The first time I visited Las Vegas it was to interview a man who was famous because his wife had cut off his penis. It says much for the shape of my career back in the mid nineties that I regarded the assignment as light relief. For the previous week I had been in Toronto investigating a particularly grisly set of murders. A young, middle- class couple—all white teeth and glossy hair—had dragged young women to their pastel- colored house down by Lake Ontario, videoed each other sexually assaulting them, then chopped up their bodies and set them in concrete.
The court cases were still ongoing when I visited Canada in February of 1995 to report the story and, because the accused were being tried separately, there was a lockdown on the reporting of the details until both trials were concluded. Nobody in Canada was meant to know anything about what had been dubbed the Ken and Barbie murders and, if they did know anything, they certainly weren’t meant to talk to reporters like me about it. This forced silence only added to my gloom. Everywhere I went the ground was crusted with ice. Snow blew against my cheeks like so much grit on the wind, and in a restaurant in the city’s theater district I acquired food poisoning courtesy of some spareribs, which hadn’t been particularly good on the way down and were much worse on the way up. I couldn’t wait to escape Canada for the sudden sunshine and warmth of Vegas, even if it was to interview a wife beater called John Wayne Bobbitt, who had achieved notoriety only because, one muggy summer’s night, he and his penis had managed to arrive at the hospital in different vehicles.
Bobbitt had gone to Vegas in search of an honest man to manage his career, because he felt he had been deceived by his previous manager. While it might seem odd that anybody should go to Vegas—a place long famous for its store of shysters, con men, and career hoods—in search of honesty, it was no more peculiar than that Bobbitt should have been in need of a manager at all. By then he had parlayed the knife attack on him by his then-wife Lorena into a thriving career. On my first full day in the city, enthroned at the huge black glass pyramid that is the Luxor Hotel at the north end of The Strip, I got to witness that career for myself. Bobbitt had starred in a video called John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut, which was, depending on your taste for euphemism, either an adult movie or a desperate skin flick.
The tag line on the cover said it all: "Ever since this whole thing happened all everybody wants to see is my penis . . . now you can." Indeed I could. It was a living monument to the powers of cutting- edge microsurgery, and looked not unlike a tree that had been doctored by a tree surgeon or as if it were wearing a tiny life belt. It also functioned pretty well, as the video let me see in more detail than could ever be necessary.
This was the image that was burned into my mind when I went off to meet Bobbitt and his new manager for dinner, which may explain why I cannot for the life of me recall a single thing I ate that night. I know we discussed Bobbitt’s plans for a range of branded merchandise including a "penis protector"—an autographed hollow tube—because you don’t forget that sort of thing in a hurry.
I do remember that he came across as spectacularly stupid, and grunted his words rather than spoke them. I also recall that outside, Caesars Forum, the covered shopping arcade where the restaurant was located, dusk fell every half hour courtesy of some clever lighting effects. Of the meal itself I can tell you nothing at all. This is something I regret, for the dinner took place at a seminal restaurant in the history of modern Las Vegas dining: the branch of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, which opened at Caesars Palace in 1992.
Before Spago opened (and for a good few years afterward), food in the big casino hotels of Vegas was regarded only as an amenity, something the gamblers needed to keep them going while they emptied their pockets at the blackjack tables. It was the city of the all- you- can- eat $4.99 buffet and very little else. It’s true that, in the mid nineties, enterprising hoteliers were beginning to experiment with the notion that there might be sources of income in Vegas other than gaming. Hotels like the Luxor and the Arthurian- themed Excalibur, complete with amusement park rides for the kids, had been put up with the self- declared aim of rebranding the city as a family resort.
In 1992 only the corporations wanted to be there. No self- respecting chef or restaurateur would go near the place, unless they had a sideline as a high roller. Apart from Puck. As America rose out of the recession of the early nineties, he recognized the growing power of the leisure dollar. For many years, though, he had the city to himself. Then, in October 1998, the Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn opened the $1.7 billion, 3,000-room Bellagio Hotel on the former site of the legendary Dunes Hotel and Golf Course, and everything changed. The city had never seen anything like it, which is saying something for a town that has seen most everything.
