Gone With The Wind

Joël Robuchon Restaurant Las Vegas | Centurion Magazine

“Actually, the true gourmet, like the true artist, is one of the unhappiest creatures existent. His trouble comes from so seldom finding what he constantly seeks: perfection.” – Ludwig Bemelmans

I think I’m going to miss the butter most of all.

Because this was no ordinary butter. No, this was a smooth, oblong, silky obelisk the size of a football, stood on end on its own trolley, waiting to be shaved and savored to your heart’s content throughout the meal.

Bordier butter it was, and we shall not see its like again. Not in a Vegas restaurant; not in my lifetime anyway.

Bordier Butter - - Picture of L'Avant Comptoir, Paris - Tripadvisor

The irony of me missing the butter most of all should not be lost on you, since the chefs did precious little to prepare the soft, spreadable, sunshine yellow sculpture for your table. It probably represented the least amount of work, skill, and creativity of anything on the menu at Joël Robuchon. But it also represented a level of sublime decadence and luxury unseen in these parts before Robuchon planted his very very French flag here in 2005.

And now it is gone. No one has announced its permanent exit from Vegas — the suits running the show are too crafty for that. They will keep everyone in suspense, hoping against hope that Las Vegas will return to its former glory and slabs of sunshine yellow, smooth as silk, milk fat will once again magically appear at your table .

But our best guess is the butter, like the Robuchon restaurants, have departed, never to return.

Have I been told this by someone? Yes and no. Some employees of the restaurants were given their walking papers back in September, and asked not to make a big deal about it. Will the MGM announce that JR is gone for good? Not anytime soon, even if the decision has already been made.  Good luck with that, MGM!

Is there a scenario whereby, a year or two from now, a set of circumstances will come together to re-open one of the best restaurants in the world because Vegas has rebounded so much that gastro-tourists and high-rollers are (once again) clamoring to eat at the mega-expensive, namesake restaurant of a chef who died two years ago? Yeah….but don’t bet on it.

L'Atelier De Joel Robuchon - Best Restaurants in Las Vegas

If a Robuchon restaurant is resuscitated, it will most likely be L’Atelier (above) — a more modest link in the JR chain, and certainly an easier one to re-attach. So many more of our temples of gastronomy will soon suffer the same fate. But more on them in a moment.

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I was once married to a gal who had once (in the 1970s) been married to a Vegas casino executive. She told me tales laced with incredulity about how hotels would decide their restaurant lineups back in those leisurely leisure suit days. Everything was fungible; nothing but the coffee shop was sacred. In the blink of an eye and snap of the fingers, an under-performing Italian might be plowed under for a tiki lounge; or some bigwig’s wife would get a craving for kung pao chicken and pow! — in a matter of weeks, in would come a Chinese eatery.

Casino money back then was spent fast and loose; restaurants were amenities; they had to be good, but they didn’t have to be important.

Sometime in the early 21st Century, the restaurants here started to be important. Important to tourists, high-rollers, the reputation of Las Vegas and the bottom line. With importance came quality (Robuchon, Savoy, Gagnaire, Boulud, Andrés, Batali…), with quality came pressure to succeed, and maintain that success. In retrospect, it is a wonder we sustained it for so long.

Back in the day, this storm would’ve been weathered much more easily. International reputations and 30 page licensing/profit-sharing deals weren’t part of the equation. There were no public relations minefields to navigate, nor the gaze of the food world to deflect. Eating out wasn’t entertainment, it was something you did when you weren’t home to stay alive.

Opening and closing casino restaurants was no big deal in 1980. There were no prying eyes or oversized egos to contend with. All you had to do was keep the gamblers happy.

Closing restaurants in the early months of 2021 is going to be a very big deal for Las Vegas. It will signify a sea change in how we eat and how the world perceives us. Like old rock stars, some of the “name brands” will hang around, cycling through their old hits, but one by one, they will slowly be put out to pasture.

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 This is how you do it. (Mon. Bordier with his beauteous beurre)

Back to the butter. It was glorious: rich, fresh, deeply creamy, sweet — like no butter Vegas had ever tasted. In summer it had a savory lilt; in winter, a sweeter one.

