PARTAGE

(The Three Musketeers)

A Francophile’s dream come true. The chefs are French, the decor is French, the bartenders are French and the food is as French as Bastille Day. And the whole enchilada is in Chinatown. Go figure.

When Vincent Pellerin, Nicolas Kalpokdjian, and Yuri Szarzewski (above) came to the United States in 2015, they had a dream — they wanted to bring healthy French food to Las Vegas. Anyone with a brain would’ve told them the idea had as much chance for success as a Mormon nightclub, but arrive and succeed they did, first with their casual EATT Gourmet Bistro on West Sahara, and now with a more upscale (but still very laid back) place in a shopping center more at home with massage parlors and noodle shops than croque monsieurs and Pays Nantes.

Because it’s in Chinatown (in the old Chada Street space) the curb appeal is practically nil….and so is the parking. (At busy times you may have to inch your way around the lot once or twice to find a space. If ever there was an off-Strip property begging you to take a LYFT to it, this is it.)

The signage is as simple as the storefront and gives not a clue as to the wonders behind the long glass facade. But as soon as you step through the doors, you can sense that magic is about to happen. Seating are plush but not too so. Cozy booths line one side of the room and a long L-shaped bar dominates the other. The lighting is dim (but not too dim) and flattering, and even at peak occupancy, you can still hear yourself think and talk.

Towards the back you’ll see a large window behind which the chefs operate, and a glass wine room holding the all-French, all-nicely-priced selections. While the list isn’t long, it’s broken down by region (Alsace, Burgundy, Bordeaux, etc.) and the bottles are marked up 100% over retail, rather than 2-300% gouges you’ll find a mile to the east. Another thing I love are the easy to read prices ($65 for a Gigondas; $120 for Dom Ruinart, etc.) with none of that $59 v. $63 nonsense you see at the big hotels. (I’d love for some wine director to edify me sometime on why one Cali cab is priced at $118, while another fetches $121. Is it because there’s a 2.8% difference in quality between the two bottles? Ridiculous.)

Partage means “to share” and the menu encourages you to do just that. 20 small plate options are offered, each amounting to no more than 2-3 bites of headliners like halibut ceviche (disguised to look like dragon fruit):

….or a single lobster ravioli in a small cup of bisque, or perfect, meaty scallop swimming in a dashi broth with seaweed chutney and steamed leeks. Everyone seems to feature trilogies of oysters these days (whassup with that?), but the version here is top drawer, with the yuzu hollandaise being the one you’ll remember. As good as they are, the real stars of the show are the salmon croquettes (almost Japanese in their deep-fired, ultra-light crispiness):

 

…and the squid “risotto” — the risotto in this case being finely diced pieces of squid bound together by a barely-there pesto, filled with flavor but not filling you up.

If you’re looking for richness, Szarzewski has you covered. His sweetbreads are a godsend for lovers of all things thymus — accented by lotus root and a smooth tonka bean cream — the tight little sauteed gland giving not a hint of how dense and filling this offal can be. For pure decadence though, nothing beats his oxtail croque monsieur — long simmered meat, slicked with bone marrow,  served between three batons of the world’s most luxurious toast:

If hunger still lingers after these (doubtful), tuck into a quail leg garnished with umeboshi and foie gras, or a few nibbles of good Spanish pata negra served with a small puck of olive oil cake and fennel sorbet:

Jamon platters are everywhere, but this little one may be the cutest of the bunch.

The anti-ham crowd will enjoy digging into things like ratatouille-stuff squash blossoms, burrata Caprese salad, a melange of root veggies, and the best damn pea soup you’ve ever slurped — this one given a kick by lemon-basil sorbet and finger limes.

About the only dish I can’t recommend is the king crab coated with black garlic. It tastes of pure, sweet crustacean slicked with the tamarind-like essence of aged allium, but it looks like something the cat left behind. If there’s an award for the best tasting, least attractive dish in town, this would litter-ally win by a landslide:

(Honey! The cat’s been at it again!)

