las vegas


The stars were aligned that star-struck night in Las Vegas. First a very good meal at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, the famed celebrity chef’s (he of 25 Michelin stars) LV outpost in the MGM Grand, and then Wang Lee Hom’s stupendously awesome concert in the same casino.

Ever the deal seeker, I found that L’Atelier was having a $75 5-course prix-fixe. Considering a small plate costs anywhere between $20-40, this was a great deal. I did find it a little disingenuous that the server only presented us the regular menu, and only gave us the special menu after we had asked. Restauranters, please be more honest with your customers. Thank you. However, it is noted that we were not discriminated service-wise, and the meal flowed smoothly and pleasantly as my sisters and I sat at the characteristic bar overlooking the open kitchen, ogling at the beautiful plates of food that came out.

 
foie gras panna cotta

foie gras panna cotta

We chewed our basket of mini-loafs with restrain and started with an amuse bouche of foie gras panna cotta, the richness of the liver cut by sweet balsamic vinagrette reduction and savoryness enhanced by parmesan foam. Tasty, though a little heavy though for an amuse.
Les legumes

Les legumes

Our first course was a beautifully composed plate of sweet grilled vegetables layered with fresh buffalo mozzarella, so soft it still oozes milk. Very provencal, down to the basil pesto, and tasty enough that it would make Ruoying, who usually abhors eggplant, clear the plate.
langoustine

La langoustine

Next was a famous L’Atelier dish, a single fritter of langoustine wrapped in brik pastry. The meat was so soft, so sweet, like eating a very delectable lobster dish, with the single basil leaf wrapped within the fritter providing a light herbal fragrance.
L'Onglet

L'Onglet

 A choice of mains were made and Ruoying and I decided on a substantial cut of hangar steak, cooked nicely rare and while not tender, very flavorful, particularly with the simple grilled shallot topping. Ruoyi went for the cod fish, a well cooked piece of fish swimming in a Basque inspired pepper stew.

robuchon's famous mashed potatoes

robuchon's famous mashed potatoes

Our mains came with a side of Robuchon’s most famous pommes puree, aka mashed potato. Or should I say, mashed butter with some potato, it was so creamy, so rich, a few spoons were all we could muster.
A stunning array of tarts

A stunning array of tarts

followed by ices

followed by ices

We then ate a trio of cheese, the semi-soft funky Livarot most memorable, before dessert time. Not surprisingly, the dessert selection within the prix fixe is limited and less complex than others found in the ala carte menu, but the tart and ice cream  plates are definitely top notch in terms of variety and flavor. I loved all 6 of my tart slivers excepting the overtly cinnamony one, while Ruoyi’s icecream flavors were all intense and true, especially the pinkish litchee sorbet. Too often had I tasted artificial litchee, and I am glad a restaurant of L’Atelier’s caliber managed to find some real, sweet fruit to turn into tasty treats.
While the special prix-fixe is not a good benchmark of a typical meal, which would likely run at least 2 times more expensive, we got to try some signature dishes that gave me a glimpse of the potential of a truely decadent meal. With so many restaurants in so many cities, I am sure I will be dining at another Robuchon establishment sometime in the future.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon Las Vegas
MGM Grand
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Its no big secret Japanese food is amongst one of us sisters’ favorite cuisines, so while in Vegas, we set our sights on dinner at Raku, a small izakaya off the Strip that comes highly recommended by bloggers and chowhounders.
cute little sake bottles

cute little sake bottles

If not for the internet, we would never have found our way to Raku. The Japanese restaurant is tucked in the corner of a slightly run down strip mall. Except for a sign hanging next to the entrance, there was little indication it existed. In fact, we almost missed Raku because the large store signage above the shop was written in Korean, and most definitely did not spell Raku. The interiors were almost as nondescript as its exterior, a smallish squarish space painted in dark brown/eggplant (lighting issues). Truely, the Totoro-like cartoon sake bottles warming in the water bath were the only design detail worth mentioning. Yet Raku is immensely popular, and it took us an hour long wait before we were given permission to perch ourselves along the bar. Needless to say, the food made the wait endurable.
 