Inspired by the Lake Como resort of the same name, it was at the time the most expensive hotel ever built, only later to be trumped in cost by other hotels built by Steve Wynn. It came complete with a multimillion- dollar fountain display out front that danced to piped music. There was an art gallery bulging with works by the great Impressionists from Gauguin and Monet to van Gogh and Renoir. It also happened to have eleven new restaurants.
Although Wynn paid the bills it was the then food and beverage manager of the Bellagio, an Egyptian called Gamal Aziz, who came up with the idea. He had worked in grand hotels all over the world and, when he arrived, was shocked to discover just how lousy the food in Vegas could be. He had stumbled across those buffets and realized that this was where ingredients went to die. "I wanted to signal a change," he told me. "To say there was something new and different about Las Vegas.
"Restaurants weren’t just places you went to eat. They were to be signifiers, statements about the city’s newfound confidence and sophistication. It helped that the U.S. had seen a restaurant renaissance during the nineties, and that media interest in food had exploded. The U.S. cable channel, the Food Network, founded in 1993, had come of age by 1998, after being brought under new ownership the year before. The names of top chefs were now familiar to people who were not in regular striking distance of their restaurants.
At the same time journalists like Ruth Reichl, then restaurant critic for the New York Times, were reinvigorating food writing and championing cooks who might otherwise have been ignored. Into the Bellagio, therefore, came a restaurant by the Alsatian uber-chef Jean- Georges Vongerichten and a new outpost of the legendary Le Cirque from New York. Big- name American chefs like Michael Mina, Todd English, and Julian Serrano were offered deals.
And what deals! Generally there would be an annual consultancy fee, plus 5 percent of the gross. All they had to do was fill the tables and, if they wanted to, forget about the bottom line. As long as there was money coming in, they got a cut of it. Plus, if there was a profit, they got 10 percent of that, too, and there was a lot of profit. Suddenly people were no longer coming to town merely to throw their money away in the casinos while surviving on desiccated shrimp or lumps of sweaty pork that had been festering under the heat lamps of the all- you- can- eat buffets for six hours. The tables they were coming to were covered not with green baize, but in heavyweight linen. Every hotel on The Strip had to have a superstar chef in residence or, better still, six of them, or twelve—and it wasn’t just the big U.S. names. The French boys with the Michelin stars were starting to pay attention as well. In 2004 non- gaming revenues in Las Vegas—from high- end hotel rooms, glossy arcades of shops stuffed full of Cartier and Chanel and, of course, those restaurants—overtook gaming revenues for the first time. This wasn’t because gambling had suddenly fallen out of favor. Gaming was still a roaring express train, which was pouring cash into the town. It was just that more money was being spent on all the other stuff. If you were interested in restaurants, you had to be there.
"What happened to him?"
"He left," Freddie says. "After six months." And then, as if I had asked why, "Because I wanted him to leave." So now he was running a restaurant called Piero’s without a Piero. It seats 350 people and is only open for dinner.
His place, he says, has always been a local place. Nobody gets hassled at Piero’s. As it says on his Web site: "It quickly became a hangout for Las Vegas locals and celebrities like the Rat Pack, politicians, and some of those businessmen in the casino industry with Italian surnames, the ‘local color’ guys." All of this plays up to the myths, of course—by 1982 the Rat Pack was probably talking hip replacements and pensions— but it’s clear the restaurant has had an interesting clientele over the years.
Just a few years ago, one of the big casino developers was beaten up at his table over dinner by a bunch of other casino guys, because of an argument over $250,000’ worth of chips, all of which redefines the term "floor show." Later Freddie told the press and the police he didn’t see anything. Or hear anything. At all. He hands me a tightly printed list of the celebrities who have eaten in his dining room downstairs, with its beige leather banquettes and cozy booths and its low ceilings. Some of them mean nothing to me. Who is Too Tall Jones? Just how magical was "Lady of Magic"? But others—Muhammad Ali and George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Sammy Davis, Jr.—are obviously familiar. On the wall behind his desk is a photograph of Sinatra signed, "Hi Freddie, great as usual, Frank."
