Night of Contrasts
When I read here that Michelin three starred Las Vegas restaurant Joel Robuchon offered not only a $120 set menu, but also threw in a free limo just for making a reservation, I thought that this seemed like an awesome opportunity for a fantastic evening. In order to make it even more interesting, why not have the limo pick us up at the El Cortez downtown, a 70 year old hotel downtown which has seen better (and worse) days? And why not have the limo driver deliver us to the Western, where we could enjoy a taco off the taco truck parked there, as we'd sure be hungry after having an entree and a dessert at a restaurant famous for rather small portions?
I asked two of my best Vegas buddies to come along for the experience and thankfully, Andrew and Edgar agreed to my stern conditions:
- you can't order anything but the cheapest prix fixe menu
- you can drink nothing but water
- you had to get "it"
These conditions may sound strange, but the evening was to be about value on levels both high-end and low-key, and ordering a bottle of wine or some champagne at Robuchon wouldn't have worked well for that at all.
The getting "it" part may also sound strange, but was very important: telling friends at home about this, there were two kinds of reactions: people who didn't get it and people who thought that this is the stuff experiences maybe not of a lifetime, but ones you still tend to talk about in 20 years are made of. You want to do something like this strictly with people from the second group, and I was very lucky I knew just the guys for this.
A little bit of background about the restaurant might be helpful for anyone not familiar with it. Joel Robuchon is a French chef who is a legend in his country, having presided over several Michelin three star restaurants in Paris. He was named chef of the century and came out of retirement to open two Vegas restaurants a decade or so ago, both at MGM. These are the more casual (but still pretty high-end) L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, which I had tried a few years ago and loved a lot and Joel Robuchon at the Mansion, the three star foodies rave about. The degustation menu there is $400 and 16 course. There was no way I'd pay that kind of money for the experience, but this is where their offer came in.
Here is how it went.
We met at the lobby of the El Cortez Cabana Suites, where I was staying, and walked over to the main building, happening by a few of our Vegas friends in their lobby area. They seemed a bit surprised to see us decked out in our finest (to be honest, only Andrew and Edgar looked resplendent in their respective suits - I had cobbled together a more or less respectable ensemble, not wanting to bring a suit across the Atlantic, so I went with a shirt and tie and a jacket).
The gold plated stretch limo picked us up at 6, right on time. The very nice driver seemed to belong to the group who gets it when we told him what we were up to (or he was angling for a better tip in a very convincing manner). We took the Interstate to Tropicana, circled MGM and entered a little back alley looking like a fitting place for the low end portion of the evening. But then a huge gate opened, and we were in a very pretty courtyard in front of a fountain. The gate closed and after some photos, we were asked inside.
One of the thing that really intrigued me about our plans was the Mansion itself. Being high roller central for MGM, there's usually no public access for people like me. We were asked to wait in a lobby stylishly decorated (as usual, I'm really bad in describing rooms) in a manner that's very rare indeed in Vegas: luxurious without flaunting it, elegant and refined in a subdued effortless manner that doesn't need to try all that hard. Like Cary Grant or George Clooney.
To reach the restaurant, a pretty hostess who hailed from Afghanistan of all places escorted us through a courtyard that was stunning. It was a conservatory a lot higher than the one at Brllagio and a lot less ostentatious (if that works here), meaning that it was lovely and refined without overdoing it and without masses of people, too. In fact, all the people we saw at the Mansion was one more employee. The guests were probably busy winning enough money to afford the $5000 fee necessary to spend a night here.
I've been to other three star restaurants and the decor of Robuchon was more comfortable than these. We got a nice corner table overlooking the space and noticed there even were a few choice tables outside. The waiter brought the menus and explained our options and after a longing glance at the degustation, we went we our original plan, ordering water and the $120 prix fixe that included an entree and a dessert.
Generally the service was excellent and not condescending at all. There was very small reaction of the waiter when he realized we weren't going to provide the biggest tip of the night (Andrew had suggested to pre-tip, but with the army of waiters it seemed to difficult to choose one for this), but the rest of the evening, they were exceedingly friendly. Our hostess (I'm not sure that this was her job title) was excellent, combining professionalism and friendliness in a most satisfying manner, and the main waiter for the table made sure we always got a few extra items from the carts.