We ordered rather liberally across the expansive menu, calories be damned, starting with fresh, thick slices of bluefin tuna sashimi, the toro meltingly soft. We swooned a little, there and then.
yakitori

yakitori

 Yakitori made up a big part of the menu, and we ordered most skewers and found them largely good. The pig’s ears were unexpectedly satisfying, a contrast of gelatinous and crunch with minimal pork funk. Bacon wrapped anything is always tasty, especially when its thick spears of asparagus.

tsukune
  tsukune

Chicken featured prominently in the skewered and grilled section, so we worked our way through chicken wings, breast, skin and meatballs. Our favorite, the succulent meatballs drenched in slightly sweet barbeque sauce. As we dug our chopsticks to dislodge the minced meat off the skewers, little puffs of smoke brought the smokey scent straight to our noses. Ah.. my favorite type of perfume.

agedashi tofu

agedashi tofu

 Raku makes its own tofu and the difference between homemade and industrial is immediately apparent when we tried it’s Agedashi Tofu. The tofu came shaped in a disc, silken soft and only lightly battered and fried without a trace of oiliness. The sauce was also more refined than regular agedashi tofu, topped with enoki mushroom caps and ikura that provided a savory pop.

shrimp!

shrimp!

 Raku really does a commendable job with deep-fried foods and a dish of fried shrimp was extremely tasty. The skin was so thoroughly fried that the entire shrimp could be eaten, skin and head on, yet the meat was not over-cooked. Bravo.

grilled corn

grilled corn

Grilled corn was the dish that made me think. Its a special piece of grilled corn, and not just because of its bicolored ears and pretty grill marks. No, the corn’s cob has been removed, and the hollow were the cob is had been stuffed with mashed potato. How on earth did they do it? Till now we still can’t figure it out. No matter, we’ll just let Ruoying eat there more often until she digs out the secret!

Raku

5030 Spring Mountain Rd #2

hot pot!

hot pot!

Happy Niu Year! I am spending Chinese New Year in NYC again, but had the great fortune of spending the last few days in Las Vegas with my sisters, hanging out, eating, and watching Wang Li Hong live in concert. Instead of cooking our own reunion meal on the eve of CNY, we opted for hot pot at Champion Gourmet, a Taiwanese restaurant in Las Vega’s Chinatown strip. We had eaten there only 2 days before, dining on Taiwanese street food like a bowl of spicy beef noodles, the broth rich and the meat well-braised and fried oyster omelette, more sticky tapioca gum than egg and covered with a ketchup based sauce. Wonton in spicy sauce was indeed swathed with a piquant, garlicky mixture that brought tears to the eyes.
On the night of Chinese New Year’s eve, my sisters and I sat down to a bubbly pot of clear broth, accompanied by platters upon platters of meat and vegetables. We swished the paper thin slices of beef through the boiling water and our own sauce concoctions, and sampled fishballs stuffed both with meat and fish roe. We sipped the scalding soup and slurped noodles loudly, appreciatively. Halfway through our meal, the proprietors closed shop and sat down to their own reunion dinner with their daughters and granddaughters, also sharing hot pot, the big communal cauldron of broth symbolizing unity. Although our parents were thousands of miles away, it felt like we were eating with family.
Champion Gourmet
5115 Spring Mountain Rd
(702) 388-1168
I’ve never had much luck, particularly not at the gambling tables. I’ve never even won a consolation prize in any lucky draws, for crying out loud. So its fair to assume that my foray into Las Vegas’ casinos this time round was a complete washout. A fun and mildly educational trial, but a failure nonetheless. I even lost my phone next to the slot machine, after losing some more dollars playing jackpot. Thankfully, with my favorite girls in the city, we managed to do a lot more than hanging out by the slots machine, thus minimizing my monetary losses while indulging in many good meals and other exploits.
The Venetian and the Palazzo hotels and casinos were our stomping grounds and we spent an inordinate amount of time there, resting, shopping, gambling and eating. Oddly enough, our restaurant choices veered from the Italian theme of the hotel, and we ate at not one, but two French restaurants. 

