Opulent, over the top, indulgent - take your pick of these and any hundred other adjectives to describe "The Chef of the Century," Joel Robuchon. At $385 a head Mr. Robuchon's American flagship represents the ultimate in excess in a city of excess, yet at the same time it was the opening of his restaurant "at the Mansion" in 2005 that brought the previously retired chef back to the three-starred ranks of Michelin and placed Las Vegas firmly on America's culinary map.
Traveling across France as a young man the one time would-be-priest was exposed to a great deal of French cooking and technique that much of his early cuisine drew firmly from. By age 30 Monsieur Robuchon had obtained the highest designation of French Chef and turned his attention to the techniques of Japanese masters - a decision that strongly influenced nearly all future aspects of the chef's future development from his cooking to the design of his restaurants (L'Atelier's "sushi-counter" experience being the most notable example.)
While I personally have always been interested in Robuchon's style, I omitted his flagship from my previous visit to Las Vegas because I couldn't justify the pricetag - too much veal, marrow, and beef - items I simply don't enjoy. With the hard economic times, however, the team at Robuchon made a wise decision earlier this year to offer a mix and match prix fixe - anywhere from 3-6 courses with the ability to add from the degustation as desired. With a kitchen helmed by the same team who originally opened the restaurant, specifically Claude Le Tohic and Kamel Guechida and a brilliant front of the house I simply couldn't miss the opportunity this time around.
Due to my flight issues I made the decision to push my 6:30 reservation back to 8:00pm - not a problem I was assured - and arriving 5 minutes early I pulled open the floor-to-ceiling door to find a lovely hostess awaiting in the grand parlour. Introducing myself I was led to my prepared table in the main dining room - a dining room around 3/4 full at this time and soon to fill to capacity. Seeing the famous bread cart, dessert trolley, and overal extravagance of the room I must admit I was "wowed" on a level I've not experienced at any restaurant prior - the restaurant is dressed to impress and I wondered whether there was substance to go with the style - a question that was answered with a resounding "yes" almost immediately.
Greeted first by the dining room manager I was asked if I preferred sparkling or still water. Selecting still I was brought a liter bottle of Evian which went quickly given the dry desert air I'd been dealing with since arrival. I will note that the restaurant charges $10/bottle for water which is a pet peeve of mine as this was unannounced - for reference Alinea, L2O, The French Laundry, Le Bernardin, Alex, Charlie Trotters, Providence, Manresa and Jean-Georges all serve designer water free of charge. I was next visited by the Somellier - and per usual I declined alcohol, but he did seem quite nice and knowledgable from the conversations I heard at tables around me.
Greeted next by my primary server, a young French woman, I made a couple of inquiries about the menu and decided to go with the six course option, replacing the soup with a second appetizer, plus a dish from the degustation as a supplement. Settling in for a great experience I browsed around the wonderful room at the various chandaliers, baubles and trinkets, pictures of Chef Robuchon, and paintings - oddly abstract for such a classically styled salon.
After a few moments my server returned with a block of creamy cow's butter and my first of many visits from the extensive bread cart. Featuring in excess of 15 breads on this particular evening I was unable to taste them all, however the eight I did manage to taste were all remarkably good. Served throughout the meal each bread was warmed after selection - selections included Pain au Lait, Saffron Forcaccia, Bacon Epi, Gruyere Brioche, French Baguette, Basil Forcaccia, Compte Cheese Bread, and Basil Forcaccia. While each bread was good, my strongest recommendations would certainly be the Gruyere Brioche and the Basil Forcaccia - both of which tasted like the very essence of their ingredients.
Shortly after my bread selection I was brought my amuse bouche - and let me again use the word extravagant. Le Caviar Osciètre en fine gelée de corail anisée, servie en surprise - an item actually from the menu degustation this wonderful dish consisted of a small tin filled tiny black caviar - high quality and ample in portion with a briny "pop" to each pearl served atop a layer of fresh dungeness crab layered in a gelee of lobster coral (lobster eggs) and fennel custard. Well balanced with the combination of pungent fennel, sweet crab, savory caviar, and a suprisingly large degree of contrast in textures - this "amuse" would likely cost >$50 as a menu item in most fine dining establishments.
My first actual course arrived in very short order - literally a minute after the Caviar which I nursed slowly. Entitled Oursin, poulpe et crevette dans une infusion en gelée vinaigrée aux algues the dish featured Sea Urchin, Octopus and Tiger prawn served in three different sections and encased in a seaweed gelée. Smooth and only mildly briny urchin, thin and tender octopus, a perfectly prepared prawn with crispy antenna - each individual bite revealed something different and the gelee was only mildly briny in and of itself. Cutting the overall salty nature of the dish, the addition of small pieces of poached seaweed, small balls of melon, and various spices lent a nice contrast and everything about the dish (including the crystal bowl) was dazzling.
