Sunday, December 2, 2012

L'atelier de Joel Robuchon - Fine Dining with the Casual Comfort and Excitement of Counter Seating

The day after my meal at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, I headed over to L'atelier de Joel Robuchon at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Joel Robuchon was named "Chef of the Century" mainly for taking French Cuisine in a new direction by modernizing his dishes. After inspiration from the sushi bars in Tokyo, he decided to come up with restaurants utilizing casual counter seating along with an open kitchen hence "L'atelier" (meaning " the workshop") concept. I'm a huge fan of counter seating mainly because either I dine alone, with a friend who's eyes I don't want to deeply gaze in every 20 seconds, or especially a first date as there's never a dull moment of pause as there's always something to talk about as you can see the food being prepared or the chef/waiter can chime in to fill those uncomfortable voids. The main reason why I tend to prefer counter seating vs. at a table, especially at a sushi bar, is that food is served immediately dish-by-dish. In addition, it's fun to watch the chefs in action of preparing dishes which is something that cannot be experienced dining at the table. This is also another reason why a person can find something to talk about throughout a date. It generally puzzles me why there are those at restaurants like LJR that have an open kitchen or at sushi restaurants that prefer to miss out the counter experience by sitting at the table. The only time I would prefer a table over the counter is if I'm very well comfortable with the date or just that counter seems grimy and unappealing like a truck stop diner which LJR's not at all. 

Aside from that tangent, this review of L'atelier de Joel Robuchon will have some notes of comparison with Twist by Pierre Gagnaire. Pierre Gagnaire is know for taking balsy risks as each of his restaurant utilizes local ingredients and influences therefore acting on their own direction and accord which is why Chef Gagnaire has to perform the daunting task of frequently traveling around the world to each of his restaurants in order to maintain the quality of the food and service. In addition from time to time unlike with Robuchon's restaurants as items on his menu would stay on with only minor changes according to the season, there would be major revisions to the menu of Gagnaire's restaurants consisting of new, completely different dishes. On the other hand, Joel Robuchon's restaurants strive for consistency and replication for his restaurants around the world. I'd image there are some exceptions but if one were to dine at L'atelier de Joel Robuchon in Tokyo, he or she would experience a similar, if not the same menu of  LJR in Las Vegas or even Paris. 

When I arrived at LJR and took a look at its menu, I've opted for the Le Menu Decouverte de Saison which translates as the Seasonal Discovery (Tasting) Menu - $159. It was an 8 course menu (10 courses if the amuse bouche and espresso were counted as their own courses). In addition, I was allowed to replace some of the items on the menu with each change being a supplement of $20. I've replaced Les Langoustines with Le Homard (Lobster Fricassée) along with adding a gram of shaved Italian White Truffles in season ($15/gram). Also, I've replaced La Cebette (White Onion Tart) with Le Foie Gras - Seared foie gras, they also offer it as a Torchon (Chilled, poached preparation) under the same name.

 Out came the bread. Compared to Twist, there is more variety of breads offered. Baguettes, boules and rolls were offered. I enjoyed the roll the most. However, I've felt that the bread at LJR was a tad bit stale, although delicious, to that at Twist. It might be that they make them in larger batches and have been sitting out as the flagship Joel Robuchon restaurant is right next door to LJR.

Like at Twist, I've ordered a Sapphire Martini instead with a Lemon Twist. Although beyond standard and tasty, I've felt my martini at Twist was better made as determined not only of the garnish but how well the ratio of ingredients was used along with it being less diluted from its stirring.

L'Amuse-Bouche - Foie Gras Parfait with Port Wine and Parmesan Foam.
Although I prefer there being more than one amuse bouche to start out my meal, this was surreal. From the Parmesan Foam, I wished that clouds of heaven would taste like this. It is a great start for those that need soothing from being deprived of Foie Gras for a long period of time.

