uhockey reviews the rest of Vegas: Babycakes, Picasso, Bouchon Christmas Brunch, Jean Philippe at Aria
First of all - thanks to all for the recommendations, Chowhound continues to be the best resource I've yet found to optimize my experiences in the cities I visit. Having enjoyed 24 meals plus a few snacks over the course of 9 days in Las Vegas and Los Angeles the reviews were decidedly slow in coming.
As usual, text will be posted here at Chowhound and full pictures will be available in the blog.
Thanks again, it was a truly memorable trip and hopefully my thoughts will help guide others to similarly great experiences.
Babycakes: Full review as below, pics in blog.
Leaving Las Vegas en route for Los Angeles we’d originally considered traveling pastries from Bouchon versus our leftovers from Robuchon as breakfast – at least until I heard about Babycakes Café. Highly regarded on Yelp! and reported to be committed to local high quality ingredients the small shop was a brief detour and, honestly, how often do I have a car at my disposal in Las Vegas? Opening at 7am we woke early, loaded the car, and arrived at the restaurant at 7:05 – so early the coffee hadn’t even finished brewing.
Entering the restaurant we were greeted sleepily by a young Hispanic woman at the front and seated by a young Hispanic man who would also act as our server throughout the meal. With water poured menus were delivered and once coffee and tea were optioned for we were told it would be a few moments as water was still boiling and coffee still brewing. Low on décor we sat back and watched highlights of DeSean Jackson lighting up the Giants on the plasma screen until the young man returned with beverages and took our orders.
With quality service throughout the meal – coffee refilled frequently and water never empty – we watched the restaurant slowly fill to half capacity while we waited…and from my vantage point I watched the kitchen, a two man operation running the griddles and grills with great speed and skill. With the time just shy of 7:30 our plates would arrive - each warm, well prepared, and accompanied with appropriate toppings in small plastic cups.
The first plate, ordered by my sister, was the short stack of Peanut Butter and “make your own combination!” pancakes – in her case banana and chocolate. Served with maple syrup the pancakes were decent but not spectacular – a mild peanut butter taste within and chopped bananas and chocolate chips atop.
My aunt’s selection, a short stack of Red Velvet pancakes topped with whipped cream and chocolate crumbles and served with cream cheese syrup would fare better than my sister’s choice, albeit largely only because of the syrup. Cocoa tinged, thin, and somewhat crisp on the exterior the pancakes themselves were tasty while the addition of the chocolate crumbles lent some textural variation and the whipped cream was expectedly sweet. In the cup, imagine a mildly citrus cream cheese frosting thinned out – a great idea that worked nicely on both this dish and my selection. As we’d be dining on Red Velvet pancakes for the next two days I feel obligated to note that these were the worst of the group by a large margin.
For my choice, Carrot Cakes – certainly the most interesting of our pancake selections with shredded carrots and pecans studding the batter. Topped with more crumbled pecans and the same lovely syrup served with the red velvet options I actually enjoyed my short stack quite a bit and was glad I’d opted for less food so I could sample some of my mother’s choice – the best of the meal.
Titled Honey Toast and described as “two pieces of thick sliced honey toast dipped in a farm fresh egg wash and cooked to perfection! Then drizzled with sweet honey. Yummy!” I will have to agree with Babycake’s assessment – they were prefect and yummy. Significant in size and heft the two thick slices of toast were perfectly caramelized on the exterior and custard within while the slowly melting whipped cream and honey proved to be a smooth and sweet balance without being overly saccharine. While superfluous, I will note the house syrup was actually quite good – it reminded me of the Sweet Syrup at Camellia Grill in New Orleans.
Settling the modest bill – a mere $7.50/each with tax and tip – at the front before making our way to the car we were bid farewell and told to come back soon. While I’ll admit that in retrospect I rather wish we’d have simply gotten some pastries for the road, I certainly did not dislike Babycakes – it just wasn’t worth the special trip. While the small café would be well suited for a city like Columbus or Toledo, given the quality of the competition in Las Vegas it just doesn’t stack up, even if the price is a steal compared to options on the strip – I’d much sooner venture to Hash House a Go Go (on strip or off.)
Picasso: Full text as below, pictures in blog:
In 2002 my parents offered to take me to Los Angeles via way of Las Vegas to see the Los Angeles Kings for the first time at Staples Center – it would serve as my present for graduating college. A memorable trip paid for entirely by people of humble means I still have great memories from that trip – and one strange memory of the absolute sticker shock pertaining to a restaurant called Picasso, at that time the best in town, and a place we’d considered eating for my celebratory meal until we saw the prices. With only a hint of interest in the World’s finest tables at that time we’d settle for a meal elsewhere, though I cannot recall where.
