John Curtas is …

Chefs

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AUREOLE’S Identity Crisis

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Aureole is a restaurant that no longer knows what it wants to be. And the disconnect between what it once was, how it still looks, and what shows up on your plate is startling. If you have a long history with the place, as I do, you will leave your meal here — be it in the main, cavernous dining room or the bar — scratching your head. If you’re the kind of new customer it is now hoping to attract, you might be satisfied, but you won’t be a thrilled. And that’s a pity.

The most pitiful thing they’ve done to the dining room (with this new reboot) is to darken it (with lighting and fabric) in an attempt to warm things up. What before was a stunning, three-story architectural wonder with 40 foot ceilings, blond wood and a stark, sophisticated feel, now has the same bones, but feels like a feeble attempt to “go casual” with print fabrics, awkward place mats, and muted atmospherics. The effect being one of trying to turn a gastronomic temple into a something-for-everyone dining hall.

They’re not fooling anyone. Anyplace this big and striking advertises itself as a very special, big deal meal emporium, but big deal meals are no longer in favor, so the powers that be are stuck with trying to fit a ho-hum concept into a gourmet hole.

The poor fellow in charge of trying to make all of this work is Johnny Church, one of our most talented chefs, who has the unenviable task of crafting an all-over-the-map menu and somehow make it distinctive so prices can be charged commensurate with the architecture.

Church is an inventive, resourceful guy, but here he’s a thoroughbred  being chained to a milk wagon. The menu is filled with the usual suspects — surf, turf and root — with each dish trying very very hard to distinguish itself from dozens of other rooms in town doing the exact same salmon, steaks, kampachi crudo and roasted beets. Crafting a menu for a 335 seat restaurant cannot be easy, but why bother composing a beef and octopus carpaccio that tastes of neither? And leave the pastas to the Italians, rather than sling a beef cheek ravioli was so thick it could be used to patch a tire. But the sea bass comes with its head on it (and standing up(?) the head that is), and there’s all sorts of dribbles and drabs on the plates to impress the rubes. (And, apparently, every other food writer in town.) But look closely and you see a lot of been there done that dishes. This isn’t a Charlie Palmer restaurant anymore; this isn’t a Johnny Church restaurant. It’s just a random assortment of recipes in an eye-popping setting. Throw in the obligatory Caesar salad, risotto, meatballs (very good), four fish and three pricey steaks and a California crab roll…and voila! you have a menu that’s obviously been designed by committee.

The service at the bar was terrible on the night we tried out the happy hour menu, as were the dips: tzatziki, babaganoush and hummus. But at least the bread was stale.

The wine list is outstanding. If you can get the bartender’s attention.

Think of it this way: What is the thing that keeps you coming back to a restaurant? (Or, put another way, why do you go somewhere in the first place?) At Mr. Chow it’s all about the spectacle of intensive care service and upgraded Chinese standards. Carbone ropes you in with old fashioned Italian food made formal and fun, with a great retro vibe permeating the place. Le Cirque is classic, old school French, with marvelous food in a jewel box setting. Spago is Spago. Sui generis. The place that invented the type of Cal-Ital menu it serves — a menu that’s been copied a million times by now. Aureole used to be about the soaring, inventive American cuisine of Charlie Palmer, with drop-your-jaw decor (along with a soaring wine tower) to dazzle you along with his architecturally precise food.

Now, there is no focus, nor theme. This is functional food designed to dazzle conventioneers from Kansas. MGM (the parent company) did the same thing when they re-booted and ruined FLEUR a few years ago. Because they figured Norm and Edna from Evansville want to see Hubert Keller (one of America’s greatest French chefs) do tacos.

A restaurant should me more than the sum of its parts. Really special restaurants are. Aureole has ceased to be really special, and at the prices it’s charging, it cannot afford not to be.