My second course again arrived shortly after the preceding course and once again it dazzled the eye first and the palate shortly thereafter. Entitled Noix de Saint-Jacques à la plancha, condiment au kumquat et au caviar the dish was my favorite of the night. Featuring two large diver scallops that were clearly butter poached and barely kissed by a scorching pan to sear the outside the preparation of the scallops alone was flawless. Marrying these wonderful mussels with a melange of cous-cous and a sweet yet buttery kumquat sauce plus orange zest the experience was taken to new hights by balancing the sweet smoothness of the scallops and sauce with two crisp spears of earthy asaparagus topped with a dollop each of Iranian Osetra Caviar that simply made the caviar from the amuse pale in comparison.
My following dish arrived after a nice break - I was starting to wonder, honestly, if they were rushing me at this point. A supplement off of the degustation ($30 extra when the bill came) was Les Crustacés featuring le homard rôti au curry et fines graines de chou fleur, l’oursin a la purée de pomme de terre au café « Blue Mountain » torréfié, la langoustine truffée et cuite en ravioli a l’émincé de chou vert - essentially three distinct courses on a single plate - all a fascinating interplay of flavors and textures.
Designed to be eaten in order, the first option of the three was one of Robuchon's most famous dishes - truffled langoustine ravioli with chopped cabbage. Featuring a single plump raviolo filled to bursting with sweet langoustine the dish was paired with chopped Savoy cabbage primed in beurre blanc and the plate was finished with a foie gras and black truffle reduction. Smooth, creamy, earthy, and unctuous the sauce somewhat blurred the langoustine, but in general the sweetness had no trouble shining through. While not quite as mind-altering as Achatz's black truffle explosion, the second best piece of filled pasta I've ever encountered.
Section two of the trio was roasted lobster with green curry. Not a fan of curry in general I admit this dish gave me pause but a single bite assured me spice would not take the forefront of the dish. Impaled with a sprig of lemongrass and served over a melange of lemongrass couscous and cauliflower the overall feel of the dish was actually something akin to the vegetal compositions at Manresa. While I cannot say I "loved" this dish, it was good and the lobster itself was perfectly prepared.
The third selection on the dish was by far the most interesting - Uni on mashed potato with roasted coffee beans. Featuring the second wonderful uni tongue of the evening served over a bed of truffled mashed potato puree and topped with roasted blue mountain coffee bean foam all I could do was sit back and be wowed - three flavors I'd never consider placing on the same plate, yet perfectly complimenting one another to form an overal taste and texture that (strangely enough) reminded me of a creamy vanilla cappucino at first with the component tastes each peaking through as the spoonfulls traversed the palate.
After the rollercoaster of great experiences above I have to admit my next dish was a bit of a letdown. Presented beautifully with a glass dome containing the lobster shell, leeks, and turnips removed tableside prior to finishing the dish with a hot sake broth, Langouste dans un court-bouillon de sake, petits navets et pousses de shiso started out brilliantly - featuring an ample portion of absolutely pure white and notably sweet Spiny lobster paired intelligently with bitter turnips, pungent leeks, and acidic shiso sprouts. What through the dish off for myself, however, was the addition of the boiling hot broth which - in an almost shabu shabu manner - ended up overcooking the lower portion of the lobster while completely ablating many aspects of the contrasting flavors.
At this point of the meal I'm not really sure what happened - whether it was the nearly 22 hours I'd been awake, the long day of travel, the previous meal at Enoteca San Marco, the richness of the food, the temperature of the room, or the alcohol in the previous dish - but I sort of "hit a wall." Sweaty followed by chilled, even a bit nauseated I took off my jacket and made my way to the restroom not so much to use the facilities, but to walk around for a bit. Having had a similar experience at Bistro Jeanty after the Rum Raisin Pudding and at Le Cirque after the Tequila Sorbet I do wonder about a possible alcohol dehydrogenase deficiency, honestly. Anyhow, after a few minutes of walking around and checking out the lounge, restroom, and "terrace" area I lost my tie and returned to my seat feeling much better - ready for my final savory of the evening.
Arriving promptly (I'm pretty sure they'd been waiting on me,) Canard et foie gras à l’aigre doux de cerises et amandes fraîches was everything I'd hoped. Pan fried muscovy duck was flawless and served with an ample layer of fat - no brine or gaminess whatsoever - along side an ample portion of cleanly deveined seared foie gras in a cherry sauce with fresh almonds, grapefruit, and raisins. Wonderfully smooth, the foie melted in the mouth and the heaviness was expertly tempered by the sweet fruits while the almonds lent some texture. Along with this dish was served a large scoop of what is possibly Chef Robuchon's most famous item - the potato puree. As good as the rumors, this is simply a dish that needs to be experienced to be believed - frankly, a simply potato and butter does not taste this good. Half milk and butter, half potato - pureed and passed through a sieve - decadent and delicious.
