Sunday, December 19, 2010

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon and Joel Robuchon [2], Las Vegas NV

One year ago a woman named Dara Pierce served as one of the best reservationists I’ve ever worked with and a lovely meal at Joel Robuchon at The Mansion followed. Highlighted by Kamel Guechida’s desserts there was no doubt in my mind that the next visit to Las Vegas would include dinner with The Chef of The Century’s team again. With my family planning to visit with me this year I formulated a plan and once again enlisted Ms. Pierce’s assistance – unfortunately (or fortunately for her) she had received a promotion at MGM and she passed my information on to Emmanuel Cornet, the new Director of Restaurants for Robuchon.

A pleasant and prompt individual, as expected after last year’s experience with Robuchon and Company, Emmanuel proved equally as helpful as Dara and after a few exchanges decisions were made and plans were finalized. As this trip was our first Christmas together as a family in four years I wanted to do something special and knowing my family’s palate I thought a dessert tasting at a Michelin 3-Star restaurant would be perfect. Obviously not wanting to miss out on savories myself I arranged for a solo dining experience at the bar at L’Atelier at 6:00pm followed by dessert at Robuchon at 8:30pm with the ladies for $50 per person.

Arriving at precisely six I was greeted at the hostess podium outside and led quickly to a spot at the end of the bar where I could watch every bit of the kitchen action – from the shaving of thin slices of Iberico de Bellota and Black Truffles to the frying of duck to the shucking of oysters. Similar to my experiences at the counters of Ko, Casa Mono, and The Girl and the Goat the staff was quite interactive with the crowd throughout and the technique on display was as entertaining as any Vegas show. Greeted by the dining room manager first he noted that he was aware that dessert would be next door and presented me the menu before describing the format.

Left to decide on how I would proceed I was suddenly surprised to see Chef Guechida standing in front of me. Chatting for a bit about the restaurant, the dishes he liked best, and the dessert plans he said he’d stop by later once we transitioned next door. As I was browsing the menu a glass of Bruno Paillard Champagne was poured, compliments of the chef. Deciding on my order I inquired about a specific dish from the Joel Robuchon menu and was told that Chef Le Tohic could certainly prepare it and send it over as the kitchens were connected.

With my order placed the first course to arrive would be the nightly L’AMUSE-BOUCHE, this evening featuring crémeux de foie gras au Porto et son émulsion au parmesan. Essentially a double shot glass served on a stone the Foie gras parfait with port wine and parmesan foam was lovely. Best eaten with a spoon the liver itself was surprisingly mild and melded perfectly (as expected) with the sweet port. Topped with a foam lending salinity and levity I found this to be a restrained opening flavor that not only paired well with the champagne, but also gave a glimpse of what was to come.

Arriving prior to my second course would be the nightly bread basket. While not the 20+ options available next door, this well culled selection was paired with the same delectable butter from next door. With whole grain rolls, buttery croissant bread, and epi-baguettes I’ll simply say all three were warm and tasty – but after one bite of that croissant bread the others sat untouched.

My first proper course of the evening would be my request from next door – a $65 supplement. Titled LE FOIE GRAS en duo mêlé de pomme ratte comme un carpaccio aux copeaux de truffe blanche, the dish was described as a carpaccio of foie gras and new potatoes topped with black and white truffle shavings. A large portion of foie gras and potatoes I’ll note that the truffles, though present, played a less prominent role than I’d have hoped. With chipped parmesan and thin blades of greens and daikon also intertwined in the dish each bite was a new experience – sometimes with the unctuous liver coming to the forefront and at other times with the truffle perfumed potatoes taking center stage. Though not my favorite dish of the meal, a single bite – foie, daikon, potato, truffle, parmesan – would be the perfect way to describe Robuchon’s cuisine…multiple exotic yet restrained flavors coming together to form something entirely original and perfect.

Never one to skimp on calories derived from duck, the next course would be the third of four foie gras dishes for the evening. Titled LE FOIE GRAS frais de canard cuit au torchon this version would be much more simplistic yet even better than the prior manifestation. For $36 the traditionally poached chilled duck foie gras was delivered as a torchon accompanied by a dusting of espelette and topped with sea salt and cracked black pepper. Sourced from the Gascony region of France the Foie was sweeter than I expected, though not artificially so. Arriving with a plate of grilled country bread I imagine this dish took me ~20-25 minutes to eat as I savored each bite…it was equally good on the croissant roll, as well.

