Walking into Joël Robuchon at The Mansion was a struggle for me in my shimmery Lanvin dress (it's tight around the knees) and teetering pumps (the heels kept getting caught on the spongy casino carpeting). But once I was settled on a plush purple banquette beneath the Swarovski crystal chandelier, in the 1930s Moderne dining room that looks more like it belongs in a Parisian town house than in the MGM Grand, I felt perfectly comfortable.
I had come to Las Vegas to meet Robuchon, considered by many to be the greatest chef on the planet. I wanted to know how he would redefine luxury in a city where superstar chefs like Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten are better known for opening brasseries and steak houses than ambitious restaurants.
Throughout his career Robuchon has created new paradigms for luxury. In 1984, Robuchon, then 38, was awarded a third Michelin star at Jamin in Paris for his startlingly modern food with its pure flavors (no more than three to a dish) and geometric garnishes (tiny balls and cubes of zucchini and carrot, and miniscule dots of vegetable puree). He was idolized for his daring, buttery potato puree; haute restaurants didn't serve lowly potatoes in the '80s. In 1996, Robuchon famously closed Joël Robuchon, his second Paris restaurant. He felt trapped by his own celebrity, unable to change and grow.
Then, in 2003, Robuchon came back with a radical reinvention of the Paris restaurant. At L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, diners sit at a sleek, black counter accented with nail-polish red and eat deceptively simple dishes like fried shrimp coated with kataifi dough (a Middle Eastern pastry), slices of jamón ibérico (Spain's cult ham) and langoustines in the shell cooked a la plancha (on a griddle). They talk to the cooks preparing their food and, sometimes, to their neighbors perched next to them.
After turning down countless offers to open elsewhere, Robuchon finally agreed to launch two restaurants in Vegas—Joël Robuchon at The Mansion, his new flagship, and another L'Atelier. His extremely high standards help explain the decision to open here. "I never had the intention of coming to the United States," he says. "It's too hard. Americans don't need me. But Gamal Aziz, the president of the MGM Grand, gave me the means to do the kind of restaurant I wanted. He told me, 'I have no constraints. I have only a desire. I'll give you anything you want.' Today when you open a restaurant, all anybody talks about is the bottom line: How much money is it going to make? Quality is finished, yet that's the only thing that interests me."
What did Robuchon want? A small restaurant, for one thing; Joël Robuchon at The Mansion seats 54, with a private dining room for 10. He wanted to design his own kitchen; he ended up having to get special permission to use black as well as white tiles on the walls because white is the industry standard. (Black hides the dirt.) He envisaged a dining room from the 1930s, an intimate space with a fireplace, Lalique vases and swirls everywhere: in the carpet, on the drapes, on plates. And he wanted his own dream team of cooks.
Robuchon wouldn't arrive in Vegas until a day after I did, so I took the opportunity my first night to eat alone at Joël Robuchon at The Mansion. Ironically, the restaurant is not physically at The Mansion, MGM Grand's superluxe Tuscan hotel, where villas can cost $15,000 a night and the plant-filled atrium is suffused, artificially, with the changing scents of the Mediterranean countryside. Instead, the restaurant is in the MGM Grand casino, right next to L'Atelier. Still, the name clearly signals Aziz's intention to make the dining room the canteen for The Mansion's high rollers.
I decided to order the $295 tasting menu, which started with Le Citron ("The Lemon," a delicate lemon-vanilla jelly) and ended, 15 courses later, with Le Chocolat. Every dish appeared on a different plate: a slate tray; a handblown glass charger shaped like a flounder; a black stoneware casserole with a wooden lid. One of my favorite dishes, Le Caviar Osciètre, seemed almost too simple to single out: spears of green asparagus, slit lengthwise and stuffed with Iranian osetra caviar, then finished with tiny lemon-balm leaves and dots of lemon oil. But the ingredients were perfectly fresh and precisely prepared, and the flavors—salty, lemony, herbal—were brilliantly balanced. Three courses later La Noix de Saint-Jacques ("The Scallop") arrived. It had been roasted in its shell with seaweed butter and tasted like the pure, briny sea. It could not have been better if the master had been in the kitchen.
It's hard to explain how every dish could be so subtle yet so deeply flavored. Unlike many chefs, Robuchon does not strive for big, bold tastes. Le Bar ("The Sea Bass"), for instance, was gently sautéed until golden, not caramelized. His is an exquisite, nearly forgotten skill, the ability to create a realm of flavor infinitely more difficult to get right than the kind achieved by blasting food with heat.
Some call it Parisian style, meaning extreme refinement, implicitly comparing it to the rusticity of French regional cooking. Robuchon has brought rarefied cuisine to the Nevada desert, an extraordinary feat, and his food there is just as spectacular as his cuisine at Jamin in the '80s. Indeed, the food at Joël Robuchon at The Mansion is on par with the best I've ever had in Paris.
The next day, I traded my lanvin dress for a sensible suit and a notebook: Robuchon and I would be cooking together at Joël Robuchon at The Mansion. Robuchon was wearing the black chef's coat that all his cooks wear at L'Atelier, not the white jacket with the blue, white and red collar of a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a winner of one the world's fiercest cooking competitions. I asked him about his definition of luxury. "It's perfection," he said. "But that's unattainable. It's something that's well done. Something exceptional."
I watched him prepare La Laitue ("The Lettuce"). Course number five at my dinner the night before, it had appeared in two parts: a lettuce soup in a silver pitcher, and, in a porcelain cup, a silky onion custard sprinkled with bacon and shredded lettuce. Balanced on the cup's edge was a sliver of toast. I poured the soup over the custard and got something like essence of lettuce mixed with a wisp of smoke.
First came the onion custard: Robuchon added diced cold butter and thinly sliced onions to a saucepan. "You need to add the onion to cold butter because you don't want the onion to brown," he explained. "If you melt the butter first and then add the onion, the butter cooks and burns. Cooking," he said, "is in the petits détails."
Next he added whole heads of lettuce to a pot of violently boiling water. "Lettuce is tricky to cook," Robuchon said. "It's harder than, say, haricots verts. It's more fragile. You must chill the lettuce quickly after blanching because it loses flavor and color. The heads went into the blender still dripping; a little water helps them break down. Robuchon showed me the puree gleefully: "It's green, isn't it?"
When we got to the sea bass, Robuchon seemed to spend more time on the frizzled leek garnish than on the sauce. I felt a little guilty. When streamlining the recipe in the F&W Test Kitchen, we had been tempted to drop the garnish altogether. At the very least, we were ready to skip blanching the leeks before frying them. Blanching turns out to be what keeps the leeks sweet and white. It also keeps the frizzle crunchy for hours. When you taste the moist sea bass dabbed in lemongrass cream, you realize the dish would not be complete without the crisp, delicate leeks.
As I walked out of the kitchen into the casino, I wondered how Americans will respond to Robuchon's cooking. Will they think it's too tame? Will they miss the flavor intensity—the spices, garlic and grill marks—they are used to? I don't think so. Because although they'll expect something different when they come to Joël Robuchon at The Mansion, when they leave, they'll have new insight into what the very best food is about.