Next to eating good dinners, a healthy man with a benevolent turn of mind, must like, I think, to read about them. – Willam Makepeace Thackeray
Pierre Gagnaire’s food can be, by turns, exhilarating, awesome, drop-your-fork-delicious, befuddling and infuriating. And that’s just a single appetizer. Be prepared for all of those emotions and you can have one of the great restaurant experiences of your life. Walk in thinking you’re going to have a conventional big-deal meal, and there’s no telling what feeling(s) you will experience.
You access Twist via an elevator that takes you to the twenty-third floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (everything cool and groovy about the Mandarin — its lobby, lobby bar, spectacular views, etc. — starts on its twenty-third floor). Proceeding down a short windowless hallway, you run into the hostess booth, and, to your right, a tiny, minimalist, four seat bar, stocked with a minimalist amount of top-shelf-but-not-very-interesting booze. This theme repeats itself when you get to the wine list, but more about that later.
The welcoming staff, headed by Daniel Boulud Brasserie alum Josef Wagner is all smiles as they lead you to your table in the small (65 seat) bi-level room. There really isn’t a bad seat in the house, but couples will want to angle for a window table to enhance the romance. ELV, of course, prefers to sit in the kitchen.
Almost immediately, the amuse bouche appear: mini-souffles (thumbnail size really), cuttlefish salad (an homage to Asian flavors in a tiny bowl), tiny cubes of Guinness gelee (odd but good), potato chips with sardines woven into them (strange to see and taste), lemongrass biscuits, and long, thin crackers accompanied by tuna “Chantilly” cream, that is feather light, almost pure white, and quite a delight.
“Hummm,” you’ll say to yourself, “the meal hasn’t even begun and I’m finding myself obsessing over the haunting, deliciously fishy taste of whipped tuna cream? This will be no ordinary experience.”
And how right you will be.
Not wanting to push the envelope too far too fast, you settle on one of the more normal-sounding appetizers: mushroom broth “Zezette.” Gagnaire later tells us “zezette” is French slang for “wacky” and wacky is what you get with soup zezette. At first the mushroom veloute arrives, chock full of vegetable gnocchi and thick slivers of chicken. “Just about the best vegetable soup…ever,” you say to yourself — so intense is it with the taste of the woods, greens, lentils and fowl — this is chicken and vegetable soup on a different level.
But Pierre is never content with leaving well enough alone. In France, he made his reputation by serving sometimes five or six different dishes with a single course. In Vegas, he seems to be sticking with three riffs per dish, but that doesn’t mean any less craziness, because in short order, a martini glass arrives to accompany the soup, filled with a Bloody Mary sorbet on the bottom, and a ratatouille Bavaroise (vegetable whipped cream) on top.
But wait, there’s more!
Then, a strange, rather large, deep-fried, Kombawa cod (brandade) cake appears to round out your ensemble. You will find no fault with this concoction, but will eat it wondering what a fish cake is doing beside all those wonderful vegetable flavors — the whole effectively lessening the sum of its parts.
Equally odd is another appetizer of poached sea bream lying atop a “Libanese taboule tartelette” (resembling a dark, vegetable cookie) — this time accompanied by a simple snow crab salad and a sauce boat of bonito-shellfish gelee dabbed with a scoop of mozzarella ice cream. Again, the first two verses of the song seem in perfect, complete harmony, until the discordant note is introduced to ruin the melody. On some level you known Gagnaire is exploring the various tastes of the sea and what can be done with them, but on another, more prosaic level, the diner is faced with a fishy, cold, brown soup, that has grainy, almost tasteless, mozzarella ice cream on top of it.
Those who like to think when they eat will surmise that Gagnaire never met a flavor idea he didn’t think he could build upon. His crazy creativity is more pronounced in the starter courses than in the mains, and shows itself to its best effect in the langoustine five ways served as part of the Pierre Gagnaire Spirit (tasting) menu. Whether it’s seared, grilled, raw, in a mousseline or en gelee, the full flavor profile of this most intriguing of crustaceans is shown off to its fullest.
After this degustation highlight, you will veer back to the mundane — a simple loin of venison — until the big guy takes over again and throws a “Grand Veneur” (venison-flavored ice cream) quenelle at you just to remind you who’s boss. We nicknamed the dish “venison intensified,” and still have dreams about the red-cabbage-black current jam (sauce) that was dribbled about the plate. As for the deer ice cream, we found it intriguing, but, once again, more compelling in concept than reality.