The next course to arrive would be one of L’Atelier’s more famous – and with good cause. LA LANGOUSTINE dans une papillote croustillante au basilica, or Crispy langoustine fritter with basil pesto featured a single Langoustine, sweet and perfect, wrapped in a leaf of basil and flash fried in a batter so thin it was transparent. With the slight crackle of the shell giving way to sweet and snappy shellfish the effect was tremendous alone and better with the streaks of citrus and garlic pesto on the plate. At $22 the price point is certainly not for everyone and if I had to eat Langoustine in Vegas I’d go to Twist first, but I was glad to have experienced this.

Course four was obvious, it featured an egg and that is enough for me - L’OEUF cocotte et sa crème légère de champignons. At $19 this is another relatively famous L’Atelier dish and one whose recipe is widely published (though I’ve not attempted.) Featuring a farm fresh egg steamed until barely firm I watched the dish next covered in sautéed mushrooms by one chef while another whipped a foamy broth of cream, mushroom broth, and butter which was subsequently poured over the mushrooms. Finally topped with salt, pepper, and chili powder the final presentation was visual foam with specks of pepper while beneath lied another perfect balance of ingredients. Smooth and creamy egg, fibrous mushroom, plenty of butter – yet light as a cloud.

The next course would be a revelation – the sort of dish that on paper seems so simple yet in execution makes you realize why you even go to places like L’Atelier in the first place. LE RIS DE VEAU clouté de laurier frais à la feuille de romaine farcie featured a single sweetbread – the largest I’ve ever seen at nearly the size of a tennis balll - pierced with a bay leaf and pan seared in butter, herbs, and veal jus before being paired on the plate with sautéed romaine lettuce in a faintly garlic and dill foam. At $29 the offal itself cut easily with nothing but a fork and at 5-6 mouthfuls were the best tastes of the meal – almost caramelized on the exterior and creamy within. A fan of elaborate dishes it is plates like this that remind me just how exquisite simplicity can be when done right.

My final bites from L’Atelier would be another classic dish and the only one seemingly served at each and every L’Atelier - LA CAILLE au foie gras, caramélisée avec une pomme purée truffée. At $28 the portion was certainly small, but the impact of the caramelized foie gras stuffed free-range quail with Robuchon’s famous truffled-mashed potatoes is undeniable – the whole plate is simply decadence defined. Somewhat unbalanced compared to the other dishes I will note that the crispy quail was quite mild compared to the creamy liver, but obviously it’s not like I mind the flavor of foie gras. The potatoes – there really isn’t anything else that can be said…having had the buttered version last year all I can say is that the truffles make them even better.

Visited again by the manager who assured me it was no rush (the time was 7:45 and we were due at Robuchon at 8:30) I was offered coffee and when I asked who their supplier was I was surprised to hear they’d switched 8 weeks prior from Illy to La Colombe Torrefaction, perhaps my favorite coffee maker. Receiving a French press of Phocea – bold, full, without citrus, and hefty with notes of caramel and vanilla plus a single signature chocolate I sat and chatted with my neighbors for a bit before I was again visited by Kamel who said our table was open and we could come over at our leisure. Settling the L’Atelier bill I will say that the although steep, the only dishes I felt did not justify the cost were the supplemented Foie from next door which was good, but not life altering and the Langoustine which simply couldn’t shine after what I’d experienced at Twist the night before. Outstanding service and a true experience to watch the kitchen I’d definitely head back for a couple courses regularly if I lived locally…and of course to see what Chef Guechida was doing there as he works the pastries for both Robuchon properties.

Walking out the door and turning right I found the ladies waiting – the time was 8:15 and after stopping to snap a few photographs in front of the festive décor we stepped up to the enormous doors where we were greeted by name by the hostess and led to a four top directly behind where I sat the year prior. Expecting extravagance I was not disappointed – the chariot of mignardises and bread cart were as beautiful as ever and the Christmas decorations replacing the previous meal’s autumnal design were nothing less than glorious whites and golds. With a classical Christmas soundtrack playing quietly overhead we were greeted by our severs, Teresa and Bernard, both French and both extensively professional, knowledgeable, helpful, and courteous.

