ELV note: In keeping with our efforts to keep this website as tasty as ever, the staff at Eating Las Vegas has decided to try something new in the restaurant reviewing biz, to wit – having two critics analyze the same meal from their disparate viewpoints, the better to have you devour and delectate their various disseminations. Given his seniority, Mr. Curtas shall be the first to weigh in, followed by young Wilburn, with whom he shared a memorable repast in the past week.
“How can a restaurant that’s so good be so under the radar?” is the question I kept asking myself throughout my tasting menu at Pinot Brasserie. Then I realized I was to blame….along with Joachim Splichal.
My fault lies with having written this place off nine years ago, after a series of mediocre meals that made me think Splichal (one of America’s greatest French chefs) was simply going through the motions. After a particularly gristly steak au poivre accompanied by some limp, greasy frites, I resolved never to waste another moment or calorie on the place again. Not to puff myself up too much, but my decision to write this place off coincided with the rise of my influence in the local food world — through radio, TV and various print media — so that a place I had a grudge against wasn’t going to get much mention anywhere, or catch anyone else’s attention, especially when it was already four years old at the time.
Splichal and his team can be faulted for three things — letting the quality slip in the first place, almost never coming to Vegas to promote the place, and finally, not heralding the arrival of Eric Lhuillier when he took over the reins seven years ago. Why Pinot Brasserie does almost no p.r. is anyone’s guess, but the chef and the crew they have there now are cooking food on par with any casual frog pond in town, and the (by now well worn) Belle Epoque decor makes it as charming a brasserie as you will find in our humble burg.
The food Lhuillier and his crew (sous chefs John Courtney and Ryan Heppner) put out tows a nice line between being accessible and haute in its approach. The steamed mussels are every bit the equal of Bouchon’s upstairs, while you won’t find a more refined and lobster-y lobster bisque anywhere — this one coming with a garnish of perfectly poached claw and a healthy dollop of good caviar atop a lobster salad. The real stunner among starters, though, is the black truffle poached langoustine sitting in a langoustine gelee — a dish that would be equally at home at Robuchon, Gagnaire or Savoy.
Snails are as French as La Marseillaise and they do this standard proud by serving them in a pretty little pile with a garlic beurre blanc and a truffled vinaigrette frisée salad. Taking a classic and making it sing is what modern French cooking is all about, and time and again throughout my two visits, this kitchen played these tunes beautifully. The seared foie gras with green lentils and smoked sausage was yet another example, as were sea scallops accented by a peppery watercress puree and a tangy barigoule jus. Eating Las Vegas considers scallops to be the world’s most boring seafood, but this preparation had both of us licking the plate.
The second most boring seafood in the world is the muddy tasting barramundi, so thankfully we were spared this farm-raised fish from the tasting menu. In its place came a lamb dish of uncommon delicacy — a saddle and loin served with a brown butter/date puree and lamb jus spiced with ras el hanout — a Moroccan 7-spice powder that gave the meat just the right kick without overwhelming its subtle gaminess. If there’s a better expression of lamb in Las Vegas, I have yet to try it.
After this cornucopia of consumption, the chefs took it easy on us as far as dessert was concerned, opting to serve us a simple cheese course with roasted strawberries in a honey/mint/vanilla/black pepper sauce. It was a perfect end to the meal, and the perfect evocation of the intensity which characterizes great French cooking.
It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for this type of cooking. I’ve probably spent more time in French restaurants than the average bloke spends in all restaurants in a lifetime. But being a huge fan also means I’m the harshest critic. Cutting corners and doing a half-assed job with this cuisine is inexcusable, and the reason I quit going to Pinot Brasserie in the first place. It is to my shame that I haven’t given this place a go in the past seven years….and it is to management’s shame, that they haven’t told me about the talent they have in the kitchen. I can’t wait to return.
ELV had two recent meals at PB: the tasting menu with M. Wilburn that was comped, and a sampling of appetizers a week earlier where he dropped about $60.
In the Venetian Hotel and Casino
3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109