oysters

We made full use of Ying’s 40% staff discount at Pinot Brasserie – its wooden panelling and crimson banquettes evocative of a French country inn – slurping oysters and indulging in rich dishes that were not quite appropriate for the 95 degree weather but enjoyable nonetheless, such as thick onion soup with a gooey surface; a tasty but miniscule sliver of foie gras perched on top of an expertly panfried scallop, and a rich lamby osso buco served with pasta that were tinged red from the wine sauce.

Bouchon's cutesy pots of jam and butter

Bouchon's cutesy pots of jam and butter

I also revisited Bouchon for a round of breakfasty foods, including the french toast bread pudding that was similarly well received as it was the last time, although the meal was somewhat lackluster compared to my previous visit. But we all loved the atmosphere at Bouchon, light and airy, bustling yet private. Where space is a premium in NY, its definitely not in short supply in Vegas. 

Grand Lux's white chocolate & raspberry cheesecake

Grand Lux's white chocolate & raspberry cheesecake

We also ate at Grand Lux Cafe after our champagne brunch plans at the Wynn was thwarted by prodigious lines even at 2 in the afternoon. Its somewhat of a cop-out choice, and my salad tasted like it could have been made in the neighborhood Chipotle, but with fast and friendly service, low prices and virtually no wait, there could not have been a better choice. The cheesecakes from Cheesecake Factory and slurpable fruit drinks accessorized with brilliant fruit toppers are just icing on the cake.  

ethel's chocolate drinks

Sweets are never too far from my mind, and Ying, Peiyun and I found the rich, chocolatey frozen drinks at Ethel’s Chocolate in the Fashion Valley Mall superior to its direct competition, the Starbucks Frapuccino by a long shot. My strawberry and white chocolate drink was especially enjoyable with the tartness of fresh strawberries tempering the sugary sweetness of chocolate. The store is decorated in bold pink, orange and purple shades, suitably appropriate for a girly treat to cool one’s heels and credit cards in the gigantic mall.

jean philippe chocolate fountain
jean philippe chocolate fountain

In Jeff I found a willing accomplice for dessert. Whereas the girls were only looking for a place to sit, cool down and rehydrate from our post-dinner walk to the Bellagio for the awe-inspiring “O” show, J and I made our way to the Jean Philippe patisserie, for him a cup of mango sorbet, packed with fruit flavor, and for me a decadent chocolate opera with gold leaf and a chocolate truffle topping the slice, shared of course. Pricing is rich as one can expected in the Bellagio but what can you say when your choice is the patisserie or a thirty minute wait at the Bellagio Cafe? Besides the beautiful desserts, Jean Philippe’s patisserie is also home of the world’s largest chocolate fountain, which in and of itself is a piece of art reminiscent of the Chihuly glass works that also grace Bellagio’s lobby, made enhanced with the viscous pools of different colored molten chocolate simultaneously flowing down.

We found ourselves off the Strip on occasions to eat, like the Cathay House for non-too memorable dim sum and Lotus of Siam, a Thai restaurant once hyped as “the best Thai Restaurant in the US” by Gourmet Magazine, and house of excellent Thai food and a formidable Riesling list. LoS, as the locals call it is known for its version of aromatic and spicy Northen Thai cuisine, and what we ate didn’t disappoint us. Nam Kao Tod was an addictive salad of crispy rice, minced meat, onions, peanuts, lime and herbs, while the Tod Mun Plar were golden patties of curried fish cakes that TPS chomped into with relish. Peiyun and I showed our full appreciation of the rich, creamy, flavorful Khao Soi by wiping the bowl clean of sauce long after the tangle of cooked and fried egg noodles were decimated by the four of us. We also ordered cat fish basil and ended the meal with mango and sticky rice. Duck curry was the only disappointment in my opinion, the curry complex but the dish sorely lacking in any meat. 4 out of 5 dishes though is not a bad score.  

