2nd Course: La Tomate
Joël Robuchon at The Mansion
Las Vegas, Nevada
Get your mind out of the gutter. This is a family show.
It’s a metaphor, silly, for the manifold outlets from which the dining elite can suckle Joël Robuchon’s genius.
Or, in the case of a clear tomato consommé gelatin dotted with mozzarella, tomato, and basil sauces, it’s merely a vivid description.
A meal at any restaurant with Joël Robuchon’s name on it is going to be expensive.
I’m not just talking a little expensive.
Don’t expect to walk out of a Robuchon establishment without being $100 lighter per head – that is, if you don’t want to be hungry within the next hour or so.
I never ate at Jamin, Robuchon’s first blockbuster temple of haute cuisine in Paris, or its successor at the Hôtel Le Parc on avenue Raymond Poincaré, before his first “retirement” from Michelin three-stardom. My only experience with Robuchon has been two lunches at l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in New York. The first one was an expensive yawn. The second one was a yawn revisited.
So, given the lackluster response by trusted friends to Joël Robuchon at The Mansion – the only three-starred Michelin restaurant in Las Vegas – why would I be remotely interested in spending a king’s ransom on another Robuchon meal?
Because Robuchon is a master chef and genesis of spectacular dishes mimicked the world around.*
And Joël Robuchon at The Mansion would be, perhaps, my only opportunity to see what the man can do at one of his top outfits (he has two other three-star restaurants: Joël Robuchon a Galera in Macau and Joël Robuchon in Tokyo).
But this was misguided reasoning. Even I knew that.
First, Robuchon is rarely in the kitchen anymore. To think The Mansion will give you Robuchon hand-to-mouth would be delusional.
Second, quite a few of the selections from The Mansion’s menus are essentially the same as those served at his l’Ateliers.
“La Grenouille,” my third course, for example, was straight from l’Atelier’s menu – two-plus years ago. Instead of just breading and frying the lollipoped leg, as done at the l’Ateliers, The Mansion dresses the juicy morsel with an extra coating of hairy, shredded phyllo and garlic chips.
For those of you in New York, you can try “Le Bar,” my seventh course, at your local McRobuchon at the Four Seasons. It’s on the a la carte menu as of this posting date. Though, judging by its failure to make a deep impression on me, I wouldn’t say you should get too worked up about it.
And you can probably get a pretty close approximation of “L’Os à Moelle,” my sixth course, at the l’Atelier in Paris right now. That version probably won’t have the popcorn, sweetbreads, and fresh corn accompaniment that I had – though the lack of sweetbreads wouldn’t be a terrible loss since mine these little pieces, crispy though they were, were bit dry within – but it will give you an idea of what wonderfully roasted bone marrow tastes like with a sweet, pointy mustard sauce. I will hope, however, that those diners in Paris who order this dish are able to taste it with the rewardingly sweet corn kernels in tow. Together with the mustard, it was a fantastic pairing.
But do these duplications detract from the worthiness of The Mansion?
For me, yes, a little. Sure, it wouldn’t be possible for me to be at the l’Ateliers in New York, Paris, and wherever else at once to assemble the same meal.
But I expect The Mansion to be something more than a phoned-in snippets of ditto sheets from Robuchon’s “workshops.” This restaurant should offer something special. At this level and with these prices, I shouldn’t be able experience the food anywhere else.
But putting this issue aside, was The Mansion thrilling?
Was it flawless?
But it was certainly an engaging meal, full of eye-catching presentations and interesting flavors and textures.
While the kitchen was in pretty good form (an unfortunately overcooked piece of veal notwithstanding), the front of the house was unforgettably sloppy:
I arrived on time. My table didn’t.
I didn’t mind waiting in what I call the vampire lounge, a dark, chic lounge with a small bar displaying decanters of fine liqueurs. The low-and-long soft leather chairs were quite cushy and comfortable.
What I did mind was the nearly half-hour wait that met no apologies, explanations, or updates.
Silverware seemed to be habitually missing and misplaced. At one point, one server swooped in to clear the setting that another server had just put down in front of me, replacing it with the proper utensils for the next course.
Questions went unanswered.
Lest you think I am an over-eager pedant with too many questions, I only asked two questions the whole evening: (1) “What was the white, crisp root vegetable in the “Racines” course?,” and (2) “Where do you get your cheeses from?”
The answer to both was “I don’t know.” With the first question, the server offered to check with the kitchen. But she forgot. I didn’t. I re-posed the question at the end of the meal. This time, she found the answer: “It’s the vegetable used to make tapioca.”
What is this, Jeopardy?
“What is cassava?” I responded, winning the Daily Double.
The deuce next to me sat for a good half-hour between their last savory course and dessert.
