Foodies like all types of dining experiences. Eating potato chips on a road trip. Enjoying burgers at a drive in. Cooking at home for loved ones. And, once in a while, every foodie relishes a truly fine dining experience. This was such an experience.
Joel Robuchon, named “Chef of the Century,” did not want to open Joel Robuchon at the Mansion in Las Vegas. He had to be wooed and coaxed out of retirement. To hear the whole story, I direct you to the very funny and delicious book The Man Who Ate the World, by Jay Rayner. When he did open it, he pulled out all the stops. Since it has opened, it has been considered one of most over the top, the one of the most elegant, and certainly one of the most expensive restaurants in America. Though other restaurants, like Per Se, have the same 3 Michelin stars and difficult reservation policies, there are very few restaurants that compete on the old-school elegance and technique of this restaurant.
It is part of the famous Mansion hotel-within-a-hotel in the MGM Grand. You have to be invited to stay there, and rooms start at $5,000 a night. It is only for whales, foreign princes, and people to whom $5,000 a nigh tis chump change. You aren’t even allowed to visit the hotel – it is within a secret courtyard hidden in the MGM Grand.
But, if you book a table at Joel Robuchon, you get a gold limo that chauffers you to The Mansion, where you can relax in the glass atrium before dinner. Tropical plants thrive in the always 75F temperature, and gently classical music is piped through. You may find yourself, as I did, shocked into the realization that this will be a dining experience like none other you have ever had before.
Don’t worry, I took a coaster from a coffee table to remind myself later that this wasn’t a dream.
Soon, a concierge will arrive to take you through The Mansion to dinner.
To say that the room is elegant would be doing it a disservice. It is absolutely, straight up, old school fancy. Done in tones of eggplant and gold, there are plush banquettes, a sparkling chandelier, and even a faux garden outdoors, so people can eat outside without ever having to battle bugs. Many of the seats are couches, putting forth the idea that this is not a meal to nourish, but one to relax, to enjoy, and to indulge.
This is where the magic starts. A cart filled with at least 17 types of bread is rolled to you, and your server describes each one, like some glorious, hunger-inducing monologue. Baguette, country bread, milk bread. Basil brioche, bacon bread, Gruyère bread. Hard bread, soft bread, miniature bread, gargantuan bread. Each different, each baked in house daily. You are encouraged to sample many breads throughout the course of the meal, though only your first selection will be warmed.
Mustard Bacon Baguette – an exemplary baguette, with a stiff crust and an airy interior. Flecked with sizable chunks of fatty bacon and pungent grainy mustard.
Gruyère Bread – light and fluffy, with a generous portion of nutty Gruyère cheese capping the roll.
Comte Bread – delicate and buttery, like a croissant. Filled with smoky, salty comte cheese that oozed in the middle.
Saffron Brioche – fragrant and heady with saffron, reminiscent of paella. Very light and moist.
It deserves special mention. This Brittany butter is incredibly dense and feels like it weighs twice what American butter does. It tastes sweet and very clean, not greasy at all. Sprinkled with fleur de sel, it is delicious enough to be eaten on its own.
Don’t worry, I didn’t. I am a classy broad, ya know.
The first taste of this is not cherries, it is sherry vinegar. Deep, nutty, complex. Then, sweet tomatoes and fresh cucumber come through. Finally, at the end, a sweet note of cherries finishes off the mouthful. The sheep’s ricotta is milky and the salty pistachios are a wise textural contrast. It is an ideal starter.
Wonderful things about this dish include:
-the incredibly potent tomato. It tastes bright but also earthy, and very sweet.
-the mozzarella. Tiny, exact pearls of mozzarella, so creamy they practically melt if you look at them too hard.
-the basil gelee. Incredibly fragrant and herbal, it is spicy next to the sugary tomato.
-the black plate that makes the gelee look black, instead of clear.
Yellowtail carpaccio – as mild as toro, with a less fatty taste and slightly firmer texture. It has a brightness that works well with the peppery radish and crunchy, earthy turnip. The caviar adds a pleasant salty taste that ties in the land and water theme.
Cauliflower veloute – my favorite part of the course. Thin but very rich and smooth, this is the essence of cauliflower. It is salty enough to bring out the naturally sweet and creamy flavor of cauliflower, and the caviar adds both depth and texture. It is so very savory that I would swear there was pork somewhere in the base of the soup.
Couscous Maki – The least memorable part of the dish, but the one where the caviar stands out the most. Thinly shaved cucumber holds pearls of couscous, topped with a generous portion of caviar. the caviar’s deep taste reverberates through the mouth with salt, bitterness, and a final note of iron, like liver.
My baby. My favorite food. My sweet little liver. This is as ideal a foie gras as one could hope to have. A thick, crisp crust conceals a warm, pale pink interior that is so umami it defines the word. Savory and meaty, with a dense, creamy texture. It pais well with the cherries, which taste of wine, and with the bright kumquat puree, which temper the dish’s richness. When foie is this perfect, all description fails it.