Le Celeri - Celery Mouse with Wasabi, Beef Stew Gelée and Foie Gras.
Granted this dish was very pretty to look at. However, like a stereotypical model, it lacks flavor and any sort of personality. The celery, foie gras, and wasabi were too subtle. In addition, what mainly composed of the dish, the beef stew gelée; although had a nice texture, I didn't care for the flavor even though I do like food with a rich beef stock such as Pho or beef stew itself.

 La Saint-Jacques - Sea Scallop cooked in the shell with Chive Oil.
As with my time at Pierre Gagnaire in Tokyo, I'm starting to pick up that scallops tend to save the meal by turning the course in the opposite direction. This scallop was cooked amazingly to the right point. The richness from the scallop and the chive oil along with the microchives on top providing contrast to the richness made quite the harmony of the flavors and textures I've experienced.

Le Saumon - Lighly Smoked Salmon with Fingerling in a Buttery Shellfish Sauce with Curry and Baby Leeks.
This is one of those examples to never disregard the possibility of ordering fish instead of meat. Wow. This salmon, although the waiter had mentioned to me that to chef made it lighter as I would be having lobster and foie gras after, was so rich and full of flavor. It's hard to imagine that it could get any more richer. This dish totally surprised me as it was cooked well to the right point, completely moist, while overwhelming my palate with intense flavors from the smokiness of the salmon and the butteriness of the curry shellfish sauce. The leaks made a nice bite and contrast to the rich salmon.

Midway in, although not exactly ideal for the lobster but for the other heavier courses instead, I ordered a Cabernet-Sauvignon from Napa. I have to admit, I'm terrible when it comes to remembering wines so I don't have its name listed. It had a nice, bold flavor which was versatile to accompany most courses.

Le Homard - Maine Lobster Fricassée with Mushrooms and Creamy Aromatic sauce. It was also topped with a gram of shaved Italian White Truffles.
This dish was absolutely ridiculous! Granted, there is a tad bit less refinement to the lobster fricassée at Twist. However, this totally blew away the lobster I had the night before at Twist. With the richness and the flavors of the sea from the Maine Lobster, the creaminess and acidity from what I assume is the tomato-based cream sauce, and the earthiness from the bed of mushrooms and, of course, immensely of the Italian White Truffles; it was an orgy of flavors. Granted that metaphor might be to wild for some of you. However, each intense component, especially from the Italian White Truffles, came immensely well together that they produced a unifying, invigorating sensation on my palate.

 Le Foie Gras - Seared Duck Foie Gras with Sweet and Sour Wild Berries.
Although this wasn't the best seared foie gras dish I've ever tasted in my life, it was very delicious. From the carmelization of the seared foie gras, the mild sweetness and texture of what I assume is a peach, and the sweetness and tart of the wild berries; it was a very solid, yet simple, dish. It is for sure to satisfy anyone who has an immense craving for foie gras due to the California ban. Like at Twist, my server at LJR said that I was one of the many Californians that come to the restaurant to quell one's foie gras cravings. I also have to mention that the Foie Gras Terrine at Twist was the best foie gras dish during my recent trip to Las Vegas.

La Caille - Foie Gras stuffed Free-Range Quail with Mashed Potatoes.
As this is one of Joel Robuchon's signature dishes, it pains me to say that I was disappointed with the main portion of this dish, the quail. It was dry with only a little bit of moisture and flavor. The little of the foie gras stuffing barely contribute to the quail. However, my criticism is only of the quail: the mashed potatoes were amazing and surely lived up to their reputation of being amazing. I have to say that, in a good way, it tasted like cheese whiz although no cheese was added and that it mainly consisted of just potatoes and butter.  From the second Paris episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, it was translated from the words of Joel Robuchon, although he was talking in kilos, that it's 2 pounds potatoes and 0.5 pounds butter. Although the following far contrasts fine dining, I could totally imagine Joel Robuchon delighted, or just laughing, over the idea of Popeye's or KFC selling his mashed potatoes to be enjoyed mainly by stoners. Also, the microgreen herb salad served as a great palate cleanser.

