Prior to 2008 Hubert Keller was a successful Chef operating a great restaurant in San Francisco, a second version of the same in Las Vegas, and haute bar-food spots in Vegas and St. Louis. He was talented and accomplished but I’m pretty sure the vast majority of casual diners had never heard of him or his restaurant...I know my mother and aunt had not. Flash forward to the end of 2010, over a year separated from a runner-up spot on a little show called Top Chef Masters – a show I did not watch a single episode of – and the mere mention that Chef Keller had a place in Las Vegas brought a smile to my family’s face…at least until I started planning the trip and visited the website which informed me that the restaurant had closed and was undergoing a format change, likely to be ready in January 2011 (which usually means 4 months later in the restaurant world.) We made excellent alternative plans…
…flash forward a couple months - sitting down to review the agenda and to confirm reservations shortly over a week prior to our departure I noted a quick review of the “soft opening” of Fleur by Hubert Keller on a Vegas Media blog. Having heard rumor of the format change to “French Tapas” I excitedly clicked on the Mandalay Bay site and Keller’s own site to find no updates – too bad I thought, but after a few more minutes of planning I decided to give them a call…Lo and behold the restaurant would be opening to the public with a “soft-opening menu” beginning days before our arrival. Moments after booking a table for four I called my mom and although she won’t admit it I’m pretty sure this meal instantly became the one she was most looking forward to aside from the dessert tasting at Joel Robuchon, and perhaps more so.
Arriving at Mandalay Bay via rental car (we’d be heading to LA early the next morning) and finding parking in the garage we entered the Hotel and walked less than 200 yards before the new signage for Fleur was gleaming in the distance. Approaching the hostess stand and announcing our party we were led swiftly to a nice two-top in the center of the dining room. While much has been made of Fleur’s design change – essentially opening up the front for a sort of brasserie/patio in front of the bar and replacing the flowered wall with more rustic design I personally found the feel of the restaurant warm and pleasant though perhaps not as romantic as prior. With low lighting, subtle music, and hard wood tables replacing the white tablecloths the feel was definitely “business casual” but vastly more refined than other small plates experiences on the strip.
Greeted by our server – a capable and friendly fellow who appeared to be working the whole restaurant – moments after seating our waters were filled and food menus were offered along with an immense list of wines, cocktails, and beverages. Opting for water myself my mother and aunt would select the Crantini and Cherry lemon pop from the martini list. Poured with a heavy hand the Crantini was a little too boozy for my tastes, but the Cherry Lemon Pop tasted like a stiff lemonade.
With my sister still feeling slightly “off” from lunch, we decided to each order separately and share around the things that sounded best. While I will note the menu has undergone substantial change since our visit (for the better - in my opinion, ) each of the items we ordered made the final cut, and for good reason – Steven Wolf’s execution was perfect on all but one dish…of course, the excellent execution and service may also have had something to do with Chef Keller being in house all evening. Both in the kitchen and at the front of the house at various times during our 2 hour experience Chef Keller was behaving every bit the “celebrity chef” - a gracious man clearly comfortable yet gracious for all his success, posing for pictures, signing menus, and even sitting down for a glass of wine as one of the patrons sampled the flaming absinthe towards the end of our meal. To the delight (and embarrassment when I sold them out for being big fans) of my mother and aunt he even stopped by at the end of our meal to ask how everything had went and signed personalized menus to each after posing for a picture.
Moving on to the most important part of the experience – the food. Our first taste of Fleur would arrive in the form of the Charcuterie platter. Described simply as an “array of dried & cured meats” on the menu, the evening selections would include a lovely country pate, head cheese, soppresatta, and an aromatic bologna-like selection in large quantity. Paired with cornichons, toasted bread, and mustard we were informed that all options were cured either in-house or at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco. An excellent start and nicely presented on a large wooden board.
Following the charcuterie, two plates would arrive simultaneously – the first hummus & baba ganoush with grilled bread. Ordered by my sister and a seemingly strange menu choice in a French restaurant the slate plate featured the appropriate spreads and grilled pita bread and while I will note that my taste was limited, the hummus was quite nicely textured and ample with garlic while the eggplant was a bit smoky for my liking.
Arriving alongside the dips would be something more “French” – the Foie gras mousse with huckleberry gelee and brioche. Obviously going through Foie withdraw after the previous night at Robuchon the only fault I can find with this dish is that it wasn’t served with enough brioche. Arriving in stemware the 2oz portion of Foie was clearly aerated and impossibly light. Topped with a sweet huckleberry jam and crushed hazelnuts the unctuous liver was nicely balanced and the hot brioche served as an excellent delivery mechanism. With more brioche requested and delivered as hot, golden, and buttery as the first I savored this plate slowly…pretty much until the next set of plates arrived.
The next dishes to appear would arrive as a quartet – three ordered and one “compliments of the chef.” Beginning first with the gift - Tuna tacos jalapeño, lime cilantro – I’d actually considered ordering these from the start but given the large amount of eating I was afraid the Jalapeno would lead to indigestion. Arriving as a trio (admittedly strange for four people, but fortunate as my mother does not like tuna) the jalapeno was easily removed and the rosy fish was a nice pairing with the crispy taco shells, crisp lettuce, and tart sauce. Not the best dish of the night, but certainly not bad the current menu does show the condiments have changed.
