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May 23, 2011

Las Vegas - Day I

The Desert Highway Dominic Armato

This isn't where I expected to spend my vacation, but you won't hear me complaining.

My ladylove, you see, is a find a quiet retreat and lie down on the beach or next to the pool kind of girl. It's with good reason. She works hard. And kids, no matter how lovable, are loud. So on those rare, rare occasions when we have a couple of days to ourselves, the most pressing desire by far is to do nothing, and do it quietly. Which is why, when I suggested we not venture too far so as to avoid spending half our vacation traveling, her reply of, "How about Vegas?" left me momentarily dumbfounded. But just for a moment. And thus, the decision was made. A restaurant town like that? Done and done. I started making plans that evening.

Fast-forward a couple of months, and we're flying down US 93, cruising past Nothing, Arizona (really!), en route to a destination not typically found on anybody's "quiet and relaxing" list, a horde of restaurant reservations in hand. I love road trips, and I always have dreams of really taking our time with one, stopping in all of the tiny burgs along the way, checking out a diner here, a beef jerky stand there. It wasn't to be on this trip. The fact that we can go door to door on a single tank means that we didn't need to stop to refuel anything other than ourselves, which we opted to do in Kingman, about two-thirds of the way there.

Pulled Pork with Cole SlawDominic Armato

I'd seen some positive mention of a joint called Redneck's Southern Pit BBQ, which as road trip lunch stops go, had both the genre and the name going for it. Turns out it's a pretty big operation, cafeteria-style service in a big room with a bunch of diner-style four tops up front, a phalanx of huge wooden picnic tables in back, and the requisite paper towel rolls on every table. Redneck's covers the standards, both meats and sides, so we picked out an assortment and sat down to dig in. Getting condiments sorted out, the house sauce is sweet for my tastes, a spicy yet thick and ketchupy sweet concoction that I think's a little overwhelming for good meat, but I suppose it's good enough for what it is. There's also a thin, spicy vinegar and a sort of Buffalo-style hot sauce, both nice as accents but nothing that seemed appropriate as a standalone sauce, so the house sauce it would be.

BBQ RibsDominic Armato

I snuck a bite of my ladylove's pulled pork, which was respectable, moist and tender and fairly smoky. I'm in the camp that prefers a little bark and texture here, but the flavor was nice (even if the bun was stone cold). The ribs weren't half-bad, and if they hadn't obviously been held for a while before I got to them, they might've been really nice. Timing is a tricky thing with BBQ and we arrived a little while after the lunch rush, so I'm not inclined to hold the fact that they'd dried out a bit against them. I'll give them credit for a nice smoky product, though, pink almost all the way through with a nice balance of tenderness and chew. They were much better near the fatty end where they hadn't dried out so much, but I enjoyed every part. My hunch is that if we'd gotten there a couple of hours earlier, they would have been spot-on. But they're real, honest-to-goodness smoked ribs, which right there is (sadly) more than I can say for most of the ones I've tried lately.

Sides were serviceable but entirely forgettable. Coleslaw was light and creamy and obviously made fresh, but the potato salad was flat with no texture and the mac and cheese was bland. "Tennessee Toothpicks" were simply battered and fried onion straws and jalapeno slices with ranch to dip, and though the use of the name struck me as questionable (I'm pretty sure the term has some significantly less savory alternate meanings), the little fried strips were as advertised, hot and crispy, though the name was the most distinctive thing about them. We definitely should have taken a pass on the peach cobbler. "Homemade" or no, it was completely textureless and not particularly flavorful. Suffice it to say that Redneck's is definitely about the meat, and on that point they hit the mark.

The Kitchen at L'Atelier Dominic Armato

And so, after a pretty decent BBQ pit stop, we rolled into Vegas for the main event. Picking fine dining restaurants in Vegas these days is a daunting task. The options are dizzying, the marketing BS is thick as tar, and public feedback features a lot more noise and platitudes than actual info. Want to choose based on the name recognition of the attached celebrity chef? Good luck. Some are frequent visitors to the city, very hands-on in ensuring their name is well-represented. Others seem like they're happy to accept the check and never even lay eyes on the line. But the one absolute certainty is that we'd be trying one of the restaurants headlined by Joël Robuchon.

