Picasso came first from Serrano – the French masters came later; Robuchon, Savoy, Ducasse, and finally Gagnaire. Say what you will about Vegas, but without an overseas flight it is the only place (save for L’Atelier and Adour NYC) that you can sample the recipes of these masters. While some may not value the Michelin Stars of America as they do overseas, there is no doubt that the Las Vegas culinary landscape is star studded (both in names and by Michelin.) Having already experienced the rest of the best in Vegas, a visit to Twist was an absolute must – and it just so happened that Gagnaire would be on in town training new kitchen staff and working on the late fall/early winter along with chef de cuisine Pascal Sanchez during my visit.
Having done my homework I had mixed expectations going into Twist as I’d heard some diners say Gagnaire’s eclectic French fusion was not the most accessible or easily understood – that it often bordered on illogical and intentionally focused on nontraditional textures, tastes, and pairings. Cited as an influence to some of the best chefs currently making progressive cuisine both in the United States and overseas, a restaurateur since 1981, and achieving Three Michelin Stars as far back as 1992 with seven highly regarded restaurants prior to Twist, however, I was willing to trust my instincts.
Arranging my reservation through the same Megan Lundwall who suggested my excellent breakfast at MoZen I inquired (much like I did at Sage) whether a tailored tasting menu could be arranged and like all things in Vegas, customer service is of utmost importance. For $250 I was arranged an 8 course tasting borrowing both from the current Gagnaire’s Spirit menu and the a la carte menu. Having seen where the space was located earlier in the day I managed to overcome the difficulties of navigating the signage of The Mandarin Oriental, as well, and arrived approximately 10 minutes early for my 7:00 PM reservation.
First taking a right off the elevator to check out the amazing views from the Sky Bar and then taking the left turn down the long hallway of low lighting, sleek woods, metal, flowers, and glass I found myself quickly at the hostess stand where I was greeted and led to my window seat by a young woman in a stunning dress. Browsing the room I was struck first by the open kitchen in back and the “cracked eggshell” mural on the wall to match the chargers on the table. With the room subtly adorned and largely shades of grey, the floor to ceiling windows afforded an amazing view of the city while the floated bubbles and aerial wine bar dominated the other half of the room. Clearly a stylistic choice by the staff at Twist, my primary server, “Evesque” and the all male service staff was equally well dressed as the hostess.
Welcomed by my server, a man with a thick French accent who admitted later that this was the third Gagnaire restaurant on his resume, my choice of menu was confirmed and moments later the hostess would stop by to ask if I’d like a copy of Gagnaire’s “Reflections on Culinary Artistry” to browse while I dined. Agreeing to the offer and settling in for what would be 3 hours of dining I must note that while the restaurant was approximately 3/4 full and a light francophone soundtrack played above, it felt very quiet and refined throughout while service was nothing less than professional, cordial, and exemplary.
Ordering a cocktail to start things off I was told it would take a moment to prepare and without further ado, literally, Twist kicked into full gear with a flurry of canapés and amuses bouche. Arriving all at once and described in rapid succession I’m sure I missed some details in my notes, but the flavors included a Carrot Gelee with Chantilly Cream, Shaved Pickled Carrots, Caramelized Peanut/ a Tartlette with toasted pancake, goat cheese, and crystallized curry/ a Gingerbread crusted Guinness gelee cube/ a Lemongrass and ginger sable with toasted caramelized pecan/ a Medley of Haricot Verts, Ginger, Cuttlefish, Sesame Seed, Roasted Red Pepper, Mandarin Vinaigrette/ and a Pastry Puff Stick with sake and whisky Chantilly. Six separate tastes and flavors I was instructed to “take your time, savor the variety” and I did. With all components clearly French leaning with Asian influences there was seemingly no end to the textures, flavors, and temperatures of the selections and while only half (the Tartlette, Medley, and Pastry Puff) truly stuck out the flavor profile clearly opened the palate to any and all possibilities – appropriate since that is exactly what would come as the night progressed.
Arriving after the canapés would be the night’s bread selection and my cocktail. Starting first with the bread, served with salted and unsalted options of Isigny Normandy AOC butter the nights options would be rather timid compared to the rest of Gagnaire/Sanchez’s cuisine but well prepared and with excellent crust and crumb. Featuring a crusty 9 grain chapeau sourdough, white traditional baguette, and wheat molassess with raisin and walnut I (as usual) found myself eating way too much bread – particularly the raisin walnut.
For my cocktail the choice was entitled Lychee Smash. At $18 the drink was shaken and poured tableside, consisting of TY KU liqueur, house lychee liqueur, pear puree, simple syrup, fresh lemon juice, and mint leaves. With the mint only providing a cool lingering finish I honestly think this is the best cocktail I’ve ever had. Totally unfamiliar with TY KU until this visit the website describes it as “soft citrus, fresh melon with the balance of teas and botanicals added to the subtle structure of premium Asian spirits. The delicately blended taste finishes with a hint of ginger” and while I cannot say I detected all those nuances, the overall flavor of the drink was indeed that of a sweet citrus tea with pleasant notes of mint and pear.