AUREOLE

Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino

3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.632.7401

http://www.charliepalmer.com/aureole-las-vegas/

 

 

Bocuse d’Or Birthdays – Part 2 (The Restaurants)

Image may contain: people sitting and food(Poulet de Bresse Demi-Deuil at La Mère Brazier)

When one travels to Europe, one expects to eat well. When one travels with ELV, one can expect to eat some of the best food on the planet. And that’s what we did for the last ten days of last month. On the oft chance that some of you may someday follow in our footsteps (or live vicariously through us if you don’t), here are some of the gastronomic highlights of the gourmet birthday trip of our lifetime:

WALDHOTEL SONNORA

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Holding three Michelin stars, and tucked way back in some woods between the wine village of Bernkastel and the city of Trier, the Waldhotel Sonnora was the best restaurant I could find to celebrate a special day in my life. Unfortunately, we lingered  a bit too long tasting wines with one of our favorite people in the wine world, Sofia Thanisch at Weingut Thanisch:

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…so we were a half hour late for our reservation — a delay that, we were informed (in a very German, matter-of-fact way), would require all of us to take the tasting menu. “You mean we all have to eat the same thing?” I asked the proprietress (implying that that was the last thing I wanted to do). “Yes, you will order it and you will enjoy it,” she replied. (The only thing missing was an “Achtung!” clicked heels and a Hitler salute.)

From there on the food and the service were perfectly fine, but having everyone (all five of us) eat the same thing (for 175 euros a head, for lunch) is not my idea of an epicurean outing…and left a bad taste in my mouth.

What made up for that taste was a venison dish of uncommonly rich, wild, gaminess:

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The menu stated it came from the Eifel Forest not far from the restaurant, and the flavor made you believe it. This wasn’t some namby-pamby deer dish that tastes of denatured animal flesh; this was the real deal, the kind of wild deer hunters live for, warm with the scent of a just-killed animal, gorgeously enhanced by the wine-laced reduction sauce. It didn’t make up for my overall disappointment, but it came close.

LE MONTRACHET

When you dine at Le Montrachet, you feel as if you’re eating in the center of the wine universe. The restaurant is part of a small inn tucked on one side of the village of Puligny-Montrachet. Surrounding you are the vineyards of the greatest white wines in the world, and the signs  (Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault) clip by with the kilometers as you drive down the Route des Grand Crus, or turn up into the villages which host these iconic vineyards.

As charming as these villages are, good restaurants are few and far between. Le Montrachet came highly recommended (by Alan Richman, no less) and proved the perfect spot for a midday repast after hiking around famous vineyards in sub-freezing weather. This being white wine country (the famous reds of Vosne-Romanée, Chambertin and Nuit-Saint-Georges are made 20+ kilometers to the north), we settled on the Les Jardins de Puligny menu, which, at 64 euros for five courses (including cheese) was a flat out steal.

As you can see, this is hearty, Burgundian fare — pâté de campagne, squash soup, torchon of foie gras, guinea hen with lentils — lightened by a chef’s touch, that paired perfectly with a sassy Aloxe-Corton and a Puligny-Montrachet (natch) from Vincent Giradin:

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And then, of course, was the cheese course:
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 All local, all unpasteurized, each one having that deep, animal funk that comes from the earth and gets lost in the voyage across the pond. Alan Richman also told us “By all means, get the cheese,” and he was right on that score too. Le Montrachet is not especially fancy or formal, but it is exceptionally friendly, and its one Michelin star is well-deserved.
 LE SAUVAGE
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Guy Savoy once told me that he didn’t serve any beef in his restaurants in Paris because he didn’t like French beef. I love Guy Savoy, but after tasting this Charolais côte de boeuf at Le Savauge in downtown Dijon, I have to conclude that he needs his head examined. The grain may not have been as fine as some American beef, but the flavor was a knockout. It was every bit the equal of any steak I’ve had in America – rich, dense, and almost sweet with intense beefiness. Dijon didn’t impress us one bit, it being a sad, somber, almost vacant place in mid-winter, but this restaurant was a treat — an informal grill-type atmosphere with a superior wine list and one of the best steaks (for 58 euro, for a gigantic steak for two, no less) of my life.