Getting more than just a little full at this point and knowing dessert plus the trolley was yet to come I opted to decline the cheese cart – much to the dismay of the cheese server who insisted I at least try the “La molette” – apparently a signature of the restaurant. Intensely creamy for such a hard cheese I must admit the cheese was excellent with a pleasant aromatic component of fruit yet a nutty undertone.
House coffee, a 50/50 blend of Illy French Roast and Illy Espresso beans in a French Press arrived next and was one of the best house coffees I’ve had in some time. True to form for myself a few sips of coffee settled my stomach substantially and cleared my palate for the dessert to follow. Arriving shortly after the coffee my selected dessert, La Framboise perle de chou, crème Madame à la vanille de Tahiti arrived – thankfully small and beautiful. Essentially a profiterole composed of a buttery choux pastry split in half and surrounding caramelized macadamia nuts, Tahitian vanilla cream, and fresh raspberries sitting atop a raspberry gelee the dessert certainly wasn’t as progressive as much of Robuchon’s cuisine, but it was delicious.
Collecting my plate my server told me that she had a “surprise” for me and disappeared to the kitchen only to emerge shortly thereafter with pastry Chef Guechida. To make a long story short, I’d originally set up my reservations via E-mail with Miss Dara Pierce and requested a menu. Browsing the menu I inquired with Dara as to why Chef Robuchon’s most famous dessert, Le Sucre, was not on the menu and was told that it had not been on the menu for a couple of years. Apparently this inquiry was passed on to Kamal who presented the dish to the table stating, with a heavy French accent, that he was “honored when people request this dish and was delighted to prepare it.” Featuring a micrometer thick shell of crystalline sugar enveloping a ball of mascarpone cream, vanilla mousse, lemon marshmallows, and strawberry pop-rocks the dish was topped tableside with pomegranate syrup – it was almost too beautiful to eat. Cracking the shell and taking a bite of each layer in a single spoonful I was absolutely stunned by the multiple textures, temperatures, flavors, and nuances of the dish…and then the rocks started popping. One of the five best desserts I’ve ever tasted.
Smiling and happy I figured the trolley of mignardises was next – but I was wrong. Instead I was brought a smaller trolley of ice creams and sorbet. Feeling much better at this point I opted for two of the three options (the other being vanilla) and received a scoop of caramel ice cream and raspberry sorbet over a honey/almond tuille. Wonderfully tart I quite liked the raspberry while the caramel was relatively plain – not quite as good as the gelati at Batali’s, but certainly a nice touch.
Finally arriving shortly after ice cream and myself finishing off my coffee – the carte de mignardises and a visit from Chef Le Tohic to inquire how I enjoyed my evening. Speaking fairly good English I talked with the Chef and the dining room manager for a few minutes about other great dining destinations in the US and thanked them for a wonderful meal. Making my selections from the 46 available options on the carte that evening I opted for a chocolate lollipop, Blueberry filled white chocolate, a canele, a caramel macaron with peanut butter cream filling, a raspberry macaron with chocolate tapioca ganache, and a macaron éclair. Eating each slowly I must admit the canele had suffered from sitting on the cart for too long and while the interior was glorious the outside was unfortunately soggy. The macarons, on the other hand, were each excellent and while not quite as good as the versions at Guy Savoy the following night or those at L2O or TRU I have to admit the raspberry and chocolate version was unlike anything I’d ever tasted.
Asked if I wanted any more options from the carte I declined for fear of not being able to make it back to my hotel without being carried or rolled – what I did request, however, was a copy of the menu and a couple of macarons to take home to my mother who loves the small cookies – both requests were honored without hesitation though a tour of the kitchen could not be accommodated as they were still quite busy. Along with my menu and macarons I was also brought a nearly 22oz pistachio and raspberry buttercake topped with gold-dipped pistachios and cinnamon glaze – a cake that would be slowly eaten throughout the rest of the trip with plenty to take home for my mother and aunt as a souvenir of my meal.
When it was all said and done I thanked my server, paid the bill, and collected my jacket and tie (humorously folded and placed with my macarons and cake in a large Joel Robuchon bag) to make my way for the door. A stellar experience by all accounts the few small misses such as the surcharge for water (but not for the superb coffee) and the overly potent sake broth were far outshined by the great service, spellbinding food, and myriad of extras. Pricey for sure but absolutely worth the expense for a beautiful meal in a city that really does have “something for everyone” – Le Sucre, Noix de Saint-Jacques, and those uncanny mashed potatoes are the excesses that I appreciate in Las Vegas.