Waiters in fine French restaurants talk about such things: such things as butter that takes days to make and is delivered in 50 kilo sizes to the most expensive restaurants in the world so people can swoon over ivory-yellow towers of football-sized thickened, cultured cream to slathered on the best baked goods in the business….or just eaten with a spoon, which is what I did.

The butter was only the beginning at Joël Robuchon. After it, the courses cascaded down, one after one, until the the food and wine and service converged into a single gestalt of gustatory perfection. Food so perfect it would take your breath away. A meal so special only a handful in the world could compete with it.

Las Vegas did not get these restaurants and their fancy butters because we were a town of appreciative gourmets. We got them because for thirty years the world treated us as its playground, servicing all of its seven sins, ready to serve a clientele flush with cash and eager to part with it.

They stood like beacons to the  hungry and starstruck once —  these outposts of Puck, Lagasse, Flay, Trotter, Maccioni, Mina, Ramsay, the Michelin stars, the gastronomic gods — like nowhere else on earth, crammed together, right in our own backyard.

But no more. Those days are gone with the wind. The winds of change, of Covid, of a recovery that will take years. This will not be like the Great Recession of 2008-2012. Then, people retained their hunger for Vegas, their yearning for sin, their eagerness to unleash their ids in defeat of all superegos.  All they lacked back then was equity, or corporate expense accounts — the two things our economy relied on to keep the hotels full. But all of those were in reserve waiting to be unleashed when the economy loosened up. And loosen up it did. And Vegas came roaring back stronger than ever. Until 2020 hit.

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Somehow the butter — from French cows that traveled 6,000 miles to be here — represents all that we have lost. Of course, neither it nor the meals it preceded were for everyone: How many people don’t blink at spending $500/pp on dinner? We’re talking rarefied air here, something even the most dedicated, well-heeled fresser might only indulge in occasionally. (No one appreciates fine French more than yours truly, but even in my haughtiest, haute cuisine heyday, too many supercilious meals in a row would have me craving a burger or pizza.)

But the Robuchons, Savoys, Minas, Ducasses and Maccionis represented something that transcended their super swanky settings: they meant Las Vegas had arrived on the big kitchen stage and deserved to be there.

Now the stage will shrink and with it, our reputation. This isn’t the 80s: we can’t just throw up another in-house concept and keep the customers satisfied.

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Fifty years ago, a gambler didn’t care who the cook was; neither he nor his wife gave a hoot who was tossing the pasta at the Desert Inn. The only chef any of them could name was probably Chef Boy-Ar-Dee.

And then we became known for such things: for outposts of celebrities we had seen cooking on TV; for the stars who were then gracing the covers of food magazines, appearing on cooking contests, hobnobbing with the cool kids. From anonymity to superstardom in 30 years — it happened to chefs, and it happened to Las Vegas’s food scene, almost on parallel tracks. And it all culminated with that tower of butter in a 40-seat jewel box tucked into a corner of a mega-casino: ruining us forever for other luxury meals — because everything looks like a valley once you’ve been to the mountaintop.

There will always be a place for super-posh ultra-refined dining. The best-of-everything crowd will demand it, and world capitals like Paris, London, New York and Tokyo will provide it. And for a glorious quarter-century, so did a tacky tourist town in the middle of the High Mojave Desert.

Culinary reputations aren’t built solely upon ethereal ingredients, intensive care service, and wallet-bending meals fit for a king. But remove that level of excellence and what continues will be barely an echo of a time when the world took us seriously, we seemed to have it all, and we could boast of being among the best.

Gone with the Wind Movie Review —

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The following represented our gastronomic scene at its peak. These were the important ones; the ones that put Las Vegas on the map. A few will make it; most won’t. (My crystal ball tells me the Vegas of 2030 will resemble Branson, Missouri more than an ersatz Paris.)

Restaurant Guy Savoy (Against all odds, has reopened and is thriving; I’d eat here weekly if my bank account and waistline would let me.)

Le Cirque (If you think I’m sad about Joël Robuchon….)

Michael Mina (Has always been an underrated gem.)

Jaleo (Still sets the Spanish standard.)

‘e’ by José Andrés (Amazingly, has also re-opened. Having only 8 seats helps.)

CUT (Packed five nights a week.)

Emeril’s (Still busy; still good; still a bitch to get to.)