And BTW, as long as we’re singing the praises of this fabulous little find in dreary old Dijon, the jambon persille was trés magnifique as well:

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LA MERE BRAZIER

For three days in Lyon, we froze our asses off. It didn’t get above freezing for one minute, and no matter how much long underwear we put on (check out the layers I’m wearing in the picture below), the chill cut right through us. This can be explained partially by geography. Lyon – the second largest city in France — sits on an island between two rivers (much like Manhattan). On one side is the Saône, and on the other, the Rhone. Both act like long wet refrigerators chilling all air passing over them. This is probably a welcome thing in August, but I’ll never know. What I do know is that our lunch at La Mère Brazier warmed the cockles of my heart like no other.

The centerpiece of the lunch was poulet de Breese demi-deuil (poached Bresse chicken in half-mourning – pictured above and at the top of the article). Larousse Gastronomique calls it one of the most famous Lyonnaise dishes “particularly the version given by Mere Fillioux,” and mandates that the bird be of the highest quality and poached. The name comes from the dark truffles beneath the skin which give the appearance of a mourner’s veil hiding their white skin. Any recipe that roasts the bird, is little more than a chef’s short-cut and an abomination. An abomination I say!

As soon as we saw it on La Mère Brazier’s menu (for two, for 200 euros) we were hooked. For those of you who’ve never had Bresse chicken, the bird itself is a revelation — the white meat having none of the bland stringiness that plagues American chicken, and the dark meat having a finish that lasts until next Tuesday. The dish is served in two courses — one festooned with black truffles, the other a rich, chicken-truffle soup under a puff pastry dome — and is so good is could justify a transatlantic flight.

I thought long and hard about whether to book a table here or at Paul Bocuse. Both are old-fashioned restaurants (LMB dates to 1923, PB has held 3 Michelin stars since 1965), but too many chefs told me the food at Bocuse is tired and metronomic, so I opted for the older restaurant with one less star. I’m glad I did as there was nothing old-fashioned about La Mère Brazier except the building, the beautiful service and that beautiful bird.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing and suit(Sommelier Alexandre Pons knows we have a sweet spot for Chartreuse)

BERNACHON

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What can I say about Bernachon that hasn’t been said before. It may be the best chocolatier on earth. It certainly has the best goddamned hot chocolate in the goddamned universe:

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So thick you can practically stand a spoon in it. And I would kill for one of their bon bons right now. Bean-to-bar chocolate has been all the rage in American chocolate circles for a few years now. They’ve been doing it here since 1953.

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‘Nuff said.

LES HALLES PAUL BOCUSE

(Oysters and Chablis at 9:00 am. You gotta problem with that?)

Les Halles Paul Bocuse are the food halls of Lyon. They’re not as huge or eye-popping as the markets in other large European cities (Venice and Barcelona spring to mind), but there’s no beating the French pastries there, or the Belon oysters:

Also known as European flats, they are the world’s best bivalves — small, flat, sweet and saline, with a finish like licking a copper penny. There are worse ways to spend a morning in France than chugging down a bottle of Chablis with three dozen of these beauties. As you will see, we should’ve stayed at Les Halles, or ducked into one of the many bouchons (small bistros) that pepper the streets of Lyon, serving local specialties like pâté en croute and boudin noir. A bad bite in any of them is hard to find, or as our gourmet ami Sebastien Silvestri said, “They (the Lyonnaise) don’t know how not to make it good.”

Unfortunately, we found the one Michelin-starred restaurant in Lyon where that was not the case. Instead of seeking out a tasty bouchon, we wasted a meal at….

PIERRE ORSI

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ELV hates wasting a meal. Any meal. Especially when he’s traveling in France. Ten years ago, we visited Pierre Orsi and were thoroughly charmed by the place. A decade on, the food tasted as dated as the décor. One dish dazzled us – a ravioli with foie gras and black truffles – the rest of our meal could’ve been from some pseudo-bistro in Bosnia . On the plus side, the service was wonderful and the wines were spectacular. (We never tire of drinking grand cru wines for 100 euros in France that would cost 4Xs that much over here.) But it’s going to be a long time before I forget my dried-out lobster, Monsieur et Madame Orsi.

