Las Vegas, lighted by stars

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The waiter sets a clear glass cup on a gold-leaf saucer in front of me. Inside is a cool white cream, its surface smooth as glass and decorated with a circle of precise green dots the size of pinpricks. It looks mysterious and inviting. I dip in my spoon and take a bite -- that silken cream carries the earthy flavor of cauliflower, beneath it is a chilled gelee that tastes like the sea, and below that, a thick layer of caviar that bursts against the tongue. All that, all at once, how incredibly sensual.

It’s unmistakably the touch of Joel Robuchon, the three-star Michelin chef who closed his Paris restaurant and retired almost a decade ago at the height of his fame.

And yet here I am, in the most unlikely place on the planet having one of the greatest French meals I’ve ever had in this country. And Robuchon’s name is above the door.


Getting here couldn’t be more surreal. A drive through the desert to Las Vegas and the MGM Grand, then a hike through the sprawling casino, following the signs for Joel Robuchon at the Mansion, past a board that reads, “Witness astonishing feats of culinary skill. Then eat them!” Someone’s winning at craps, cheered on by a crowd. The roulette wheel spins, the ball clattering as it slows. We pass a lone cowboy in a big white hat sitting alone, except for the dealer, hunched over a blackjack table.

Finally, across a sea of slot machines, the name Joel Robuchon appears, chiseled in stone, floating like a mirage above the casino floor.

Can it be? It can, and it is.

Las Vegas has been a serious dining city for some time now, as wave after wave of the best chefs in the country have come and opened Vegas-spectacular versions of their home restaurants. Now the global superstars are arriving, among them French chefs Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy.

Robuchon may not be as well known in this country. But in France, he’s long been regarded as the best chef of his generation, even by his peers. A genie behind the stoves, not given to doing star turns around his restaurant, he rocked the food world when he retired at 51 in 1996.

Several years ago he reemerged with a casual restaurant called L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris, and a handful of other restaurants in Asia and elsewhere. None is as ambitious as Joel Robuchon at the Mansion in Vegas. At this restaurant, which opened less than three months ago, the food and the experience are, incredibly, on much the same level as they were in Paris 10 years ago. Robuchon is known as an absolute perfectionist, so, in a way, it’s not unexpected. His food seems to be more influenced by Asia, since he’s had the chance to spend more time there recently.

In Las Vegas, the setting is swank and very French. Designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon, the restaurant feels like an elegant 1930s Paris townhouse. The dining room is wrapped up like a beautiful package in a palette of aubergine and lavenders. Tables are black lacquer with dark linen runners instead of tablecloths. Tall windows look onto a smaller room fitted out as a garden with a wall of impossibly green, fragrant ivy. An enormous Swarovski chandelier sparkles like something enchanted. And instead of fussy formal flower arrangements, sheaves of calla lilies slump in oversized glass vases.

As I loosen the velvet ribbon tied around the linen napkin, I feel the same frisson of excitement I felt when I first ate at Robuchon in Paris. The menu arrives with a choice of two tasting menus -- a no-holds-barred 16 courses at $325 or an abbreviated six courses for $165. By far, the most interesting dishes are on the larger menu. I ask, without much hope, whether it would be possible to order different menus. That would be no problem, says the waiter. It also would be unthinkable at almost any restaurant at this level here or in France. Well, then, one of us will have the larger menu, the other the smaller, so we can taste everything.

Dizzying heights

THE wine list is impressive, encompassing about 750 labels, most, of course, Bordeaux and Burgundies, but also some fabled wines from the Rhone Valley, and some predictable California wines as well. But finding something interesting to drink under $100 isn’t easy. Markups are positively vertiginous, some of the steepest I’ve ever come across. And wines by the glass don’t offer any relief -- a glass of Duckhorn Merlot is $60. We finally manage to find two bottles under the $100 mark that won’t embarrass the food, a Louis Michel premier cru Chablis and a Domaine de Puech Chaud rouge from the Languedoc.

A server wheels over the bread cart bristling with loaves and petits pains. Maybe a little round focaccia steeped in saffron or sweet basil, a tender milk bun, or a miniature epi, the baguette snipped to resemble a sheaf of wheat, laced with lardons? The butter is a big yellow block from Brittany. It’s hard to resist lavishing it on the wonderful bread.

