The stars align at Guy Savoy

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

An amazing artichoke soup with gnarly black truffles and marvelous aged Parmesan shaved over the top. Before I can take a bite, a waiter butters a piece of warm mushroom brioche for me -- with truffle butter, bien sur -- and suggests I dunk it in the soup.

Slow-cooked wild salmon with a lacy veil that tastes of licorice and star anise. The froth conveys flavor to your palate the way Champagne bubbles deliver the taste of an aged wine.

A magical amuse: a chilled yellow tomato soup poured into a fragile white porcelain cup. At the bottom hides a dab of Maryland blue and peeky toe crab shredded fine as duck down; a sweet potato “beignet” the size of a raisin sits on the handle. And when you lift the cup to take a sip, you find an adorable crab tartlet the size of a quarter underneath.

The scene is the chic new Restaurant Guy Savoy in Las Vegas, and it’s a good thing the superlatives are rolling, because this will be the most expensive meal I’ve ever eaten. Ever. More expensive than Robuchon in either Paris or Las Vegas, more expensive than the French Laundry in Napa Valley, more expensive than Masa in New York in fugu season. How expensive? Obscenely expensive. Even here in this city of excess where everything has its price tag showing. Dinner for two tonight will run just a few cents short of $1,000.

So it’s not surprising that everything at Guy Savoy is in the service of pleasure. The butter -- Echire from France, both salted and unsalted and served in pastel glass containers with conical lids pretty enough to go on a dressing table -- tastes like it comes from Technicolor cows. Black truffles run through the menu with abandon. Vegetables look as if they were carved by elves. The food is as polished and urbane as Paris itself.

After a tiring, hot drive (the thermometer read 118 degrees in Baker) and a wilting march from the valet stand, we’re in want of some cool luxury, but the experience of entering this restaurant is decidedly odd. We enter the elevator, pressing the button marked Restaurant Guy Savoy and Wedding Chapel. When we emerge, we’re in the middle of an exuberant wedding party. At the bottom of the staircase the bride and groom pose for a photographer; outside the elevator, we walk into a dozen groomsmen in snappy suits sprouting oversized rosebuds from their lapels.

Our table isn’t ready when we push through the massive mahogany doors, and we’re ushered into the Champagne bar to wait. My husband and I don’t particularly feel like drinking Champagne, but the bar is so small and intimate, it’s awkward not to order something, and since there is no list with prices, just a verbal recitation of the Champagnes available, it’s not clear whether it’s being offered. Because I can’t fathom what I’m getting into, I order just one glass of Champagne for myself, and savor it slowly until the host comes to whisk us away to our table. I’m expecting my glass with a couple of sips left will follow. It doesn’t -- and it turns out I’ll be charged $24 for the glass. The failure to bring that expensive quarter-glass to the table is the first service lapse that presages others to come.

The high price tag puts enormous pressure on the kitchen and the staff to perform perfectly every night too, which is what those three Michelin stars are all about.

High stakes in Vegas

IT’S no longer jaw-dropping to find a three-star French chef in Las Vegas -- Joel Robuchon is making a spectacular comeback with Joel Robuchon at the Mansion, which opened last year at the MGM Grand, along with a more casual L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (the atelier in Paris is also a hit, and a New York outpost opened earlier this month to great fanfare). And Alain Ducasse, who has restaurants all over the world, opened in Mandalay Bay’s THEHotel last year.

For Guy Savoy, however, the stakes are higher: This is his only restaurant outside Paris, his debut on the American food scene. (Well, almost: Savoy opened a restaurant in 1983 in Greenwich, Conn., and it disappeared with a whimper when the chef, Jean-Louis Guerin, bought him out in 1986.) To ensure success at Caesars Palace, Savoy has put his family in charge -- his son Franck watches over the front of the house along with daughter-in-law Laura.

Guy Savoy in Las Vegas was supposed to have opened last year, around the same time as Joel Robuchon at the Mansion, but construction delays at the new luxe tower at Caesars Palace meant Savoy opened about six months later. Since Robuchon debuted in Las Vegas with such a brilliant restaurant, expectations are even higher for Savoy.

