Sunday, February 25, 2007

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Las Vegas

Las Vegas’s grotesquerie is something that I attempt to avoid at all costs, an opinion re-considered, but not weakened, by the entry of Joël Robuchon into the overwrought restaurant market there. Despite much trepidation, when professional obligations dictated a visit, I availed myself of the opportunity to try the far-flung outpost of the growing L’Atelier chain whose flagship is one of my favorite restaurants in Paris.

When Joël Robuchon opened his L’Atelier in Paris in 2003, he ended a seven-year sabbatical from the demands of operating a Michelin three-star and quickly returned to prominence. His new restaurant is popular because of its inspired food, thoughtful and restrained experimentation, clever re-definition of dishes, mastery of classics, technical dexterity, and of course, its “sushi bar” atmosphere. To substantial controversy, Robuchon jettisoned the venerable traditions and formalities of French dining, even the use of tables and reservations. His vision champions the traditions of Spain and southern France. He wants his diners to watch the open kitchen, talk to each other, perhaps sample one another’s wine and sit in a comfortable, casual environment. The environment is almost American, and with its ban on smoking, Californian at that.

All of these ingredients and its splendid location on Rue de Montalembert have made L’Atelier a great favorite of ours. L’Atelier is nestled in the Left Bank district of short blocks between the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Seine and anchored by Rue de Bac. In its infinite architectural splendor, the district is the home of prominent Old Masters art and antiques galleries as well as many other small shops, cafés, and bistros of varying persuasions. On our semi-annual trip to Paris, our practice is to eat lunch at L’Atelier on our arrival and dinner on the eve of our departure.

After a few years of success in Paris, the ideological purity of Robuchon’s personal revolution began to waver. Perhaps he sought a new challenge, or to be melodramatic, perhaps he was seduced by avarice. Las Vegas, as everyone knows, is the home of maximum garishness, harlotry, weekend depravity, and the financial foolishness that ensues when the casinos remove clocks and windows from the room and provide free cocktails. Exchanging the timelessness of the Rive Gauche for the timelessness of the Las Vegas casino, it quickly became clear that Joël Robuchon had recreated his own Eiffel Tower. The Vegas incarnation of L’Atelier is at the perimeter of the MGM Grand, adjacent to the resurrection of the formal Joël Robuchon, whose very presence proves that for Las Vegas, being the actual ash heap of culinary history is most lucrative.

To the food: in ordering at L’Atelier in Paris, my wife and I typically solicit our server’s help in planning a menu of three or four small plates, generally ignoring the more expensive entrees. But in deference to the immediate agenda of fostering client relations, my colleagues and I ordered the tasting menu, which has grown to be an annoying, unplanned theme of the Infinite Fress.

The amusé bouche was a foie gras parfait served in a shot glass. The strangely dense liver sat leadenly at the bottom, hiding from the bland foam that covered it. The first savory dish consisted of three sashimi-style pieces of bluefin tuna, topped with fleur de sel, fragments of sun dried tomato (which conjured thoughts of affluent suburban kitchens, circa 1987), coarsely ground pepper and maybe some truffle oil. Hiroji Obayashi would have disapproved of the quality of the tuna, whose flavor was nonetheless superseded by the pepper’s power and the sun dried tomato’s distinctiveness.

A scallop cooked and served in its shell and accompanied with seaweed-infused butter followed. I prize this dish for its presentation, thoughtfulness, and of course its great flavor. Like much else at the Paris L'Atelier, our first sampling of the dish was epiphanic. For this scallop lover, the dish’s deceptive simplicity as served in Paris makes it nonpareil. For my wife, who usually avoids scallops, it was "redonk." Yet in Las Vegas, it is uninspired, though tasty, and no match for the version at Hatfield’s previously lauded and again enjoyed with the Heinouses last Monday.

The next two failures were much more acute and demonstrated the rudderlessness of this outpost of the Atelier chain. First was the oeuf cocotte, which resembled a mad scientist's sundae and in this interpretation was a baked egg yolk served with a very light, creamy mushroom foam, a puree of blanched parsley and garnished at the top with pieces of three types of mushrooms. We had l’oeuf in Paris last October: it was a daring feat of technical and gustatory mastery, and a showpiece not only for Robuchon the alchemist, but Robuchon as the master trainer of his crack team of chefs. Yet here in Las Vegas, l’oeuf’s three principal components mingled about as well as Cheney, Gore, and Nader would. At least the blanched parsley was good. The mushrooms were not relevant, and their saltiness rendered them a pollutant. The yolk’s execution was somehow afield.