Flash forward eight years, countless memorable dining experiences, and five visits to Las Vegas since that trip I will note that the restaurant had long been on my radar, but it had always been put on the backburner because of a promise I’d made to my sister – an artist and admirer of Picasso – that if I went she’d be coming with me. Having returned from Los Angeles (having seen the Kings at home now for the fifth time) earlier that day I maintained that Picasso would prove a more experience than the one days prior at Julian Serrano and with my sister in tow the opportunity was there – on Christmas Eve next to the Bellagio fountains, to boot.
Established in 1998 to accompany the opening of The Bellagio, Picasso still holds its reputation as one of the five best dining spots in Las Vegas and has garnered Two Stars from Michelin in both guide books. While some suggest that the restaurant is overrated, its price-tag is significantly less abrasive than other contenders for “Best of” Las Vegas (Robuchon, Savoy, Twist, Alex) and the room, studded with thirteen priceless pieces of art is perhaps the most opulent. Arriving moments early for our 7:30 reservation we were told it would be a short while before our table was readied and we were welcomed to browse the art, sit at the bar, or watch the fountains from the Patio while we waited. Watching a number of walk-ins be turned away I was glad we’d made reservations – the restaurant was packed.
Mere moments would pass before our table was readied and walking through the expanse of the restaurant, past many lovely floral arrangements and million dollar works of art. Close to the window, as requested, and with excellent lighting we arrived to our two top where chairs were pulled out, a purse hook was offered, and menus were presented. Greeted by our server, a lovely man with a strong French accent named Robert, the Prix Fixe vs. Degustation choice was discussed and a drink menu provided. With chargers and serving plates (and purse hook) all whimsically designed with Picasso’s infamous brush strokes the “theme” reminded me of Le Cirque in its degree of continuity, yet it never seemed over the top or gaudy.
Opting first for cocktails and subsequently placing our orders I will simply say Robert was a perfect server – interested and interesting, there but never obtrusive, ever giving and never hovering – especially since he was also responsible for water refills, bread service, and everything but bussing the tables. For our cocktails, at $14 each, the decisions would be the Picasso Pom with Hangar One Raspberry, Lemoncello, Pomegranate Juice, Spiral of Lemon and the Emilio Cocktail with Lustau Rare Cream Sherry, Level Vodka, Nocello, Tuaca, Spiral of Orange. Refreshing and smooth after a long day of driving both drinks were quite heavy handed with the alcohol, but nicely balanced by the fruity tones.
Arriving as we sipped our drinks the nightly amuse would be Cold Smoked Scottish Salmon, Caviar, Cucumber, Quail Egg, Crème Fraiche, and Potato Leek Soup. Served curled around the crème fraiche the salmon was excellent – more firm than a sashimi prep, but similar in taste. With the caviar somewhat less briny than others I’ve tasted it worked well with the somewhat sour crème while the egg added its characteristic creamy flavor. The Potato soup was a commendable potage – the creamy texture balanced nicely with the onions and chives.
Finishing our soup and salmon, the first of many rounds of bread would begin. With different varieties appearing over the course of our 170 minute meal the options of which we were able to partake included Cherry Manchego, Green Olive, Traditional Baguette, Bacon Onion Brioche, and Cherry Walnut Wheat. While each was delicious and nicely complimented by the sweet “Picasso” stamped butter I must say I particularly appreciated the Cherry Manchego with the nutty and savory cheese balanced marvelously by the sweet dried cherries. The Bacon Onion Brioche too was quite extravagant and tasty, though it didn’t particularly pair well with any of the courses.
With myself ordering the 5-course degustation, largely unchanged over many years at Picasso, and Erika opting to go Prix Fixe for more choices our first courses would arrive simultaneously. For my first dish, Maine Lobster Salad - Apple-Champagne Vinaigrette was ample in portion, elegant in presentation, and lovely on the palate. With thick chunks of chilled lobster in a light cream sauce serving as the base, the “salad” was essentially microgreens tossed with apple-cider accented vinaigrette atop. Flanked by melon balls and tomatoes of varying colors the dish was quite light, a wonderful opening volley even if it was much more “lobster” than “salad.”