LA BOUITTE
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In a perfect world, this would’ve have been our first big deal meal and not our last one. As it was, we made a spectacular drive to Les Trois Vallees (The Three Valleys) of the French Alps to La Bouitte (“Little House”) to experience the cuisine of René et Maxime Meilleur.

As it was, our meal here was taken after a solid week of eating in French and German restaurants. When that happens you hit the wall sometimes. And by “hit the wall” I mean what you experience what the French call la crise de foie (liver crisis) where your stomach (and liver) have ceased to function normally, and hunger becomes the last thing on your mind. Having been through these Michelin-starred rodeos before, my digestive system is well acquainted with la crise de foie, and the best one can hope for is no extreme gastrointestinal eruptions and a quick re-gaining of one’s appetite. Luckily, we had none of the former and powered through the latter, meaning: we ate our three-course dinner at La Bouitte (really more like eight courses when all the freebie courses are factored in), but we weren’t hungry for any of it in the least. In fact, so “not hungry” were we that, for the first time in twenty-five years, we skipped the cheese course.

To repeat, we skipped the cheese course.  In a Michelin-starred restaurant. In France. No Tomme de Savoie, Beaufort, Reblochon or Gruyere or Comté would pass our lips this night.  Au revoir, we said, to any Tamié, Tome des Bauges or Chevrotin. And kiss goodbye any thoughts of a Vacherin du Haut Doubs. “Quelle horreur!” we could hear the Julia Child screaming from her grave. But we simply could not stomach another bite.

Thus were we unable to fully enjoy one of the great, rustic dining rooms of the world, set amidst the splendor of the French Alps.:

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…nor could we take the full measure of the Meilleur’s cuisine:

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What we did have was the elevated cooking of the Savoyard, an area rich in pastures, lakes and rivers, and renowned for its fresh water fish. The Food Gal had the omble chevalier (arctic char), while I took the lake trout “bleu” and both were a revelation in the beauty of the local waters. The flavors were pure, simple and direct, as if the fish had jumped out of the stream and onto your plate. Every bite a testament to confident chefs who know they are working with supreme raw ingredients and only want to make them shine.

Which is exactly what they did with this plate of warm Savoie root vegetables:

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….proof once again that great vegetarian cuisine does not come from vegetarian chefs.

Everything about La Bouitte — the room, the staff, the spa, the dinner, the two-fisted wine list:

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….and the breakfast, was just about perfect. We can’t wait to return…the next time with a big appetite.

LE MONTAGNARD

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Man does not live by Michelin-starred dining alone. Sometimes, all you want is a bunch of melted cheese on bread. And man, if that’s your thing, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven in this part of the world. Cheese is king in the Savoie. Cow’s milk cheeses to be precise. And they know how to melt it right. With lots of gooey, winy goodness, served with a bracing glass of the local vin blanc. Chef John Courtney (who had also recommended La Bouitte) told us we needed to hit Le Montagnard for its authentic fondue, so that’s just what we did. From the wooden tables and plaster walls to the ski boots lining the front hallway, this is soul-warming, ski resort food at its best. You think you know from fondue? You don’t know from fondue until you’ve tasted one made with local Beaufort cheese.

 AUBERGE DU ROSELET
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Our last meal in France took place on the shores of Lake Annecy, known as “Europe’s cleanest lake.” It’s alpine, crystalline waters are known for all sorts of water sports, and also some of the tastiest omble chevalier in the business.

We stumbled upon Auberge du Roselet on the shores of the lake as we were driving to Lausanne, Switzerland. The sign said “Spécialties de Poissons”  so we bit, and walked in, not knowing what to expect. What appeared was an unexpected treat, and the kind of out-of-the-way, knock-your-socks-off meal that only exists in France.  The welcome was warm and cordial; the tables were dressed with thick linens, and the menu was the prettiest (and heaviest) I’ve ever seen. (see picture above). So pretty was it that we begged to take one; they said no. Then we offered to pay for one; they said “no, merci.” Finally, we contemplated stealing it. But the food was so good, and the view so stunning, and the staff so nice, we demurred.

