Dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant is a big event despite what anyone else says. Dining at the only three-star Michelin restaurant in Las Vegas, one of only two in the U.S. (the other is The French Laundry in Napa) is an even bigger deal. The table has to be booked way ahead of time, the menu studied online, reviews read and compared and the chef googled to make the most out of what should be and usually is an unforgettable dining experience.
Joel Robuchon at the Mansion is where we chose to celebrate our Las Vegas holiday with a family dinner accompanied by my two sisters and my brother-in-law who had made the reservation. Our booking was the first seating at 6 p.m. – very early for European standards but since we had three kids waiting at home, our two and my sister’s one, we opted for an earlier reservation so we wouldn’t be home too late.
Opened in 2005, the two Robuchon restaurants at the MGM Grand hotel are side-by-side with the more casual L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon on the left and the more formal main restaurant on the right. Where L’Atelier has counter-seating and a funky red and black interior, the Mansion is all about muted luxury – from the black and white tiled foyer with the large chandelier opening onto a small cozy bar or straight into the dining room decorated in deep purple velvet-covered banquettes, bunches of fresh white flowers and silver photo frames scattered around the room making the space feel intimate yet luxurious. One wall is taken up by glass doors that open up onto a small terrace with a vertical garden for a few outdoor tables.
Before coming to the restaurant, we had decided not to order the degustation (tasting menu) so we could order different things and taste from each other’s plates. We were seated at one of the center tables with a banquette and given a menu with the three tasting menus listed so we thought ordering a la carte was not an option but we asked the maitre’d and he changed our menus over. I guess most people order the tasting menus which change depending on the season and leave it all up to the chef. That night, there were three set menus on offer: a six-course winter tasting one at $250, an eight-course winter black truffle tasting menu at $ 500 and the 16-course tasting menu at $385 for the total Robuchon experience.
The a la carte menu had six cold and hot starters and six main courses. We made our choices and did a process of elimination so each one would order something different which would allow us to sample more items from the variety on offer. While we were making our final decision on the food, the executive chef (Claude Le Tohic) sent out a bottle of champagne to our table to welcome my brother in-law (the chef”s doctor) and us to the restaurant. After we each chose a different starter and main course, we waited eagerly for the meal to begin.
First up was the large trolley of assorted bread. There were at least a dozen different types of bread piled up on the the two shelves – wheat baguette, white bread roll, milk bread, basil roll, rosemary bread, Gruyere roll, cottage cheese bread and even bacon bread. We made our choices then they were whisked away to be heated before being served with slabs of beurre demi-sel (slightly salted butter).
As we were tucking into the bread and oohing and aahing over the different combinations, La Pomme (apple) an extra first course, compliments of the chef, was served. It was served in a caviar serving glass – the larger bottom glass usually used for ice was lined with a photograph of apples while the smaller cone glass was filled with a chilled Fuji apple infusion flavoured with nutmeg and yuzu. This served as a tart appetizer to prepare our palate for the meal ahead.
Our appetizers came not long afterwards: La Truffe Noire (black truffle) was several layers of thin slices of lukewarm pommes ratte (fingerling potatoes) used as a base for the foie gras carpaccio and shaved black truffles. My sister and I had the same dish and the combination of the three ingredients went very well together with the flavours melting together in the mouth. A‘s La Grenouille were three mini-lollipops of garlicky frog’s legs with a garlic and parsley puree and basil leaf tempura. Again, the unusual presentation of a classic French dish given a twist with the crispy frog’s legs dipped into the garlic-parsley puree was delicious. My sister’s La Langoustine is one of Robuchon’s signature dishes -Dublin bay prawn ravioli topped with truffle julienne and accompanied by chopped cabbage – an example of how the flavours married wonderfully with the creamy warm ravioli, the braised cabbage and the earthy black truffle all complimenting each other. C‘s L’Œuf de Poule, another of Robuchon’s signature dishes and the most expensive starter on the menu, was a soft boiled egg hidden under a crispy layer topped with a generous dollop of Oscietra caviar and garnished with tiny cubes of smoked salmon – again, three classic ingredients given a twist and served in a wonderful new way while always keeping in mind the final flavour burst that can be achieved with the combination.