I ask him what he thinks of the new breed of hotel and restaurant.
"The hotel owners are different today," he says. "In the old days they took care of the customer, and not just the high rollers. Now it’s just too impersonal. Unless you’re a giant player. Then they’ll kiss your ass. As to the restaurants, most of the big names above the door, they aren’t ever there. The chefs just have to be in town maybe a week a month and that’s it." And yet they do well, I say. I want him to moderate his view. After all, I haven’t even started eating yet. I want the place to be good. I don’t want to hear this old guy’s cynicism.
"Sure they do well," he says. "There’s 3,000, 4,000 people staying in the hotels. Where else they gonna go? Wolfgang Puck’s got five or six locations in Vegas now. He’s a good guy. But it’s a little commercial, isn’t it? That’s not about the food. It’s about the name." He goes off on a long rap about the outrageous markups on wine in the city—which I will discover to be the case in some places—and the way some of the fancier restaurants just plate up "three bean sprouts" and call it dinner. "You used to get a hotel room for $10. Now it’s $700. It’s crazy."
I look back at the wall of photographs. "You used to feed the mob guys?"
He shrugs. "They weren’t them. They represented them."
"Do they still eat here?"
He shakes his head, like I’m an idiot. "They’re all dead."
So the old Vegas really has gone: not just dead, but buried, too. Instead I need to discover the new Vegas, which, naturally enough, means going to Paris, though only that bit of Paris located at the Venetian Hotel. I have a table at Bouchon, an affectionate rendition of the classic French brasserie by Thomas Keller, widely regarded as the best American- born chef in the world.
I always knew that Keller would be a part of this journey of mine, and more than once. At The French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York, he partners soft- boiled eggs with black truffle purees and makes a mille-feuille of crisp green apples. He puts thyme ice cream together with extra- virgin olive oil and makes sorbet out of hibiscus. Anybody in search of the perfect meal will want a piece of that. Here at Bouchon, however, he (or his team, for Keller is either in California or New York to night) does straight- up French brasserie food, which is something I have always loved. Asked once what type of food I would choose, if I could eat that and only that for the rest of my life, I chose a menu of French brasserie classics: of fruits de mer and steak frites, of cassoulet and pot-au-feu and rabbit in mustard sauce. Nothing else seems to me to speak so loudly or clearly to the appetite. I was excited about eating at Bouchon.
The walls of the restaurant are a studied shade of nicotine in a room where very few people smoke. There is a tiled floor. There is wood paneling and engraved glass and mirrors and, before me, there is a perfect dish of fresh oysters on the half shell with a ramekin of shallot vinegar.
"Those two." He nods across the aisle. "She’s his date for the evening, if you get what I’m saying."
"You mean . . . ?"
He nods. After all, in Nevada prostitution is legal. "I always stop in Vegas for a few days to get a little R&R when I come on a business trip," he says. And then, "Isn’t Las Vegas a great city?" He doesn’t wink at me, conspiratorially, but I get the message. He could be that guy over there and tomorrow night he probably will be.
My instinct is to dismiss his take on the matter, not least because of his enthusiasm for it. Just because a woman is wearing a low- cut dress doesn’t mean she’s available to anybody by the hour. And yet it makes a kind of sense. I had watched her laugh at his jokes just a little too keenly and then seen her face fall dead as she stared off into a corner of the restaurant, as if distracted by an unrelated thought. I am comforted by the notion that if she is a hooker, the sex, almost inevitably mediocre, will at least have been preceded by good food; that, long after she has showered to remove his smell, she will still be remembering the way those salty little eggs burst against the roof of her mouth to release their rich, oily taste with its ghost of fishiness.
Because, that brûlée aside, the food has been good. Even so, I’m not entirely convinced by the experience. Bouchon looks out over a carefully tended courtyard garden. Adolescent cypress trees spear the sky, and there is a studied elegance and maturity about the view. This room is about as far away from the Vegas of slot machines and blackjack tables as it is possible to be. That—combined with jet lag and four glasses of good Californian wine—has, I think, created in me a sense of dislocation. I don’t entirely know where I am. Or, to put it another way, I could be anywhere, which may be their intention. What I want is a Vegas experience. I want the kind of experience I couldn’t have anywhere else in the world. Happily, I have a reservation for just such a place the following night.
