Thursday, September 11, 2008

Dinner at the Bar

by Xani

The final night of our Vegas trip, we had reservations at a very special restaurant. As the food-blogger of the trip, I was allowed to pick one night where we had a totally over-the-top dinner, partially in celebration of our 30th birthdays (recently celebrated and/or coming up damn soon). But in exchange I had to promise one helluva a blog entry! So here we go...

Our final dinner was at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, located in the MGM Grand. Robuchon is thought to be one of the top chefs of the century and has restaurants in New York, Paris, Monaco, Tokyo, Hong Kong and other fabulous places, including VEGAS. He actually has two restaurants there, right next to one another in the MGM Grand-- Joël Robuchon, which offers a 16 course tasting menu for the bargain price of $385/pp (WITHOUT wine), was quickly vetoed by my friends. Maybe for our 40th birthdays?

Then there is L'Atelier, which my Dad told me means "attic" but I asked the internet and it said it means "workshop" (actually, it told me it means "L'workshop"-- oh internet, you make me laugh). This makes more sense as the whole concept of L'Atelier is that most of the seats are arranged around a large, circular bar, so diners can watch the chefs work as their meal is prepared. It offers a cool, slick atmosphere, a more reasonably priced tasting menu, as well as lots of options to create your own dining experience.

We arrived promptly for our 8:30 reservation, took a moment to ogle the 16 course tasting menu next door, and then entered L'Atelier, which was all shiny dark surfaces, with pops of color from red roses, green plants, and fruits, vegetables, and other ingredients displayed throughout the kitchen and dining space. We were seated at the corner of the bar, which worked out well since with three at a bar it's sometimes tricky for everyone to see and talk to each other. Then, decision time-- I knew I wanted to go for the nine course "discovery" tasting menu, because I was excited to put myself fully into the hands of the chefs and see them do what they do best. Jenny and Jessica weren't so sure at first-- there were plenty of other tempting options on the menu-- but eventually they opted for the tasting menu as well and I was SO HAPPY, because now we could all eat the same thing and ooh and ahh at the same time! Hooray! Our adorable waiter seemed happy too-- he was very friendly and told us all not to be intimidated by the food, that it was all about the best ingredients prepared in the best way. And so it began... with cocktails!

Discovery Menu

Amazing bread


Best mojito ever!

I guess I have to take back what I said earlier about putting myself fully in the hands of the chefs. Because if that were true, I probably would have asked for recommendations on wine, and ordered some. Instead, I looked at the wine list and almost choked on my piece of (very good) bread. It was... pricey. Which I half-expected, from the many reviews I read ahead of time, but this was some serious sticker shock. So, while I gave myself fully over the chefs, I did not give my wallet fully over to them (just mostly). Instead the girls and I chose some seriously good cocktails from their signature cocktail list. For our first round, Jessica and I each ordered a pear/raspberry/cucumber martini thing that was quite excellent. Very refreshing, and not too sweet. But Jenny got the real winner with the raspberry mojito-- this was the best drink of the trip! (Runner-up goes to the Spicy Dirty Martini they made special for me at Red Square, with their house-infused pepper vodka and a couple of those killer blue-cheese stuffed olives. I could have drank 10 of these! Then Jenny and Jessica could have carried me back up to the room....) This drink was just the perfect balance of sweet (a dash), tart (just a pinch), and bubbles (lots). Loved it, loved the ripe, fresh raspberries muddled into it, loved the hint of lime, loved, loved, loved. On our second round we ALL got the mojito!

Me at Red Square with my super-spicy martini!

While we waited for our cocktails to arrive, we admired the scenery. My pictures of the space aren't that great, but here they are:

Something's leg, with foot still attached. We think it was prosciutto?

View from our seats

The good news is that, when the food started to arrive, I noticed we had perfect lighting. This is something I never, ever would have cared about before I started this blog, but now I feel it should be listed in Zagat along with food, service and decor. Jessica's plate had the best light, so she patiently waited for me to snap shots before every course-- thanks lady! And speaking of courses, let's get started. I'll describe each dish, add a few of my own thoughts and signature adjectives, and really drool over the favorites. Here we go!

#1: Cucumber Gelee tarragon cream, cumin yogurt

a shot on a rock?

Gorgeous. This is one of the dishes some of us (Jenny, I'm looking at you here) might have been a little nervous about because of the word "gelee." But it ended up being an absolutely delightful amuse bouche. The texture of the gelee was totally fine, not icky all, with crunchy bits of fresh cucumber in it. Then, the yogurt, which is house-made, was perfectly tangy and rich, had great smoky flavor from the cumin oil. I guess the thing that really struck me about this dish was familiar flavors (tasted so much like my Mom's raita) but unusual and contrasting textures. And great presentation, obvy.

