First, thanks to all for suggestions:
We just got back tonight and I will try to capture our thoughts.
Day 1 -
Woke up late after getting in on late-night flight (and then spending a couple hours at the table), missed breakfast.
Noodles (Bellagio) - early lunch. We've now been a few times, this place seems to keep getting better. They had dim sum carts and everything was fresh and tasty. Especially good was a dumpling w/ abalone and ham. Sticky rice (wrapped in lotus leaf) was slightly disappointing, my local dim sum place packs it with more goodies like dried shrimp, mushrooms, more chinese sausage. Still a very nice lunch or late night fix, and reasonably priced too.
L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon - dinner. We'd been once last year shortly after they opened, and were really wowed. Second time did not disappoint. The tasting menu (as well as many a la carte items) have been updated quite a bit, so it was a pleasantly different experience this time. Both my wife and I did the tasting menu:
* cucumber gelee w/ tarragon cream and cumin drizzle - I'm often skeptical of gelees (didn't I outgrow jello?) but this one worked. Really concentrated flavors, like a very intense tzatziki. The tarragon was lost.
* tuna w/ tomato oil - incredibly simple but remarkably good. Raw tuna, sliced thin, drizzled with a tomato infused olive oil and sprinkled w/ fleur de sel. Four tastes, but they all just jump out at you and work wonderfully together. This was my wife's favorite dish.
* scallop w/ seaweed butter - very yummy. Scallop is cooked on the griddle on one side so it stays tender and doesn't overcook, served with a seaweed-infused butter over it (and served in the shell). Again, very simple, but the flavors were great. Like it came right out of the sea.
* egg w/ mushroom cream - this was a welcome repeat from the first time we were there. A martini glass with basically a parfait of parsley puree at the bottom, a coddled egg, and a densely flavored mushroom cream with bits of wild mushroom. Love this dish.
* chestnut veloute w/ foie gras & bacon - sort of surprising that these dishes came one after the other since they are very similar. Basically a frothy cream of chestnut soup w/ some chunks of soft chestnut a bit of crispy bacon, and a generous portion of seared foie gras (even more generous when my wife gave me hers!). Very rich, and certainly suggests chestnut is an underutilized ingredient.
* tartine of pig trotter - this was not on the tasting menu but was an add-on by me because it sounded so good. Described as a pate of pigs foot w/ truffle, served on a crouton. As served, it was trotter meat, finely diced and completely infused with the taste of truffles, warmed and slightly loose texture compared to what I would think of as a pate. Absolutely and incredibly delicious - my favorite of the night.
* salmon w/ potato confit - generous piece of salmon (for a tasting menu) with an interesting preparation (which I asked about because I couldn't figure out how it was done). They take a side of salmon and rub it with salt and sugar and cure like a gravlax for about 5-8 hours. Then they "half-smoke" it in a smoker, and when served briefly sear a piece just to warm it through. Really interesting, the salmon firms up some but still has an almost raw quality. Served with very finely diced potatoes generously buttered. Almost like a smoked salmon over rosti, but with the textures all changed.
* quail stuffed w/ foie gras & truffled mashed potatoes - this and the following dish are alternate "mains" for the tasting menu (we got one of each). The quail is a nice tasty bird, breast rolled and stuffed with foie gras which brings out some of the (good) gaminess to the bird, and a leg. The serving of mash that comes with it is parsimonious, just a little splash on the plate.
* hanger steak - this is a very tasty cut of steak, with grilled onions over the top, and a more generous serving of (untruffled) mashed potatoes to accompany. My wife thought the potatoes (which are basically a contest to see how much butter you can whip into the potatoes before they break and just become grease) were over the top. A decadent version without a doubt.
* yogurt panna cotta w/ mandarin sorbet and bergamot infusion - very nice, light and refreshing desert.
* pear sorbet, meringue and chocolate-cinnamon cream - sounded good but the elements all got sort of murky. The only dish that I thought didn't really work.
* chocolate and vanilla pots de creme - my wife subbed this out for the 2 desserts above and was very happy. Delicious puddings, accompanied by hazelnut grissini (breadsticks).
* tarts - as a special treat for my wife's birthday (which we readily told our server was actually 2 weeks ago but they insisted), they also brought out a selection of tarts, little slivers of several different choices - all beautiful and tasty.
What I find so interesting about the food at L'Atelier is that in any dish, there are usually no more than 3 or maybe 4 flavors at work, yet the combinations - and the execution - make them outstanding. And it really is fun (for me, at least, as I'm usually looking to sit at the kitchen bar anyway) to watch everything being prepared. One thing I find fascinating is how calm the kitchen is. They are turning out incredibly precise dishes, and hitting all the right notes getting them out to the tables at the right times, and there's just an almost zenlike peace. When you see this, as compared to celeb chefs like Gordon Ramsay yelling and screaming like their hair is on fire, you really begin to wonder why it's necessary.
Only complaint about L'Atelier: the winelist is absolutely unconscionable. The markup is preposterous. One particular example, just because I know the wine and know what it should cost - a bottle of 2003 Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf du Pape is listed for $300!!! This is a bottle which you can pick up for about $50 retail - and indeed, which I saw at Bouchon for under $125 just a couple days later. The "bargain" wines are around $50, which is also usually an absurd 5x markup (for instance, an Andezon Cote du Rhone, which is a very nice wine but retails for about $10). Oddly, the markup was not consistent - we ended up with a nice 1999 Leroy Savigny-le-Beaune which was probably priced only about 2.5X over retail.
