The gambling spirit seeped into my brain: After a weekend in Vegas I began looking at the restaurants where I’d dined in terms of deuces and perfect pairs (a blackjack side bet). "Perfect," of course, is a dangerous word. I hit four wins and broke even twice.
Two Celebrity-Chef Aces
The man on my left is debating the sommelier over the best vintages of Gevrey-Chambertins from Beaune. The guy on my right asks the server how to spell "amuse bouche" for a Facebook post. The customer mix always fascinates at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, and reveling in the eclecticism is one reason why it’s my go-to among Vegas’s constellation of star chef restaurants. It sits in a far corner of the MGM Grand next to its elder sibling, the tasting menu sanctuary Joël Robuchon, where (on assignment) I spent $1,300 on dinner for two in 2008, still the most I’ve ever paid for a meal.
Robuchon, one of France’s defining chefs, introduced his more casual L’Atelier ("workshop") concept to Paris in 2003 — a comeback after he’d retired from the day-to-day grind at age 50 eight years earlier. The action centers on a three-sided bar that faces an open kitchen assembling precise, modern French dishes, and the model fits right into the Vegas frisson. The black box of a space, punctuated by glinting steel counters and brightly lit objet d’art with fruit motifs, feels like a kinetic extension of the casino floor yards away.
Opting for a ten-course, $169 tasting menu or an a la carte meal — in which small plates go for $22-$35 and entrees $41-$75 — runs nearly the same cost. I’d generally recommend the tasting menu, though I ordered piecemeal on my recent visit and relished the freedom of choice. A wry take on American predilections paired deboned chicken wings painted with subtle teriyaki sauce atop a gratin of long macaroni noodles. Lobster salad with sherry vinaigrette bundled in a nest of butter lettuce was as appealing in taste as in beauty. Two Robuchon classics that often rotate through the tasting menu showcased his mastery of decadence tempered with sophistication. Morsels of foie gras-stuffed quail shaped like sausage links came with a side of the chef’s famous potato puree — the one that incorporates a pound of butter for every two pounds of spuds. And a compact but potent chartreuse-scented soufflé came with a quenelle of pistachio ice cream, a flavor combination more pastry chefs should adopt.
Executive chef Steve Benjamin worked at the original L’Atelier and moved to the States when the Vegas outpost opened in 2005. The continuity he upholds, along with his skill at interpreting Robuchon’s vision, is the true secret behind the restaurant’s excellence.
Given the food’s urbane originality, L’Atelier also earns props for feeling especially unique among the glut of formulaic restaurants along the Strip. I’m thinking particularly of the steakhouse genre. Porterhouses and martinis have long sustained Vegas gamblers between hours at the slot machines and card tables, but it might be overkill that Charlie Palmer, Emeril Lagasse, Gordon Ramsey, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Mario Batali, Michael Mina, and Tom Colicchio (among others) have each put their local stamp on carnivorous pleasure palaces.
I was curious enough to try one, but how to choose? Friends and food writers all had divergent opinions, so I settled on Wolfgang Puck’s Cut purely out of past experience. The first Cut in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons — designed by Getty Center architect Richard Meier with a menu of Californian appetizers and steaks from Nebraska, Idaho, and (for a ultimate wagyu experience) Miyazaki Prefecture, Japan — is up there with the original Spago as the finest in Puck’s global stable of restaurants. And our meal at the Vegas spinoff in the Palazzo’s Grand Canal Shoppes delivered as a progressive, West Coast take on the traditional steakhouse.
A pyramid-shaped stack of julienned apples with dates, fennel, endive, Marcona almonds, and cheddar evoked autumn in a place that often takes no heed of the season. At our two-top, one of us ordered an $85 American wagyu New York sirloin and the other a $59 boneless ribeye dry-aged for 35 days. Both gratified, but the rib-eye brought deeper, more rewarding notes of mineral and blue cheese. (My palate leans to dry-aged steaks, though.) The servers stayed unflaggingly gracious and, since my friend was celebrating his birthday, they kindly comped his peanut butter and jelly baked Alaska.
Was the dinner so transcendent that I’d never stray to another celebrity-chef steakhouse in Las Vegas? No. Would I be happy to return to Cut? Absolutely.
A SAVORY AND SWEET DUO IN CHINATOWN
Since it opened in 2008, Aburiya Raku — mostly known simply as Raku — has been the main culinary attraction luring visitors into cabs headed to Chinatown. Chef-owner Mitsuo Endo commands the robata grill, cooking proteins and vegetables on skewers over oak binchotan charcoal with individualized specificity: Meats like skirt steak with slivers of garlic, chicken thighs, and pork cheek emerge in varying degrees of smoky, juicy, and caramelized. Seafood is singed only to the point of heightening their sweetness. Mushrooms gain beefy savor.
At a recent meal I was reminded that Endo is as much businessman as cook. His menu has the breadth to please myriad tastes. For the timid tourist there are salads composed of spinach and arugula crowned with pleasers like chicken breast, pine nuts, and sun-dried tomatoes. Connoisseurs of Japanese cooking will revere the freshly made half-wheel of oyaji tofu, the ridges of the draining basket imprinted on its milky surface, with condiments of chile pepper flakes, chives, and preserved mustard greens. It’s the burrata of bean curds. A polite, soft-spoken server brings over a chalkboard advertising specials: Splurge on a generous portion of kinmedai sashimi for $32, or revel in a bargain with a silky chawanmushi (custard) studded with bits of shrimp and other seafood for $9.