Both Robuchon at the Mansion (which since my last visit has raised its tasting menu prices to more than what Guy Savoy is charging) and Guy Savoy are far more formal and ambitious than any French restaurant Los Angeles has ever seen. L’Orangerie in its heyday didn’t come close to the level on which these restaurants operate.

Sticker shock

THE problem is that the food, while certainly impressive, is overshadowed by the heavy tariffs. It’s the only time I can remember wishing I had been given a menu with no prices.

But when I can forget for a moment and just experience the food, Guy Savoy and his team of chefs, headed by Damien Dulas, deliver.

This is what happens when Savoy tinkers with the idea of tomato tartare: In the center of the plate, a layer of ruby red tomatoes diced like tuna tartare sits atop a clear tomato water gelee. The tomatoes are encircled by pressed squash blossoms that stand up like bright gold cockscombs alternating with wheels of dried, sweet red pepper slices. Just as I’m about to take a bite, a server arrives and spoons over the top, from a bowl carved from ice, a lemon-seaweed granite. Now I taste: The ice crystals melt on my tongue, mingling with the chilled tomato’s deep sun-drenched flavor, and then the silken gelee that looks like clear water but tastes like the soul of a tomato. It’s a stunning summer dish.

One of Savoy’s most famous dishes is that artichoke and black truffle soup. The nuttiness of the shaved Parmesan against the wild earthy perfume of the truffles and the intense flavor of the artichoke puree is magic. There’s nothing fussy about it, and it has the kind of focus and purity that, for me, defines Savoy’s touch.

The wild salmon, with its licorice and star anise foam and custard-like texture, is so pale it’s only a blush of color, and so graceful it reminds me of why I enjoyed eating at Guy Savoy in Paris years ago, before the formidably hard-working chef achieved three-star status. Of all the three-star restaurants in France, Guy Savoy always seemed the most relaxed, the most in tune with the way Americans like to eat. It had seriously delicious modern French cooking, and at the same time it was a place where you not only felt pampered, but you also left having had a wonderful time. As it turns out, the French want to dine with less pretension and formality too, and Savoy seemed to understand that long before the changes that are now sweeping through the restaurant scene in Paris, and throughout France.

That brand of cool elegance is reflected in Savoy’s Las Vegas dining room: It’s serene and sophisticated, with an Asian-influenced aesthetic, a minimalist temple to contemporary haute cuisine, without a trace of Las Vegas glitz. We could be somewhere just off the Champs-Elysees. We could be floating in space or on a yacht thousands of miles from shore.

Franck Savoy’s personal warmth goes a long way toward taking the chill off the room. He speaks perfect English, and when asked how he likes Las Vegas, will shoot back without a trace of irony, “I love it!”

Part of the grand French restaurant experience is sheer theater, and while for the most part Savoy’s food is modern in its unfussiness, he can deliver drama with the best of them. One night I watch as what looks like a giant, veined dinosaur egg is presented to a table. What is that? I’ve never seen anything like it. Next thing I know, the waiter is cutting through something very skin-like, moving it to the side as he makes a surgical cut to reveal a whole guinea hen. It’s been cooked inside a pig’s bladder!

The quality and luxurious details all add up to a consummate restaurant experience -- the flatware is heavy and beautiful, and when your meat course comes, your knife will be replaced with a Laguiole knife made in the Massif Central; it’s an updated version of a traditional Laguiole, with a fabulous fluorescent fuchsia handle designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte. There are purse stools and apres-dessert trolleys and complimentary mineral water.

But one night service stumbles enough to get in the way of enjoying the experience. We have a waiter who barks at us impatiently as we puzzle over what to order, embarrassing two of my guests. It’s not as if we’re attempting to order at 11 p.m. or another party is waiting for our table -- the restaurant isn’t nearly full.

