French born Joël Robuchon has more Michelin stars than any chef in the world. He was named not just Chef of the Year, but Chef of the Century in 1989 by Gault Millau, an important French restaurant guide. He has restaurants bearing his name on three continents, and he has multiple locations of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, his restaurant designed as a culinary workshop, including at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. The MGM is also the home to the more formal Joël Robuchon, but while we love fine dining, we like to be in a relaxed, informal environment. At L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon the majority of the seating is at a bar that overlooks the open kitchen, giving the diners the opportunity to observe and interact with staff. That sounded just perfect for us.
I’d been interested in dining at a Chef Robuchon restaurant for a while as his name often comes up in conjunction with Ferran Adria, who seems to be a constant thread in our dining adventures. In 1996, Robuchon famously – or infamously – identified Adria as his “heir” and called him “the best cook on the planet.” Such brazen words were considered downright scandalous in French culinary circles, and Robuchon later rephrased his statement by couching it in less-definitive language, referring to Adria as “perhaps the best chef in the world.” Either way, it was high praise from a chef considered the most important in the culinary world since Auguste Escoffier.
During a period of early semi-retirement, Robuchon travelled extensively and was greatly impressed with both Japanese cuisine and Spanish tapas bars, revisiting both countries on numerous occasions. He decided he wanted to bring a less formal, more experimental concept to his name and, with these culinary influences in mind, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon was conceived and restaurants in Paris and Tokyo were opened simultaneously in 2003. I might be grasping at straws, but I can’t help but wonder if the atelier concept might be somewhat inspired by Adria who ran a taller – the Spanish word for “workshop” – for elBulli during the restaurant’s off-season, where the team would experiment with new ideas for the following season.
The interior of L’atelier is a dramatic palette of red and black; and while there are a few tables, clearly the bar is the place to be. The menu offers a variety of options, including an à la carte menu; a full tasting menu; and a three, four, or five-course prix fixe menu with a variety of course selections to choose from. We decided to do the full tasting menu that consisted of about ten courses in total. Every plate was beautiful and delicious with fresh, bright flavors and colors. The cuisine is French, but the Japanese and Spanish influences are there in both technique and ingredients. There were several favorite dishes that evening: Le Lotus consisted of pickled lotus root in hibiscus syrup with a honey lemon vinaigrette, avocado, and leeks. La Saint-Jacques was a single perfectly braised sea scallop that tasted like it came straight from the ocean in seaweed butter and lime zest. Le Contre-Filet was the final main course of tender wagyu beef and Robuchon pommes puree. I’d previously read about these famous mashed potatoes and was somewhat skeptical. I like mashed potatoes just fine, but wasn’t sure how this simple comfort dish could become a signature of one of the best chef’s to ever live. Now I get it. They really are spectacular. Of course, the wagyu ribeye made an excellent accompaniment. The menu ended with two delicious dessert courses and a final mignardise. The sommelier suggested a white wine that would go with the entire menu and it was superb.
Besides the fantastic meal, the atmosphere – excusing the sound of slot machines just outside of the glass wall of the restaurant – was exactly the way I like my fine dining: casual and comfortable with exceptionally friendly service. There was no pretension, despite the hallowed name on the door. If we find ourselves in Las Vegas in the future, I would happily come back to this welcoming restaurant to have what I’m sure would be another outstanding meal.
And now back to Ferran Adria. Adria’s former employee and BFF, Chef Jose Andres – who is based in Washington DC – has several restaurants in Las Vegas, among other locations throughout the US. Born in Spain, Andres apprenticed at elBulli with Adria until he was fired in 1990 – or so the story goes. Following that, not knowing what else to do Andres decided to come to the US and a week later found himself in New York City. He is credited with bringing small plates and Spanish tapas to the United States culinary scene. He was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” and has won an Outstanding Chef award from the James Beard Foundation. Now he also has begun to earn stars. When the first-ever Washington DC Michelin guide came out in 2016, Andres was awarded two of the coveted stars for his restaurant, minibar.