The meal begins with a subtle grace note, a dainty lemon gelee topped with a thin puddle of anise cream. It has an exquisite balance of tart to barely sweet, the sunny lemon set off by the cool tone of the anise cream. And it does just what an amuse bouche is supposed to do: alert the palate that good things are to follow.

And follow they do, the spool of dishes unwinding with an inevitable logic.

A duo of French heirloom potatoes with truffles is sliced potatoes blanketed with shavings of fragrant white truffles from Piedmont, aged, almost crystalline, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and curls of rosy foie gras that look like wood shavings but melt in your mouth like snowflakes. Each flavor is so pure and distinct, and each bite discovers a different combination. It’s an absolutely stunning dish.

A plate with two perfect spears of asparagus appears, a gorgeous still life that I can still see in my mind’s eye. The asparagus is a tender spring green, slit in the middle and stuffed with superb osetra caviar that’s mounded on top of the spears as well. The garnish is a swirl of melted butter and a single delicate leaf of the herb melisse. The sweet grassiness of the asparagus against the briny caviar is insanely delicious.

Foie gras, truffles, caviar appear again and again in different guises. If this isn’t luxury, what is? Looking like a scrap of pleated Fortuny fabric, green cabbage forms a thumb-sized ravioli stuffed with duck foie gras and black truffle. It’s only one bite, but it makes a deep impression.

With Robuchon, every bite is a revelation. His food has always had a clarity that’s breathtaking. Everything tastes like itself, but more so. Somehow, he strips away the veils and trappings that characterize much of French cuisine to illuminate the essence of the raw materials.

The words at the top of the menu “imagine par Joel Robuchon” -- conceived by Joel Robuchon -- are scrupulously honest. Monsieur Robuchon is not behind the stoves exactly, or even in Vegas for weeks or months on end. His role is more as muse and consultant. He’s the composer, and the chefs and brigade perform the score he writes for every season. It’s only possible because he and his executive chef, Claude Le Tohic, have worked together for years, all the way back to the early Paris days. The chef de cuisine, Tomonori Danzaki, worked with Robuchon in Tokyo and at his more casual restaurant L’Atelier in Paris, while the pastry chef, Kamel Guechida from Switzerland, has put in six years with Robuchon. You don’t get a restaurant of this high caliber and professionalism by hanging out a chefs wanted sign.

The service, though, is not what you’d find in Paris -- it’s every bit as correct, but without being icy or intimidating. As a consequence, you don’t feel like you’re swatting away waiters like flies, and the evening passes pleasurably. It’s easy to ask for the check and find it’s hours later than you imagined.

The big tasting menu is quite a commitment, but there is another option: a la carte. It’s offered only by request, I suspect because the kitchen is organized around performing the score of the tasting menus. One night, four of us order from it and have a meal that’s the equal of the full tasting menu, just different. A larger portion of that potato, foie gras and white truffle dish is sumptuous beyond belief. Plump langoustine ravioli filled with a single bite of sweet, delicate crayfish stand tall, with a confetti of minced black truffle on top.

But the tour de force is “crispy egg” crowned with an extravagant scoop of osetra caviar. How does he do it, we wonder, examining this improbable bird’s nest of egg covered in an inch-thick layer of finely grated threads of potato. The whole thing has been fried to the palest gold, and when you cut into it, the startling saffron of the egg yolk flows out like molten gold.

Two of us order the roasted guinea hen for two. It takes 40 minutes to cook, but is worth every minute. The whole bird, roasted to a deep mahogany, its feet flying toward the ceiling, arrives in an oval copper pan. We watch a server expertly carve the bird, and almost cry when another waiter makes off with the legs and wings.

The breast is served in the natural juices with soft potatoes roasted in the pan with the roasted foie gras cut in thick slices and a refreshingly vinegary herb salad. I’ve never tasted a guinea hen with so much flavor -- it’s a free-range chicken squared. And not to worry, soon the server is back with the delicious dark meat for a second round.

Brittany lobster cooked in a casserole sealed with bread crust carries all the flavor and scent of the Atlantic. Turbot cooked on the bone becomes the T-bone of the fish world. Again, very simple, and impressive.