La Mangue - Mango Mousse atop an Almond Cake, Toasted Coconut Ice Cream
I'm usually not a dessert fan but at these high end places, I make an exception. This is one of the best desserts I've had in my lifetime. The gold foil leaf, sadly as gold is typically an inert metal, only adds psychological gratification, no contribution to flavor at all. Be that as it may, the Mango Mousse, along with the Coconut Ice Cream and the chunks of Mango, was absolutely divine. It's hard to believe with a foil of a valuable metal sitting on top that a common fruit such as mango can bring such satisfaction as I kept scrapping the bottom of the bowl in order to consume every edible molecule my spoon could get.

 Le Chocolat - Warm Chocolate Cake, Crème de Menthe Sorbet and Chocolate Mint Crunch.
After seeing pictures on Yelp of just a bowl of the Crème de Menthe Sorbet, I was excited to see this dessert although there was only a small portion of the sorbet. It was beautifully presented. The cake was delicious and the Crème de Menthe Sorbet added a really nice touch as the sorbet itself was very delicious. However, as I prefer fruity desserts over chocolate-based ones, I enjoyed La Mangue much more.

After dessert, I ordered like my last visit at LJR Macallan 18 yr. old aged in Sherry Casks. No doubt the Scotch tasted delicious. However, I would opt for this instead of a cognac as for some reason, this Scotch at $130 a bottle retail was listed as $19 whereas Hennessy V.S.O.P at around $45 a bottle retail was $25 at LJR. Therefore, it is of great value to order the Macallan 18 yr. especially if you're a Scotch fan.

At nearly the end of my meal at LJR, I was given a copy of the Seasonal Discovery Menu in an envelope to take home. It was a great, complementary service that the waitstaff offered. I have to note that service at LJR is casual, warm, polite, and very attentive to one's needs.

Le Café - A Single Shot of Espresso along with a Chocolate Cake.
It was of course standard, high-quality espresso. Along with the chocolate cake which had the restaurant's logo on top, the espresso was a great way to end my amazing meal at L'atelier de Joel Robuchon.

As I've mentioned before, my time at Twist was a highly refined experience. Although there weren't any bad dishes and all were delicious, there wasn't really a dish that completely "wowed"/surprised me or just like one of the best dishes I've ever had. With LJR, it did not reach exactly to the refinement of Twist. However, my experience at LJR was like a sine wave of crests and troughs, highs and lows, while maintaining a consistency of quality. There were some dishes that blew my mind like Le Homard topped with Italian White Truffles. However, there were some plates that didn't impress me at all like Le Celeri or down right was disappointed in as La Caille. Be that as it may, for just this trip to Vegas, I have to say that I preferred my experience at L'atelier de Joel Robuchon over Twist by Pierre Gagnaire. Granted I had the Seasonal Discovery Tasting Menu at LJR compared to just two items ordered a la Carte at Twist. In addition, although service was more casual at LJR but formal at Twist, they were both equally amazing and pleasant where it's just a matter of preferring one style to the other. However, it all came down to, regardless of dishes I didn't like, which restaurant served me dishes that blew me away. I've had dishes such as Le Homard, LJR's Lobster Fricassée compared to that of Twist. With that in mind, I preferred LJR's to Twist's as although LJR's was a tad lower in refinement, the Lobster Fricassé at LJR brought overwhelmingly impressive flavors that the one at Twist did not deliver. In addition to great dishes such as Le Foie Gras (seared foie gras), there were dishes that threw me off guard in a very positive way such as La Saint-Jacques, Le Saumon, and the dessert La Mangue which made my experience at L'atelier de Joel Robuchon an extremely enjoyable, memorable one. 

I hope for my next trip to Las Vegas, I'll return back to Twist in order to give them another, much more of a fair chance to redeem itself. Deep down, I personally have a gut feeling that when you factor in all variables such as food quality, service, execution, and flavor; Twist is the better restaurant overall versus LJR.

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