Bazaar Meat (Steakhouses will be the only survivors of the coming gastronomic genocide.)

Spago ( Spago 2.0 has scaled back its ambitions and is still solid, if unspectacular.)

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire (“Temporarily Closed,” but they’re not fooling anyone. I was told it was on the chopping block two years ago.)

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (see above)

Joël Robuchon (see above)

Picasso (For its first decade, as pitch-perfect as a restaurant can be. For its second, a little stale. Those paintings though.)

Hall of Fame

Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare (Still doesn’t get enough credit for the excellence it brought to our burg.)

ALEX (Spectacular, but in so many ways, destined for failure.)

Aureole (Lost its fastball after five years and never recovered its form.)

Bradley Ogden (Was like one of those ensemble movies where the young cast all go on to be big stars. Amazing talent; incredible food. A shooting star.)

Carnevino (If only Mario could’ve kept his dick in his pants. I know Mario, it’s hard when you’re a sex symbol.)

Circo (I treated it like a private club in its early years; Vegas will never again taste Tuscan this good.)

Boulud Brasserie (The original in the Wynn was something special….for about 3 years.)

miX (Ditto, just substitute Mandalay Bay for Wynn in the above sentence.)

B & B Ristorante (Best. Pastas. Ever.)

Valentino (Terrible layout; wonderful wine; never got the traction it deserved, despite awards and accolades.)

Spago (The original; the granddaddy; the restaurant that started our revolution. )

Fleur de Lys (One of the most beautiful restaurants anywhere….until Mandalay Bay ruined it.)

Mesa Grill (Yes, Mesa Grill. You’re welcome, Bobby.)

RM Seafood (Along with Bartolotta, Rick Moonen brought heavyweight chops to our shores, and made us take seafood seriously.)

Charlie Trotter (Charlie was too early (’94) and too late (‘o9) to the Las Vegas restaurant party.)

Coyote Cafe (Was too good for Vegas’s knuckle-dragging hordes. Too authentically southwestern; too spicy; too excellent. The Food Gal® and I had our first kiss at this bar. Sigh.)

Sage (Like Fleur de Lys, an eye-popping design with food to match.)

Napa (Jean-Louis Palladin’s last stand)

Renoir (Alex Stratta’s first Vegas foray)

Vetri (Gone for good, but its progeny – Osteria Fiorella – is packing them in at Red Rock, for good reason.)

…and a few I’ve probably missed.

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Desert Companion Restaurant Awards 2019

Image(Restaurant of the Year)

Big deal dining is back! Big box Chinese makes a splash, Asian eats remain awesome, and some classics never go out of style.

That’s how we’d characterize the DESERT COMPANION RESTAURANT AWARDS 2019.

Or as we like to refer to them: “the only restaurant awards that count.”

They’re small in number, but they also mean something — representing sustained excellence that enhances not just their customer’s palates, but the Vegas food/restaurant scene as a whole.

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The text below represents the awards written by yours truly (as I’ve been doing for over 20 years). In the beginning, I was a committee of one (see the ancient artifact above). Now, they are orchestrated by Editor-in-Chief Andrew Kiraly and my fellow writers, and year in and year out, they stand for the best Las Vegas has to offer.

(Ed. note: We’d like to take credit for all of the stunning photography below, but most of it has been brazenly lifted/plagiarized/stolen from the brilliant photographer Sabin Orr and Desert Companion magazine.)

HALL OF FAME – Picasso

Veal Chop(Look no further for the world’s best veal chop)

There are very few restaurants in the world that truly can be called unique, and Las Vegas — spiritual home of the absentee celebrity chef — is not the first place you’d expect to find one-of-a-kind dining.

Picasso gave the lie to this reputation from the beginning. It wasn’t an offshoot of anything, and from the moment it swung open its doors at Bellagio in 1998, it offered something no other eatery in the world could match: a gallery of masterworks from Pablo himself hanging on the walls and filling the spaces — a mini-museum, if you will, where the art matched the food and vice versa. Those paintings and sculptures proved to be the perfect backdrop for Julian Serrano’s cuisine, and night after night the room is filled with knowledgeable patrons dividing their time between gazing at the art or becoming absorbed in the beauty on their plates.