Large groups will want to go large format with big cuts of 18 ounce rib eye, or a 32 ounce tomahawk steak — smoked with either hickory, applewood or hay (your choice!). Two pound lobsters and whole duckling breasts served on the bone, and sea bass baked in salt crust is also offered for the whole table to swoon over. In keeping with the “healthy French” thing, sauces are kept to a minimum. Not to my taste, exactly — the duck, pork and bass suffer from the lack of liquids — but the presentations are in keeping with how modern French food is done these days.

 

Desserts are a dream, and Pellerin’s rolling cart (above) is not to be missed. Whether he’s doing a baba au rhum (injected at table with some high proof spirit), a caramel candy bar, or a flaming baked Alaska (below), you can be assured no one, in any neighborhood in Vegas, is eating a dessert as good as the one you’re getting. Pastry chefs are an endangered species these days, and having one as accomplished as Pellerin working in the ‘burbs is quite a statement for a local joint.  His macarons (when available) should be ordered by the dozen.
(Like this baked Alaska, Chinatown is en fuego!)

Las Vegas came of age as a restaurant town in 2018, and exhibits 1-4 are Sparrow & Wolf, Mordeo Wine Bar, EDO Tapas, and Partage. By recognizing the true foodie potential of Chinatown, these venues have broadened its horizons and done the same for serious gourmands — local and tourist alike. Partage may not be for everyone (the food might be a little too precious for the meat and potatoes crowd) but it’s given a boost to our dining scene in all the right ways. Vive la France!

PARTAGE

3839 Spring Mountain Road

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.582.5852

https://partage.vegas/

Why I Love France

There is nothing more precious to a food lover than to experience a cuisine, or a dish, or an ingredient in its native habitat. Whether it’s clams in Ipswich, a Cuban sandwich in Habana, or tortellini in Bologna, the holy grail of gastronomes is to be in a place known for a certain type of food, and to consume that food where it originated.

People who count their Michelin stars, or jump from the latest hot spot to the next miss the whole point of eating well. Eating well is not just about dining in restaurants — although great restaurants are essential for bringing a cuisine into focus — it is about diving deep, and about learning about distinctions and differences while you’re paddling above the surface, or submerged beneath it.

People are fond of saying that the best of any cuisine is found in people’s homes. Ask any Italian, and they’ll swear by their Nonna’s pasta e fagioli over any version in any restaurant. Go to Germany and what you get in their restaurants is basically the same food they serve at home. (Only in their tonier restaurants do they venture into fancier, French-influenced dishes.) I haven’t traveled south of Mexico, but I think it’s safe to say that South American cuisine in all its multi-cultural forms takes almost all of its cues from what people grew up with — restaurants there (and almost everywhere) being a distillation of what people eat in their houses.

For what are restaurants, really, but a place to get sustenance when one is away from home?

Street food is something different entirely. Street food is by and large peasant food — quick and easy ways to sustain a busy worker through the day. Food writers the world over have gone to great lengths to elevate kebabs, noodle soups and all sorts of meat pies to “gourmet” status, but what they miss are the cultural underpinnings of these things as quick and easy ways to quell hunger and provide fuel for our furnaces. High-end sushi may be a “thing” in Tokyo and New York, but it started as a way for Edo (Tokyo) workers to grab a quick snack on the go. Only in the modern era (and by “modern era” we mean the last twenty five years) have braggadocios gastronomads elevated fish on rice to the fucking ridiculous.

Table and chair restaurants — from the Far East to the American Southwest — do one thing: cook the foods of their homeland for strangers. Many of these customers are natives (surely their harshest critics), but some are travelers looking to sustain themselves on whatever voyage of discovery they happen to be on. Being strangers in strange lands, though, one can never hope to understand a cuisine like a native. Unless you are fortunate enough to have friends who live where you travel, you have little hope of experiencing a beef bourguignon from a French housewife, a Cornish pasty from a Welsh coal miner, or cuy (pronounced “kwee”) from a Peruvian farmer.

That’s where France comes in. In France, restaurants are, in and of themselves, a cultural landmark. French food, more than any other, achieves it apotheosis in restaurants — restaurants as humble as a sidewalk cafe to a haute cuisine palace. Food may be a passion in Italy, but in France it is a religion. Indeed, French cuisine (more specifically the “French gastronomic menu”) has been recognized by UNESCO as one of the world’s great cultural artifacts.