My sister’s first course was not the one I’d have selected on a menu with quail and oysters, but honestly it was lovely, perhaps better than my lobster. Titled Crème of Butternut Squash Soup the dish featured an absolutely satin smooth veloute of creamy squash in a large shallow bowl. Complimented with Homemade Amaretto-Nutmeg Marshmallows and Duxelle of Wild Mushrooms the dish was simply a perfect balance of sweet and earthy, creamy and fibrous. One of the five best soups I’ve ever had the chance to enjoy.
Course two of our meal would present me with my only disappointing course of the meal – and my sister with her favorite dish of the trip. Part of the degustation, my plate was a Pan Seared U-10 Day Boat Scallop with Potato Mousseline and Jus de Veau. Served with a potato crisp standing playfully behind the single monstrous scallop the dish looked beautiful and the tastes were lovely, albeit predictable with the savory veal reduction balancing the sweet scallop. With the creamy potato puree loaded with butter the place where this dish missed was in the centerpiece – gorgeously caramelized to the point of a near brulee on the exterior the scallop was simply a bit too well done at its center. While certainly a competent and lovely preparation the fact remains that perhaps twenty less seconds on the pan could have elevated it to a whole different level.
With my sister gushing across the table I was fortunately able to steal (or beg for) a bite of her dish without being assaulted. Titled simply as Sauteed Filet of Black Bass with Cauliflower Mousseline and Saffron Sauce I have to admit this was her second dish in a row that left me jealous. Flawless fish – supple and moist with the skin seared to crispy was just the start. Resting in a delicate pool of buttery saffron sauce and surrounded by a troika of quenelles of Cauliflower Mousseline – the very essence of cauliflower, butter, and cream – everything was refined, mild, and lovely. No culinary trickery, just top quality product prepared with a gifted hand.
The next course would provide my sister with an empty charger while I would receive the Sautéed “A” Steak of Foie Gras with Poached Pears, Huckleberries, Crushed Pistachios, Lemon Zest, and Rhubarb. A large steak of 3-4 ounces of high quality and perfectly cleaned Foie Gras, the liver itself was everything you would expect. Placed atop a “cake” of compressed pistachio and topped with roasted crunchy pistachios kissed with lemon the textures were a nice contrast and exceptionally complimentary. Swirled with rhubarb reduction and plated alongside a poached pear with huckleberries this dish did not attempt to reinvent the wheel, but much like the bass it was quite memorable for its classic approach.
Watching the water show outside through the window it would be a fair amount of time before our main courses arrived – a tad inconvenient for Erika but welcomed for me given the richness of the proceeding dishes and my inability to stop picking at the bread selection. When the mains arrived they would definitely prove to be worth the wait. For myself, Roasted Lamb Chops with Sweet Bell Pepper Farci turned out to be quite the substantial portion – easily 7-8oz including the bone. Prepared rare and extremely juicy yet easily cut with the side of the fork this was without a doubt a top-5 all time lamb preparation. Presented simply with rosemary, a stack of buttery potatoes, and a mélange of sweet bell peppers this would prove my favorite dish of the evening, regardless of how good the Foie Gras was.
My sister’s main course was a surprise to me – I didn’t know she fancied Pigeon. Titled simply as Roasted Pigeon with Wild Rice Risotto the dish was rustic French in every way. Brined and then roasted the whole split pigeon was an impressive portion with lovely golden skin and juicy flesh. Presented alongside equally well roasted carrots and asparagus plus a mélange of toothsome rice and fibrous mushrooms with corn and tomatoes I will note my sister did not love the rice as she felt it tasted a bit acidic, but to my taste it was actually quite pleasant in balancing the bird.
With our server checking in to see how everything was going we were next offered coffee – at $4 a person it was a pleasant but unmemorable blend served in clever Picasso cups with lips and an abstract nose on its side. Along with the coffee would arrive dessert, a la carte for each of us and surprisingly without a palate cleanser. Beginning first with my selection, strongly recommended by Robert, Hazelnut and Coffee Opera with Coffee Hazelnut Ice Cream and Brown Sugar Filberts was quite impressive in presentation. With a thin wedge of moist cake served on edge with a “shadow” of Hazelnut dust the flavor and texture of the cake was somewhere between almond dacquoise and tiramisu. Resting happily next to the tall and proud cake, a small ball of similarly flavored ice cream atop candied nuts – creamy and crunchy, a nice cake and ice cream combination but certainly nothing to write home about.
My sister’s dessert, billed as the restaurant’s signature sweet, would be Warm Chocolate Fondant with Caramel Candy Cashew Ice Cream and Chocolate covered Cashews. Essentially a warm chocolate lava cake that gushed forth liquid fudge when pierced the presentation of this dish was quite attractive and the cake tasty, but the true star of the show was invariably the ice cream which took the idea of salty caramel ice cream and instead made it salty cashew – lovely, and absolutely stunning when paired with the cake and some of the crunchy cashews semi-circling the plate.