#2: Big eye tuna with tomato infused olive oil

Another winner. Maybe the flavor combination of raw tuna and avocado is a tiny bit played out, but this was a very good execution, nonetheless. The sun-dried tomato oil was definitely an interesting addition to the plate. I mean, I'm never go to say no to a piece of perfectly ripe avocado sitting right there on the plate, so I didn't. The tuna was high-quality, and very fresh-tasting. This was also the first of many repeat appearances of "micro-chive" as a garnish-- a very minor complaint I had with the meal.

#3 Maine lobster in a gelee of vegetables topped with chilled leek soup

Unbeknownst to me, despite all my research, this is one of L'Atelier's signature dishes. And I totally understand why. It was delicious. A LOT of flavor and richness. Gelee, again, but again, not offensive. There were plenty of lobster pieces at the bottom of the bowl (but I could always use more lobster-- I'm totally spoiled by the 5+ pounders we always get for Dad's birthday and fathers day!), and the vichyssoise layered on top of the gelee was to die for-- cool, creamy, and leek & potato-licious. And how about that presentation-- like abstract art (featuring micro-chives).

#4 Scallop cooked with seaweed butter, curried cauliflower

Everyone liked this dish, even me, and (all together now) "I don't even like scallops!!" Except when they are raw, and I think that's why this dish worked for me. The scallop, obviously very fresh, was also just barely cooked. Same with the cauliflower underneath-- the little bits still had crunch. I can't say I really understood or tasted the seaweed butter, but the scallop was sweet, tender, and the mild curry flavor from the cauliflower was a great compliment. And what's that I see on top? Our old friend, micro-chive!

#5 Cappuccino of green asparagus with parmesan

O. M. G. Quite possibly the best dish of the night-- maybe of the whole trip. First of all, look at that presentation. I had seen a few other people being served this during our previous courses, and had no idea what it was. I was praying it was on the tasting menu, 'cause I was sooo curious about it! The actual dish was served in the small cup perched on top of, essentially, a little terrarium. My pictures don't do it justice-- it was a really unusual and quirky presentation, and I loved it. But turns out the presentation paled in comparison to the taste. Which. was. unbelievable. I know you are out there thinking "psshh-- asparagus. I've had that like eight bajillion times and it always tastes the same. And makes my pee smell weird." Well, you have never tried THIS. "Cappuccino" is a cute name for what was essentially a hot, creamy asparagus soup topped with some whipped creme fraiche and big shavings of parmesan. All three of us were swooning over this. The creamy soup, the tangy creme fraiche, the salty, nutty parmesan-- it was just delicious. I was scraping every drop out of the bottom of the bowl.

#6 John Dory filet with baby calamari and artichoke

Well, there has to be a loser and this is it. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't great. The fish was well cooked but didn't have much flavor. I did enjoy the baby calamari (very tender) and artichoke, but otherwise the dish was just "meh."

#7 French-style hanger steak with fried shallots

This was the one course where we had an option, but we all opted for the steak. The other choice was free-range quail stuffed with foie gras and served with truffled mashed potatoes. Why didn't I choose the quail? I DON'T KNOW. For the life of me I can't understand how I passed up foie gras and truffles! Maybe it's because I'm not crazy about quail-- they are tiny, but sometimes so tiny they are almost impossible to eat in a civilized manner. Luckily, the steak dish turned out to be another favorite, and really demonstrated how great ingredients in the hands of skilled chefs can be so radically different from mediocre ingredients in the hands of, say, Outback Steakhouse employees. The steak was so flavorful, perfectly medium-rare, tender, juicy-- all the things steak should be. The shallots on top were more slow-roasted than fried, so they were sweet and soft. And the potatoes, oh, the potatoes. I couldn't have cared less that they didn't have truffles. This was butter, cream, and pure heaven held together with the tiniest bit of potato. Steak and potatoes should always be this way.

#8 Strawberries with basil infusion and olive ice cream & #9 Pistachio parfait with marinated rhubarb and Muscat sorbet



Onto dessert! Man, after seven courses, I was sortof glad we were getting into dessert. I couldn't take much more! (Note to people who are interested in taking me to Joël Robuchon, Per Se, The French Laundry, or other restaurants where I would be expected to eat nine, 16, or even more courses-- don't worry! I will make special preparations to ensure I am up to the task. Go ahead and make the reservations already....) The first dessert was my favorite of the two. The berries were nice and ripe, and the olive ice cream (yes olive, not olive oil) had a very mild flavor, but yes, it tasted like olives. The flavors combined really nicely with the basil, and the whole dish was light-tasting, which was very necessary at this point. I should have stopped there.

But of course I had to at least taste the pistachio dessert. For me, I was not into the flavor, or maybe I was just so sated with food at this point my body was employing defense mechanisms to make me stop eating!

And FINALLY, a little espresso to end the evening. It came with a tiny spoon and equally tiny filled chocolate stamped with the restaurant's logo. But I was getting into "wafer-thin mint" territory and couldn't even manage to eat half of the teeny thing! Jessica and Jenny said it was very good, and I guess it would have appeased any chocolate-lovers who might have been disappointed thus far...