It didn’t go unnoticed by me or the servers. Two of them convened within earshot to discuss that couple’s unnaturally long wait. But they said nothing to the couple – no acknowledgment, no explanation, and no apology – not even when the gentleman politely asked whether or not he was mistaken in thinking that they had ordered dessert. Interestingly, the desserts arrived not promptly, but ten minutes thereafter. So, I guess they waited forty minutes for their desserts.
And, you know those fabulous little gift baskets that one often gets at the end of fancy dinners? The ones at The Mansion were particularly nice. I wish I knew what was in them.**
Call me petty, but it left a bad taste in my mouth that I was the only party at my late hour that didn’t get one. No, I didn’t ask.
But back to the food, which was, for the most part, quite good.
I chose the restaurant’s top tasting menu, the “Degustation” – 12 courses (more or less) for $385. That price also includes petits fours and coffee or tea. I supplemented a cheese course, which the restaurant comped. I’m going to guess that it was a show of contrition for the dry and overcooked veal, which I hardly ate (“Le Veau“). My server did acknowledge the rather large piece of meat left on my plate and apologized for the kitchen’s botch.
No, I did not want another piece. And, no, at that point, I really didn’t care to see what else the chef could prepare for me. I politely declined both offers.
CLICK HERE to see photos from this meal, or click on the hyperlinked courses to see the individual plates.
Le Caviar Osciètre
En infusion de corail anisée, en surprise.
(Osetra Caviar on a coral gelée served as a surprise)
Un blanc-manger aux substances d’agrumes.
(Pana cotta with citrus oil.)
Brouillarde crémeuse dans une voilette de pain doré.
(Scrambled egg in a golden toast.)
Royale tremblotante de morille au vin d’Arbois.
(Morel royale with yellow wine.)
La cuisse en fritot à la purée aillée et au coulis de persil.
(Crispy frog leg, garlic and parsley puree.)
Le homard rôti au curry et fines graines de chou fleur.
(Roasted lobster with green curry,)
L’oursin a la purée de pomme de terre au café « Blue Mountain » torréfié.
(Uni on mashed potato with roasted coffee beans.)
Les Petits Pois
En fin velouté rafraîchi à la menthe poivrée sur un voile d’oignon doux.
(Light pea velouté with peppermint on top of a delicate onion cloud.)
L’Os à Moelle
Garni d’un ragout de légumes aux éclats de maïs et gingembre.
(Bone marrow and stew of vegetables with corn and ginger cream.)
Poêlé à la citronnelle avec une étuvée de jeunes poireaux.
(Pan-fried sea bass with lemon grass foam and stewed baby leeks.)
En côte cuit au plat avec un gel d’herbes fraîches et une mêlée de courgette au amandes.
(Sautéed veal chop with herb gelée, zucchini and fresh almonds.)
Les Racines Maraîchères
Mitonnées avec une semoule de blé parfumé à l’huile d’Argan.
(Spring root vegetables stew with Argan oil couscous.)
Confite au sirop de citron vert, rafraîchi au sorbet Tequila.
(Strawberry compote infused with lime, tequila sorbet.)
Judging by the bread and petits fours selection, at the fringes, Robuchon focuses more on quantity than quality. I’m not saying The Mansion’s bread program was bad – the saffron brioche was quite good. I just didn’t find anything to be particularly great.
There were at least four types of “baguettes,” including regular baguettes, olive baguettes, and rosemary baguettes. There was pain epi studded with bacon, buns filled with Comte, buns filled with Gruyere, and pain de campagne.
On the lower shelf of the bread cart were half a dozen types of brioche – one bright yellow with saffron, one pastel green with basil, and one regular brioche roll glistening with egg wash and a little stem sticking out the top that made them look like burnished apples. And there was pain au lait (sending me back to the bacon-studded pain au lait at L20) – it was of middling quality; soft, but not incredibly so.
Your first bread selection is taken back to the kitchen and heated. Subsequent bread selections were not.
As for the petits fours: “Forty sweets, all made in-house,” she boasted. And not one of the half dozen or so I tried was anything to write home about. The cannelé was soggy, the infused chocolates were bland, and the orangettes – well, I’ve made better ones at home. The couverture on the orangette was gritty and the rind had been over-candied – it had lost all of its citrus fragrance. The best thing off the candy trolley I tried was a half-domed pear gelée filled with Brandy. Gosh, I wish they had reminded me to pop it in one bite. The Brandy ended up on my jacket. I should have known better.
I asked the sommelier to suggest a wine from the limited by-the-glass list. He steered me toward a white. I pushed him towards something more buttery and oaky, which landed him squarely on a glass of Meursault, Pierre Matrot, 2006.
In retrospect, this was one instance where my usual m.o. of drink-what-you-want-and-eat-what-you-want didn’t really work. The wine was fine but paired with nothing save “Les Petits Pois,” enhancing the trace of mint threaded through the frothy and warm pea velouté. Sweet and silky double-shucked peas and hammy, diced bacon gave this soup a familiar and comforting handle.