With Kamel coming to the table and introducing himself to the family he asked how many courses we would prefer to which I offered the only logical response – “as many as you like.” With a laugh he informed us he’d prepared us some gifts to take home, as well – and that he’d be serving two different desserts per course – similar but different. He said he’d check on us after the first round to see how things were going and with that our water was poured the meal would begin with cheese.

Delivered tableside by Theresa and described at length with animal, region, AOC designations, and flavor notes the list was too long to remember but almost entirely French. Cheeses I managed to note, largely because they are the ones we ordered, included Saelers, Tome des Bauges, Emmental de Savoie, Beaufort, Mimolette, Brie de Meaux, Cabecou, Cantal, Valencay, Camembert de Normandie, Epoisses de Bourgogne, Laguiole, Comte, Morbier, and Bleu de Bresse. Large portions, easily an ounce each, we received a total of 16 flavors divided into four plates – one ash, one mild and creamy, one pungent, and one aged. Served with a baguette and walnut raisin roll I personally loved the Mimolette, Brie, Valencay, and Morbier.

With cheese plates cleared and everyone anticipating the experience ahead it would be only moments before the first round would appear. Having originally met chef Guechida the previous year when I specifically requested Le Sucre, the dessert presented to my mother and sister would be the winter variation on that dish - La Sphère de Sucre - Fuji apple confit, almond praline cake, Tahitian vanilla sabayon, praline ice cream. The perfect crystal ball shattering with minimal pressure from the spoon, the sweet cream, the supple bread, the ice cream, the fruit – every bit as good as my passion fruit version last fall but even better given my love of apples. While my taste was limited, this would be my second favorite dessert of the night and my mother and sister’s favorite.

Presented to myself and my aunt, La Pomme was also apple – same yet entirely different. Essentially a Baba cake at its base, the choux pastry rested in a creamy and cool Fuji apple mousse and Tahitian vanilla cream, while atop sat a pearl of green apple sorbet and a crispy candied apple fleur. Buttery and smooth, as beautiful in the mouth as to the eye – the flavor was that of a grown up apple dumpling in heavy cream.

Arriving again to the table as promised, Kamel asked us how the first round had went and if he should precede the same, or if we’d prefer him simply send out the same dish for everyone. Loving the variety we said keep going and so the kitchen did. Presented next to my mother and sister would be “Les Banans” a meringue sort of Ille Flotant on ice. With honey mousse at its center atop a mountain of banana ice, the meringue was intentionally unsettled and contained a center of caramelized bananas. Topped with banana chips and lime zest the dish was intensely sweet to be certain, but at the same time self assured and balanced when everything was taken together. A mélange of textures and temperatures and quite light the dish was good, but the alternative was the best of the night.

For my aunt and I, also titled “Les Banans,” the dish would be presented in a long cylindrical glass and the alternating layers would present a parfait of sorts. With alternating layers of fresh cut banana, house made vanilla wafers, nougat, honeycomb, banana cream, and milk sorbet this dish was perhaps the least “fussed with” of the night (aside from the black plate painted with edible gold pain) but the flavors worked perfectly. Bite by bite, taste by taste, each spoonful offered a totally different taste and sensation. I think my favorite thing about the dish aside from its flavor was the simplicity - If one had all the ingredients this is the sort of thing that could be easily arranged at home, although perhaps not as attractively, as a true stunner for guests.

The following course would be the first time two entirely different items would appear – and thankfully it worked out without any plate envy. First presented to my mother and my sister(who is picky about oranges) was “L'Orange,” a light and refreshing citrus dessert featuring orange segments poached in an infusion of Ceylon Pekoe tea at top and bottom. Between the orange layers would be a thin layer of salty caramel, a bruleed layer of yogurt mousse, a quenelle of orange sorbet, and crunchy bits that tasted like pralines made from macadamia nuts. Gladly swapping my sister the flavor profile was actually quite unique and unexpected with the notes of tea actually substantially smoothing out the citrus and allowing the caramel to shine.

The alternative dish which I traded to my sister would be La Poire – confit anjour pear, foam of almonds and Anisette, pear sorbet. Largely liquid with small chunks of intensely sweet pear beneath this would be my second dessert with licorice tones in two days and again it would serve notice that when used with restraint the flavor can be quite pleasant. With almond top notes and the licorice flavor only present on the palate the dish was a solid palate cleanser for what was next, but certainly not as stellar as the orange.

