Sunday, May 23, 2010

Vegas Journal: The Lion, the Witch and Joel Robuchon

Deep in the heart of the MGM Grand, right off the casino floor, not far from the lion habitat housing actual lions, lies one of only two Michelin three star restaurants west of the Hudson River (the other being, of course, the French Laundry). To walk through the large doorway is akin to entering a new dimension. The sights, sounds and smoke of the casino are gone, and you are now in a more tranquil world.

The aesthetic of Joel Robuchon is unique, far different than any American restaurant I've visited. It is as if the designer was a pre-teen girl. The centerpiece of the room is a gigantic chandelier hanging much lower than seems wise. There are pink and white flowers everywhere, and each table includes a bird cage containing pink birds and butterflies made of feathers. The decor caused me to wonder whether they used the same designer as the American Girl Cafe.

There are a variety of tasting menus offered, starting at $109, but this may be the only time I ever set foot in a real Michelin three star, and it's a very special occasion, so we opted for the 16 course tasting menu for around $400 per person (and that's without wine!).

Robuchon makes ample use of carts and the first presentation was the bread cart, a massive, elaborately decorated cabinet housing what must have been twenty or more different breads. There were baguettes, focaccias, rustic country breads, flavored breads, soft buns. It went on and on. We sampled a selection throughout the meal. All were excellent. The rustic country baguette is all you would want it to be, deeply crusty, light and airy. The bacon bread tasted of smoky bacon with thick cut pieces studded throughout. Various cheese breads were also very good.

Then came the parade of courses. As with everything at Robuchon, there was an attention to presentation beyond anything I'd seen before. Each plate was a work of art (I'm not talking about the food here, but the actual dishware). There were props and accessories and spiral wires that wrapped around each bowl and saucer. An asparagus dish came with a glass framed picture of asparagus, a seafood plate included a starfish and piece of coral on the tray, and on it went.

Much of the food was very good, but in general, while the experience was exciting, the food was not better that at other great restaurants; in fact, it was a bit hit and miss.

Many dishes blended French technique with Asian flavors to good effect. One of my favorites was a starter of tender uni in a carrot mousse topped with a chilled, beef consomme. Interplay of textures, as evidenced in this dish (soft uni, smooth carrot puree, and gelatinous consomme) was another motif that we saw throughout the meal. A roasted lobster ravioli in a foie gras foam was hard not to love.

Another very successful plate was a trio of asparagus dishes - a savory pana cotta, a lightly scrambled egg with asparagus presented in a thin "toast" and an asparagus flan with morels.

The main course dishes were weaker, particularly around texture. Foie gras with bamboo shoots wrapped in green cabbage was a bit too mushy, and a veal chop, while tasty, was very tough.

Mid-way through the meal, I was shocked to see the man himself, Joel Robuchon, clad in black shirt, making his way through the dining room greeting what I can only assume were VIPs and studiously ignoring the rest of us who were merely ponying up several weeks' pay for a meal. It never occurred to me that Robuchon, who has restaurants in six countries over three continents, would actually be in the restaurant while I was dining there.

For some inexplicable reason, the tasting menu does not include a cheese service, although a cheese cart was in evidence, so we moved directly into dessert. Dessert at Robuchon successfully combined the qualities that were sometimes lacking in the main part of the meal: consistency, originality and the wow factor.

I'm generally a chocolate guy, and while there was a fine chocolate mousse, the best dessert was la verveine, a tangerine cream with candied kumquats and a lemon verbena sorbet.

And then came the candy cart. The end of service candy cart is a thing of children's dreams. A massive cart filled with dozens of candies: chocolates, caramels, jellies, marshmallows, cookies and even lollipops. The server then fills plates and plates based on your request. I was tempted to order "one of each" but I reined myself in. The chocolates were rich and tasty, especially the chocolate macaron, but everything was quite good. If I was left with one strong sentiment from the meal, it's that I want a candy cart. Yes, after each meal, I want some guy to wheel in a candy cart and serve me rich, delicate sweets to my order. Now that would be living.

We finished our candy and coffee, and then we were done. The portions were small, so I was certainly satisfied, but not stuffed. We set out past the flowers and bird cages, through the doors to the hustle and bustle, the ring and the bling of a Vegas casino. I looked back, half expecting the entrance of Robuchon to have disappeared, like the door to Narnia, another strange, mystical place that lives by a different set of rules.


stuffycheaks said...

Just got back from JR this weekend!! OMG amazing! we got the 16 course too, worth EVERY penny (esp the breadcart, I think I had 4-5 servings). Wasn't it more like 13 courses though? We were bummed that Robuchon wasn't there :(

sku said...

Thanks for your note stuffycheaks. Yeah, I think it was more like 13. I assumed that they counted some of the trios as more than one course, though if you added them all up, it would come out to more than 16. What can you do...Robuchon is a chef, not a mathematician