Bistro Fantasy

Recently in Las Vegas, staying at the Venetian, I couldn’t resist a visit to the Bouchon bistro there, Thomas Keller’s replica of his Yountville, California, replica of an idealized version of a whole class of French restaurants. I couldn’t resist because I love Bouchon in Yountville, and I also love the Bouchon cookbook. The Yountville incarnation of the restaurant is like a stage set so wonderful that its unreality comes to feel trivial. And the cookbook might just be the best cookbook I’ve ever used, in the precision of its recipes. Every time I cook from it, which is often, I feel as if I’m taking a master class. I’ve also said as much to Michael Ruhlman, the writer on the project and the author of the new book The Elements of Cooking; he told me that he feels the same way, and that he, too, uses that book more than any other.

I didn’t have time for a proper dinner at Bouchon Las Vegas—too busy, interviewing athletes in a mixed martial arts league. But I couldn’t bear to miss the place; at some level, I feel that Bouchon—along with spots I’ve mentioned before like Balthazar, Pastis, and Artisanal, all in New York City—has transformed the classic bistro into a gift to humanity, like an art form that makes our time on Earth less burdensome. So I slipped in for brunch on my last morning in town, and that’s when things went queer on me, and led to still more thoughts about the bistro form.

The Bouchon room itself at the Venetian is lovely; Keller worked hard on the place, clearly. It has the same meticulous attention to historical detail as his other restaurants. Soaring ceilings add to the feeling, as do the enormous windows and French doors overlooking a courtyard garden. But something was off—truly off—and I knew it had more to do with Vegas than with Keller. Perhaps it was the fact that Vegas is already a world of simulacra: faithful replicas of fantasy versions of the real thing. New York New York, for example, in its hyper-real re-creation of a New York that has existed only in the sentimental mind, never on that island between the East River and the Hudson; or the Venetian itself, with its canals and gondoliers. All of this can be fun, if you’re in the mood, but it invariably verges on the lurid, and there’s always the lurking stench of predation: Come on in, folks, laugh and smile and cave to your cravings and, most of all, open your wallet!

The original Bouchon is already a simulacrum—in this case a faithful re-creation of an idea of the real. So there’s something unsettling (or simply postmodern, if you go in for that kind of vocabulary) about entering a simulacrum of a simulacrum. The effect is heightened by the fact that the Vegas Bouchon is not at street level, but is on an upper floor within an enormous hotel tower accessible by elevator and with no view of the street.

“That’s the real problem,” L told me last night, as I aired out my thoughts. “The bistro is all about the street. It’s all about the feeling that you were just walking along in a great city and this is the place you wandered inside and it turned out to be great. It has to have a relationship not just to a street, but to a sidewalk where there could be tables in good weather.”

As usual, she was right. What’s a bistro, after all, floating in a world of conditioned air above a strip of billion-dollar casinos in a city in the desert? Isn’t it something far less than the same bistro on a street corner? L also helped me put my finger on something so curious about the Yountville “original” Bouchon, something leaning in the direction that the Las Vegas version collapses altogether: Yountville is already a town where nobody is going to wander in off the sidewalk; it’s already a precious little village in the countryside, a place where Bouchon feels just a hair too urban to be quite right. But there, of course, I find this utterly forgivable.

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