With appetite restored, we feasted on delicately smoked ham:

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Beautifully salmon fumé:

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…and finally, the piece de resistance:

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….a gorgeous omble chevalier specimen, swimming in butter, as it should be.

All of it from a modest little place along the road, on a country drive through the Haute-Savoie. Amazing, but seemingly par for the course in this part of the world.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that France doesn’t have, top to bottom, the best restaurants in the world. If someone tries to tell you that, politely tell them they are wrong.

Food may be a passion in other parts of the world, but in France, it’s a religion.

(Petit Fours is French for “I can’t believe they’re serving us more food!”)

WALDHOTEL SONNORA

Auf dem Eichelfeld 1, 54518

Dreis, Germany

 Tel: 49 6578 406
LE SAUVAGE

64 Rue Monge, 21000

Dijon

Tel: 33 3 80 41 31 21

LE MONTRACHET

10 place du Pasquier de la Fontaine, 21190

Puligny-Montrachet

Tel: 33 3 80 21 30 06

LES HALLES PAUL BOCUSE

102 Cours Lafayette, 69003

Lyon

Tel: 33 4 78 62 39 33

BERNACHON

42, cours Franklin Roosevelt

Lyon

Tel: 04 78 52 67 77

LA MÈRE BRAZIER

12 Rue Royale, 69001

Lyon

Tel: 33 4 78 23 17 20

PIERRE ORSI

3 Place Kléber, 69006

Lyon

Tel: 33 4 78 89 57 68

LA BOUITTE

Saint Marcel, 73440

Saint-Martin-de-Belleville

Tel: 33 4 79 08 96 77

LE MONTAGNARD

Rue des Places, 73440

Saint Martin de Belleville

Tel: 33 4 79 01 08 40

 AUBERGE DU ROSELET

182 Route d’Annecy, 74410

Duingt

Tel: 33 4 50 68 67 19

 

Bocuse d’Or Birthdays – Part One

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Both the Bocuse d’Or and yours truly had a birthday last week. The biannual French cooking competition turned 30, and we celebrated our….well, let’s not spend too much time on details now, shall we?

Because ELV and his staff will use any occasion as an excuse to go to Europe, we hightailed it over to Lyon to watch the competition for ourselves. (It was our second time in attendance, which we will discuss more about below.) Along the way we drove 2015 kilometers, visited 4 countries, sampled 46 cheeses, dozens of wines, and bathed in the light of ten Michelin stars. As usual, we like to chronicle these things for posterity’s sake, and for any travel plans our loyal readers might have in the future, so without further ado, here is a snapshot of what we experienced, in all of its gastronomic glory.

BOCUSE D’OR 2017

We won! For the first time! Yay, United States! #Winning! America, F*#k Yeah!

Yes, it was a pretty big deal in the insular world of French gastronomy that America’s two-man team finally beat the likes of Norway, Iceland, France and Morocco(?) in the “Olympics of Cooking.” But some people didn’t see it that way. In his “Three reasons why we still don’t care” article for Eater National, Greg Morabito posits that the esoteric nature of the Bocuse d’Or, lack of story lines and non-TV friendly format doom the event to forever be a food footnote on this side of the pond. And in some ways he has a point.

But he also misses it.

The whole point of the Bocuse d’Or is that it is very, very French, read: insular, esoteric and inscrutable. It is also about the two things that define French cooking: consistency and perfection. French cooking (at least on this level) is about restaurant cooking. And restaurant cooking is about repetition and perfection – being able to execute dishes requiring an extremely high level of technical skill consistently over an entire service. Since the time of its kings, French cooking has also been about elaboration — gilding the lily if you will — which is why the presentation of enormous platters of proteins is so central to the event:

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Morabito complains that these look unappetizing, and he has a point, especially when compared to the close-up food porn that is the norm on social media these days.

But once again, like all amateurs, he misses the point. French food is also about extraction and intensification — the making of each individual ingredient taste more like itself than one thought possible. Yes, these dishes may look almost inedibly elaborate, but every bite must purely express the essence of each ingredient, and there are more techniques in play on a plate like this:

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…than most Top Chef contestants could execute in a month of Sundays.

