Bouchon - Las Vegas
Only in Vegas can a style-over-substance restaurant/night club called Tao -- which uses a Paris Hilton visit as a selling point -- exist under the same roof as one of Thomas Keller's bonafide gems. But that's exactly how it is here. The allure of Sin-City money brings together strange bedfellows.
Although Chef Keller -- the recipient of multiple James Beard awards and Michelin stars -- may have answered the siren call of casino cash, he compromises nothing.
In fact, judging by the location he's chosen for Bouchon, one gets the impression that Keller despises the whole idea of Las Vegas. His restaurant is physically removed (perhaps deliberately) from the cigarette smoke and slot machines of the gaming floor, tucked away in a secret cove atop the Venezia tower.
In keeping with his Napa Valley bistro of the same name, it is in a space that is classic, classy, and completely unpretentious.
There's no shimmering floor-to-ceiling tower of wine, no cascading wall of water -- not even the promise of a good view of the Bellagio fountains. With none of these Vegas-style distractions (or attractions, depending on your point-of-view) it's a place you don't just accidentally amble into on a whim.
To arrive at Bouchon's understated doorway at The Venetian is to be aware of the man's reputation as "America's Best Chef." You're here because you want to be here. You're here because you want to eat his food.
For us, since the restaurant was just a short elevator ride down from our hotel suite -- where we happened to be staying for our get-away weekend from O.C. -- it was a special treat to be able to walk to an elegant meal: a feat I've always envied in New Yorkers since it is impossible to do in Irvine.
Pistachios and a crusty braided loaf of French bread started the meal, closely followed by an order of warm Carrot Soup ($8.50) so smooth, so soothing, and so savory it seemed improbable that it was extracted from the humble root vegetable normally relegated to the crudité platter. A tangy dollop of crème fraîche applied to the top of this sweet elixir heightened an already perfect bowl in a way that crumbled Saltine crackers never could.
A main course of Moules au Safron et à la Moutarde ($26.50), featured mussels farmed by a shellfish aquaculture expert in Maine. Called "bouchots," these specimens are the highly sought after, and appropriately, are very expensive. Harvested young, plucked from their deep-sea water beds at the peak of flavor and most sublime tenderness, they were succulent, sweet, and melted in my mouth like no other mussels I have had before or since.
While lesser mussels need a few seconds of focused mastication, these bivalves were so buttery-soft it could be spread on toast like pâté.
Underneath the gorgeous onyx shells pooled the cooking liquid and run-off from the mussels themselves. I sipped this nectar straight up, first daintily with an empty shell, later on with gusto and a soup spoon. I relished every drop, savoring the pleasant alcohol sting of wine, the heady sweet cloves of boiled garlic, the scent of saffron, and spiciness of Dijon.
An order of the mussels included an oversized cone of fries. And not just ordinary fries from a frozen bag. No, these are the same fries that when Tony Bourdain ate them -- in this very same restaurant in the Las Vegas episode of No Reservations -- he immediately became depressed, seething with mock jealousy. His pride hurt, Bourdain conceded that they were even better than the fries he makes at Les Halles, which he had believed, at least until that moment, were "The Best Fries in The World."
And they were great fries, crisp and addictive. But my amazement lies in the ridiculous portion size. No diner of any girth or appetite could ever polish off this truck-sized heap of potatoes. To ensure that no single fry was wasted, I passed it around the table, asking for assistance, which, not surprisingly, I got.
My friend's Saumon à la Poêle ($27.50) was a brick of salmon steak, perfectly sauteed with a golden crust and a supple core still moist pink. It's served with wilted black cabbage, honey-glazed turnips, and a drizzle of tangerine butter as sauce. I sampled a forkful, and spent the rest of the time eyeing his dish from across the table, waiting for an offer of another bite which never came.
Dessert were round scoops of Apricot and Raspberry Sorbet ($5.50) served with some freshly-baked cinnamon wafers. Tart and tangy like the fruits they came from, the icy-smooth treat was a fitting close and a refreshing palate cleanser to our meal in Vegas's best restaurant that isn't Lotus of Siam.
In a city where money is everything and nothing, where no expense is spared but every dollar counts, there's no place better to spend a few of mine than at Thomas Keller's Bouchon.
3355 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV 89109