Serrano has always been the antithesis of the gallivanting media star, and his Spanish-inflected Mediterranean menu is as eye-catching as the cubism on display. Whatever alchemy brought him and those paintings together was sheer wizardry, and for 21 years it’s given Las Vegas a restaurant experience unlike any other, anywhere.

EXCELLENCE IN SERVICE AND MANAGEMENT – Michael Mina

Michael Mina(The Big 3 at MM)

Great service should be not too fast, not too friendly and almost invisible. Think of it as the inverse of pornography – you know it when you don’t see it.

A great restaurant operates with the concealed efficiency of a fine-tuned watch, every joint, mechanism and movement dependent upon the other, coiling and uncoiling every second, seamlessly sweeping you through the time spent enjoying your meal. Time spent at Michael Mina has always been a good investment, and one of the reasons is unfailingly great service.

Since 1998 it has held down its corner of the Bellagio as a bastion of seafood and San Francisco-inspired elegance. The food and the decor have always been stars in their own right, but the unsung heroes at work every night are the management and staff, who seat the customers, mix drinks, pour the wines and toss the tartares. Holding them all together is General Manager Jorge Pagani (pictured above with Executive Chef Nick Dugan and Sommelier Kayla Krause), a maestro who performs in the lowest key, quietly charming a steady stream of customers while keeping his troops in shape.

Chefs and sommeliers have come and gone over the years, but Pagani, has been a constant. From the moment you approach the hostess stand until you pay your bill, you sense the quiet hum of a restaurant that is doing everything right. Watching the staff shift from table to table, filleting fish, unveiling pot pies, and carving and mixing is a symphony without music. Michael Mina makes you feel as cosseted and cared for as any restaurant in Las Vegas, and like all real pros, they make it look easy. In fact, you almost don’t see it at all.

PASTRY CHEF OF THE YEAR – Pierre Gatel

Pierre Gatel

You might be excused for wondering what all the shouting is about when you roll up on Café Breizh for the first time. It sits towards the far end of one of those generic strip malls that are as Las Vegas as slot machines in a grocery store.

But do not be deterred by the surroundings, for once inside you will find the best French pastries in town. The selection is small but the craftsmanship, artistry and intense flavors will grab you from the first bite. There is no better croissant in Vegas, on or off the Strip; the chocolate éclair is so packed with custard it threatens to burst its pastry case, and the picture-perfect tarts do that tri-level taste thing (crusty, creamy, and fruity) that the French perfected around the time the musketeers were buckling their swashes.

Pierre Gatel is the chef, owner and hand-maker of each of these, and from the day he opened three years ago (after a stint at the Wynn), Francophiles, Napoleon nabobs and Danish devotees have made a beeline here for his creations. He also does a limited number of baguettes every day which sell like hotcakes, so go early if you want to grab a loaf and feel like les Français on your way home.

Las Vegas is blessed with a wealth of pastry talent, but most of it stays in the hotels. Now we have one of them staging his magic right on south Fort Apache, in a spot that feels like a slice of Paris, and the alchemy he performs daily with butter, flour, cream and sugar is something to behold.

 NEW RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Vetri

Vetri(Vetri got our goat)

Vetri, if you let it, will take your breath away. The qualifier is important because, magnificent as it is, Vetri isn’t for everyone. Crowd-pleasing isn’t in its vocabulary, and pizzas and chicken parm are nowhere to be found. This is sophisticated Italian fare, the kind well-heeled northern Italians eat.  All of it served in a nonpareil setting — 56 floors up, without a doubt the most spectacular of any Italian restaurant in the country — a location that puts to lie the old adage that the higher you get off the ground the worse the food gets.

Marc Vetri made his name in Philadelphia, running what many consider the best Italian restaurant in America. With this offshoot he has bestowed upon Las Vegas a jewel box of restaurant loaded with Piemonte gems foreign to most people’s Italian vocabulary — casoncelli, tonnarelli cacio e pepe, Swiss chard gnocchi, not to mention smoked roasted goat — all of it unique to Las Vegas and every bite a revelation.