More egregious, the sommelier, a haughty fellow with a bouffant coif, presents a bottle of wine that’s a different vintage than what we’ve ordered. When my guest who has ordered it points out that we ordered the 2002, not the 2001, the sommelier doesn’t apologize, but chides us. “That’s why I’m bringing the 2001,” he says, “because I don’t have the 2002. It’s the same, but lighter.” Wrong answer: It’s not the same wine. Later, when we ask him to decant the young Sine Qua Non we’ve brought, he refuses at first, arguing that because the bottle has been moved the sediment will be disturbed. Another wrong answer: A wine that young wouldn’t have any significant sediment. We simply wanted to give the wine some room to breathe.

Sweet, yet wanting

BUT on my second visit -- the night we order the “menu prestige” -- the service is everything it should be: personable, informed, passionate. We feel pampered and cared for, but never intruded upon. I love the way a waiter with a thick French accent he hasn’t managed to lose in 16 years in the States announces the dishes so gravely, yet with a twinkle in his eye, the magician’s assistant prepping the way. Our sommelier this time is relaxed and knowledgeable, easygoing but extremely professional. You’re going to need the sommelier: The wine list -- 90% French and at high markups -- is so fat and heavy it needs a lectern to hold it. (Why not offer it to peruse while we’re kept waiting in the Champagne bar or on the patio? At the table, we feel rushed to come up with a bottle while everyone waits.)

At this level too you’d expect desserts to be tour de forces, like the chocolate mille-feuille at Arpege in Paris -- an astonishing structure of dark chocolate pastry leaves the size of a coffee-table book served fresh from the oven for the entire table. Or the sugar egg that collapses with a touch of the spoon at Robuchon at the MGM Grand. But at Guy Savoy, though skillfully prepared, the desserts just aren’t that exciting. Chocolate fondant resembles a haute KitKat bar, and it sets you back $22. The one I like best is a pink grapefruit terrine in gelee, cut in slices, and napped in a pink tea sauce. But it still seems awfully ordinary for a restaurant such as this one.

The dessert trolley that appears after the main desserts is enchanting just because it signals the festivities aren’t over yet. There’s rice pudding in a French canning jar, chocolate mousse too. There’s a lovely sorbet of watermelon; cookies; a marvelous tender marshmallow flavored with zesty lime; and chocolate lollipops and sugar lollipops coiled like miniature compact fluorescent bulbs. It’s enough to bring out the kid in anyone. But again, it isn’t as spectacular as it could and should be.

When I’m handed the bill for the menu prestige for two, with tax and tip, a single glass of non-vintage brut Champagne, one moderate bottle of wine (a recent vintage of Chateau Lynch-Bages blanc), one $75 corkage fee and one glass of Jurancon sec (shared), the total is $999 and some change. At that price and at this level, everything should be flawless, the service seamless, every bite not just marvelous, but sublime.

So, how to rate such a place? When it comes time to dole out the stars, I’m at a loss. Clearly it’s not 4 stars -- not with service issues such as I’ve experienced, and the lackluster desserts. And because price is taken into account in relation to quality in our rating system, I’m not even sure it merits 3 1/2 . Still, the food (other than the desserts) is tremendously accomplished and delicious. Just as surely, though, it’s impossible to get away from the shock of that bill.

My best advice: Go, but only if your credit card is burning a hole in your pocket -- or if you’ve won big at the tables.

Restaurant Guy Savoy

Rating: *** 1/2

Location: Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas; (877) 346-4642;

Ambience: Elegant, contemporary French restaurant from three-star Paris chef Guy Savoy in the new luxe tower at Caesars Palace.

Service: From seamless (as good as it gets) to argumentative and grating, depending on the night and the servers.

Price: Appetizers, $50 to $90; main courses, $58 to $110; dessert, $22; 10-course “menu prestige,” $290 per person (and served only to the entire table); TGV menu (“the 90 Minute Experience”), $190 per person.

Best dishes: Artichoke and black truffle soup with toasted mushroom brioche, tomato tartare with young vegetables and lemon-seaweed granite, oyster in ice gelee, roasted veal chop for two, crispy veal sweetbreads with black truffle sandwiches, watermelon sorbet, lime marshmallow.

Wine list: Huge and mostly French at high markups. Corkage, $75.

Best table: No. 3, in the far corner.

Special features: Champagne lounge.

Details: Open from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking at entrance on Flamingo Road. Reservations taken between the hours of 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.

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.