And then it was over. And we were SO full and happy. Our waiter snapped a picture of us which will NOT be published here because we all look like we've spend the past three hours eating. We paid the bill (ouch) and lingered for a few minutes to look around, discuss our favorite dishes and chat with the staff (our waiter helpfully suggested I not go into the wilderness alone when I visit Alaska next month-- thanks dude!) Sadly, it was almost the end of our fun and delicious trip! Thanks so much to my girls for joining me in this culinary adventure. Next time, we go international!!

Love you!


Sunday, September 7, 2008

Las Vegas, Part One: Just a Nibble

by Xani

As BCD Dad mentioned in his post, over Labor Day I was lucky enough to spend a few days of R&R in fabulous Las Vegas (Vegas, baby, VEGAS!) with two of my very best friends, Jessica and Jenny. Our goals for the trip were to lay at the pool, gamble, shop, drink, drink while shopping and at the pool, and, of course, EAT. We ate and drank many yummy things on the trip and it all culminated in a nine course tasting menu at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon on our final night.

Before our dinner with Joel we had several other meals to get through. Jessica and I (the Baltimore delegation) arrived before Jenny (the LA delegation), and we were STARVING, so we made a bee line for the Burger Bar at Mandalay Place. Sure, it was only 10am Vegas-time, but 1pm Baltimore-time and therefore a perfectly normal time to scarf down burgers? Whatever, it's Vegas. If it's normal to drink martinis at 5am and eat $1 shrimp cocktail 24 hours a day, certainly burgers for brunch can't be THAT weird, right? Right.

So, we were seated and our waitress, who apparently had just ended her shift at the strip club and neglected to change outfits (but who was a very sweet and competent server nonetheless-- it was just a shocking reminder that anything goes in this town!) quickly took our order and then brought us the goods. Jessica got the sliders with regular skinny fries, and I, for once able to resist tiny burgers, did a build-your-own burger with Kobe beef, jalapeno bacon, and grilled onion on ciabatta, with a side of sweet potato fries. Jess thoroughly enjoyed her sliders (each one had a different topping: cheese, bacon, grilled onions) and my burger was AWESOME. Lots of great grilled meat flavor, and the jalapeno bacon was genius (where can I get some of this??). I give it a solid 8 out 10 burgers! A great first taste of Vegas!

When we finally caught up with Jenny, we killed some time waiting to check into our amazing suite at theHotel at Mandalay Bay with cocktails at The Border Grille. Highly recommend their peach sangria! Also highly recommend when you see one of the chef/owners of the place (of Two Hot Tamale fame) be brave enough to ask for a picture or autograph. Because then I would have something to put here, besides this stock photo I stole from the internet:

Oh Susan Feniger, even with two glasses of sangria in me I didn't have the stones to talk to you!

Cocktails, chips, and salsa at Border Grille, then dinner at:

That night, we had reservations at Sushisamba for dinner. Jenny and BCD Dad had previously been to the NYC outposts, and thouroughly enjoyed the Japanese-Latin American fusion offerings. I am sad to report, however, that our experience was a little disappointing. The atmosphere and caipirinhas were fantastic, but the service was rushed and the food was nothing to text home about (yeah, I do that sometimes. EP has gotten a number of texts that read something like: "omg, eating best am ebi evr. i'm dying. i died. i'm dead"). I did eat two very memorable dishes there, which happened to be our very first and last bites. First, Sawagani, or flash fried japanese river crabs. I had never seen this on a menu before, although I had seen them used once or twice on Iron Chef America, and I remember them being very, very tiny. I had to have them. And when they arrived, I was NOT disappointed:

OK, first of all, how teeny are these?? eeeek! I can't even stand it. If we are following the tiny=cute hypothesis, these things are like off-the-chart adorable! And I love how the picture makes them look like an advancing crab army! They were served with a sprinkle of sea salt and a slice of grilled lemon to squeeze over top. You ate them whole, and yes, they had hard, crunchy shells (but not as hard as a regular steamed Blue Crab-- more like the shell on a shrimp when its fried for salt-and-pepper shrimp, or the like). They had a mild crab flavor with a touch of that "je ne sais qua" from the crab "mustard" that I imagine was in there someplace (even tiny crabs must have innards, no?). Uniqueness, presentation and taste made this dish a winner in my book!

(Almost) too cute to eat! Plus me, for scale

The final dish, a simple but perfectly satisfying dessert. Fried wonton strips dusted with powdered sugar, served with two sauces: a ginger-infused vanilla cream, and a bitter chocolate dipping sauce. I could not get enough of the strips dipped into the chocolate-- they were light and crunchy, and perfect with the rich chocolate. I may or may not have dipped my fingers directly into the sauce once the wontons were gone...

Still Life with Chocolate Sauce

So that was our first dinner, and afterwards we headed over to the Mirage to see Lewis Black perform his stand-up show "Let Them Eat Cake." (Props to Andy for scoring us awesome seats! Thanks dude-- I owe you a Pink's giant hot dog with bacon and pastrami). Not that we could even THINK about eating anymore that night! But stay tuned, we've barely begun to nibble the edges of Sin City!



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