No restaurant enhanced Vegas’s foodie cred more than it did in the past year, and at a time when everyone is announcing the death knell of fine dining, The Palms brought a dose of big city sass to our scene. You don’t have to dress to the nines to go there, but the food on your plate (and that view) will make you feel like a million bucks. Quite a splash for something residing so high in the sky.

CHEF OF THE YEAR – Matthew Hurley

Matthew Hurley(You can’t beat this man’s meat)

In the past few years, it’s become deliciously obvious to us that Wolfgang Puck’s CUT ought to be re-named Matthew Hurley’s CUT. We’re kidding of course, because it is Puck’s gastronomic gravitas that enables Las Vegas to have one of the world’s greatest steakhouses in our backyard.

But calling CUT just another celebrity beef boutique would be a grave injustice, because by flexing his own culinary muscles, Hurley has taken CUT to a level few meat emporiums could ever dream of.  No doubt his creations are highly vetted by his corporate masters, but they give him more than a little latitude to play with his food, and what he has done with his freedom, and all the top shelf ingredients at his disposal, is stunning.

Hurley uses CUT like a painter uses a palette — toggling back and forth between the raw and the cooked like no steakhouse you’ve ever seen. It’s not easy to pull off a cheese cart, a raw bar, world-beating steaks, and gorgeous pasta, and never miss a beat. The elegant fish cookery alone would be right at home in some hoity-toity French joint, and he and his minions are equally adept at slicing high-grade sashimi and various Italian carpaccios.

If those aren’t enough, and you’ve got a hankering for Yukhoe (Korean steak tartare) or some maple-glazed pork belly, well, he’s got you covered there, too. It would be all too easy for a  CIA graduate like Hurley  (who has been at the restaurant since its opening in 2008) to sit back, go through the motions, and rake in the dough. Instead, his restless spirit has transformed CUT Las Vegas into one of the best restaurants in America.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Lotus of Siam

Image(Girl power is Lotus’s secret weapon)

When the roof literally caved in on Lotus of Siam two years ago (after a deluge), many feared it would be the death knell for Las Vegas’s most famous restaurant.

The previous seventeen years had seen the Chutima family (Saipin, Penny, and Sabrina above) build an obscure Thai kitchen in a run-down shopping center into a Las Vegas institution. It had already been called “The Best Thai Restaurant in America” for over a decade when Saipin Chutima won her James Beard award in 2011, and once the recession subsided, it was the restaurant on every foodie’s lips the minute they landed at McCarran.

Instead of throwing in the towel after that flood, the family quickly found a new location on East Flamingo, and faster than you can say koong char num plar, what had been a hole-in-the-wall was transformed into a sleek, modern restaurant that was suddenly as on-fire as one of Chutima’s nam prik noom. Instead of being a set-back, the move created a boom. Being closer to the heart of the Strip brought in a flood of new customers and the new digs provided a more fitting backdrop for this award-wining cuisine.

What distinguishes Lotus from its competitors are its refined northern Thai dishes that retain the soulful authenticity (and pungent, pulsating electricity) that more Americanized Thai places sacrifice to please the American palate. Be it khao soi or koi soi these recipes crackle with the energy (and chilies) Siamese food is known for. (It is a crime to order anything here below “medium spicy.”) This grander stage seems to have caused the whole operation to snap to attention and also befits the elegance of one of America’s greatest white wine lists.

Maybe it was the flood, or the inspiration from a new home, but everything from the service to the spicing seems crisper and more consistent these days. Sometimes it takes a disaster to bring out the best in us. Because of one, Saipin Chutima finally found a space to match her transformative, one-of-a-kind cooking. It was the late, great Jonathan Gold who first bestowed “the best” accolades upon Lotus of Siam, and now, finally, it looks the part.

Click on this link to read about the rest of these worthy recipients from Jim Begley, Mitchell Wilburn, Lissa Townsend Rogers and Greg Thilmont:

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ASIAN RESTAURANT OF THE YEARTatsujin X

COCKTAIL BAR OF THE YEARThe Sand Dollar Lounge

HIDDEN GEMS OF THE YEARHardway 8 and Trés Cazuelas

Image(Paella at Très Cazuelas)

STRIP RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR Mott 32

Image(Peking duck at Mott 32)

RESTAURATEUR OF THE YEARDan Krohmer (Other Mama, Hatsumi, La Monjá)

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