Day 2 -
Bouchon - breakfast. I have heard many raves about Bouchon's breakfast, so we went even though we would be coming again the next day for dinner. We got there at 10:45, and they had stopped doing breakfast at 10:30 to switch the service over to lunch, but were kind and agreed to take us in. Unfortunately, and perhaps I ordered wrong, but I thought the breakfast was no great shakes. I had scrambled eggs w/ boudin blanc (a white, somewhat delicate pork sausage) and croissant, while my wife had oatmeal. I have read much about "real" french-style scrambled eggs and was perhaps expecting too much. These were perfectly normal scrambled eggs, and a decent sausage and some (superfluous) browned butter, nothing at all to write home about. Very nice croissant. Maybe I ordered wrong, I'm not a big fan of sweet breakfasts, though the french toast sounded good.
Petrossian Bar (Bellagio) - snack. This is one my favorite things to do while in Vegas, is have a little champagne or vodka and a nibble at the Petrossian Bar in the Bellagio. Even though it's right across from the casino, it somehow seems like a very civilized retreat. My wife had a homemade fruit-infused vodka that was fantastic, while she made fun of my kir royale as being a "girl's drink" (it's not my fault it turns pink). We got a little dish with some smoked salmon (topped w/ a bit of caviar) and a smoked scallop, along with traditional fixins (chopped egg, onion, creme fraiche) and brioche points. The salmon was excellent. The scallop just didn't quite work.
Rosemary's - dinner. What a nice break from the Strip. Place is very un-Vegas, actually reminds me of some of the places we like to go in Sonoma. Very nice selection of wines by the glass while we waited for our table, very friendly staff. Service was remarkably professional without being at all intrusive - although it's no big deal to me, it's interesting to see a relatively casual place that pays attention to things like serving from the left and clearing from the right, and having 2 people work a table so dishes are brought to both diners at the same time. We had:
*BBQ shrimp w/ blue cheese slaw (shrimp were good, New Orleans style although not as good as I've had in New Orleans; I was concerned the slaw wouldn't work, but it was tasty)
*special salad w/ fried shrimp and avocado (I somehow missed tasting)
*sweetbreads served over grits w/ bacon, green onion and a caramelized shallot sauce (excellent)
*tuna au poivre (pretty good)
*rack of lamb w/ romsemary bordelaise and olive mashed potatoes (very tasty, though one of three chops was undercooked for the medium rare I'd requested).
We were too stuffed to try desserts.
Everything was very good, and the place was completely charming, but I was just slightly underwhelmed after all the raves I had heard. Most of the dishes we had seemed to be carried by the generous addition of some demiglace, which became overwhelming after a while (the sauces for the BBQ shrimp, sweetbreads, tuna au poivre and lamb all seemed a little too similar). I liked the place and would go back, but would have liked a little more differentiation among the dishes.
One huge plus: Sunday is 1/2 off wine day, which is a tremendous bargain in any circumstances and seemed even more so after our Atelier experience a night earlier. We got a fantastic bottle of Loring "Gary's Vineyard" Pinot Noir for about $50. Absolutely incredible for a wine you simply cannot find, much less for basically the mailing list price.
Day 3 -
Jean Phillipe Patisserie - a relatively new addition to the Bellagio (at least since we were there last); beautiful display of little pastries. I got a very nice breakfast panini (ham egg & cheese) and a perfect sugared brioche, while my wife had a very nice croissant (probably a dead heat between this one and the one from Bouchon).
Bouchon - dinner (how did we miss anything for lunch!) - I really enjoy this place. Both my wife and I did several small dishes. Collectively, we had:
*oysters - kumamotos and remarkably tasty otter coves
*salmon tartare (a special) - very nice, done with traditional smoked salmon accoutrements
*frisee lardon - a great rendition, with a nice addition of torn tarragon and chervil added to the frisee, bacon and poached egg (our waiter told us it's one guy's job in the kitchen to tear all the tender tarragon leaves off from the stems)
*an oxtail dish - this was just remarkable, oxtail with some carrots and pearl onions in an incredibly tasty broth/stew, with poached bone marrow, and a puff pastry cap. I really enjoyed this.
*onion soup - also very good, great broth, my wife thought they were just slightly stingy with the cheese.
*cod beignets - cod brandade (a whipped, creamy cod dish) with a crispy fried outside coating, served over semi-dried tomatoes
* cheese course - some nice selections, I thought this came out a little cold and would have been nicer closer to room temp.
* creme brulee - one of the best I've had, perfectly done.
We got a wonderful bottle of wine with dinner, the '04 Sea Smoke "Southing" Pinot Noir. Our poor waiter was gaga over the choice but apparently they have rules against the staff tasting (I'm always happy to have them pour themselves a taste, but he said he couldn't). Also a very nice glass of Toro Arbala Pedro Ximenez sherry to go with the creme brulee.
As usual, we left with many other places we still want to try, and many we're eager to come back to. Most interesting note for future reference -- David Burke is going to be opening a place in the Venetian (one more to add to the list to try next time).
Thanks again for everyone who shared their thoughts and recommendations.
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