When one of us casually asks the waiter how many people are in the kitchen, the answer is 40. Forty! For a restaurant that seats 60. And the kitchen, he adds, is just about as big as the dining room.

The future of haute cuisine

BEFORE he closed his Paris restaurant, Robuchon expressed doubts about the future of the grand restaurants, because of economic pressures and lack of qualified employees. Already in France, young chefs are jumping off the star track to open more casual places, and the audience for haute cuisine is declining. Could it be that Las Vegas, where the normal economic rules don’t apply, is becoming a sort of protected game reserve for haute cuisine?

The question for Robuchon is whether he will find enough of an audience for his subtle and seductive cuisine. By all rights he should. This restaurant is every bit as good as I remember Robuchon in Paris. And so far at least, there seems to be plenty of big spenders filling the seats.

But it’s not at all flashy. In Vegas, I can imagine someone expecting Cirque du Soleil translated to food and being disappointed at the simplicity of the presentation -- where is the gravity-defying plating, the eccentric flourishes, the calligraphy of scribbled sauces?

It’s not about ornament. Everything is built in. A confit of lamb arrives cushioned on a couscous studded with carrots and zucchini cut to the size and shape of pearls. You marvel over the feat, but it’s not just about looks. How the vegetables are cut affects the way they’re experienced -- as the most subtle of accents in the couscous. Again, we wonder: How do they cut them? I guess a miniature melon scoop. No such shortcuts in this kitchen. There’s a chef devoted to carving these “beads” out with a knife, the waiter tells me. Another chef stuffs the asparagus with caviar, lining the eggs up on top with military precision.

Guechida, the pastry chef, works magic with sugar and chocolate. An individual passion fruit souffle sits tall in its porcelain dish, absolutely plain. No whipped cream. No spun sugar cage. Just a single scoop of sage sorbet slipped into the center of the souffle at table.

The first spoonful is like a bite of cloud perfumed with the tropics. A shimmering oval sits on a plate, looking like a blown glass egg. The moment it’s tapped with a spoon, the spell is broken and the fragile sugar crust releases a gossamer orange and mascarpone custard. It’s a delightful conceit.

The entire experience at Joel Robuchon is pure pleasure. Everything together -- the food, the room, the service, the company -- is the definition of true luxury.

The check, however, is a shock: Robuchon is also the most expensive restaurant I’ve ever eaten at in this country. Relatively speaking, it may be more expensive than the Robuchon in Paris was a decade ago when the appetizers were all well over $100. But this is one restaurant where I’d unhesitatingly spend my own money for a special occasion. It’s worth it.

We amble out into the night almost four hours later, wrapped in the enchantment of the evening -- until the doors close behind us. We’re back in the world of the casino. That lone cowboy we passed on the way in hasn’t budged from the blackjack table. Merrymakers, drinks in hand, are wandering through the hallways carrying on like college students on spring break.

I notice another ad for Robuchon near the casino entrance: “Every meal in your life has prepared you for this moment. Joel Robuchon, Chef of the Century.”

Pure hype, but against all odds, it’s true.

Joel Robuchon at the Mansion

Rating: ****

Location: MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas; (702) 891-7925.

Ambience: Elegant and luxurious French restaurant with a small, cozy bar, main dining room that seats 38 and a smaller garden room for 12. Decorated with glittering Swarovski chandeliers, Lalique vases and a palette of aubergine, black and lavender.

Service: French and formal, with none of the attitude.

Price: Sixteen-course tasting menu, $325; 6-course tasting menu, $165. A la carte menu: appetizers, $35 to $150; main courses, $80 to $120; desserts, $18.

Best dishes: Duo of potatoes and truffles, asparagus with osetra caviar, cauliflower creme with caviar gelee, cabbage with foie gras, “crispy egg,” frog’s leg fritter, guinea hen for two, Brittany lobster, passion fruit souffle, sugar bubble with orange mascarpone custard, le chaud chocolat.

Wine list: A compendium of mostly Bordeaux and Burgundy, with wines from the Rhone, California and Spain mixed in, at breathtaking markups. Bringing wines in from outside is not allowed.

Best table: A corner banquette in the dining room, or a table in the smaller garden room.

Special features: Private dining room that seats 10.

Details: Open from 5:30 to 10:30 nightly.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.