All of Andres’ Las Vegas establishments sounded intriguing, but none as much as e by Jose Andres, which is tucked into a private room off of his restaurant Jaleo in the Cosmopolitan Hotel. With just eight coveted seats available for each night’s two seatings, I felt like I hit the jackpot when we were able to get reservations for our final night in Las Vegas. The premise is dining as performance, and the experience is referred to as a “show,” complete with golden tickets delivered in the mail. We had reservations for the later seating at 8:30pm, but were asked to arrive between 8:00 and 8:15pm. The evening began by checking in at the Jaleo host station and then being seated at a nearby communal table with our fellow dining companions, which allowed us some time to get to know one another before embarking on this intimate culinary journey. Our comrades for the evening included a couple from Pittsburgh; another couple from Atlanta; and three gentlemen from Michigan who are avid wine collectors and have been coming to Vegas on an annual trip for well over a decade to eat, drink, and kick off March Madness.
We had the opportunity to order a pre-dinner cocktail while waiting, and several of us ordered the Jose’s Choice gin and tonic. At $20 a pop, it’s expensive for what I consider my basic standby drink, but it was by far the best gin and tonic I’ve ever tasted, and was definitely not basic. I learned an important lesson that night about expectations, and this was before dinner even started. Our waiter next described the options for the dinner’s wine pairings and took our orders. Then, just before we were to be escorted into our private dining room, we were told the centerpieces on our table were edible. Grinning from ear to ear as I took one of the olive-flavored branches with edible flowers, I knew without a doubt that this would be a great night.
We were led into a small red room dominated by a stainless steel bar and with artful curiosities on the walls: a sculptural corset on a hanger that served as a lamp, a pair of shoes on a ladder that went up through the ceiling, and a doll forever trapped in a cage. I’m not quite sure what the objects mean behind their whimsy – possibly that there is no escape either from dinner or from the challenges of life – but they made great conversation pieces. After we were seated at the bar, we were introduced to all of the staff. The cooking would take place in the kitchen, which was not visible to us, but all the plating would be in front of us, and there would be ample opportunity for interaction, questions, commentary and oohs and aahs. There were approximately twenty courses and they were all full of delight and fancy. Many reminded me of our experience at 41 Degrees, where nothing was at it seems. Everything was fascinating and beautiful and tasted delicious to boot.
We began with a sangria palette cleanser served in a dish that looked like a wine bottle split in half. It was so refreshing, delicious, and perfect I would have been happy if the experience ended right then and there. Luckily, that was only the beginning. A series of small bites followed in the form of “stones” and mini-pizzas, leading to a personal favorite of the evening: Wonder Bread. It might have looked like a white bread sandwich from a distance, but the bread was actually apple meringue with a schmear of duck liver, fresh truffles, and strawberries. And yes, it worked. Andres’ take on the Spanish tapas classic, pan con tomate, was followed by a rich and satisfying combination of uni and lardo. Ingredients such as asparagus, scallops, fluke, more truffles, and wagyu beef cheek rounded out the savory courses all carefully conceived and constructed.
A large cloud of white cotton candy suddenly took center stage. The cotton candy substituted as dough for empanadas that had a surprising filling, providing a perfect balance of savory and sweet while simultaneously producing plenty of big smiles. Several small dessert courses and bites brought a sweet ending to the experience, which concluded with After 8, where we plucked delicate chocolate mint leaves from a real potted mint plant.
The food, the service, and the concept here was an exceptional dining experience that I would be happy to experience again if we ever find ourselves back in Las Vegas, but I’m also anxious to try some of Chef Andres other restaurants, too. The exciting news is that I might have that opportunity sooner than expected. Rumor has it that his Bazaar is coming to Seattle, so I may not have to wait for Craig to go to another Las Vegas conference to experience Chef Andres’ magic.