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Star chefs make Sin City a sure bet for great food


Richard Ouzounian

LAS VEGAS The days are long gone when Las Vegas's culinary reputation rested on buffets and all-day breakfasts but even so, it's astonishing to realize how much things really have changed.

Now Sin City is not just a place you can eat well, it's a place where you can eat superbly and the problem is not finding a suitable dining destination, but which one of the embarrassment of riches you are going to choose.

Here are three world-class culinary artists who've chosen to take a chance on the city where gambling is a way of life.

Joël Robuchon. L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, MGM Grand.

When the man whom the prestigious Guide Gault Millau calls "the chef of the century" decides to set up shop in Las Vegas, the eyes of the gastronomical world follow.

Much was made of Robuchon's "retirement" in 1996, but soon he was back at it again. Only this time, he went "back to basics" with restaurants he christened "l'atelier" or "workshop."

In these seemingly relaxed shrines to food, you can sit at a counter not unlike a sushi bar and watch as the food is prepared before you. In Las Vegas, the room is particularly dramatic, with warm, reddish tones predominating.

But décor only goes so far and then food takes over, which is where Robuchon again proves his mastery. It's possible to order from a nine-course "Discovery Menu," a more conventional a la carte guide, or – my preference – make a meal out of several of the two dozen "small tasting portions" Robuchon offers.

Whether you're talking about a series of Mediterranean legumes layered carefully with buffalo mozzarella or an order of "Eggplant Caviar," Robuchon knows how to honour the simple, natural flavour of vegetables, while offering them in an exquisite visual presentation.

Turn to seafood and the results are equally felicitous, whether you opt for baby oysters poached in butter, a lightly seared tuna belly served with the thinnest of crisp onion rings or a langoustine fritter with basil pesto that combines crunch and succulence in one bite.

If you're a fan of sweetbreads, I have never had a better one than that which Robuchon serves: Impeccably fresh, virginally white, and delicate to the palate. A venison filet with sweet pear and quince puree is at the other end of the meat-taste spectrum, with a rich, gamey essence.

And don't forget Robuchon's legendary puree of potatoes – surely more cream and butter than potato, but sublimely delicious none the less.

If you have room for dessert, then the Green Chartreuese Souffle, served with pistachio ice cream is not to be missed.

Thomas Keller. Bouchon, the Venetian.

Keller is the patrician perfectionist of American haute cuisine. His high-end destination restaurants in California (The French Laundry) and New York (Per Se) are among the world's finest.

But Keller is so deft that even when he wants to go "casual," he does so with class and flair. His two "Bouchon" eateries in California and Las Vegas are proof of that.

The word "bouchon" was ancient slang for a bunch of twisted straw, which became the symbol for places where food could be purchased.

But over the years, it became the designation for a specific kind of bistro in the area around Lyon, one with high standards and a cuisine centred around meat, pork in particular.

Keller has kept the concept of high standards, but given everything his own distinctive twist.

Yes, the room has the wonderful zinc bar, tiled floors and warm atmosphere you expect in a fine bistro, but look at the way flowers are used, or how light pours through the curtained French doors that open onto the pool to sense a softening of the spirit.

Bouchon is known as the classiest breakfast destination in Las Vegas, with superb brioche French toast, an unforgettable boudin blanc and a perfect smoked salmon baguette.

The only thing better is coming back for dinner, where the oysters are briny beauties, the leg of lamb is perfumed exquisitely with thyme and the braised pork short ribs melt in your mouth.

Yes, you must have dessert and it has to be the profiteroles.

Wolfgang Puck. Postrio, the Venetian.

Wolfgang Puck was probably the first superstar chef and his name has become so widely used for dozens of restaurants, pizza express locations and more, that it's easy to forget how wonderful his food is at its very best – which is what you find at Postrio, nestled in a prominent corner of the faux Piazza San Marco at the Venetian.

There's a pleasant café, where it's possible to sit "outside" and enjoy the crowds, along with an imaginative chicken salad, accompanied by port-glazed cranberries, a highly enjoyable black angus burger with onion marmalade or a signature Puck pizza (try the duck confit with pears, blue cheese and caramelized onions.)

But if you want something more luxurious yet relaxed, then go inside to the main dining room. It's a large, open comfortable space, where tables are close enough to allow a buzz to develop, but far enough apart to encourage private, late-night discussions.

The food is full of those wonderful signature Puck touches: bold presentation and big flavours.

You're not likely to forget the beauty of his shellfish platter, overflowing with lobster, stone crab, oysters and shrimp, or the incredible savour of the braised beef short rib gnocchi, taken to heaven by the decadent richness of trumpet mushrooms.

The most famous main course remains the Mesquite Grilled Cote de Boeuf, the essence of deep, beefy flavour, set off nicely by rosemary mashed potatoes and a seductive green peppercorn sauce.

There's also a butter-poached lobster which goes into sublime overkill when partnered with a lobster-tomato risotto.

Robuchon, Keller and Puck – just three magical men who have proven that you can beat the house in Las Vegas – as long as you stick to the food.




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