Sated and happy the check would come next – a relative bargain compared to the other Michelin 2-Stars in Las Vegas to be sure. Along with the check a small tray of mignardises including an airy vanilla meringue, an apricot pate de fruit, a few fruit and nut cookies, and a goat cheese lollipop with a crisp of apple – all tasty, none overly impressive save for a rich chocolate ganache with four layers of texture and chocolate tones.
Settling the bill Robert asked us if we would like a photograph by one of the many Picasso’s or by the lake – “both” was the only logical response. With a requested copy of the menu in hand I will note that Robert got sidetracked by multiple persons asking for photos, but eventually ours was taken and we bid him farewell before making our way to the door where my sister (not I) would be presented with a box of crispy cinnamon butter cookies in a lovely magnetic jewelry box bearing the Artist’s signature.
Making our way from Picasso I must say I left with mixed emotions – not because anything was bad – as a matter of fact, everything was quite good. The issue was that aside from a lovely Christmas Eve with my little sister at a restaurant that seemed unattainable a mere 8 years ago, nothing was “great” aside from the décor and art. In the end I think Picasso has maintained its place in the Vegas culinary scene – it is just that many other restaurants, and my own personal dining preferences, have perhaps grown to be something more.
Picasso (at Bellagio
)3600 Las Vegas Blvd S, Las Vegas, NV 89109
Bouchon Christmas Brunch, Jean Philippe at Aria: Text as below, pictures in blog.
There are very few restaurants I feel compelled to return to again and again – the ones I do are genuinely mind blowing (Alinea,) cheap and kitschy (Griddle Café,) or…well, Bouchon Las Vegas. Open for breakfast, brunch, and dinner I’d been to Chef Keller’s Vegas Bistro on each of my previous three visits to Las Vegas and the opportunity to eat Christmas Brunch there with the three most important people in my life was simply too perfect and obvious a choice to pass up. Having contacted the restaurant to be sure they’d be open on Christmas I was informed that they were indeed open but not taking reservations as is their Saturday Brunch policy – I was also told there would be “holiday themed” specials available.
Waking early to be sure we’d arrive plenty early I have to admit I was a tad surprised when we were the first people in line at 7:45am, though we’d quickly be joined by twenty or so others before the doors opened with a pleasant Merry Christmas from the staff at exactly 8am. Checking in at the hostess stand we were quickly whisked away to a great four-top near the windows overlooking the pools at the center of the Venezia tower and presented with menus. With water poured the next person to visit our table would be our server, a pleasant young woman named Arlene who would live up to Bouchon’s customary service – interested and forthcoming, knowledgable and efficient. Describing the chalkboard specials (no “holiday themed” options to be found) and taking drink orders we were left to ponder our choices.
With the same menu as my previous visit plus the chalkboard specials I decided to venture onto the chalkboard while my family opted for Chef Keller and team’s more traditional breakfast/brunch fare on this seminal visit. With two coffees, a tea, and orange juice served and refilled consistently (save for the orange juice) by the ever circling bussers we sat for mere moments before the ever-welcomed epi-baguette would arrive, this time with that same lovely butter and apricot preserves.
Starting the meal proper and finally dining at Bouchon’s brunch with a group I was this time able to order the pastry basket I’d previously held off on for fear that it would go to waste. With four options to the basket plus one included with my aunt’s Breakfast Americane the basket would actually be a silver platter with a blue cloth. Featuring a cream cheese Danish, Pecan Sticky Bun, Orange Currant Scone, Chocolate Almond Croissant, and two Raspberry Beignets each taste was everything I’ve come to expect from Bouchon bakery and both the Cheese Danish and Orange Currant Scone were truly remarkable given the fact that I generally would not have ordered them at other restaurants. Rumor has it that Keller is working on a Bouchon Bakery cookbook and this experience once again made me hope the rumors are true.
Having already mentioned my aunt’s selection I’ll note it was certainly the bargain of the menu – two eggs buttery and medium scrambled, two slices of bacon, two pieces of impeccable sage accented sausage, toasted sourdough, the previously mentioned Danish, coffee, and orange juice for $22.