The same problems affected the next dish, seared foie gras wading with chestnut confit and bacon in a bath of foam. Marcel Vigneron was not here, but his worst tendencies were clearly felt. I liked the chestnut confit, the only redemption for this incoherence. The bacon might have been microwaved.

As we shifted from the overrated Far Niente chardonnay to the pleasant if unexciting Broadly Vineyards pinot noir, the warm and cuboidal, slightly smoked salmon sitting atop potato confit stabilized this listing ship. If I had eaten this dish in Paris, I probably would have hailed it as “inspired” and “soulful” and lamented the Vegas debasement. But since I had not, I can say that the salmon’s texture and the restraint of its smokiness as well as its interplay with the potatoes were most welcome. Remnants of Robuchon’s brilliance flickered here, but the salmon’s slight dullness brought the dish down from his empyrean standards.

The final savory course on the tasting menu--and a great success--was the miniature caramelized quail stuffed with foie gras and served with truffled mashed potatoes. I indulged greedily. The basic inquiry of whether Vegas was as good as the original is not worth considering when you’re facing a small plate of caramelized quail with foie gras and a glass of Willamette pinot. My colleague’s thin hanger steak with fried shallots was also outstanding. He was lucky that he was a prized client; otherwise I would have snagged his dinner.

Being a complete chazer and with the meal at a crescendo, I observed the kitchen preparing a Robuchon specialty—Le Rumsteack en Tartare et ses Frites à L'ancienne. When my colleagues decided to split one more order of Le Thon Rouge, I pounced at the opportunity to partake in Robuchon’s famed thick, imperious steak tartare, which was stellar as always. Once through it, I turned my attention to those waffled fried potatoes, so ethereally crispy and light. But these potatoes reminded me yet again that I was only in Las Vegas, and that I would have to wait four long weeks for the real McCoy.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
3799 Las Vegas Blvd.
Las Vegas
(702) 891-7358

Monday, February 12, 2007

Separated at Birth: Mario Batali and a Garden Gnome

Osteria La Buca 2: Electric Boogaloo

I happen to be the other half of that "we" that Steve described in his seemingly merciless review of Osteria La Buca. While I agree that La Buca's take on amatriciana was unacceptable (more on this later), I managed to enjoy our meal there much more than my husband did. Perhaps it was the thrill of a one-time, guilt-free carbohydrate indulgence or maybe it was the divey charm of that cramped hovel of a restaurant, but I'm not willing to write off our dinner as a disaster. After all, we had fun and, by golly, we had pasta.

Admittedly, I'm not the pizza expert that Steve is, but I found Osteria La Buca's "Jijo" pizza to be quite tasty with a light, well-seasoned crust that served as a thin pillow of yumminess cushioning a balanced combination of textures and flavors. My primary gripe with most pizzas (and one of the reasons, perhaps, that I don't cite pizza as a go-to comfort food) is that it's often just bland and starchy, the dough and mozzarella comprising an amorphous blob of whiteness. But not the Jijo. The smoky, salty speck provided a welcome burst of flavor (and color), enhanced all the more by a smattering of chopped walnuts and a drizzle of truffle oil. I thought it was earthy and delicious.

(On the other hand, the caesar salad was standard-issue mid-level restaurant fare, overwhelmed by a relentless flurry of parmesan coating absolutely everything in the salad bowl. But, as Steve might point out, that's what I get for ordering a caesar salad at an Italian restaurant in LA.)

As for the pasta, it comes down to the question of whether one prefers fresh or dry pasta. Steve rightly pointed out that, sometimes, dry pasta is better suited to the texture of some sauces. In the case of the fume pasta, the freshly cut ribbons of trenette made for a terrific complement to the creamy, but light, smoky sauce that reminded me -- a little -- of the essential flavors in the pappardelle alla fiesolana at our beloved Bar Pitti in New York. That same pasta in the amatriciana, however, was a complete misfire; the amatriciana sauce was downright puny, a watery mess that collected at the bottom of the bowl, leaving Mamma's noodles to shiver in the nude. It was so very sad, especially for my darling Stevie, who could get no satisfaction from that sauce, so reminiscent of V-8 juice, but studded with Bac-Os.