Bringing Spanish influences to the menu, Chicken croquettes with upland cress, garlic cream, and pine nut would be a significant improvement on the croquettas from Julian Seranno, largely due to the garlic cream and pine nuts. Served beneath a salad of the upland cress with accompanying red onions the small fried nuggets of creamy chicken melded nicely with the smooth garlic sauce while the pine nuts added their characteristic flavor both inside and out.
Similar in shape and structure, Salt cod fritters with Jamon Serrano and romesco were one of the highlights of the meal for me. With the fish flaky and smooth inside the golden shell, the real impact was the fact that the salinity was not just “salted cod” but a smoky pork-laden flavor that helped to accent the fish and make the end product different from other cod fritters. While the romesco sauce was tasty and ample with garlic and pine nut, I personally felt it overwhelmed the cod and enjoyed it moreso on the leftover pitas from the hummus.
The fourth plate was an intriguing presentation and perhaps the most unique dish of the evening - brick dough wrapped prawns with tropical fruit and curry. Clearly taking global influences to the dish the two enormous prawns were sweet, snappy, and perfectly prepared inside a golden shell not dissimilar from that of a carnival funnel cake (save for the sweetness.) Served in a glass, the prawns rested in a sweet and fruity salsa with ample notes of strawberry and pineapple plus savory flavors lent by vinegar and curry. Clearly made for dipping I actually opted to cut the prawns with a knife and stir it into the sauce creating a tropical prawn soup – truly a great dish.
Our last four plates would arrive together again. Beginning first with the only time I’ve ever seen the item on a true dinner menu, the Croque monsieur with smoked ham, gruyère, béchamel was superb. A large portion for the $7 price tag the house smoked ham was succulent and flavorful while the gruyere within and béchamel atop were both creamy and smooth. Served on brioche with cheese above and below the ham the only thing that could have made this dish better was an egg or two, because otherwise it rivals Comme Ca for the best croque in Las Vegas today.
Inspired (as I’m told) by his stint on Top Chef, the next dish was titled “In the shower” mac & cheese with lobster and brunoise vegetable. Baked to that perfect “almost burnt” consistency and served in an iron crock I can’t say this dish was my favorite of the evening, and the portion was actually quite small for the price tag. Tasting largely of cheese and minimally of lobster or vegetable my biggest issue of the dish was actually the noodles – no better than Kraft dinner, and mushy which led to an overall homogenous texture throughout the dish.
Fairing much better than macaroni would be Risotto with scallion, lemon, and basil. A small portion to be sure, the carnaroli rice was flawless – toothsome but soft and melding nicely with thinly sliced tellagio cheese. Subtly sweet with just enough salt to accent the herbs, the dish acted in the exact opposite manner of the macaroni – it highlighted the carbohydrate with the other ingredients instead of allowing the pasta to act merely as filler.
The final dish of the savories would be another exercise in simplicity and unexpectedly the best plate of the evening. Titled Gnocchi with San Marzano fondue and pesto the dish featured five perfect clouds of potato pasta resting in puddle of liquefied san marzano tomatoes accented with chicken stock and parmesan. Splashed with dollops of aromatic basil pesto and thin slices of parmesan the tomato flavor was acidic but sweet and every aspect of the dish acted in harmony…an absolute must order dish.
With my sister opting to sit out the sweets and do some shopping a quick look at the menu made that choice unlikely for the rest of us. While the options have expanded tremendously, the desserts on display during this soft opening were actually quite solid (pun totally intended.) Arriving with a French Press of Illy for myself, would be the most traditional of the group – a Chocolate soufflé with chocolate ganache and crème fraiche ice cream. Standing so tall and proud it appeared pompous (literally 1/3 of the soufflé rising above the ramekin) the flavor was deep and rich while the ample liquid ganache made the base nearly brownie thick. The ice cream – sweet, tart, divine.
For my aunt the Cheesecake lollipops with white chocolate, kumquat, gingerbread, and strawberry coulis would be a nice presentation of an old standard. With bites of creamy cheesecake dipped in Valhrona white chocolate and then pressed in dried kumquat on one side and gingerbread on the other the pops were made for dunking, specifically in a punchy but somewhat overly sweet strawberry jelly. Tasty on their own I personally think a selection of 2-3 different types of cheesecake would make for a more interesting dessert, but as a “tapas” place this dessert would also be perfect for sharing.
Our final dessert, Panna cotta blackberry with kalamansi sorbet, strawberry-citrus soup, and honey tuille arrived in a mason jar and truly shined. With the rich and creamy custard serving largely to smooth out the fruity toppings, I personally loved the manner in which the mild strawberry and blackberry “soup” combined blended with the acidity of the Chinese oranges. The Honey Tuille, crumbled at presentation, added texture – though perhaps a bit too much fructose to the already intensely sweet dish.
With our meal finished and a visit from Chef Keller wowing the family we settled the tab and thanked our server for the excellent service before making our way back out to the hotel for some strolling before heading back to the car. With tapas clearly forming the “next wave” in dining – even in Vegas – and names like Serrano and Andres already laying claim to the Spanish side of things I think Chef Wolf and team were most successful when they focused on technique and flavor rather than reinterpreting world cuisine. The least “fancy” of all my dinners in Las Vegas (or Los Angeles for that manner,) I think Fleur is a concept that has legs but requires time to mature…but I’d certainly not hesitate to return and see how the menu evolves.