For my mother the choice would be a dish familiar to myself from two years prior; the bread pudding style French toast. This time using D’anjou pears as opposed to the Bartletts from my visit but again with lovely layers of custard interspersed with cinnamon spiked compote of fruit between each layer there really isn’t much that can be said about this dish that hasn’t been praised before – a touch of maple syrup, a dust of confectioner’s sugar to finish a truly decadent breakfast. To temper the sweetness she also ordered a side of bacon – 7 thick strips of apple wood smoked Kurobuta pork for a mere $5.
For my sister, still feeling the effects of the gluttony at Picasso the night before, something light was desired and the decision was made to sample Keller’s Waffle recipe. Spiked with vanilla and so crispy on the exterior that I’d not be surprised if cornmeal was involved, the interior of the waffle was supple and spongy – textbook. Topped with fresh bananas and chopped walnuts at a cost of $12 I can’t say this was a cheap waffle, but all things considering it was light, tasty, and unfaultable.
My breakfast selection would be from the chalkboard – it would also be the most expensive option of the day but also thankfully the best. Described merely as Oeuf du jour with Crab and Macaroni Gratin the dish itself would be served in a steaming hot low-ramekin. Featuring tender macaroni intermingling with plump chunks of crab, gruyere, breadcrumbs, and butter at its base the dish was subsequently topped with two medium scrambled eggs and sauce Mornay with paprika and chives. Creamy yet textural, slightly briny but sweet, and buttery beyond anything I’ve had in recent memory the dish was perhaps the best savory I’ve ever had for breakfast and the golden brioche served alongside harkened memories of Per Se and The French Laundry, even if the Apricot Jam wasn’t quite as good as the Foie Gras I was spreading in those settings.
With plates cleaned our bussers would clear the table rapidly and Arlene would return with the check – no offer of dessert, just a “No Rush – Merry Christmas and thanks for having brunch with us today” as she handed us the check in a glass cup. A tad annoyed at the lack of promised “holiday themed” specials we settled the tab and made our way to the door by 9:05 – a mere hour after we entered. With the lounge full and a growing line outside we made our way down the hall, out of the Venezia Tower, and back to our room. While certainly a good meal with great company this visit to Bouchon was a letdown largely due to heightened expectations. While there is no doubt in my mind that I’ll find my way back to Keller’s growing list of tables frequently over the coming years I now realize that on a day like Christmas there simply is no place as special as home, even if you are with all the people you love.
Exchanging our humorous Christmas gag-gifts and packing our bags for the Christmas flight home we next checked out of our hotel and left our bags in the rental car while we decided to finish our vacation with some gaming, coffee, and dessert in the early afternoon at Aria. Having already browsed the newest Jean-Philippe boutique multiple times during our visit and having tried the original at Bellagio in the past we were thrilled to note that as opposed to Bouchon, Jean Philippe was fully embracing the holiday theme.
Having experienced the Nutella gelato and Tiramisu on past visits to Jean Philippe at the Bellagio I personally was wowed by the vastness of the new shop’s selection – from cookies to candies to confections and ice cream everything looked excellent and given the length of the line we were given plenty of time to decide. With the space at Aria including a dining area in addition to the vast shop my mother and sister made their suggestions and went to wait out a table – a successful bid that would land us a four-top overlooking the gaming floor only moments before we paid our bill.
Browsing the selection and deciding on a dessert each, plus an enormous chocolate covered strawberry and a coffee the items were plated on clear plastic trays with the Chef’s signature logo – a nice touch softening the blow of a $38 tab. Splitting each item into fourths in order to design a miniature dessert tasting our selections would be a “gift wrapped” Carrot cake, a Nutella Brioche, a Snowman Tiramisu, and a Chocolate Bouche de Noel.
With each item a stunning example of Jean Philippe and team’s handiwork I still think this is one of the best Tiramisu dishes to ever grace my palate and the Bouche was vastly superior to that at Bouchon Bakery just days before. With the Carrot Cake loaded with a citrus toned cream cheese, raisins, and plenty of texture and the Nutella Brioche featuring the texture of a Croissant with easily two tablespoons of the Hazelnut filling within everything was divine, especially when paired with the subtly chocolate toned coffee. A sweet ending to a wonderful trip – and my first Merry Christmas outside of the Buckeye State.
3355 Las Vegas Blvd S, Las Vegas, NV 89109
Man, that new JP Patissiere in Aria is truly stunning, isn't it? I was in LV a few weeks before you (early Dec) and found it to be just stunning.
I'm going back this weekend for the Super Bowl and definitely plan on hitting it up for some snacks.
Great reviews, once again, btw. Glad you enjoyed your time in LV and in my home base of LA.