Pouring on the Food P**n

May 12, 2007

O Best Beloveds, I am working on the latest edition of Frommer’s Las Vegas, and while writing up L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon I recalled I owe you food porn from Caroline’s and my visit there. Robuchon is a legendary French chef, youngest winner of three consecutive Michelin stars and after he closed his restaurants in France, there was much mourning among foodies. Then he opened up two places in Vegas. The main establishment, Joel Robuchon, earned only the second four star review the LA Times has given, while the NY Times said it was the best French food in America. And yet, several different trustworthy foodie friends had told me that L’Atelier, the relatively cheaper establishment, was actually better. Given that the place just won the Beard award for Best New Restaurant, they knew what they were talking about. But by awards time, Caroline and I already knew for ourselves. It was one of those Meals of Our Lives.

The place is small, and almost entirely counter seating, in front of the oddly calm and orderly kitchen, which seems odd for such a high falutin’ place (it’s undeniably diner like, if massively more stylish), but it’s a set up that reminds you food ought to be fun, not solemn. (It’s food, not religion, as Thomas Keller says.) And so from the get go, you interact not just with the charming and oh so handsome waiters and French manager, but also with the chefs, line prep and more. You watch them, they watch you, and if you are whopping it up and swooning with pleasure, as we did, well, let’s just say they react favorably. As wonderful as what we ate was–and it was–at least a third of our delightful experience was due to our increasingly happy relationship with the folks on the other side of the counter. It got even better, as you will see, as we drew in a couple seated to our left. Joy is infectious.

Here we go:

1) Amuse of foie gras parfait with port wine and parmesan foam, layered in a teeny parfait glass. (You were supposed to try to dig through the layers to get some of each within each spoonful.) Oh, my, what a happy start. All three flavors were clear and distinct and yet harmonized into a powerful whole. “I’ll cause a distraction while you lick the glass,” I said to Caroline.

2) Les Legumes: Mediterranean vegetables layered with buffalo mozzarella. Roasted eggplant, zucchini and tomato stacked with the fresh cheese. Winter veggies with such a presence they made my mouth NOT water for spring.

3) Blue fin tuna with tomato infused olive oil. Delicate yet substantial, topped so lightly with cracked pepper and fleur de sol.

Pause here to note the exquisite presentation of each dish and the basket of chewy perfect wee authentic baguettes. Chef has his own bakery downstairs to ensure the accuracy of his bread. Caroline asked for some to go and gnawed on them for the next day.

4) Poached baby Kussi oysters with French Echire butter. Seared with pink pepper, firm and fleshy, fragile and yet demanding to be chewed. I could taste the sea.

5) La Pied de Cochon: Pig feet pate with shaved truffle and parmesan on toasted baguette. Robust yet soft and unctuous meat combined splendidly with truffle and cheese.

6) Crispy tart with shaved truffle, onion and bacon. The bacon hit smokey heights on the phyllo crust.

7) Maine lobster custard with curry scent and fennel foam. Apparently there was also foie gras involved in addition to surprisingly large chunks of lobster. I don’t know for sure though because all I wrote down was “The course where Mary and Caroline started giggling uncontrollably.” It was that good. It was all amazingly good up to that point, but this dish just put us over the top into euphoria. And yes, both curry and fennel were entirely present despite their fragile material forms.

8) Truffled capuccino of green asparagus. A powerful cream soup. That we would have loved but we were too busy gasping over…

9) Beef and foie gras burger with lightly carmelized bell peppers. Also a wee pot of hand cut fries. I wrote “Best. Goddamn. Burger. Ever.” I know. I’ve lost it. I wasn’t even drunk. Seriously, it was wee but also juicy and rich and that was good enough and there was the condiments included the bell peppers which made it even better and then there was a slab of foie gras on top and neither of us had ever eaten anything like it and we forced the couple next to us to order one and they about fell off their bar stools. Come just to order this. And the lobster foam thing.

10) Quail with foie gras stuffed under the skin. (Here I write “All the little birdies go tweet tweet tweet.” I wasn’t high, except on food. Honestly.) Often these birds can be dry, but needless to say, this was not. And it was actually a substantial quail. And it was accompanied by the smoothest, creamiest mashed potatoes we had ever eaten, all the better for the lovely truffles within. Watching Caroline go spastic over this side dish, Chef brought over an extra little pot of it, just for her.

I have something about “touch of lemon on the veal” written here, but I can’t find a veal dish on the menu. (Which I had the chefs sign.) I’ve clearly lost my mind at this point.

11) Which is likely why I didn’t write down what we had for dessert, though I know it was a couple of non chocolate items so good I didn’t even take my usual “dessert must be chocolate to count” stand. (I think it was the sheep’s milk yogurt panna cotta with mandarin confit and bergamont tea infusion, and the pineapple sorbet with passion fruit sauce and caramel mousse.) I wrote something about “exquisite works of sensory art” which is just dumb writing, but also accurate. I know that there was a curiously designed spoon that neatly tipped and poured the contents of the dish into our mouth. And just when we thought we were done, and were even content to be done, they brought more goodies and these were chocolate. The menu doesn’t do it justice; “Chocolate sensation, cremeux, Arguani, Oreo cookie crumbs.” Oh, it was creamy and sensational, all right. And also the chocolate banana custard with coconut ice cream. In each case, a true artist was concocting these items. By now we were sharing with the nice couple next to us, who were also going to the same show as we, so we ended up giving them a ride, and darn, it was lovely.

We floated out.

And then we talked about it every couple of minutes for the next few days,