The Pekin duck “Salmis” style, is another odd trio: this time a cured, roasted breast meat topped with a duck sausage patty and served with a cumin-spiced, stuffed cabbage duck dumpling. Again, the effect is to explore different versions of the same ingredient, and this time it works beautifully — each segment adding to your enjoyment of the other.
Our second dinner here was a more mundane affair. Dining solo, and seeking seafood, simplicity and geographic diversity, we took the Santa Barbara spiny lobster and the Dover sole:
…each course both wonderful and ironically revealing, mainly because they were revelations writ large by understatement. The spiny lobster appeared in thick chunks under with large, thin rounds of mushroom, all at room temperature and napped with a Champagne dressing. On the side, thin cappellini in a small bowl waiting to be tossed into the green pepper, celeriac and cauliflower veloute that sat beneath it. The first half of the equation: all subtle textures and flavors; the second: bright, clean and assertive, effectively complimenting the seafood salad from afar.
Ordering the Dover sole “pan fried corn flour” we expected sort of the classic preparation: a large piece of fish, filleted and served with a sauce. What you get is a riff on the classic goujonettes of sole — small ribbons of fish, fried and mounded on the plate — in this case a plate of baby greens, haricot vert and small broccoli. The “ivory” (wine-butter sauce) drizzled across the top of the fish and around the plate is so good you’ll want to dispense with utensils and lick it directly.
After the veloute pasta and wine-butter sauces, to say nothing of the rich seafood, we decided some acid was in order. Pierre obliged with his all-citrus trio of baba cake, frozen limoncello, citrus gelee and a star anis marshmallow — each one memorable unto itself, but more meaningful as a study in different levels of pH. Matching this citrus with an appropriate wine isn’t easy, but sommelier Julie Lin came through with a rich, dark, sweet Ben Rye Passito di Pantilleria that cut through the sharpness beautifully.
Speaking of wine, all we can say about the list is we’ve pondered it, studied it, scratched our heads over it and questioned others about it (including Ms. Lin). She looked a bit like a deer in the headlights when we asked how it was chosen, and from that we conclude she had precious little to do with its construction. It is unimaginative in the extreme, poorly matched to the cuisine and massively overpriced. (Paolo Barbieri’s Three Creek Syrah, $90 at ALEX – not exactly Wal-Mart when it comes to wine pricing – is $125 here.) The list has all the earmarks of that Vegas wine bugaboo of old — the distributor-chosen list — complied by the tin-eared and wooden palate-d folks who control the inflow of vino into our humble burg.
Gagnaire’s list should be as eclectic and interesting as his food. This list is neither, but chock full of trophy bottles ($13,500 for an ‘o1 DRC), off-year, overpriced Bordeaux (‘o4 Chateau de Pez for $115), and overpriced, new world plonk ($110 for Grgich Hills Fume Blanc anyone? Anyone?). It is long without being deep or broad, and diverse without being intriguing (no mean feat, that). On our last visit (our third in a week). we bumped into four, well-known sommeliers from other properties, two of whom have departed Vegas for bigger cities. Each described the list in words ranging from “abominable” to “embarrassing.” However, being knowledgeable about the way wine politics works in this town, each was also willing to let Lin off the hook for it, so we at ELV will too.
So we suggest ordering by the glass until someone tosses the list out and starts anew. The selections are minimal: a few sparklers, five whites and five reds, but nothing non-sparkling is over $20/glass, and given Gagnaire’s penchant for peculiar comestible composites, a ordering by the glass is probably perfect for appropriate pairings.
That is, until you confront the weirdest surf and turf on the planet:
Called “Shellfish Royale,” this amalgam of toasted beef gelee (think: a quarter-inch layer of beef gelatin on the base of a plate), beet slices, smoked red beet puree, and slightly poached Dabob oysters, all on the same plate, might just be the oddest forced marriage of land and sea ever attempted. The oysters are, of course, superb, but are undermined by the umami depth charge of beef and overwhelmed by the earthiness of the beets. “What was he thinking?” is all you can say to yourself, and just about the time you’re about to give up on the dish, out comes, yes, another bowl — this time a shellfish “salad” of whelks, razor and marinated clams — that is so good you want to pick up the damn thing and drink the shellfish liquor straight.
