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Le Montrachet Is a Sure Las Vegas Bet

Le Montrachet, in the Las Vegas Hilton, 3000 Paradise Road, Las Vegas, Nevada. (702) 732-5111. Open nightly for dinner only 6 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Full bar. Parking in lot. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $90-120.

“Where’s the Surf and Turf?,” asks Joey, as he slowly eyeballs the menu at Le Montrachet, the ambitiously upscale restaurant at the Las Vegas Hilton. Joey is a local high roller who constantly treats himself to what he likes to call “the best of everything.” The man wears a gold chain thick enough to tow his Corvette with.

Until recently, Las Vegas, home to some of the world’s freest spenders, has never had a restaurant worth even a Michelin inspecteur’s sneer. Now things are changing. Metropolitan Las Vegas boasts a population approaching nearly 600,000, and the ethnic spillover from California is internationalizing the city. Shopping malls where one was lucky to find Slim Jims and popcorn now feature Thai, Korean and Chinese restaurants catering to local foodies. And the once prime-rib-special-dominated casino restaurants are finally expanding their horizons. That’s good news for the many Los Angeles area residents whose lust for chance too often means suffering through endless all-you-can-eat buffets.

Le Montrachet does not look all that different from a typical Vegas lounge (no one would accuse Frank Gehry of having designed it). It is, indeed, an arguably garish type of room: Giant wood columns separate tables and booths, while a load of marble, Deco glass and a massive crystal chandelier that could have been lifted from Versailles vie for attention. Prints of Degas, Monet and other impressionists hang like sequins from the otherwise naked walls. But the place is positively understated when contrasted with the casino architecture just outside.

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“I’ve never had any of these dishes before,” Joey says with a shrug, “and I don’t trust a menu that is written completely in French.”

Maitre d’ Leo Waters will tell you that he encounters similar resistance almost daily from customers, many of whom come expecting more familiar cooking. “Some of them actually look at the menu and leave,” says the one-time Scandia and L’Escoffier maitre d’, who’s only recently come to Vegas. “But the ones who decide to stay end up being the best customers.” I can relate to that.

The food at Le Montrachet is remarkably good, even when compared with many of the more acclaimed French restaurants in Los Angeles. The chef is David Ventimiglia. He worked under several mentors at the Hilton before assuming the mantle. Ventimiglia’s cooking is light, unpretentious and imaginative, bolstered by an array of first-rate sauces (as rare to find in this town as a winning nine-spot Keno ticket).

Joey finally persuades me to order for him. I have no trouble choosing. One appetizer that looks irresistible is the oyster ravioli with morels in a light saffron sauce with sturgeon caviar. It’s wonderful. Another has the fancy name, “ le homard surprise Jean Banchet,” named for the famed chef at Le Francais in Wheeling, Ill. It turns out to be a slightly stiff lobster mousse wrapped in a flaky strudel with Nantua sauce, which tastes fine but is totally upstaged by the ravioli.

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“That was better than a hot crap table,” Joey says. He digs into his salad--endive, watercress and mache lettuce tossed with walnut oil and Dijon mustard. I nod happily, as I immerse myself in a lobster bisque buoyed by terrific little croutons of sweet garlic.

The main courses are every bit as satisfying. Joey just can’t believe his good fortune, as he bites into les petites cotes d’agneau au romarin , lamb chops marinated in virgin olive oil and fresh rosemary in a light demi-glace made from the lamb juices. I’m on a roll, too, with a roast breast of chicken in a light muscat sauce that has been stuffed with wild rice and minced duck liver. What’s more, both dishes come with little copper saucepans brimming with cepes a la creme , the evening’s side dish, and an assortment of perfectly cooked baby vegetables. Baby vegetables may be old news in Los Angeles, but try finding them in southern Nevada.

It isn’t hard getting Joey back a second night. He’s become a more avid diner than I could have imagined. We both adore the appetizer of snails soaked in Pernod. For a main course, Joey chooses aiguillettes de canard au confit d’abricot , perfectly cut slices of duck breast in a sauce that is neither embarrassingly sweet nor annoyingly heavy. I luck out with a whole boned Dover sole filled with lobster mousse and a sauce of morels. The only flaw is the appearance of more slightly stiff mousse served in the appetizer the previous night. The fish and mushrooms, however, are superb.

Between courses we are served an entremet of basil-flavored sorbet served in a glass tulipe . As for the service, it’s solicitous in the old-fashioned manner--waiters gather around each table to serve the entrees and hoist the domes off the dishes in unison.

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Desserts are wonderful, too, if a little more ornate than they really need to be. There is a good bittersweet chocolate mousse with a bitter orange sauce, and a gaudy chocolate swan filled with homemade espresso ice cream that could only be sold in Las Vegas. And instead of the tired tarte tatin , Le Montrachet serves a caramelized apple tart in puff pastry with homemade vanilla ice cream straight from the oven. There are also all the requisite souffles .

Joey looks long and hard at his chocolate swan, and then bites in. “I wonder what the losers are having for dinner tonight,” I hear him mumble.

Recommended dishes: ravioli d’huitre au safran, $11.50; homard surprise “Jean Banchet”, $15.50; sole homardine aux morilles, $30.50; supreme de volaille, $23.50; aiguillettes de canard, $28.50; mille-feuille de fraises et son sorbet, $7.50.


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