With no meal complete without something chocolate our last dessert would Le Chocolat, again in two entirely different forms – both pairing well with yet another French Press of Coffee from La Colombe Torrefaction. Comprised as a sort of parfait, the first dish arrived in a cup with a chocolate shell over the top. Beneath the shell, chocolate wafers, chocolate mousse, chocolate butter cake, chocolate ganache, and winter fruit confit. Using 66% Valrhona as the based and some lighter chocolates throughout the dish was exactly what the ingredients would dictate – a little citrus, a lot chocolate, and texturally lovely.

The second dish would be my preferred option of the two, again titled Le Chocolat this choice would pair white chocolate sabayon with lemon confit at the base and add the topping of rich coffee Ice cream, chocolate ribbons, and caramelized walnuts. Hesitant at first as I don’t prefer citrus toned coffees let alone lemon and coffee together, the white chocolate cream actually masked the citrus quite nicely and if anything the lemon actually helped to enhance the more floral notes of the coffee and chocolate combination.

Getting quite full the trolley of mignardises would arrive next with the a selection that included but was not limited to: Passion fruit marshmallow, salted caramels, confit ginger covered with chocolate, chocolate dome, dark truffle with mint, chocolate covered orange peel, liquid caramel centered chocolate, pinapple pate a fruit, white chocolate bark with puffed rice and orange, a chouxcette, strawberry cheesecake in white chocolate, tuile of almond and citrus, pear gelee filled with brandy, blackberry opera cake, chocolate religieux, blueberry financier, dry pineapple with white chocolate, raspberry praline, canele, white nougat, and at least 15 other selections. Choices made I’ll note the while the canele was a bit soft, the financier, opera cake, pear gelee, and cheesecake were all sublime.

As we were finishing up and the clock was reaching 11:00pm the restaurant was largely emptied out and Chef Guechida would once again stop by to say hello. With coffees refilled we chatted for perhaps 5 minutes before he said he had a surprise and returned with two Robuchon shopping bags filled with gifts. Explaining his philosophy a bit and telling us that it was an honor to have people come in to simply experience dessert we were bid a Merry Christmas before he returned to work. I will note here that when the bill arrived there was a small glitch – apparently Monsieur Cornet had never passed along the agreed upon price and we were charged a la carte - $25 for each dessert plus $15 each for the cheeses – but this was sorted without question and apologies were offered from both sides…them for failing to note this detail and us for getting out of such an unbelievable experience for such a bargain. Leaving a substantial tip and thanking Teresa (who only then did I realize had been my primary server a year before) before asking for a group picture we made our way out the doors full of great food and even better memories.

Returning to the hotel and delving through the contents of our bags would prove even more embarrassing – an embarrassment of riches. Containing two loaves of Banana Walnut Bread, two loaves of Raisin Cherry Bread, a loaf of Country bread, a loaf of Sourdough, a Baguette, a Panettone, four pure Valhrona chocolate bars, and three boxes of chocolates from the mignardise carte (94 pieces total) I was stunned. Also in the bag would be a hand written letter from Dara Pierce thanking us for choosing to dine at the restaurant and offering her assistance should I even want to book or look at properties at the MGM in the future.

With 6 days left in our trip but plenty of meals planned I’ll note that the consumption of the gifts went slow and that there are now some happy birds in Southern California who have dined on Michelin 3-Star Bread, but each of the options were tasted and the Pannetone and Banana Walnut Bread went quickly. Having not had a Pannetone since my grandfather passed in 1998 (he loved the stuff) I’ll note that this was much better than his store bought brand – almost a brioche in texture, loaded with cinnamon and citrus tones, and full of currants, raisins (golden and dark,) dried cherries, and apricot. The banana bread was equally luxurious with fresh bananas, plenty of nutmeg, candied walnuts, and gold dusted chocolate filling each bite.

Sitting at home and looking back at the pictures and experience it is really difficult for me to do justice to the food, treatment, and experience we received at Robuchon that evening. While restaurants are clearly in the service industry there is a difference between doing what is necessary and truly going above and beyond what expected. While I work hard for the opportunities to do the things I love with the people I love I certainly was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but for those 270 minutes between L’Atelier and Joel Robuchon my family and I were treated like royalty…and even two weeks later we’re giving out chocolates to friends and family to share the memories.

1 comment:

Teddy Devico said...

All that foie is making me hungry