ELV note: This month’s Vegas Magazine features the following profile of Twist by Pierre Gagnaire. For those of you who don’t hang out at Rehab or Tao Beach (where Vegas mags’ coverage is ample, even if the clothing isn’t), we thought you might enjoy the article in this more-clothed-but-no-less-dignified format:
Twist & Shout
BY JOHN A. CURTAS
ASK PIERRE GAGNAIRE if he was worried about opening in Las Vegas in the worst economic climate in over 30 years and his answer will invariably be, “No, no, no. Never, because I am more worried that my sauce doesn’t work, not that the restaurant won’t work.”
Having now tasted those sauces on multiple occasions, Monsieur Gagnaire has nothing to worry about.
If you’re not acquainted with this mad scientist of a culinarian, his Vegas outpost, Twist by Pierre Gagnaire at Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas, is the perfect place to sample those nonpareil sauces and fork-dropping creations the gourmet world has been raving about for the past 20 years. But first, a word of caution: You don’t go to a Pierre Gagnaire restaurant looking for a traditional big-deal meal any more than you go to a progressive jazz concert expecting to hear “Turkey in the Straw.” If your food tastes run to the musical equivalents of catchy pop tunes or lush, recognizable symphonies, you might have a hard time coming to terms with a restless spirit who is always looking for something new and exciting. But people rarely express shock or disappointment with what comes out of the kitchen. “Customers have all read about us even if they’ve never tasted our food,” says executive chef de cuisine Pascal Sanchez. “They’re so much more sophisticated now. They come to our restaurant expecting to be surprised.”
Those surprises have been toned down somewhat for the Vegas audience. In Paris, where Gagnaire opened his namesake restaurant on the Rue Balzac in 1996, he’s famous for sometimes offering five or six variations of a single main ingredient for each course. Here diners can usually expect three, although his Langoustine Five Ways might be the absolute most stunning dish on the menu. Each small plate respects the sweet, nutty salinity of the crustacean while using another ingredient (or two) to accent it just so. For those who prefer turf to surf, Gagnaire plays with Hudson and Sonoma Valley foie gras (which Sanchez calls his favorites in the world—no small compliment there), preparing them as a terrine, a custard, seared with sweet-and-sour duck glaze and as a croquette with pickled red onions. Each of these multifaceted courses comes at you as a barrage of plates, so you and your tablemates can compare how the central ingredient stacks up to the different treatments.
Whereas the appetizers and tasting menu are Gagnaire’s playground for all of these explorations, main courses (on the à la carte menu) are slightly more conventional but no less delicious. A simple loin of venison is served with a Grand Veneur (venison-flavored ice cream) quenelle and a red cabbage-black currant jam drizzled about the plate. As for the deer ice cream, it’s intriguing but more compelling in concept than reality. The Nebraska prime beef sirloin served with a side of smoked parsley powder and a small carafe of thick, dark-purple Burgundy escargot sauce might be the single best steak in a town full of great steaks.
If it’s fishy simplicity you seek, head straight for the Santa Barbara spiny lobster or the Dover sole. The spiny lobster appeared in thick chunks under 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 velouté that sat beneath it. The first half of the equation was all subtle textures and flavors; the second, bright, clean and assertive, effectively complementing the seafood salad.
You expect the Dover sole “pan-fried corn flour” to be the classic preparation: a large piece of fish filleted and served with a sauce. What you get is small ribbons of fish, fried and mounded on 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.
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire is not about pirouettes on the plate as much as it is about the exploration of tastes and flavors. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the succession of small plates that make up any of the six desserts offered nightly. Chocolate lovers will swoon over Everything Chocolate, a cake, ganache, candy bar and tuile, while those looking for sharper tastes shouldn’t miss All Citrus, a study in acidity in four small helpings. Every time you take a bite from any of them, as with most of the menu, you will feel as if you’re truly tasting the essence of each ingredient for the first time. Such is the genius of Pierre Gagnaire’s cuisine that the familiar becomes a revelation in intensity.