The French are prouder of their food than any other country on earth. From the humblest cheese to the most fantastic dessert cart, the average Frenchman knows his country’s food (and restaurants) have set a standard for the rest of the world to follow. To be sure, there is terrible, corporate food in France. There are lazy brasseries and slip-shod bakeries and acidic wines and all forms of half-assery that seeks to profit from France’s reputation without putting in the work.

But there’s also more great food in more little corners of this Texas-sized country than in most of the rest of the world put together. A lot has been written about French food being under siege. Fast food, global economic pressures, and the world-wide cult of immediate gratification has endangered many things about the French way of life. But the depth of knowledge in France about its cuisine is profound, and the currents run deep. Yes, there are Hawaiian fishermen who know the bounty of their sea backwards, and Iranian epicures who can tell you everything there is to know about caviar, but no country on earth has spent centuries celebrating its food — from the humblest peasant fare to feasts fit for a king — like France has.

What France did, starting over two hundred years ago, is institutionalize (and publicize) the (previously very private) act of eating meals. France turned the act of eating out into a form of theater, and to this day, its restaurants are a daily celebration of food in all its forms. A restaurant meal in France is a way to “restaur” yourself, but it is also so much more. What restaurants in France represent, is a form of socialization, indeed, civilization at its apex.

What do I love most about French food? Well first, it is that menu — a light to heavy escalation of everything from the color of the wine to the weight of the calories. (Fun fact: service à la française originally meant serving everything at once, buffet-style. It was only in the early 19th  century that service à la russe – serving things in individual courses – became popular in France.)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e2/Formal_Place_Setting.jpg

Everything about the French menu is a ladder with each rung representing another form of advancement up the food chain. There are white wines to start, and the freshest, briniest shellfish to get your gastronomic juices flowing. From there you graduate to soups, and legumes, and cooked fish before ascending to the plats principaux (the main courses). Through it all there is bread (the best on earth), and at the end are desserts — dessert being a French word that the French understand better than anyone.

So, let’s take stock: the best bread, the best shellfish, the best butter, the best wine (sorry, Italy), the best sparkling wine, a way with small birds that is the envy of cooks the world over, and a myriad of soups, stews, and beef dishes to beat the band. And did I mention the cheese? What’s not to love? Well, I can hear some naysayers kvetching about the lack of street food. True, the French don’t do street food all that well, but for the occasional crepe, but when there’s a sidewalk cafe on every corner, full of chocolat, cafe au lait and croque monsieur, why eat standing up? Eating standing up is what farm animals do.

Modernists love to point to the course-by-course progression of a French dinner as hopelessly outdated — preferring instead to extol the virtues of some new Nordic wunderkind or 30-course slog through some chef’s “vision.” But what they miss is the intellectual debt all fine dining owes to the French menu. Until the French figured out the natural progression of how we should eat, meals the world over were pretty much a free-for-all. The reason you start with oysters at Arzak has more to do with Le Grand Vefour than anything Ferran Adrià did.

https://robert-parker-michelin-sg-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/media/image/2016/07/08/857bb2910117412fbe75e3ba184e2ca1_Le+Grand+Vefour+-+Dining+Room.jpg

So I return again and again. For the 10th time in a few days, to take another bite out of the country that first captured my imagination as a law student reading Gourmet magazine — back when I could only dream about visiting  all those wonderful bistros, brasseries, and temples of luxurious dining. But visit them I have, from Alsace to Lyon to the French Alps I have explored this country, and I haven’t tired of it yet. Paris holds many charms for me, as it has for so many Americans, but what I enjoy most of all these days is tasting the countryside, the places where the wine and the cheese and the ouefs meurette are made. What is most compelling of all, now that I’m in my sixties, is seeing where this cuisine came from, and continuing to learn why it is the greatest food on earth.