If ever again I get the urge to throw carb-caution to the wind, I'd be willing to give Osteria La Buca another shot. Wish me luck convincing the husband.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Osteria La Buca

Returning from a business trip to dreary San Diego last Wednesday, we were in the mood for pasta, an instinct normally and healthily repressed in Los Angeles. Against our better judgment, we ventured out to Osteria La Buca, which came recommended by a friend of a friend, who cautioned not to pass on word of it to others. I expected a charming and lively speakeasy with excellent, affordable Italian pastas. The diminutive restaurant has seven or so tables and is decorated with wall photographs of the usual suspects along with the de rigueur Italian World Cup jersey. (There are two main differences between Italian restaurants in Cleveland and Los Angeles: in Cleveland, the food is usually decent and the pictures on the wall are of Coppola’s and Scorsese’s gangsters, and in Los Angeles, the food is inedible and the photos are of Fellini and Di Sica regulars.) At 9 pm, the restaurant was full and lively. One could hear all of the surrounding conversations, but because of the reverberating walls, high ceiling, and the placement of the tables, one thankfully couldn’t eavesdrop.

For such a small place, the menu was all-encompassing, if not smothering. They offered over 15 types of pizzas, and five types of “hand-made” pasta, plus gnocchi, and 10 sauces for the diner to choose from. There were also appetizers, salads, and a few secondi, and then another half dozen daily specials. I had no hope that the tiny kitchen could pull all of this off.

To start, we split the "jijo" pizza with mozzarella, speck, walnuts and truffle oil. The speck itself was good, but then again it was pork. The dough itself was bland and had the texture of a thick tortilla. I knew then that this would be the last time I drove past Mozza for a pizza inferior to those in the Trader Joe’s frozen food section. (Silverton’s pizzas are better now than those at Otto in my estimation, but still a far cry from Una Pizza Napoletana.) We followed with two forgettable pastas: trenette with amatriciana and trenette with a "fumé" sauce that was
tomato-and-cream-based and included onions, bacon, oregano, and scamorza cheese. The trenette was soggy, and the amatriciana had no taste and looked like what I imagine Chef Boyardee sauce to look like: watery and red with lots of miniature cubes of bacon. The cream sauce was more successful but only because there was a minimal, if trifling engagement of the gustatory sense.

In the positive column, the bread was warm when served.

In the end, Osteria La Buca was just a simulacrum of an Italian restaurant with marginal charm and bad food. We will certainly honor our friend’s friend's request not to recommend Osteria La Buca to others.

Osteria La Buca
5210.5 Melrose Ave.
(323) 462-1900

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Euro Caffé

The famously wealthy denizens of Beverly Hills have the same primordial urge to appear stylish and sophisticated as the residents of any other affluent American suburb. But the Beverly Hills zeitgeist is unique in its pathological focus on faux Italian, a condition that results when there are too many USC alumni taking too many leisurely Italian vacations within a three-mile radius. (How else can one explain the presence in central Beverly Hills of such ersatz trattorias as Caffe Roma, Da Pasquale, E. Baldi, Enoteca Drago, Il Fornaio, Il Pastaio, Il Tramezzino, La Scala, Piccolo Paradiso, and Prego?)

This particular strand of Beverly Hills inanity has had one positive consequence: the restaurants, the retail and fashion industry along Rodeo Drive, and the inherent appeal of Los Angeles have lured a regiment of Italians to Beverly Hills, and these Italians take their coffee, kibitz, and watch soccer at Euro Caffé.

A large, commanding copper Elektra espresso machine resides inside the window where the owner, Vartan Kemanjian, serves espresso as good as can be found stateside. Using Danesi beans, Vartan's espresso is rich and thick, yet it possesses that soft nutty sweetness unique to superior Italian espresso. (Even the Hollywood barista cult hero Donny Morrison, now at Sabor y Cultura, was awed by the quality of Euro Caffé’s espresso.)

Euro Caffé is an Italian soccer fan’s paradise, as its two large televisions show Serie A matches, and the café is decorated with soccer memorabilia. Considering the Laimbeeresque performance of the Italian soccer team in last year’s World Cup, the celebratory photographs of the winners tend to grate. That is, until I prendo un caffé outside with my New York Times. Then only the Bush administration grates.

Euro Caffé
9559 “Little” Santa Monica Blvd.
Beverly Hills

(310) 274-9070