BreadDominic Armato

Robuchon should need no introduction, arguably the most celebrated living French chef, owner of the most Michelin stars as a matter of simple math (for what that's worth), and generally speaking, one of those culinary masters you should probably know about if you're into food. Which is why I was tickled to finally have the opportunity to try one of his restaurants, even a Las Vegas outpost. We briefly flirted with the idea of the three-starred flagship, Joël Robuchon at The Mansion, but when your degustation makes the French Laundry and Alinea look like a bargain, adjectives begin with "heartstopping" and go from there. And so, my first crack at Robuchon would be at L'Atelier, widely replicated around the world and generally acknowledged as an excellent, if not quite full-fledged, representation of the man's cuisine.

Vegetable Fondant with Avocado CreamDominic Armato

With the exception of a few four-tops off to the side, L'Atelier is primarily a counter experience, sleek red and black stools surrounding a hyper-stylish and fully-appointed open kitchen with a pair of cold stations front and center and the heat-producing equipment under the hooded area in back. An enormous U-shaped counter, looking like a converted sushi bar redone in ebony, surrounds the kitchen on three sides and is tended by two servers who move efficiently from station to station (this must be a pleasantly simple setup for them). The menu at this particular outpost features a couple of different tasting options, as well as a full complement of a la carte selections, all of which seem like a deal only when compared to truly shocking prices next door (Robuchon-lite would still be our most expensive meal of the trip). At $155 for nine courses, the "Seasonal Discovery Menu" seemed the way to go, but a couple of things gave me pause. For starters, it didn't include the langoustine which has become something of a L'Atelier signature dish. More notably, it featured tomatoes with basil oil and balsamic for one of the courses. Not that I have anything against tomatoes, basil and balsamic. But on a $155 Robuchon menu? I hoped it would be a wildly creative concoction masquerading as a menu standard. I feared it would be a phoned-in crowd pleaser to make the menu less intimidating for those who might not be accustomed to fine dining. The total absence of foie or any variety meats further suggested the latter. But with our server's insistence that these were considered the house's signature dishes, we decided to roll with it, requesting that they add the langoustine wherever they deemed appropriate.

Tomatoes with Basil and BalsamicDominic Armato

We started with an amuse -- named on the menu as such (a practice I find irritating) -- vegetable fondant topped with an avocado cream, and slices of radish and cucumber. Though I didn't realize it at the time, this not only set the stage for the meal, but embodied it as well. It was truly delicious, an explosive combination of tomato, cucumber, pepper and more that played a little like a gazpacho with unusual smoothness and intensity. The flavors had the strength of something reduced with heat, but with the kind of raw, fresh flavor that would result if they'd simply been tossed in a blender. Perfectly seasoned, I thought it a delightful start. Which only made it more disappointing when my tomato fears were realized. Heirloom tomatoes, basil oil, balsamic vinegar and a couple of token cucumber blossoms made for a stunning presentation of the simplest possible dish. Frequent readers of this blog know that I'm fully in support of simple, traditional flavors and dishes. But why this? Why here? And if you're going to go this route, it should at least use absolutely stellar tomatoes (it didn't) that are salted properly (they weren't). I wish I knew what the line of thinking was behind this dish, because they only explanations I can come up with aren't terribly flattering. I started to worry that we'd made a terrible mistake.

Scallop with ChivesDominic Armato

But the menu started winning me back in short order, the next dish being a single scallop topped with chives, coarse salt and pepper, and dressed with a very light ginger olive oil. I was first struck by the scallop, billed as seared though with no visual clue thereof. What was striking was an extremely dense and firm texture that some have dismissed as overcooked, but I reject that. The flavor was just as that of a lightly cooked scallop should be, and though I'm unsure whether that disconnect between texture and flavor was the product of some unusual technique or a truly exceptional scallop, I'm not sure that I care. I found it immensely pleasurable, and that's all that matters. What truly won me over, however, was the use of chives. When's the last time you had a dish where minced chives were anything more than a pretty garnish or a light accent? The dish wasn't a scallop with a little chive. The dish was scallop and chives, and I'm not certain I could say either was more pronounced than the other. The light ginger accent, flecks of salt and pepper -- so simple, and it came together so beautifully. What's more, it was perfect as a small plate. Any more, and I think that subtlety would have been lost. It's no accident, I'm sure, that this wasn't available on the a la carte menu.