Following the foie with the scallop is a calculated and very smart move. To follow it with more meat would result in palate fatigue. To follow it with a light fish or vegetable would mean that the delicate taste would be lost. Following it with buttery shellfish served in a spicy, herbal broth both gives the palate a rest and awakens it for the courses to come. Every move at this restaurant is thought out and planned. The scallop has a crunchy crust and a soft interior. It works well with the green curry, which is it is so bright with ginger, cilantro, and lemongrass that it seems almost alive. It breathes life into the meal and re-awakens the appetite. One of my favorite dishes of the night.
Truffled langoustine ravioli, grilled spiny lobster medallion in herb sabayon, sea urchin on potato puree with Blue Mountain Coffee
Ravioli – delicate sheets of pasta wrap around a chopped langoustine filling. Plump and bursting with buttery flavor, it is infused with the powerful scent and flavor of truffles. The earthy shrooms make the dish as meaty as it is oceanic. My seafood-wary sister claimed this as one of her favorite dishes of the night – it is quite rich and very tasty, but also very mild on the seafood taste.
Lobster – a bit tougher than I like, with too many herbs taking away from the butters inherent delicate flavor. It was still quite tasty, but not up to par with the other aspects of the plate.
Urchin – unbelievable. Pillows of soft, creamy, intensely briny sea urchin atop Robuchon’s famous pommes puree. These potatoes, made with as much butter as potato, are so rich and dense that they make the uni seem even lighter and more refreshing by comparison. The Blue Mountain Coffee adds a smoky, pleasantly bitter quality. For once, coffee actually tastes as delicious as it smells!
The only misstep of the night for me, due more to personal taste than any cooking discrepancies. The peas taste too grassy, almost like wet soil. The foie gras royale is airy and gets lost in the thick potage, and the argan oil has no discernable flavor. Let it be known that I am not a huge pea fan, and that other members in my party lapped this up.
The best salmon I can remember eating, including at top-notch sushi restaurants. It is so mild, so soft but not mushy, with a thin, caramalized crust. It must be cooked incredibly gently, because it has a moist but still cooked interior, where the fat has melted away and self basted the fish. The mango tagliatelle is just as outstanding – thin ribbons of fruit that resemble al dente pasta in texture, but with a bright, tart flavor.
Veal never tasted this good. This veal has the intensity of beef with the delicate texture of veal. I was able cut it with a fork, it has a woodsy, hearty taste that one normally only associates with beef. It stands up to the porcini mushrooms, not as heady as truffles but much meatier. The demiglace served alongside is thick and reminiscent of wine, slowly cooked onions, and spicy black pepper.
Sprouts cooked very gently in the style of risotto, until they form a thick, rich stew. If it weren’t for the slight crunch, I would think it WAS risotto! Bright with lime zest, there is the nutty taste of Parmesan cheese and a lingering taste of garlic that makes this dish taste traditional. Well, as traditional as spout risotto can be. Once again, a wise choice in terms of timing. This gently bridges the gap between salty main course and sweet dessert.
Very sweet, more like caramel than honey. The lemon goes a long way to cutting through the sugar, and keeps it from being overpowering. An interesting dessert, but not a sensational one.
Caramel panna cotta topped with fresh strawberries in a balsamic reduction
Now THIS is a dessert. A showstopper. Panna cotta that is smooth, milky, and incredibly clean, with just a bit of bittersweet caramel. Fresh strawberries, juicy and tangy, cloaked in their rich balsamic dressing. Bits of crunchy brioche croutons soak up the juices, and vanilla scented foam perfumes the whole dish.
A perfect end to the meal.
Or is it?…
Um, no. This is the end to the meal. An entire cart full of mignardises (small sweets served at the end of a meal) comes to you, and you choose s many as you would like. Caramels, chocolates, petit fours, cakes that burst in your mouth with raspberry jam, macaroons, lollipops, bonbons…it’s as if Willy Wonka himself is in front of you.
Joel Robuchon is, for me, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not only because it is prohibitively expensive, but because how many times can Cinderella go to the ball? From the moment I stepped in the gold limo to the second that I was surprised with a birthday cake, to the very last bite of my very last petit four, this was a fairy tale. There were some dishes that were not to my taste, but that mattered less than the experience of the meal. It was a 4 hour dining journey. Servers came by to chat when we had questions, to advise on the wine list, and to show us a special feature of the dish. They also left us alone to laugh, to talk, to revel in the meal and each others’ company. Our needs were anticipated – we never had to ask for more bread or an extra napkin. The surroundings are beautiful, the service is excellent, and the food was really beyond my expectations. It combines classic techniques with unexpected ingredients. That scallop with the curry sauce is not the most technically complex dish on the menu, but it is representative of Robuchon’s attention to detail and exquisite palate. From beginning to end, this meal is worth every penny to someone who values a unique and over the top dining experience.
The next day, I went back to eating sandwiches, but for just that night, I was Cinderella at the foodie ball.