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