juicy, the chicken alone would have justified the trip. Further enhancing the impressive plate were the waffles – four quartered pieces accented with buttermilk, bacon, chives, and (per the server) a bit of chicken stock. Served alongside the main components of the dish was a delectable Tahitian vanilla bean butter, pure Vermont maple syrup, and sauce chasseur – essentially a gravy of chicken stock, bacon lardons, mushrooms, and onion. A flawless array of crispy and soft, savory and sweet, nuanced and “in your face” – an absolutely lovely dish worth every penny of the $25 pricetag.
Sitting and sipping my coffee in the sun rising over the Venezia pools I couldn’t help but think about other meals at Thomas Keller restaurants – honestly, aside from a stale cinnamon brioche (admittedly a flaw,) a piece of cheese (simply not my style,) and some spicy walnuts ( good, but not at that time in the meal) I’ve not yet had an item that was less than impressive – and many items were not just impressive, but formed the prototype for what I think that item is in its near-perfect form. While service can sometimes be a tad “cool,” or “stiff” it is always professional and the settings, ingredients, and experience uncompromisingly refined. While I still have to try Verandah and Hash House a Go-Go to complete my “to do list” for breakfasts in Vegas, unless they truly wow I do believe I’ll simply be frequenting Bouchon from now on when visiting the strip.