In the fall of 2013 Endo launched dessert bar Sweets Raku in a separate building of the same strip mall. (The complex, in the wake of Raku’s success, became the de facto destination for Japanese food in Vegas: It also includes Monta Ramen, where lines predictably snake out the door, and the well-regarded sushi bar Kabuto.) Sweets Raku and Raku are literally night and day experiences. Raku’s interior broods with dim lights and hickory-colored walls; Sweets Raku is snow-angel white. Raku stays open until 3 a.m.; the dessert bar closes at midnight but also serves lunch from noon to 5 p.m. on weekends.
I showed up solo to Sweets midday on a Sunday and snagged the only empty spot at the 13-seat bar. A staffer presented two menus: A edible one on rice paper with gold print and a side of apricot coulis, and a not-for-consumption version listing the dishes with helpful pictures as well as flavored teas and wines by the glass and bottle. A 2014 version of the ladies-who-lunch salmon croissant sandwich included ikura (salmon roe) and pencil-thin stalks of asparagus from some other part of the world.
The sandwich merely fulfilled my desire to begin with something savory, but the three-course dessert uniformly wowed. It began with pineapple sorbet in white wine gelee, amusing in their contrast of creamy-wiggly textures. The centerpiece desserts are equal parts theatre and feasting; watching the staff build them is part of the fun. First up was a number called "Jack in the Box," in which the cook piped vanilla custard, via a canister, into a chocolate soufflé with frozen banana pudding on the bottom. I liked it so much I asked for a second "main course" dessert: The Carib, a whirligig of ingredients in a bulbous wine glass that included coconut panna cotta, caramelized banana, diced mango and kiwi, cantaloupe sorbet, and a stick of cinnamon pastry for crunch. A white chocolate wafer was placed atop the glass and then melted like one of Salvador Dalí's clocks when hot mango sauce was poured over it. A cream puff filled with custard and raspberry sauce finished the progression. I’ll never go back to Raku again without leaving room for dessert a few doors down.
A TALE OF TWO THAI RESTAURANTS
While writing for Gourmet magazine in 2000, Jonathan Gold knighted humble Lotus of Siam as the best Thai restaurant in North America. It coincided with the rise of celebrity-chef restaurants in Vegas, and a trip out to its Eastside shopping mall setting became a critical stop on a food pilgrim’s dining romp. Back then, eating Lotus’s northern Thai specialties like Issan fermented sausage and sweet, garlicky pork stew were absolute revelations, like the first time eating risotto Milanese when you thought all Italian food came smothered in tomato sauce.
Fifteen years later, serious-minded Thai food is finally percolating across the U.S. Andy Ricker enticed the masses with rigorously researched recipes at Pok Pok and his subsequent restaurants in Portland and New York. Kris Yenbamroong, at his two Night + Market restaurants, cooks dishes like "Bangkok mall pasta" and prik gapi, a relish of shrimp paste and tiny bitter eggplants, with unapologetic funk and stank. Even gorgeous Khong River House on Miami’s South Beach (with Patricia Yeo, a Top Chef Masters alum, now leading the kitchen) thwacks the taste buds with pull-no-punches beef jerky and green papaya salad.
On my recent visit, Lotus of Siam was on autopilot. People waited for tables in the tiny foyer and on the sidewalk, and servers were pushing bodies through the restaurant as fast as possible. The Issan sausage still rang with ginger, and the dusky sour-sweetness of thum ka noon (pounded jackfruit with ground pork) satisfied, as did deep-fried catfish set ablaze with red curry paste. But the cooking didn’t have the same jolt and vigor as the places mentioned above.
If Lotus of Siam is on your bucket list, I wouldn’t tell you to scratch it off. But the output from the kitchen at newcomer Chada Thai & Wine over in Chinatown definitely came off as more energized. Bank Atchawaran, a former manager at Lotus of Siam, opened Chada in fall 2012, and to his credit it feels nothing like a Lotus knockoff. The neutral-toned dining room is small and dim, and the menu leans to Southern Thai dishes, often with a softer, more tropical flavor profile. In a dish called sen mee kang pou, lumps of crabmeat lulled in perfumed coconut milk, with knots of vermicelli rice noodles to help capture the sauce. It wasn’t all gentle: A pungent fermented fish curry with bamboo shoots, Thai eggplants, and other vegetables jangled my sinuses. The one cue Atchawaran took from Lotus was to build out a stellar wine list, not as encyclopedic on German varietals as his former employers but impressive in its Old World scope.
A caveat: My dinner at Chada is one of those meals I remember more fondly in hindsight. Our waiter seemed impatient with questions and disappeared for long stretches. As the evening went on and the dining room filled, it was only him and another server tending to the room; he did his best to avoid even looking our way. Twenty minutes after we’d finished our meal, I finally had to stand by the kitchen door to ask him for a check, which didn’t come for another ten minutes. Chada has received plenty of praise; the hospitality must certainly improve on other nights.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Photos: Bill Addison