King Crab with Pepper ConfitDominic Armato

The next dish arrived, and once again I was struck by the focus and simplicity. A small portion of king crab leg was seared on the plancha, topped with bell pepper confit, a splash of lemongrass oil and piment d'espelette. There's absolutely nothing hidden here. A mélange of bell peppers, meticulously slivered and poached just enough to soften tasted like... bell peppers. The crab received a touch of color from the plancha, but certainly wasn't aggressively cooked. The oil added some fragrant notes, the piment a touch of spice, and there's the dish, each component tasting simply and wholly of itself, as honest and straightforward as can be. That they were delicious together was a function of the impeccable ingredients, precise execution and thoughtful combinations.

Langoustine with Basil PestoDominic Armato

Would Robuchon suddenly bust out something more complex with one of his signature dishes? Hardly. A single shelled langoustine was wrapped in bric dough with a basil leaf, deep fried, and served with a basil pesto and tuft of lightly dressed greens. The crispy pastry acted almost like a refined substitute for the crisp shells you get when shrimp are fried whole. The basil pesto was... basil. Almost completely unadulterated. There was a little oil, and I believe the basil had been blanched, and that may have been it. Where was the counterpoint and acid? In the salad, dressed with just enough lemon vinaigrette to punch up the pesto and cut through the langoustine's fried armor. Though it wasn't as strong a dish as the previous two (I'm a little surprised this has emerged as a signature dish), it possessed the same qualities -- simple, balanced, impeccable ingredients.

Asparagus with Morels and Veal JusDominic Armato

Asparagus also got the plancha treatment, lightly seared for just a touch of the griddle (having obviously been blanched first). And what could be more obvious accompaniments than morels, parmesan and egg? The morels had been softened, in butter I believe, and were topped with a foam made from the same, the parmesan arrived shaved, a single fried and trimmed quail egg sat on top, and it was crowned with three miniscule slivers of jamon iberico (the real deal, though... um... sparingly applied). To give the dish some more muscular underpinnings, a touch of veal jus was drizzled about, and the result was very classic-tasting dish, done with the kind of panache I was hoping would be applied to the tomatoes. It was still a very, very simple dish and nothing about the combination of flavors was the least bit unusual. But this felt like a fine dining dish rather than a pretty presentation of every tomato salad you've ever had, and I enjoyed it.

Steamed Sole with Spring VegetablesDominic Armato

After the asparagus, the menu kicked it into high gear again with one of my favorite dishes of the evening. A portion of sole was steamed, topped with an assortment of spring vegetables, and lightly smothered in a butter sauce fortified with shellfish, ginger and lime. This dish was simply wonderful. The sole was everything steamed fish should be, light and moist, almost ethereal, and it was topped by a beautiful little assortment of vegetables, softened asparagus, tomatoes and spring onions with slivers of heart of palm for texture. Of course, you slather anything in butter and that's going to make it better, but this added both brightness via the aromatics, and depth via the shellfish essence, giving the fish a little added complexity and strength while still keeping the dish firmly planted in the seafood realm. Again, most notably, every ingredient, even the individual components of the vegetable mix, were clean and distinct and spoke their own names. This dish was delicate and sensitive, but with enough body to be viscerally pleasing. Wonderfully done.

Hanger Steak with Shallots and ShishitosDominic Armato

After so much seafood and vegetables (zero complaints), the sudden arrival of meat was almost a bracing jolt. But though more fully-flavored, these dishes followed the same formula as their predecessors. My ladylove's hanger steak was downright succulent, tender, intensely flavored and slathered in butter and jus. Caramelized shallots were a natural accompaniment, and slightly less conventional though absolutely perfect were a pair of charred shishito peppers, an unabashedly bright green (and spicy) counterpoint to the deep, rich meat. The plate also featured a lightly truffled version of Robuchon's famed pommes purée, notable not for their ingredient list (potatoes, milk, butter, salt), but simply for their fine texture (achieved by shoving them through a tamis) and the pure volume of butter that's whipped into them. It isn't rocket science, but it works. They're atypically rich and silky.