ELV note: I will be traveling to France in a few days (Paris-Chablis-Beaune-Burgundy) and will not be posting anything on this site until mid-December. Please feel free to follow my epicurean adventures on Twitter (@eatinglasvegas) or Instagram (@johncurtas). Bon appetit!

A couple of apropos quotes:

“French food is like jazz: it begins with theory, technique and organizing principles, and comes alive through playfulness, spontaneity, and, ultimately, extemporization.” – Richard Olney

 “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

 

LE CIRQUE: Then and Now

If two restaurants can be said to have jump-started our food revolution, Spago and Le Cirque must be given the credit. Spago got the ball rolling in December, 1992, but it was Le Cirque’s arrival on October 15, 1998 that caused a seismic shift in our taste tectonics. Steve Wynn wanted to make a big splash with his restaurant line-up at the Bellagio, and as good as the rest of his eateries were (Picasso, Prime, Olives, et al), he knew he needed a big hitter from the Big Apple to really get the food world’s attention. Enter Sirio Maccioni and family, bringing with them what was, at the time, the most famous name in American restaurants.

Those early years were exciting times. Las Vegas had never seen a jewel box like Adam Tihany’s 60-seat design, nor witnessed food so fine or service so precise. With the Maccionis patrolling the room and paterfamilias Sirio making constant appearances from his throne in New York, Las Vegas was a satellite operation, but one every bit the equal of its hallowed namesake. A succession of great chefs (beginning with Marc Poidevin) has kept this kitchen firing on all cylinders since day one, and one of the best service staffs in the business keeps the dining room humming like a long-running musical where everyone still belts out showstoppers after years of hitting their marks.

Showstopping has always been what Le Cirque has always been about, but I was afraid that show might come to an end in 2013 when the management deal with the family ended. With Sirio getting older (he’s deep into his eighties now) and son Mario gone, there is no longer a strong whiff of Italian buon gusto to go along with Le Cirque’s inimitable savoir faire. No one is showing me the contracts, but these days the operation is a licensing rather than a management deal — more Bellagio, less Maccioni. The good news is the food hasn’t suffered for it. Nor has the service.

Credit for that crackerjack service goes to a team that has barely changed in nineteen years. To put that in perspective: if you came here back when Bill Clinton was President, and returned today, you would see all the same faces serving you. Frederic Montandon still pours vintages (French, please! California, if you insist) with a twinkle in his eye, while Ivo Angelov manages with the touch of an orchestra conductor. A lot of restaurants start feeling stale after two decades. Here, phoning it in isn’t in their vocabulary.

The food has changed over time, but never wavered. Some of the chefs (Poidevin, David Werly) were superstars in their own right, while others were just putting in their time. But whoever was at the helm, the kitchen has always been solid — rendering classics like rack of lamb with glazed sweetbreads and rabbit with mustard cream sauce with the same aplomb it devotes to gold-crusted quail stuffed with foie gras, or blue crab under a robe of caviar. You can still get a lobster salad here that is almost note-for-note what Daniel Boulud invented in 1988, or have your taste buds startled by current wunderkind Wil Bergerhausen’s “hidden” spring garden of English peas, tendrils and garbanzos misted with strawberries.

What used to be dueling menus of Le Cirque classics versus more modern (read: lighter) fare has expanded under Bergerhausen into four offerings at all price ranges. You can do everything from a $108, pre-theater affair to a $350 extravaganza that steps into the ring with whatever punches Savoy, Gagnaire, or Robuchon are throwing and doesn’t flinch. There’s even a delicious-sounding five course vegetarian menu offered ($115) that looks like a good idea, in the same way that yoga classes, wheat grass and prostate exams do.

Now that we’ve rebounded from the Great Recession, every night seems like New Year’s Eve here. High rollers, celebrities and hedonic jet-setters treat this place like a private club, making a reservation a tough-to-impossible on weekends. Personally, I like to go early in mid-week, grab and seat at the bar, and watch the choreography unfold before me. After almost two decades, the balletic grace of Le Cirque is still something to behold.

LE CIRQUE

Bellagio Hotel and Casino

702.693.8100

https://www.bellagio.com/en/restaurants/le-cirque.html