Oh, the carts. First to arrive was Robuchon's famous bread cart. It was a feast for the eyes: about 30 varieties of baguette, petit pains, brioches and milk bread, some with bacon and mustard, some with cheeses or herbs like basil. The guys chose three each, while I, playing the role of dumb greedy foreigner with some aplomb, got four different items. The simplest one were best - like the crispy roll, but I also adored the bacon and mustard one. The water was an Italian brand I forgot the name of. We had two bottles total and I was curious to see how much it would set us back.
Our amuse bouche arrived. It was a green asparagus panna cotta with lemon balm, delicate gelée topped with smooth cauliflower cream. Astonishingly good. There were layers of taste developing in your mouth long after the food had entered it.
My choice of entree was beef ribeye, wasabi spinach and a medley of bell peppers. There were lots of other tiny vegetables in that dish, and I wish I could eat it again this minute. The spinach had just a hint of wasabi, the meat was of course perfectly cooked, and I was in heaven. Andrew had ordered le homard, a lobster dish, while Edgar ordered duck fillet and foie gras. They were equally happy with their dishes which looked like works of art.
Dessert consisted of four choices, three of which we had: I went with an almond panna cotta with tahiti vanilla pineapple, Andrew had a combination of strawberries, basil and mousse au chocolat, and Edgar had the wildest of them all, a le rhubarb, made of Pistachio Parfait and Rhubarb, Champagne Rose Granite and Popcorn. There was a noticeable pause in conversation and some soft moaning.
It had seemed hard to top the bread cart, but next, the mignardises cart arrived. It offered about 50 different chocolates, pralines, lollipops and other divine concoctions, all recited by my favorite waiter in astonishing speed, which still toll three minutes. The others chose chosen four each. Not wanting to seem greedy, I chose four myself and asked the waiter to add his favorite. Which turned out to be 6 more. The whole meal was heavenly, but this was my favorite part, each piece exploding in my mouth with a different flavor. The banana cream cheese one might very well be the very best single food item I've ever eaten.
Andrew and Edgar dared to order coffee, drawing some severly reprimanding glances from me. When the check arrived, there was a nice surprise: they hadn't charged anything for the water at all. We invested the saved money into adding to the tip, which was well earned for everyone involved, maybe excepting that little moment while ordering.
Enjoying the company, the atmosphere and our conversation that much, we spent almost another hour just talking and enjoying. After that, the restaurant started to fill up, so we repaired to the - I'm repeating myself, I know - awesome lobby to sit and talk some more. I have to say that these were some of the most interesting conversations I've had all year, and I'm very happy I could be part of it. It is pretty awesome how close one can be with people you have only met in person a few times, and it never ceases to amaze me how many of my Vegas friends fall in into that group.
It was finally time to retrace our steps through the Mansion. Fortunately, the limo hadn't arrived yet, so we got to hang out in that area a little longer. The ride back was over way too quick, and because the driver pretended not to know the Western, we just walked the two blocks down there from the El Cortez.
The taco truck is across the road from the Western on Fremont and offers a pretty good variety of Mexican street food. We had originally thought we'd be really hungry after those tiny French portions, but happily, this wasn't the case. We still ordered a taco each, and mine, filled with chorizo, was a good one, filled with plenty of meat, onions and cilantro. We ate them on the tables thoughtfully provided by management, overlooking the bus station on the other side of the road, where a choice selection of downtown denizens did their thing.
We had decided to cap the evening off at the Griffin, a bar on East Fremont that I had read much about. It was pretty busy, but we still found a place at the bar where we had cocktails and some more great conversation. We called it a night after that, as the guys had early flights home the next morning, and very fondly said our goodbyes. I was to stay in town and the US for 6 more days, and there were plenty more highlights to come. This one I'll still be talking about in twenty years for sure.
You'll have to blame Dave Feldman for suggestin me to post this here.