Khao Soi

Khao Soi

In case anyone accuses us of being degenerates living it up in the casinos, we did leave the Strip at times, to stay with Ruoying in her huge apartment, to climb (TPS and J) and hike (or attempt to) parts of the Red Rock Canyon, to do mundane things like grocery shop and laundry. The weekend flew by all too quickly even when we were just doing normal things, because we had so much fun, with good food thrown in the mix. I guess I’m actually pretty lucky when it comes to things that matter. Well, and Ruoying did retrieve my phone in the end at lost and found too…  

bouchonGood news: I seem to have found the brunch spot where I actually don’t mind paying for eggs and sausages.  

Bad news: I can’t frenquent it regularly for it is in Vegas.

The place? Bouchon, a down-market casual bistro within Thomas Keller’s restaurant empire.

Brunch started with freshly baked bread, a crusty baguette that branches into roll shaped leaves.  It comes with little pots of sweet butter, soft and spreadable, and a slightly tart and thick raspberry jam. Next comes coffee, the strongest my parents have encountered during their 2 week vacation, after a series of disappointingly bland cups of drip coffee. And endless was the pour, as our server took care that our cups were never more than half-empty.

Then came the meal, a blend of classic bistro dishes and hearty brunch stuff. My god-mother’s roasted chicken was succulent inside and crispy outside, my god-pa’s trout an austere whole fish decorated with scales of sliced almonds and a bed of crisp beans. Mum’s celery root soup was like drinking molten cashmere as the creaminess slid to the back of the throat, with the aftertaste of anisey caraway seeds. SY’s croque madame is a grilled ham & cheese sandwich gussied up in rich bechamel sauce and a fried egg, so rich you could feel instant heartburn, and second only to the monte carlo in terms of decadence. Fries that graced our table in a cone was thin, crispy, almost grease-less.

The brunch stuff wasn’t quite as exciting but still really good. Ruoyi’s french toast should be named brioche pudding instead, stuffed with apples and topped with a rich maple sauce. My father’s crab hash if a riff on corned beef hash, except with generous lumps of crab meat on top of delicately diced potatoes and two poached eggs that my father enjoyed making a dipping sauce out of, for his fluffy and eggy brioche. I looked longingly at Ying’s omelet, stuffed with diced bacon while I ate probably the most boring and least fattening dish, a smoked salmon platter for which the fish was unremarkable but the petit baguette once again crunchy without breaking my teeth, chewy without being elastic and just a little sour, the way I like it. But i undid the good with sides of coarse ground sausages and crisp bacon slices. We looked past the neighboring table, and pitied the lady who ordered granola.

The food was American in size, and seemingly too much. Somehow we managed to finish it off, but it took a while. But the pace was wonderfully languid, the service attentive and the space, a larger, more spread-out Balthazar made it comfortable to talk in normal volumes, something I’ve not managed to accomplish in the New York brunch hotspots. Of course, one had to overlook the outdoor pool facing the restaurant, where even in late December were there game and obstinate souls trying to sunbath in sub-50 temperatures. And the fact that to get out of the Venetian, where Bouchon is situated, one had to fight past the crowds at the Grand Canal shopping area, complete with Venice inspired canals, gondolas, and singing gondoliers. But perhaps that is all good, for a walk through the throngs may just what the doctor ordered after a gut-busting meal at Bouchon.  

Bouchon (inside the Venetian Hotel and Casino)

3355 Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas

www.frenchlaundry.com