3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S, Las Vegas, NV 89109
Web: Joël Robuchon at the Mansion
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Famous Favorites French Las Vegas
Half of Buffalo Chow's mission is to spotlight the best foods and restaurants around Buffalo, but the other half is more challenging: we want to help Western New Yorkers - diners and restaurant professionals alike - to learn about what's special outside this area. This week, we traveled to Las Vegas to visit the famed restaurant Joël Robuchon, recipient of the widely-respected Michelin Guide's highest three-star rating, and also made stops at Thomas Keller's Bouchon, Saipin Chutima's Lotus of Siam - widely believed to be the single best Thai restaurant in North America - and a couple of other places. Robuchon is discussed below; the others in a separate article, coming soon. We selected these venues based on both reputation and personal interest, finding each somewhat surprising in execution, and worthy of learning from. New: See our Joël Robuchon Las Vegas photo gallery here!
For those who mightn't recognize the name, Joël Robuchon is quite possibly the most well-known and widely respected living chef - a culinary titan whose detail- and authenticity-obsessed approach to preparing and serving French cuisine helped steer chefs away from the minimalist nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to being named "chef of the century," Robuchon has created restaurants that collectively hold more Michelin stars than any other chef in the world, including seven lower-end venues named "L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon," and a collection of higher-end restaurants under other Robuchon names. The formal title of his premium-priced Las Vegas outpost is "Joël Robuchon at the Mansion," but only his name graces the restaurant's stone and glass entryway, with four esteemed culinary awards on columns flanking the doorway. The place may be understated from the outside, but you are supposed to be impressed.
Given Robuchon's reputation, it's somewhat surprising that both his namesake restaurant and its more casual L'Atelier version are neighbors in the occasionally tacky MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, only a brief stroll from an Emeril Lagasse New Orleans Fish House, a glass tank where lethargic lions relax next to slot machines, and a CSI: The Experience crime-solving exhibit. Since the fixed-price dinners at Joël Robuchon start at just under $100 per person and top out at $385 for a 16-course meal, the management does its best to whisk you away from the hotel's gawdier parts in style: a complimentary gold limousine is offered to take you to and from the hotel, arriving at a secret back VIP gate with a fountain and courtyard, where several hallways skip past the MGM's food court and deposit you directly next to the twin Robuchon establishments. Once you're seated at a beautiful, regally decorated table, the spell has been cast, and the almost inconceivable idea of trying that 16-course tasting menu seems plausible; we held off only because we were more interested in the items offered on the nine-course $195 menu, which itself requires roughly four hours of dining time. We started at roughly 8:45pm and left just after 1:00am.
As hard as it may be to believe, the specifics of the dishes are almost unimportant, as Joël Robuchon's menu changes daily; the concept is to offer patrons a premium fixed-price dining experience that overwhelms with choices, delivers plates that elicit unexpected little giggles of pleasure and delight, and eventually dissolves hours later into a cohesive, happy memory. It was only due to the recession that Robuchon added the abbreviated $89 menu, consisting solely of a chef-selected amuse-bouche, an entree and dessert of the patron's choice, and a coffee and chocolate course; a $115 menu adds an appetizer or soup while removing the dessert, while the $148 menu provides appetizer, soup, entree, and dessert. Only the length of the $195 menu begins to sound a little crazy - all of those items plus a second entree and a selection of cheeses - while the $385 menu is purely chef-selected, adding rice courses, twin desserts, flans and tarts. If this all strikes you as extravagant, don't even peek at the roughly 50-page wine list, which includes rare $14,000 bottles of 1982 Petrus and $15,500 bottles of 1929 Chateau Latour, amongst other and occasionally more affordable choices.
In that context, it wasn't surprising that Robuchon's amuse-bouche - normally a tiny piece of something special from the kitchen - was on our visit a tin of spectacular caviar with equally extraordinary crab meat beneath, tickling the tongue so well that we almost forgot the fact that our limo arrived 30 minutes late and delayed our meal. And when the first of three special food carts appeared at our table, loaded with something like 25 different types of bread, saffron focaccia alongside full baguettes, Japanese milk bread and - impossibly? - bacon bread, we chuckled and indulged, the variety and delicacy of the bread choices surpassing the realization that they were all in need of rewarming, which they only received once during our meal; subsequent offerings were served at room temperature. As incredibly beautiful as the restaurant was, its tables decked with purple orchids and silver tableware, and one entire wall literally covered with green, living plants, we found ourselves more impressed by the service and follow-through at certain Buffalo restaurants, such as Tempo. Chew on that thought for a moment.
But there were thrills to be sure in Joël Robuchon's dishes. A spiny lobster entree plainly titled La Langouste, served in a coral nage vegetable reduction with slices of daikon radish and finely-chopped nori seaweed topping, was simply wonderful - a small but rich portion that tasted like a distillation of the most delicate lobster dinner into a modest bowl, the nage replacing a classical buttery dip. Le Canard, a duck dish with flawlessly smooth, seared foie gras and several roasted fruit and vegetable slices, was minimalist but delicious, apportioned to thrill without overwhelming. A black truffle soup - served for a $40 premium beyond the $195 fixed menu price - was presented as a small bowl with ample slices of the rare mushrooms and oddly, as much creamy broth as one preferred to pour in with them, and Le Boeuf, a plate with beef, bell peppers, and wasabi-hinted spinach, was offered in two versions: ribeye at the standard price, or with Kobe beef for a $30 upcharge.