But of course, this being Gagnaire, you’re not out of the reef and beef woods yet. Next up, is thin, toasted country bread, with just the thinnest whisper of Comte cheese melted across its top. How melted cheese on toast blends with all these shellfish, meat and earth flavors is anyone’s guess (PG had left the building before we had a chance to ask him about it), but, in defense of the dish, it must be said that days later, you will remember the intensity of everything you tasted.
Just as you will remember the pan-seared entrecote — a superior cut of Nebraska beef deeply imbued with beef flavor — and the “Never Never” veal — so named because the veal is free-range and never fed any hormones or antibiotics. You are provided smoked parsley powder to sprinkle on the beefsteak to great effect, and we’re betting you have never experienced anything as vivid and rich as the Burgundy-escargot sauce that comes with it.
Of course, this being Gagnaire, the lily needs to be gilded: this time with a caviar-topped potato ice cream that we vastly preferred to the mozzarella version — it being strangely less grainy than its cheesy competitor, and tasting more of tuber.
No such overwrought attention gets paid to the veal, and the meat is probably better off for it. All it comes with is a wonderful morel-licorice coulis and some fried polenta with gorgonzola a la plancha. By Gagnaire standards (and other world class restaurants), these two meat dishes are positively pedestrian. But as you’re eating them, and realize how much work has gone into the highlighting and extraction of every flavor that makes up the dish, and you will find yourself wondering when was the last time you had a piece of meat that was so deeply satisfying.
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire is a serious restaurant that demands some serious attention from the customer. It is not about pirouettes on the plate as much as it is about the exploration of tastes and flavors. Thus, it cannot be said that this is a restaurant for everybody.
Dining in a Gagnaire restaurant is swimming in the deep end of the foodie pool. In bringing his oeuvre to Las Vegas, he has opened a restaurant that no American gourmet, gourmand, epicure, or gastronome* can afford to miss. Others, however, may occasionally need a life preserver.
If your food tastes run to the musical equivalents of catchy pop tunes or lush, recognizable symphonies, you will have a hard time coming to terms with a restless spirit who is always looking for something new and exciting (a la Phillip Glass, Thelonious Monk, Radiohead, et al). Like a great artist, sculptor or musician, Gagnaire may not always hit his mark. Sometimes his creations come from someplace that makes sense only to him. But like other creative types, his genius is rooted in a firm grasp of the classics, and the world is better off for having chefs (and others) who are not content with what has gone before. Because of this, his cuisine, as oblique as occasionally it is, deserves both attention and respect.
Of our three meals here, one cost $253 (pour deux), the other $358 (pour deux including one tasting menu-$160), and the other, solo meal was comped. Gagnaire is a tad less expensive than the other First Growth Frenchies on The Strip, with apps from $16-29, and mains from $38-60).
TWIST by Pierre Gagnaire
In the Mandarin Oriental Hotel
3752 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
* In the lexicon of lip-smacking, an epicure is fastidious in his choice and enjoyment of food, just a soupçon more expert than a gastronome; a gourmet is a connoisseur of the exotic, taste buds attuned to the calibrations of deliciousness, who savors the masterly techniques of great chefs; a gourmand is a hearty bon vivant who enjoys food without truffles and flourishes; a glutton overindulges greedily, the word rooted in the Latin for ‘one who devours’. … After eating, an epicure gives a thin smile of satisfaction; a gastronome, burping into his napkin, praises the food in a magazine; a gourmet, repressing his burp, criticizes the food in the same magazine; a gourmand belches happily and tells everybody where he ate… – William Safire
23 thoughts on “TWIST by Pierre Gagnaire”
Glad to finally see your thoughts on this place, John. It sure seems pretty odd. I wonder how well it will do, especially considering it’s in non-gaming hotel. Does that HELP it’s cause or hurt it? Certainly, the MO won’t be crawling with the unwashed masses like most (all?) of the other properties on Las Vegas Blvd. But I wonder if this place is just too “out there”.
Guinness Gelee? hard to press on through after that. I fear reading your entry is actually more enjoyable than some of the items described. The room is indeed a gem, likewise the bar on the 23rd floor.
The Guinness gelee is actually Jack Daniels and Guinness, and has the slightest sense of tobacco. It’s an appropriate start to a meal that will smoke your brain. The langoustine five ways is one of the best dishes I’ve ever had and was worth the trip to the 23rd floor.
BTW – our friend Josef worked at Daniel boulud at Wynn.
Well done ELV. One of your best reviews ever. A thoughtful and critical analysis. Bravo.
