I’m a big Thomas Keller fan.
Keller owns the French Laundry in Yountville, California, one of the world’s great restaurants. I’ve eaten there on two separate occasions and each time the experience was exceptional. Michael Ruhlman’s profile of Keller in his book, The Soul of a Chef, is an inspiring piece and gives an accounting of Keller’s quest for culinary perfection.
When owner/chefs start to get renown they tend to start opening more restaurants and many times that’s where trouble starts. The care that went into making their original restaurant so great tries to port itself over to the new location, but somehow the culture doesn’t take. They disappoint.
Keller has opened Per Se in NYC, Bouchon Yountville and Bouchon Las Vegas in a seemingly short amount of time. I was anxious to see what the experience was like especially in Las Vegas. Lately, famous chefs have been coming here en masse. Newer hotels like the Bellagio, Venetian and now the new Wynn have raised the stakes and invited chefs to preside over high-end restaurants that bear their names. These aren’t franchises or cheap knockoffs. They’re the real thing, as carefully monitored and quality-controlled as their big brothers.
Bouchon Las Vegas is in the Venetian Hotel, a Disney-like reproduction of Venice Italy right down to canal waterways with gondolas and a recreation of St Marks Square. Although much of the hotel’s action is indoors, a faux sky creates an eerie sensation of never-ending twilight. The only thing missing are the pigeons.
Bouchon is an elegant room that puts you in a Parisian mood right away. (Strange, seeing that the theme of the hotel is Italian.) Dark natural wood, blue velvet banquettes and brass fixtures supply the quintessential bistro décor while the simple but beautiful artwork in the frieze of the room lighten it up and keep it from getting too heavy. It seems to say, “We’re going to have a great meal here, but we don’t have to be too serious about it.” The room brought back memories of La Coupole in Paris, but updated for today and translated for a hip yet elegant American clientele.
Service was efficient and friendly. The waitpersons were very knowledgeable and enjoyed bantering about the “culture” of the French Laundry and the differences between the two restaurants. I always enjoy asking questions about the chef (Mark Hopper is the chef de cuisine here) and tried to get some info about Keller’s day-to-day involvement. He is very hands on, considering he has four establishments to look after, and comes in to observe almost every four weeks. Several days after a visit he sends eight to twelve pages of notes citing anything he feels needs to be tweaked, culinary or otherwise.
The menu is a folded piece printed on very thin brown paper and wrapped around the napkin at your place setting. I ordered the endive salad with Roquefort, apple and toasted walnuts with walnut vinaigrette as well as a roasted leg of lamb with polenta and spring onions in a thyme jus for my entrée. Each dish was exactly as I expected and should expect from a restaurant run by Keller. The fresh ingredients and lamb (from the same purveyor as the Laundry) were prepared perfectly. After dinner, strong coffee and the dessert special, a variation on the French Laundry’s playful Coffee & Doughnuts topped off the evening.
Even with all the competition, I can’t imagine a better meal to be had anywhere in the city.
Note: A few of my fellow travelers opted for lunch at the newly opened Daniel Boulud Brasserie at the Wynn. Daniel Boulud, known for his NYC flagship, Daniel and its sister restaurant, Café Boulud, is widely considered one of the world’s finest chefs. However, they were very disappointed in their experience. Appetizers took an hour to arrive, service was rude, a waitperson dropped a dirty utensil on one of their party dirtying his shirt in the process (no apology was offered) and meat was overcooked (ordered medium rare, served medium-well to well). I know that new restaurants need time to work out the kinks but their 3½ hour lunch sounded like an ordeal and I’m surprised that a chef like Boulud allowed this to happen. If it has your name on it, you especially need to be the final arbiter of the entire experience of your customers.