In what we could only describe as a disappointment - one that we were thankfully qualified to avoid - we opted to try the Kobe beef, curious as to whether a restaurant of Joël Robuchon's caliber would serve the real thing or an Americanized fake. What arrived was a plate with five small pieces of nice but surely non-Kobe meat, leading us to ask our server about the discrepancy. After consulting the manager, he returned, explained that we had accidentally received the "domestic beef," and offered to remedy the situation. We then received a plate with four small pieces of certainly authentic Kobe steak - as delicious as the more ample portion we'd enjoyed in Kobe last year - but we wondered aloud how many other people would have noticed, called out, or tolerated such an error at a Michelin three-star restaurant.
Entrees were followed by two more of the aforementioned special food carts, interrupted by the formal dessert course. Up first was a huge collection of imported French cheeses, including a gourmet-quality bleu cheese, a triple creme brie from Normandy, and others that ranged from powerful in garlic to light with the taste of crème fraiche. It was during this course that Joël Robuchon's high but fixed pricing was validated; as with the breads, everything was included in the $195 charge, so we could choose to sample as many of the often expensive cheeses as we wanted - and did, counterbalancing restraint with a sense of the impending bill - which was fun, as the individual portions might well have cost tens of dollars a piece. Moreover, we hadn't finished the meal yet and we'd had the table to ourselves for hours; the restaurant had seated relatively few people in its intimate dining rooms to offer patrons greater personal attention. It was apparent by this point that we were paying fair prices for the selection and quality of ingredients, but also for a meal that was twice the length of a typical theatrical performance, and at least equally entertaining.
The desserts started with Le Chocolat, a fine rather than incredible dish with an almost pudding-like "melting chocolate cake" mixed with tiny crunchy Arabica coffee bits, a ball of coffee ice cream, and layers of cream and chocolate - topped by a chocolate cup filled with a creamy liquor, tipped to flavor the bowl. Far more impressive was Le Victoria, a cake-like slice of surprisingly delicate and wonderfully balanced pineapple and Tahitian vanilla compote with flecks of puff-dried mango, peanut ice cream, and a delicate, wave-like cookie on top; the plate might have looked as cluttered as pop art from the 1980's, but the flavors, particularly the mango and pineapple, were a mix of strong, delicate, and sublime.
But what really won us over was the final cart of the evening, a collection of chocolate bonbons, tiny dark chocolate lollipops, and tuiles cookies that were designed to have precisely one effect: Robuchon lets you feel like a child offered several moments at the greatest portable candy shop in the world. The list of exotic and interesting choices ran for so long that we'd forgotten the best-sounding early picks by the end; violet, mint creme, and strawberry chocolates were subtly flavored and as gently smooth inside as any we'd tasted; gold flecks, jewel-shaped shells, and other delicate designs were used to distinguish them from one another. As a final little memento, the server presents each couple with a box of chocolates to take home at the end of the meal; they were impressive enough that we would have purchased another if they'd been sold separately.
So what is the take-away lesson from the Joël Robuchon experience? What we found most interesting was the fact that the vaunted restaurant - recipient of not only that extremely rare Michelin three-star rating but also other awards - was at best imperfect, and at worst occasionally disappointing. Put aside some small service issues, such as that late limousine, rolling problems with one of the carts, dropped glasses nearby at one stage of the meal, and water dripped onto our table during a refill; these things can happen, though they don't tend to follow one another in one night. There were also a few less than thrilling dishes, including the aforementioned initial plate of beef, the black truffle soup, which apart from the exotic mushrooms was entirely uninspired, as well as a dissatisfying king crab salad that placed three small pillars of sliced leg meat aside a single romaine lettuce leaf stuffed with crackers and avocado; it looked and tasted more like California fusion cuisine than fine French dining. Consistent excellence is demanded at a place of this caliber, and based on our experience, we'd say that a visit from Chef Robuchon - who visits the place four times a year - may be a little overdue.
In sum, we wouldn't call Joël Robuchon at the Mansion a four-star restaurant on our scale; when it is charming, it is so genuine and unique as to stir the senses and redefine the very concept of luxurious dining; the ambition of the place and the scope of its menu are both beyond local standards of impressiveness - photos we've posted on Facebook illustrate this point better than any words we could share. But when Joël Robuchon falls short, you may question the value of a meal priced four or eight times higher than the typical upscale dinner, despite plenty of surrounding evidence that the expenditure is justified by unusually strong ingredients and preparation. At a true four-star restaurant, such a question shouldn't be raised, let alone multiple times; the patron should be able to relax in the knowledge that everything is being done right and impressively. Based on the overall quality of the experience at Joël Robuchon, we would certainly return again in the future; that said, we would make different menu choices, and sample even more of the chocolates, as there are certainly great moments to be had here if you know what to look for.