Vegas is for Adults: Fine Dining at Joël Robuchon
Author's note: I dedicate this post to Marissa, friend and faithful reader of this blog. Her response to the reader poll asked me to include more food porn. Here ya go, baby. I aim to please (my readers, especially).
"This is why we do not let children in here"
-- Yann, one of Joël Robuchon's waitstaff, as my dinner companion and I struggled to contain our effusive glee, that reached crescendo as the second dessert phase glided to a soft stop aside our table -- a cornucopia of sweet trifles atop a wheeled Louis XIV style cart -- , shaking ever so gently the chocolate sculpture and twisting the heads of the chocolate lollipops in their holder.
I'm not sure if Yann was kidding, but if he wasn't, I can think of one reason that they do not allow children in here. Joël Robuchon, the Las Vegas fine dining institution led by the Chef of the Century of the same name, elicits responses from sensible adults with escrow accounts and PPOs a la Meg Ryan's character in the classic film, When Harry Met Sally (1989). Except we're totally NOT FAKING IT. Definitely not a place for children.
What You Eat in Vegas...
People travel to Las Vegas to do at least one of the following:
Attend a convention
According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, 21,165 conventions are held there annually including such heavy hitters as the Consumer Electronics Show. And I was there last weekend for the New Media Expo, a convention for bloggers, podcasters, videographers for the Web and those who want to work with them.
Rule one of conferences: If you can afford it, stay in the conference hotel. This will maximize chance networking opportunities and your time available to sleep or work. In Las Vegas, staying in the conference hotel becomes especially important because of the gargantuan proportions of the casinos, the convoluted pathways through the casino floors and the myriad titillating non-sleep activities available.
Time-strapped, rental car-less Vegas conventioneers like myself are forced to choose among dining options at the conference hotel-casino. Depending on where you're staying, this may not be a bad thing.
I had one very sad food experience in my first night Vegas: the raw bar of maltreated oysters at an all-you-can-eat, 24-hour Las Vegas seafood buffet. As the ignorant patrons haphazardly strew the bivalves upon a bed of ice, the oysters' troves of briny liquor simply spilled out. I witnessed some buffet staff placing ice INSIDE THE RAW OYSTERS.
Unforgivable travesty! Nooooooooooooooo!
So yeah, what you eat in Vegas should sometimes just stay in Vegas. After the oyster tragedy, and the greatness that was NMX ended, it was my last night in Vegas, and I wanted SOMETHING BETTER TO EAT. I said to myself, I want my faith restored.
Joël Robuchon made me believe again in justice, in Santa Claus, in heroes, in humanity.
Why Joël Robuchon is amazing
In a corner of the MGM Grand Casino and Hotel, an eighteen foot tall gold trimmed, semi-circular glass doorway seals out the noise and the cigarette smoke of the casino from wafting in. The closest slot machine is at least two hundred feet away from the Robuchon entrance. If you've ever been to Vegas, you know that silence and non-nicotined oxygen are rare commodities.
Above the checkerboard marble foyer floats a glittery chandelier. The main dining room is decorated in mixes of French Art Nouveau and Louis XIV-style furnishings on a palette of violets, greys, ivory and black. There's a footstool for your purse. I could catch glimpses of smaller ante-rooms for more private rendezvous. Already I knew this was going to be a special experience.
The restaurant earned a three star (out of a possible three) Michelin rating in 2009, the last time the guide rated restaurants in Las Vegas. It was the sole restaurant in that city earning the highest acclaim. (For more on three-star Michelin restaurants, watch the film "Three Stars," available on Netflix streaming.)
Here's a video from Joël Robuchon's YouTube channel that gives you a sense for the setting...
What I ate
The items on the menu will change for the seasons and ingredients available. But there will always be bread, mashed potatoes and desserts. (Wait for it.)
And we began with bread: mini croissants, loaves of rustic country bread, baguettes like heads of wheat, cubes of milk bread, rosemary baguettes, olive oil and sea salt rounds. I could have gotten one of everything, but as this was the very first course, I did not want to fill up too much. We cannot forget the butter. Their butter is hand-churned and brought in from France, shaved coils of which are sprinkled liberally with sea salt. Their butter resides in its own cloche. Baller butter.
Next, we had an amuse bouche -- a teaser, something to simultaneously stir your palate from slumber and prepare it for the repast. It is usually just one bite. In our case it was a few spoonfuls of a cool beet soup with coriander flower, cracked pepper, olive oil and crème fraiche. Who knew a tiny, delicate, baby's breath-like creature like coriander flower could pack such a punch!!? Small but mighty.
First appetizer was a salad of violet artichokes, shavings of foie gras and parmesan, Lilliputian shavings of radish, arugula and green onion. The heat of my mouth made the thin foie gras shavings even more unctuous.