Beginning the menu proper, my first course would consist of Mushroom Broth Zezette with Chicken Chiffonade, Vegetable Gnocchi/Kombawa Cod Cake/Bloody Mary Sorbet, Ratatouille Bavaroise. Presented in three separate plates with the soup poured tableside I think this dish truly exemplified what Gagnaire’s cuisine is all about – taking seemingly unrelated items and putting them together into something that just “works.” With the centerpiece featuring melt-in-the-mouth gnocchi of potato, lentil, and spinach atop thin strips of chicken, the green broth was hefty with Mushroom, chervil, tarragon and hints of maple and soy. Presented simply, the steaming hot cod cake coated with panko crumbs was crispy on the exterior, creamy and sweet inside, and paired nicely with the soup. Bringing everything together, the mousse of zucchini, eggplant, red bell pepper, red onion served atop an icy bloody Mary sorbet proved both palate refresher and taste enhancer, especially when taken as a bite with the cod.
The second course of the evening would be one from the Spirit menu and as such slightly less complicated than the a la carte options. Titled Duck Foie Gras with Fig Terrine, Dry Apricots, Speck/Eggplant, Rhubarb, Toasted Ginger Cake/Red Beet Syrup, Chanterelles, Pickles this intoxicating dish would arrive on a single plate along with a side of warm toasted bread. With the terrine composed of an admixture of fruits and liver plus a top layer of house-cured Speck the flavor was largely that of the liver with lively notes of sweet and salty playing games with the palate but never overwhelming. With the gingerbread leaf piercing the terrine adding an autumnal tone and crunch the terrine was outstanding. In front of the terrine on one side would be pickled chanterelle mushrooms – delectable and proving an ample foil to the terrine, while to the other side lied a moussline of rhubarb and eggplant that had a somewhat earthy flavor that really did not add much to the dish for me. Intensely sweet, the beet syrup proved tasty both with the mushrooms and the terrine.
The third dish on the tasting would be Gagnaire’s signature – the Langoustine 5-ways. A dish served at each of his restaurants but always with a different preparation the menu description of the Twist Autumnal offering was Langoustine – Sauteed, Terre de Sienna Spice, Yuzu Risotto/Grilled, Linzer Sable, Jambon de Paris, Ricotta, Pata Negra/Mousseline, Sorrel, Nantaise Beurre Blanc/Gelee, Barberry, Gourd Puree/Tartar, Fino Sherry Seasoned, Iced Tarragon, Tapioca. Instructed to consume this course from right to left progressing clockwise, the first plate featured a Langoustine sautéed and topped with yellow curry and esplette pepper resting in a yuzu citrus risotto while the second progressed towards a smoky Grilled Langoustine with ginger and cinnamon accented Iberico atop, French Jambon beneath, and ricotta forming the anchor beneath an almond cookie at the base. With the heat and citrus from the first plate nicely accenting the supple shellfish they additionally acted to open the taste buds to the creaminess of the savory follow up where even two types of pork couldn’t overwhelm the snappy sweetness of the langoustine.
Following the first two dishes, the third and fourth flavors would progress from warm to cold and featured a Steamed Mousse accented with sorrel, chives, and beurre blanc followed by a Gelee with lobster “dust” (coral,) and marmalade of squash respectively. While neither had the texture of langoustine, both maintained the very essence of the sea and proved a great textural variation from the previous and following selections. The final taste, a raw tartare of langoustine prepared ceviche style with olive oil and sherry, then topped with tapioca, candied soy and surrounded with tarragon ice would prove to be my favorite of the group as the crustacean literally melted in the mouth at a similar pace to the tarragon ice and the soy/tapioca lent a balancing texture and sweetness to the herbs.
My fourth (or was it twelfth?) course of the evening was Duck vs. Pigeon with Duck Foie Gras Terrine and Pigeon Fillet, Fig Puree, Red Beet Syrup/Shaved Foie Gras, Mesclun Salad, Champagne, Nuoc Mam Sauce/Salted Almond Ice Cream, Purple Cabbage, Celery. Served in three separate bowls the primary plate contained a Foie gras terrine bound with fig marmalade sitting atop a half of a roasted beet and topped with sliced roasted pigeon breast. Tasted separately the beet was quite sweet and the terrine a lovely blend of fig and the sapor of duck liver. The best flavor of the center plate would come from the pigeon breast, however – cooked rare and doused in pigeon jus and red beet syrup the bird was lovely. To the side of the plate was a small red cabbage gelee – superfluous, but tasty.
Joining the party in two separate bowls would be a Mesclun salad tossed tableside with champagne, vinegar, molasses, and fish sauce then adourned with Foie Gras utilizing a truffle shaver. Excellent and refreshing on its own, the salad proved an excellent balance to the terrine and pigeon as well as the second small plate featuring an intense salted almond ice cream topped with a gingerbread cracker and resting on a bed of sweetened but slightly bitter celery and cabbage.