“Le Caviar Osciètre,” the amuse bouche (regardless of what menu you order – the simplest now being $89 for a main course, and dessert), was an impressive start.
This was essentially an inside-out/inverted version of a previous caviar presentation I’ve seen described from meals at The Mansion in which cauliflower cream and caviar (a similar concept, cauliflower cream and sea urchin, can be found at multiple l’Ateliers) are coupled, with a thin layer of lobster gelée sandwiched between.
Reversing the strata, in this version the cauliflower cream anchored the dish, serving as a dressing for a crab meat salad, at the bottom. On top of this was layered a thin sheet of coral gelée, which, in turn, was generously paved with osetra caviar. Presented in a caviar tin, this was quite a substantial amuse bouche.
When the server took off the lid, a good swatch of the caviar came off with it, sticking to the underside of the lid and exposing the gelée below. The dish was removed and remade. It returned with the lid loosely placed. This second time, the lid came off without event and the underlying caviar was un-compromised.
The botched first presentation aside, this creamy, briny concoction with a mild, earthy sweetness was excellent. I could easily have blown through ten of these and called it a night.
The next course, “La Tomate,” was a powerhouse of flavors and textures.
To the left: a slice of very ripe tomato topped with a chunky dressing of finely minced tomatoes, balsamic, heavily infused garlic oil, salt, and fresh basil.
To the right: a clear tomato gazpacho consommé gelatin dotted with buffalo mozzarella and either basil (green) or tomato (orange) emulsion.
The tug and play between salt, acid, and the different textures of tomato offered a compelling plot to an otherwise predictable summer story.
The rest of the savory courses wavered between high and low.
Sea urchin, nestled in Robuchon’s famous pomme purée, was the highlight of a triptych of crustacea (“Les Crustacés“), and quite possibly, the entire meal.
It wasn’t hedonistically gratifying, like that caviar amuse bouche. Or comforting, like that raviolo filled with silky, barely cooked langoustine so candy-sweet it could have double for dessert. Sauced with a rich foie gras sauce, that pasta pillow was fantastic.***
But this sea urchin dish was so daring in its concept and so provocative in its proposition that it arrested me – mind, mouth, and heart.
It wasn’t hard to read between these lines. Served in a glass cup capped with a milky froth, this was, in effect, a “cappuccino.” Both the potato purée and the milk froth were shot through with a strong dose of high-quality beanage: Ethiopian “Blue Mountain.”)
I wouldn’t say this was delicious. Rather, like a good, strong coffee, I savored it slowly.
Unlike your run-of-the-mill, bisque-like seafood cappuccino, this had not an ounce of seasoning in it. The flavor – more espresso than cappuccino – was purely bitter, nutty, and earthy. I thought that this might make the potato and sea urchin taste sweeter. It didn’t.**** The potato and sea urchin merely contributed a milky, creaminess that completed the cappuccino conceit.
Together, this little cup recreated what a (good) espresso experience is like for me. I thought it was an amazing flavor concept.*****
A warm, custardy egg and asparagus scramble – the star of an asparagus threesome (“Les Asperges“) – was also very good. Ringed by a veil-thin, tuile crown, the scrambled eggs were dotted with tissue-thin garlic chips. Simple, classy, and satisfying, this was a wonderful breakfast for dinner.
And there was a fairly memorable royale involving tender asparagus and silky hon shimeji caps in a hot, gelatinous vin jaune consommé. Below the asparagus and mushroom mix was a delicate chawan mushi threaded with chopped morels. Served hot, this was comforting.
The balance of the savory courses were rather forgettable. There was a decent roasted lobster tail on a bed of cauliflower “cous cous” and lemon grass-infused green curry (“Le Homard Rôti“). There was a breathless white asparagus blanc-manger hugged by a foamy tomato and citrus soup (“Un Blanc-Manger“). And there was that overcooked veal, an inexcusable indictment against its unnecessarily maligned kind (“Le Veau“).
The last savory dish was a colorful assortment of gently cooked vegetables (“Les Racines Maraîchères“), including baby radishes, carrots, Brussels sprouts, spinach, and that crunchy-sweet cassava root. Coated in seasoned butter, Argan oil and cous cous, the vegetables were awfully Passardesque. It was good, but not good enough for me to prolong this long-winded post with more words.
The cheese cart – ever my Achilles heel – pulled around (at my request) (“Les Fromages“). The selection was somewhat pedestrian. Not to sound boastful (’cause I’m really not that smart), I could name everyone of the cheeses on this cart save one. That’s not a bad thing, but as a cheese-lover who’s always wanting to learn and discover more about cheese, it’s sometimes deflating to see cheeses that I’ve encountered time and again, often at my local cheesemonger’s. I suppose, as our world shrinks, more and more cheeses will become more and more available to a wider audience in the U.S.