Lamb ShoulderDominic Armato

Sadly, the foie-stuffed quail that has developed into another L'Atelier signature dish was unavailable that evening, so I chose what my ladylove did not, the braised lamb shoulder. Which, in truth, is what I would have chosen anyway. Notable, again, not for its composition but for its intensity and succulence, a molded portion of shredded lamb shoulder was given a quick bit of char on the plancha and plated with more of the pommes purée and a tiny herb salad. The lamb was heavily treated with reduced tomato, not quite to the level of an intense tomato paste, but with a very thick, deep and developed flavor. Other than basic mirepoix, it spoke mostly of lamb, moist and fatty and with just enough char for character. The salad, comprised mostly of dill, was a beautiful counterpoint, and the dill was unafraid to be bright, fresh, frilly dill. And it worked. Great dish.

Strawberries and BalsamicDominic Armato

I'm trying to think of some way to express that our desserts were simple and delicious without being redundant, and failing miserably. The first hit a classic combination, strawberries and balsamic, but added a good deal of textural interest. The strawberries were macerated as well as transmogrified into a brittle crisp. The balsamic was drizzled about and also presented as a balsamic ice cream, very subtly flavored with the sweet vinegar. The whole of the dish was atop vanilla panna cotta strewn with shortbread crumbles, and made a simple combination atypically appealing. The second dessert, however, was truly exceptional, working rhubarb, black cherry and pistachio into a number of formats. On the right, a trio of huge blackberries topped with rhubarb sorbet and a rhubarb crisp. On the left, spiced cake, pistachio crisps, a creamy but dense black cherry mousse and braised rhubarb made for an absolutely brilliant napoleon of sorts, bold and clean flavors presented with fabulous textures. Both were winners.

Rhubarb, Black Cherry, PistachioDominic Armato

I'm not sure what I expected walking into L'Atelier, but it wasn't this. Had I really done my homework I probably would have been more prepared, but more and more I find myself wanting to know less and less when I dine someplace for the first time. I like knowing that my thoughts are my own. And the bit of surprise that I experienced initially developed into a great respect for this style by the end of the meal. I've not dined at any of Robuchon's other restaurants, and I can't say whether or not this is characteristic of his food. But the dishes presented at L'Atelier had a remarkable sensitivity, and enormous respect for the ingredients from which they were produced. These dishes are exceptionally delicate, and are highly expressive despite their subtlety. And the subtlety is key. As I recall the meal, the thing I keep coming back to is how pure the flavors were, how every ingredient tasted precisely of itself, and though some ingredients spoke more loudly than others they all spoke with their own voices. I don't want to start gushing, of course. Some worked better than others, I'm still not sure what that tomato dish was doing there, and at $155 this is an expensive proposition (and small, to boot... anybody who's ever been frustrated the least bit by portion sizes will surely leave hungry). But this is a very minimal, natural approach to fine dining -- almost Japanese in French clothing -- to a degree that is rarely seen, pulled off only because of razor-sharp precision on the part of the kitchen. To go in expecting wild creativity, complex flavors and culinary pyrotechnics is to court disappointment. But there's a very soulful simplicity here that had won me over by the time we walked away.

Four days to go...

Vegas - Day I   |   Vegas - Day II   |   Vegas - Day III   |   Vegas - Day IV   |   Vegas - Day V

Redneck's Southern Pit BBQ
420 E. Beale Street
Kingman, AZ 86401
Tue - Thu11:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:00 AM - 8:00 PM

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
3799 Las Vegas Boulevard S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Mon - Sun5:30 PM - 10:30 PM


Dom, thank you so much for the write-up of L'Atelier. I went there and got the "Seasonal Menu" as well, last June. It was the most wonderful meal I ever had. I don't think we had any course that was in common with yours, and we did have the foie-stuffed quail, but to be honest the quail and the sole (different preparation for the sole) "main courses" were my least favorite (both were a bit dry). So I don't think you misse.d anything. The whole meal was so subtle, seemingly simple (although I'm sure it wasn't), and so surprising, with interesting contrasting flavors and textures. And I'm also not a dessert person but our's were also so great. We also sat at the bar and had a great time watching the preparation, much of it finished with tweezers. :)

Oh, and without even looking at the prices we knew we couldn't afford the full-fledged restaurant when we saw that it came with complimentary limo service. Lol!

Ally... Methinks the simple calculation there is that limo costs will be outweighed by wine and liquor sales to those who think to themselves, "Ah, what the hell, the limo is taking us home." :-)

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