After the fantastic first courses, we eagerly awaited our main courses while the wine was poured – a 2004 Gevrey Chambertin, when another surprise compliments of the chef was unveiled under a mini glass cloche: L’Œuf – quail egg yolk in a herb ravioli with a warm foam of baby spinach and garnished with black truffles – another mix of hot spinach foam and ravioli with lukewarm egg and cold chunks of black truffle.
While waiting for our main courses, more people started to arrive and fill up the last few tables of the restaurant. We continued on with the wine and laughed at our childhood stories but never once had to speak in hushed voices unlike many fine dining three-star establishments that become so formal that everyone whispers. At Joel Robuchon, the arrival of the other diners just gave the place a buzz and we could see that the other tables were enjoying their meals as well but there was a never a moment when the restaurant was deadly quiet.
Three out of the five main courses were presented in a cocotte (cast iron casserole) before being plated on an adjacent trolley while the two fish dishes were not served in a casserole. I had Le Turbot roasted on the bones placed on top of a celery ragout with chestnuts. The turbot was flaky and garnished with a creamy celery sauce and tiny capers that burst in the mouth with every bite while the chestnuts’ sweetness toned down the saltiness to balance the flavours out. The bowl it was served in was decorated in several shavings of shimmering gold leaf, a luxurious touch. My sister’s Le Bar pan-fried sea bass came with lemongrass foam, green asparagus and crispy julienned baby leeks. A more Asian-influence approach to sea bass which was citrusy from the lemongrass.
A‘s Le Homard was a stew of lobster chunks, cubed black truffles, whole chestnuts, green asparagus and turnips in a light lobster-infused broth and served in a bowl painted with specks of gold and black paint. The two meat dishes were large portions of two servings each – Le Veau was a sautéed veal chop with natural herb gel, vegetable mille-feuille and as always the twist: crispy-on-the-outside-melting-on-the-inside tiny cubes of hot sweetbreads. Le Bœuf de Kobé was a simply-grilled Kobe beef rib eye flavoured with sea salt and served with a vegetable fricassee. Each dish was a delightful, delicious combination that always highlighted the ingredient’s freshness and quality while playing with the flavours.
We were about to give up on dessert as we were so full at this point but since we wanted to end our meal with something sweet, we opted to share two desserts: the classic Le Souffle and L’Ananas plus five spoons. Instead, we were given three souffles plus the pineapple dessert. The souffles were light and airy and served with either a dollop of vanilla or chocolate ice cream. The pineapple was a perfect tangy meal-ender – a pineapple flavoured biscuit roulade, Tahitian vanilla gelee and tiny cubes of fresh pineapple, the sourness and sweetness of the fruit playing together in the mouth.
Another trolley with three large silver buckets was presented with some ice cream – vanilla, chocolate or raspberry which we unfortunately had to decline as we were literally stuffed. We also opted to have espressos elsewhere so we could walk off some of our dinner before having our coffees. If we chose to have them at the restaurant, they would also have presented another trolley of mignardises (tiny after-dinner pastries and chocolates) which would have come with the French-press filer coffee. We asked for the bill and before it arrived, we received three paper bags, one for each lady at the table, containing an orange-pound cake, wrapped up and ready to take home along with a small booklet with photos and the menus at the restaurant.
As we got up to leave, chef Le Tohic appeared like a gracious host after a wonderful dinner party bidding his guests goodnight at the door. This is what makes Joel Robuchon different from other restaurants – the personalized yet unobtrusive service and the feeling that a meal there, although extraordinary, is just like being in someones home where not only the food is special but the company as well.
*P.D. – There are actually 6 three-star restuarants in the U.S. for 2009, the two mentioned above plus four others in New York City – Masa, le Bernardin, Per Se and Jean Georges.