Thank you ELV. It is, of course, entirely appropriate that we approach the final curtain of a year’s worth of dining reviews and musings on food with what can easily be described as your best reports of 2009.
For me, the decision to dine at “Twist” has probably been answered through ELV’s words. While I am not typically an adventuresome diner, I will take some risks with the ingredients and dishes I’ll try if I feel I’m in the hands of a Chef I can trust and I base that risk largely on the opinions of informed people like ELV who have tasted the Chef’s cuisine.
In the case of Gagnaire’s cuisine at “Twist,” it seems to be a matter of trusting oneself in the hands of a mad scientist as much as a Michelin-Star quality Chef and kitchen crew. Now really, “Venison ‘Grand Venuer’ Ice Cream.” It looks and sounds quite unappetizing doesn’t it? And can someone tell me what flavors in mozzarella, (whether in the form of shredded cheese or ice cream), accent dried fish (aka-bonito)?
Sometimes I think the scientist in his lab interferes with the Chef in his workshop. The third set of photos depict sloppy knife technique and plate presentations. Regardless of what it tasted like, the edges of the “beer in gelatin form” are sloppy.
After considering ELV’s review, it made me think of a comparison; the crazed artist, Gagnaire as Jackson Pollock–as opposed to the refined craftsman; Guy Savoy as Rembrandt. As ELV said, with Gagnaire you may reach incredible heights, but you may also take an incredibly steep fall. (Some view paint thrown on a canvas as “art.” Others see it as the work of drunk throwing paint). With Savoy you may not always find rapturous creativity, (Artichoke and Black Truffle Soup), but you will never be disappointed.
Thank you ELV, and your photos are great.
Mozzarella ice cream? This guy is whacked. I think that before he started experimenting with food and tastes, he experimented with a few too many controlled substances. I don’t know. I think I might have to wait until it’s comped before I try this place.
BTW – I would put myself in that gourmand category. Bordering on glutton if there’s a good pizza in front of me.
ELV, if you reviewed like this everytime, you would be a ‘uber-critic’ for sure, throw out all the BULLSHIT politics and freindships and rollup your sleeves and get right down to all that really matters, the FOOD!!!
i am jealous for sure, i havent had the chance to hit twist (YET)
i think this place will be a huge sucess, for many reasons, true foodies from all over the country wil now make the pilgrimage to vegas just to try this place, Gagnaires ONLY outpost this side of the pond. and foodies could care less about a casino!
anyways, well-done ELV next time you need to invite me!
DR…… the juxtaposition of such highs and lows it what evokes your senses, how else can you make the diner uneasy. keeping the diner on their toes is the true art form in gastronomy, just read what ELV wrote, he clearly hated a few things, but when you place something edgy and possibly disgusting right next to something that is near GODLY, its just an emotional rollercoaster and at the end of the ride you will never forget what that ride was like..and that my freind is pure genius
has a clue-you do present very good points. However, one could counter that pure genius is simply a matter of conjecture–and that I suppose is an argument that neither side would ever win.
One could say that the mere fact that we are having this discussion proves the artistic achievement of Gagnaire. In more simpler terms-“any press is good press.” (regardless of whether the venison loin should have been grilled or churned into ice cream, at least people talk about it).
Now ELV, whether scripted or unplanned, is really the true genius here isn’t he? For in the dark recesses of his writing den, he’s penned a piece that has evoked a flurry of senses both good and bad. And that my friends is the genius of a good food writer–to create words on the page that leave the reader with an appetite for more.
I need a drink just reading that review, and maybe should have had one before. That isn’t me being critical – I just think a 30-year scotch would have been an more appropriate beverage than my morning coffee.
Bottom line is – I can’t wait to try this place. It’s by far the most interesting restaurant to open in this town in quite a few years and our food city will be hard-pressed to top it in terms of overall intrique if nothing else.
dr – to your question about genius versus mad-scientist – I agree with has a clue. In a place like this, not knowing if you will love or hate the next dish is part of the excitement. Either way it’s going to be top-shelf product – and the anticipation of “what’s next?” will be as much fun as tasting the food. Of course the food has to be excellent, too, or else there will be a lot of one-time diners at Twist. But I’m hopeful we have another mega-hit on our hands.
Has A Clue hit right on the head !! NO MORE BULLSHIT!!! Get down and dirty with no holds barred and no more ass kissing !!
