Some people gush over movie stars, rock musicians or, here in DC,
powerful politicians. Me, Iā€™m a sucker for anyone in a chefā€™s
jacket. Iā€™m proud to count a few of DCā€™s finest as friends and more
as acquaintances, and if you get me in my cups Iā€™ll be happy to tell
you about the time I interviewed Alain Ducasse for The Washington Post.
Well add a few more Michelin stars to my firmament ā€“ I met JoĆ«l
I arrived in Las Vegas for my day job and headed for the MGM Grand,
hoping to spend my free evening at Lā€™Atelier de JoĆ«l Robuchon, the
first US outpost of the man heralded by his publicists as ā€œthe best
chef in the world.ā€ The place was closed for a media event. Food
writers from around the world were to be feted for two nights to
celebrate the restaurantā€™s grand opening. I whipped out my business
card, self-printed with Microsoft Publisher on medium-grade card stock
from Office Depot, and explained to the pretty young thang at the
hostess stand that she was in luck, for I had arrived by happenstance
and would be quite content to squeeze into a corner and enjoy the meal
and I really wouldnā€™t get in anyone’s way, thank you very much.
She wasnā€™t buying. The irony, the irony.
So I returned 48 hours later, dusty from tromping around the desert all
day and hoping to score a decent meal before hitting the redeye home,
when I see the man himself standing in front of his restaurant with a
suit and a younger chef. I drooled for a few minutes, then threw modesty
to the wind and introduced myself. Monsieur Robuchon complimented me on
my pathetic French and then introduced me to his copains (who turned
out to be the VP of food and beverage for the hotel and Philippe Braun,
the chef in charge of Lā€™Atelier) as if I was a long-lost buddy from
his days in the resistance. I said I was there to dine at
Lā€™Atelier as soon as the doors opened and let him go on his merry way.
Shortly after 5:30 another cute young thang tried to shunt me into a
corner, but my new friend Philippe guided me to the center seat around
the U-shaped bar that is Lā€™Atelierā€™s signature. This format was
considered quite revolutionary in Paris and Tokyo when Robuchon came out
of retirement a few years ago to offer ā€œcasualā€ cuisine, but the
idea of diners watching their food being cooked and even interacting
with the wait staff is not new to Americans. I felt like I was sitting
at an expensive diner counter. Small plates are not new here either,
though the wait staff kept explaining them as if they were.
That said, Iā€™ve never eaten so well at a diner or tapas bar. It was
perhaps the best, and most expensive, meal of my life.
I splurged on the menu degustation, a multicourse offering of small
plates for $85, and gave Pascal Bolduc, the Quebec-born sommelier, carte
blanche to match me some wines. (For some reason, the restaurant does
not offer flights of wines matched to the tasting menu.) For the
sautĆ©ed foie gras with a citrus and apple sauce, he offered an ā€œice
ciderā€ from Quebec called ā€œNeige,ā€ made from apples frozen on the
tree like grapes on the vine for ice wine. I may go to my grave
believing this was the ultimate food-wine pairing.
Iā€™ll spare you a blow-by-blow, bite-by-bite account of my meal, except
to say foie gras made three appearances overall and I may be spoiled
forever for salmon. One can eat less expensively at Lā€™Atelier by
picking and choosing among the small plates (full entrĆ©es are quite
expensive) and showing restraint with the wines. And while the
ā€œcasualā€ concept may seem old-hat to American diners, the cuisine
Robuchon is not to be missed.
(Lā€™Atelier de JoĆ«l Robuchon at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nev.
There is also JoĆ«l Robuchon at The Mansion, which is really expensive
and aims to recreate or reinvent Robuchonā€™s three-star cuisine. For
more information, see www.mgmgrand.com .)
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