What I can commend The Mansion on is the good variety offered. Every one of the nearly two dozen cheeses was French. You can see the entire inventory HERE.
Whilst the rest of the bread service was rather charmless, the walnut-raisin rolls served with the cheese was outstanding. I handily put down two of them without batting a lash. Only prudence prevented me from going for a third.
All of the cheeses were in tip-top condition. The Banon was especially great – the chestnut leaves having imparted a pronounced, vegetal mark on the flavor.
I asked for some honey for my blue cheese. With it came a reprise of the cheese cart. I asked to try the St. Marcellin – as it looked like it had pooled to the correct state of maturity. Boy, had it. It was ripe and ready. It was excellent St. Marcellin.
Of the desserts, the “Fraises” was the most appreciated. Given my wanton glut of cheese, it was a wonderful refresher. A roughly milled strawberry confite, the cold, frothy soup was kissed with lime and enriched with balsamic vinegar. It was wholly sweet, yet savory by the same turn. Its thickness was cut with tequila sorbet whose flavor was round enough to temper a faint bite.
“Le Chocolat” – of Nyangbo prefecture (kidding) – was predictably dark and rich. But, the finger-thin structure, served in a narrow barge, presented an absurd and impossible course for the fork and spoon to negotiate.
* * * *
Not that I ask terribly much of Robuchon, or any restaurant at this level, but I found the meal – though the individual courses could be interesting and unique – somewhat predictable in its arc.
Creamy white starter. Check.
Fish (white). Check.
Meat (veal). Check.
Chocolate (with an origin). Check.
With the exception of the foie gras, this meal followed largely the format I described in my blog post on this subject (CLICK HERE).
I won’t fault any chef for following standard operating procedure if the meal is truly spectacular from head to toe.
This one wasn’t.
But there were enough interesting tidbits along the way – a dazzling caviar starter [a (not-so-)cheap thrill, admittedly]; a ripe and summer-kissed tomato duo; a comforting egg scramble; a wonderful langoustine raviolo; an inventive sea urchin cappuccino; and a refreshing and complex fruit soup – to keep me engaged.
Having had sustainable/seasonal propaganda beaten into me – if not by upbringing, then by the current state of food media – I did raise my eyebrows at a few seasonal anachronisms. Morels, asparagus, and sea urchin are generally not the feature or focus of late July. But, I suppose, longer growing seasons in that part of the country sustain certain vegetables and products longer than in my part of the country. I’ve even gotten reliable reports of excellent sea urchins being harvested off the Oregon coast at this late season. And, well, there’s always overnight delivery.
Despite my previous gripe that a few of the dishes were swiped or rehashed from l’Atelier menus, The Mansion does offer a remarkable repertoire that is different from any other restaurant in the U.S. – and definitely in Las Vegas. And, I must say that it is one of the most handsome restaurants I’ve ever seen. From the checkered marble entryway to the plush, purple banquettes and settees, it drips luxury. Despite the lofty ceiling, the space is quite intimate, approximating a great room in one’s French country home – framed photos of Robuchon’s family line the ledges; a gas-powered fireplace casts a warm glow; and huge, satin curtains frame a set of double French doors that lead out to a faux patio.
These pleasantries aside, Robuchon has yet to convince me that he deserves the praise and reverence that so many throw at his feet. I fear that I have missed the apex of the great’s chef’s career.
Would I return to The Mansion? Sure. But a lucky hand at one of the tables not ten yards from the restaurant’s front door wouldn’t hurt.
Of course my judgment means nothing to Monsieur Robuchon, he of the many internationally acclaimed teets, and he who had a butt in every seat at The Mansion for both services the night I was in – most of whom had ordered the top Degustation.
It is unfortunate that the front of the house was a bit hapless. Of course, it could have just been an off night. But at $500+, no diner should be subjected to an off night.
Joël Robuchon at The Mansion
Las Vegas, Nevada
* Though Robuchon has been credited with creating ground-breaking dishes, I’ve also heard allegations that many of his celebrated dishes – like La Langoustine – were cribbed from other chefs. I’m not so concerned with playing culinary connect-the-dots.
** I have since learned, from an acquaintance who dined there less than a month before I, that the take-away bag contained a nice pistachio cake, some extra mignardises, and a booklet with “photos of the restaurant; chefs; kitchens; bread, cheese and mignardises carts; and, each individual dish on the menu.”
*** I’ve encountered a similar dish at le Bernardin.
**** Yet, every so often, there was a strange sweet sensation on my tongue from an unidentifiable source – I suspect a psychological occurrence that happens when one expects sweetness but gets something else. (The same effect happens when I eat 99%/100% chocolate.)
***** Others disagree.