I went last Saturday night and had the tasting menu with two additional first courses (the spiny lobster and foie gras). The entire meal was incredible. The Kevin Eats blog has pictures of the tasting menu since ELV went in a different direction with how he ordered. Just be prepared for an adventure.
Wow! That was one hell of a thorough review! Well done.
OMG, I can’t wait to try this place! I don’t know how exactly I’ll be able to navigate the menu as a vegetarian, but this place is just too interesting to miss.
“he juxtaposition of such highs and lows it what evokes your senses, how else can you make the diner uneasy. keeping the diner on their toes is the true art form in gastronomy, just read what ELV wrote, he clearly hated a few things, but when you place something edgy and possibly disgusting right next to something that is near GODLY, its just an emotional rollercoaster and at the end of the ride you will never forget what that ride was like..and that my freind is pure genius”
Definitely agreed! The emotion the chef pours into the food, as well as the emotion the food evokes in the diner, separates simply good food from truly great food.
Oh, and I also liked your comment about foodies not caring about the casino. Last night, when I took a friend with me to try Silk Road at Vdara, it seemed he was more interested in finding a cheap video poker machine at the Aria smokers’ bar than heading over dinner at Vdara. Moi, OTOH, did appreciate the design of the casino, but otherwise was totally uninterested in the slot machines and was just ready to start experiencing dinner.
And btw, Silk Road offered nice food with great flavors… But they still have some service issues and other kinks to work out.
adtleft; i have no interest at all in going to silk road. i dont need to see martin do more of the same shit he has been doing for the past several years in sensi and when he was in banquets and when he was in garde manger. he is creative, but only does the same old fusion crap!! and his infatuation with weird plates and serviceware is a lil too much, i mean how many custom glass plates from potterhouse singapore can one guy order!!
Not sure why people think John is on the take – that still baffles me. I’ve worked with him for many years now and he’s one of the few journalists in this town that writes what he experiences, and what he truly thinks, period. He’s also the last guy to ask for a free meal or wait around for an invite to review a place. He just gets out there and reviews it – for better or for worse in a couple of instances – but on his dime far more often than not. When he gets a comped meal, it’s because he’s been invited as a guest – and even in that case he always offers to pay.
ken, wake up!
It’s OK. You don’t need to convince me. Mr. ELV is one of the VERY FEW food journalists in Las Vegas with that kind of integrity. Even though I don’t agree with him 100% of the time, I always respect his opinion and give it far more weight than the usual
paid advertisement disguised as a“restaurant review”.
Well, Eurasian Fusion seems to be Martin Heierling’s speciality… Just like Italian is Mario Batali’s specialty, and Spanish is Julian Serrano’s specialty. I can understand that not every chef has the desire to pull a “Wolfgang Puck” or “Bobby Flay” and try to build a massive restaurant empire touching just about every major world cuisine.
Still, I do have to agree with you on the weird plates… And weird plating. I’m not typically one to complain about portion sizing, but I did find it odd that my gnocchi dish (which, btw, I paid an “entree appropriate price” for) was presented on this HUGE square white plate… But I received this tiny portion that I scarfed down in less than 5 minutes DESPITE trying my best to take my time in enjoying it.
It’s a new restaurant, and an interesting concept with nice flavors so far, so hopefully Silk Road (as well as the other new CityCenter restaurants) will work out these typical “new restaurant” problems and become what I think it’s capable of.
has a clue – I’m wide awake – and work with ELV often and know the facts. You, on the other hand, seem like a jilted lover. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate your voice on this blog and you obviously understand the food scene in this town. You just need to get your facts straight when it comes to John being “on the take” because it just ain’t so.
i dont think he is ‘on the take’ i just beleive that he allows his politics to often overshadow a true critical review. the PR people that kiss up to him and roll out the carpet often get more from the guy. and oh yea i have worked with him as well and many of the PR firms that deal with him as well.
Thank you for spelling it out so clearly, when i began discovering this I used to be a skeptic, but now I am consistently searching for info. Many thanks once again, Do you don’t mind if I link this tomy blog so that my readers can reap the benefits of this info aswell Thanks
Has the wine list been reimagined yet? This review (and others) make it sound dull and overpriced, and unworthy of the food being served. I have reservations at Twist in early May and cannot find the list online.
My thanks for any information…
Considering the private room at Twist for my daughter’s intimate wedding dinner (just immediate family – a total party of 14). Do you think it would be too overwhelming for her future in-laws from Minnesota?
I don’t mind dropping $3,000 for dinner, it is is one that is enjoyed by all.
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