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

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