Regretably, this year, in a bow to modernity, there was even a requirement for vegan dish:

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…which, I think, also misses the point. Because if there’s one thing French food is not about, it’s vegetables. Food and wine in France are inextricably intertwined, and one of the reason the food is so good is because the wine is so good, and vice versa. And French wine is made to go with protein, be it a belon oyster or a haunch of beef. When you find a wine-vegetable pairing that knocks your socks off, let me know.

So, to summarize: the Bocuse d’Or is about French, not American sensibilities, and our best chefs are sensible enough to know that it is the king of cooking competitions. It is to American reality food programming what Olympic diving is to a belly flop in your pool. Let’s hope it stays that way. Just because the audience for Guy’s Grocery Games doesn’t get it doesn’t mean the powers-that-be need to change anything. Except that pointless “vegetal” requirement.

The reason the United States won — represented by Mathew Peters and Harrison Turone — this year has to do with one thing (besides their obvious talent): money. To be precise, the money and culinary horsepower provided by America’s two best French chefs: Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. Neither is as well-known to the average Food Network viewer as Guy Fieri, but both bring enormous credibility to the event, along with providing the time and the tools necessary for Peters and Turone to rehearse and train for six months solid leading up to the big week.

Because of Boulud and Keller, and Jerome Bocuse’s courting of them, and the Venetian/Palazzo decision (led by our very own ami Sebastien Silvestri) to sponsor the American competition, we finally had some heavyweight backing to go with our oversized ambitions in the culinary world. (America may never be the equal of France, Italy, Japan, Spain or China  when it comes to cooking talent or raw ingredients, but our culinary education/training has made tremendous strides in the past twenty years.)

And because of it, we beat the world this year, so that’s something to be proud of….even if statements like this from Eater half-wits:

Recent TV hits like The Great British Bake-Off and a Chef’s Table prove that American audiences are interested in culinary stories and competitions from other countries — so long as the food looks delicious, and the stories are compelling. Maybe with that in mind, the Bocuse crew could make some changes to the programming that would make the event more accessible to the people from this year’s victorious food country: America.

…are enough to make Mathew Peters want to go back to flipping burgers.

Final footnote: Ten years is a long time. In the decade that passed since my first Bocuse d’Or, everything has expanded in significant ways — ways that bode well for the event’s popularity and reach in the future, but in a manner that made it much less fun to attend. Ten years ago, I was one of maybe eight Americans at the event, and half of those were relatives of Gavin Kaysen – America’s cheftestant representing the old Stars and Stripes. This year, there seemed to be a couple of hundred of our countrymen there, making a lot of noise and cheering our boys on to victory. In 2007, there were no VIP sections, roped-off areas, or designated press stations. Then I saw at most a few camera crews and maybe a dozen or so reporters roaming around. Roaming around (the chefs and the judges) was something that we easily did, and is how I chatted up everyone from Heston Blumenthal to Paul Bocuse himself. Imagine my surprise when I entered the arena last week (after an hour of standing in line), and saw hundreds of reporters and dozens of camera crews all segregated behind a “press wall” (see below) — everyone being scrutinized by enough beefy security to handle a Rolling Stone’s concert.

All of it — the press, the cameras, the VIPs and the security — announced to us that this had taken the world’s stage. No longer was it a Euro-centric event on the order of some Alpine skiing championship; this was the big time now, and they want you to know it. With America’s win, the Bocuse d’Or is poised to get an even wider audience. This is good for the event, and France, and French chefs, and our chefs and French food in general. But I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness when I saw how everything had changed…because changed it has. It is no longer a very esoteric cooking contest that exists only for the cognoscenti  — a hyper-precise test of skills (akin to a classical music competition) that once made me feel like a very special part of it. For I am a part of it no more. Now, it belongs to the world, and to the great international media machine. (sigh)

This is the first of a two part article on ELV’s recent trip to France, Germany and Switzerland. Next up: the restaurants.

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