Plate five found me sated but with plenty of stomach capacity remaining. From the spirit menu this time I would receive Roasted Filet of Deer perfumed with Dry Orange/Yellow Carrot Veloute, Grilled Cumin Seeds/Purple Potato Gnocchi, Sautéed Chestnuts, Crispy Bacon/Orange Marmalade, Mascarpone Cream. Another three plate delivery, this dish would prove to be my favorite of the evening with the flawless medium rare venison accented with citrus resting atop cabbage that had been deep fried in panko crumbs and a puree of carrot, cumin. Surrounding the deer was a sauce of game jus tinged with black and white pepper.
Served in the supporting plates would be Peruvian purple potato gnocchis – flawless and supple, melting in the mouth – in a broth of leek reduction, butter sautéed chestnuts, and crisp bacon. Instructed to consume the gnocchi along with the deer first and to then finish with the spoon, my final taste of this dish, obviously intended to be a palate cleanser in preparation for the next would be an intense orange and mascarpone cream topped with a dot of horseradish and crisp Brussels sprout leaf.
My final savory of the evening would be the dish I’d looked forward to the most and the two plate presentation did not disappoint. While not quite as impressive as the deer, Californian Muscovy Duck Oven Roasted, Cumin, Cinnamon, Silver Thyme/Bitter Chocolate Sauce, Dry Grapes, Banyuls Gelee/Red Cabbage Marmalade, Duck Confit was superb and only a notch below the Sage presentation for best I’ve had outside of New Orleans. With a small bowl containing fatty and supple confit over soft and sweet red cabbage as support, the central plate contained a large full breast of nearly rare duck with medium-crisp skin. While the duck itself was tasty featuring flavors of cumin and thyme as its top notes, the combination of chopped Daikon Radish and Raisin along with boozy chocolate beneath the breast was superb, albeit perhaps a bit overwhelming the fowl. While crispier skin and a bit less flavor from the sauce could have made the dish slightly better, I will note that the duck was one of the leanest I’ve ever experienced.
Moving on to dessert and feeling quite full I ordered coffee – an ornate setup to be certain and featuring Illy dark roast. While I like Illy I have to say I was surprised Gagnaire would feature something so…pedestrian. Interestingly the French Press at Twist (which was refilled at no extra charge) was less than the same breakfast coffee at MoZen. Opting to skip the signature “Grand Dessert Tasting” in favor of two a la carte selections, the two dishes arrived at once and when including their supporting plates the number of dishes on the table was once gain five.
Starting first with the plate to the left (largely because the other was so hot it was steaming) my first dessert at Twist would be Babba Babo with syrup soaked Baba, Vanilla Gelee, Golden Raisins, Red Pepper Confit/Orange Cream Cocktail. Two separate plates, the centerpiece was clearly the baba however it was not at all rum soaked but rather stuffed with vanilla cream and soaked in simple syrup spiked with champagne. Resting in a broth of candied raisins and red pepper the dish was anything but traditional but delectable – and a reading of Gagnaire’s book seems to indicate it is amongst his favorite desserts to experiment with. Accompanying the Baba would be a martini glass loaded with orange sorbet, crème Fraiche ice cream, and – of course – rum…an adult creamsicle they should strongly consider for the cocktail menu.
The second dessert, after cooling a bit, would prove the better of the two and amongst the most memorable desserts in a trip that included some absolutely incredible desserts. Amaretto Almond Souffle with Roasted Plums, Rhubarb Fondue, Licorice Chocolate Praline/Cassis Eclate with Orange Sherbet, Muscovado Tuile featured at its center a deep bowl with a somewhat (intentionally) fallen soufflé. Beneath the buttery and boozy pastry would be an amalgam of plum, rhubarb, and crunchy nuts more licorice than chocolate. With the bitterness of the licorice actually acting to nicely offset the sweetness of the rest of the dish this was perhaps the first dessert I’ve had where the licorice didn’t act to unbalance the rest of the dish. Accompanying the soufflé would be two satellites, the first a simple caramel topped with orange mousse and the second an amaretto spiked pastry cream sitting atop Cassis Marmalade with a dollop of Orange Sherbet and a sugary tuile. With shared ingredients between each of the plates I really liked what Twist did with this dish – each component memorable on its own, but the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
With my second French Press filled I next received the bill along with five mignardises – Chocolate barrel with pastry cream and Whisky Caramel, Goat Cheese and Pistachio covered Cherry, White Almond Paste with black currant gelee, plus Strawberry and Lychee sugar straws. With the straws something like a solid pixie stick and the barrels a bit too boozy for my tongue I reall enjoyed the cherries and the almond paste/gelee was simply beautiful in taste and texture.
Settling the bill and bidding farewell to my server I returned my reading material (if selling me this book was their goal I’ll have them know Amazon recently received an order) and before making my way to the elevator I received a signed copy of my tailored menu from Sanchez and Gagnaire both, a nice gesture and printed on sparkling wax paper – the nicest menu I’ve received outside the unique rubberized version at L2o. Looking back on my meal I can only sit and smile – while I know the experience isn’t for everyone, Twist is honestly the first restaurant I’d return to on my next trip to Vegas and when I go to France there is no doubt I’ll be visiting Pierre Gagnaire’s home base. Call it Avant Garde, call it unconventional, call it confusing – I’ll call it delicious and I’ll call it the most interesting restaurant in Las Vegas today.