Next. Whew. A profane amount of black truffle shavings with mushroom caps paired as macaroons and tiny ravioli pillows of soft goat cheese in a veal broth. No talking when this soup came.
My first main course was the grilled sea bass, spinach and vegetable brunoise atop the magical black Malabar pepper sauce. Where is Malabar? I want to go to there.
Then, Iberico pork and MASHED POTATOES. These mashed potatoes are like what your first kiss should have been -- tender, billowy, buttery perfection. Those mashed potatoes are the truth, Monsieur Robuchon. Forever should humanity be indebted to you and your forebears because of these potatoes. The mashed potatoes really stole the show. Sorry Iberico pork. You're amazing in your own right. Another fun surprise were the endives just lingering at the edge of the plate that packed a crisp, tart punch.
In this video Chef Robuchon talks about his mashed potatoes sitting in the same spot where I sat! The recipe is at the end of the video, and yes, it's in French. The gist of the recipe is to use fingerling potatoes, salt the water well, make sure there are no lumps by using the mill/grinder, finish with milk and whisk until the correct consistency is achieved.
I want to make sure to mention the excellent service you'll enjoy at chez Robuchon. Attentive but not overbearing, welcoming though not over-eager, patient at the sight of two women slightly overwhelmed by the dazzling number of choices. And please just forget that stereotype that the French are snooty. Oh no. While the place is fancy, it is also friendly. Yann especially kept us in giggles with his humor that turned potentially awkward situations into silly punch lines like "Oh, we've got a jumper on our hands" when one of the croissants fell off the tray. Watching the waitstaff deftly and calmly maneuver the dining room, bringing guests their courses in a carefully timed manner, clearing their plates and service quickly but not too soon, it was really cool. Back to the food.
Dessert part un isa delicate, sublime balance: The warm sabayon and the mint ice cream, the delicate almond cracker on top and the syrupy hazelnut cracker hidden underneath.
Then comes heaven. The dessert cart!
Mini domes of chocolates, like half marbles inflected with yuzu (my favorite), mexican hot chocolate, gold. Chocolate lollipops. Remarkable Religieuse. Blood orange gelee cubes. Macaroons, a rum ball drowning in some smoooooth liquor. A slice of raspberry ice cream cake, just because the kind and attentive waiter saw us ogling someone else's birthday cake.
What you need to have a great experience at Joël Robuchon
You only need a willing heart, a wonderful dinner companion and a reservation. Oh yeah, and some money.
How much is it?
Notgonnalie, dinner at the Robuchon house is hella expensive. I ordered the prix fixe menu that included an amuse bouche, a bread course, a choice of hot and cold appetizer (one included a heap of shaved truffles, so that was extra), two main courses, dessert and the dessert cart. All that, without wine, plus tax and tip was $430. I regret passing on the cheese course, $30.
It's... obscene. And I know how many normal meals that can buy, how many weeks of groceries, and how many sticks of street food. It's rent. This is a treat, a once-in-lifetime or -every-few-years treat. For me, to reach so far above the mundane that we have sadly submit to accept as "food," to witness high art, to know excellence for four hours, to know that it is possible, it's worth the price of admission.
Who should I go with?
Someone you can spend four to five hours with. Someone with whom you can share comfortable silences while you each revel in the gustatory delights in front of you. Someone who loves food and talking about food as much as you do! Someone special you meet in the women's room!
Me, I went to Joël Robuchon with a new friend, Rosemary. We met in the women's bathroom on the last day of the New Media Expo. Our conversation about the difficulties of flying from the East through winter storm Hercules -- she from Florida, me from Chicago -- quickly transitioned to talk of food. Ruing the poor food selection at that particular casino-hotel, we spoke of gustatory delights outside the conference boundaries. Quick as a trick, Rosemary's calling Robuchon for a reservation. I'm very lucky in friends, especially fast friends.
Over dinner, we shared the most interesting points of the conference. We talked about the different paths that led us to that place and to that magical dinner, our travels and our personal trials and triumphs. We talked at length about our work (Rosemary's the force behind the podcast Motivating Other Moms), and what we hoped to accomplish this year. And she was kind enough to take all of the pictures of the food you see here since my smartphone had died. Thank you, Rosemary!
What else is important?
Make reservations, though you may be able to stop in and find a cancellation. Call (702) 891-7925. If not, Chef Robuchon also has a relaxed, convivial tapas dining option next door, L'Atelier de Robuchon. (We made reservations at L'Atelier, but canceled those when we got reservations at Joël Robuchon.)
Be well rested. Dinner is four or more hours.
Attire is business casual.
Joël is pronounced zh-oh-EL. The umlaut, or the French accent with the two dots over a vowel, means that vowel is pronounced separately.