In 1996 Joël Robuchon turned fifty and, as he had always said he would, he retired. That year he was named chef of the century by the (then) highly regarded French guide Gault Millau. He is a small, odd-looking man with a squashed face, as if somebody has inadvertently folded away the middle. He favors black, collarless shirts and has a monkish air, as if a part of his personality has also been folded away. Anybody who meets him will not be surprised to discover that, as a boy, he trained for the priesthood until he was forced to leave the seminary by lack of funds, only to take a job in a hotel kitchen.
Those British chefs I know who have worked for him—Gordon Ramsay, Richard Neat—attribute to him the qualities of the mystic, and those who work with him now also often resemble members of a priesthood. A couple of years ago Robuchon was hired to cook a one- off dinner at the Connaught Hotel in London. A small advance team of his cooks was to bring a van of ingredients through the Channel tunnel, because they did not trust any of the ingredients available in Britain. The French cooks insisted that they be met at the British end of the Channel tunnel in Kent by cooks from the Connaught who would then drive the van up to London. None of Robuchon’s team was used to driving on the left- hand side of the road and they believed the effort would destroy their zen state of concentration for the cooking of the meal to come. Naturally, the British cooks thought this was the funniest, and the most precious thing they had ever heard, but complied with their wishes. Fans of Robuchon refer to his extraordinary palate and his innate ability to know when a flavor combination is absolutely right. Ask them to name a perfect Robuchon dish and they may well mention his cauliflower panna cotta with caviar en gelée. They might talk about his black truffle tart. But there is one creation they will all mention: his mashed potato.
Joël Robuchon revolutionized the making of mashed potatoes. He did this by putting less potato in it. Instead, he made it with half its own weight in butter. The result is a dish so rich, so luxurious, so completely outrageous, it ought to be illegal. I had eaten it just once—at that Connaught dinner—and my arteries are still complaining. The method has been so regularly copied since he introduced it to his menu in the 1980s that it has essentially become the accepted modern method for making pommes purée in top- end restaurants. To change the approach to something so basic and so simple as mashed potato seems to me as good a test of greatness in the chef world as any other.
Tragically, after 1996, the chance to eat it as made by Robuchon himself was reduced almost to nothing. Then, in 2003, came the announcement that had high- end foodies beating their poulet de Bresse with feverish anticipation: The chef was returning to the stove. Former colleagues of Robuchon wanted to open a restaurant of their own, but the banks had refused them money. They asked him if he would join the venture and he agreed, as long as the restaurant that resulted was not the classic three- star, high- end, gastronomic temple that he had left behind. He wanted to do something more casual. He wanted to do the kind of place where diners would sit around an open kitchen at a bar.
There would be simple plates of the best Spanish hams as well as more complex dishes reminiscent of Robuchon in his prime, a tiny langoustine ravioli with black truffle, for example, or the sweetest chops of Pyrenean milk- fed lamb with thyme. It would be the kind of place you could come to for just one or two plates, as well as a full meal. The emphasis was on informality. The first L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon opened that year on rue de Montalembert in Paris. It was followed by another in Tokyo, the beginning of what would turn out to be a chain.
Then came the big surprise. For years Gamal Aziz, now president of the MGM Grand, the biggest hotel in the world, had been trying to lure Robuchon to Las Vegas. Thing is, he didn’t want a branch of L’Atelier. At least not at first. The MGM Grand had launched a new, upscale wing to the hotel, the Mansion, and for that he wanted the full- on Robuchon. The big- ticket Robuchon. He wanted every bell and whistle in the marching band. "I said no," Robuchon told me, when I met him in London in the spring of 2006. "The problem is Gamal Aziz is a very charming man. He was just too persuasive. Plus he said I could have anything I wanted. He never talked about profitability. He just wanted the best." In October 2005, Joël Robuchon at the Mansion duly opened inside the MGM Grand. And now I was going to eat there.
Unlike with Bouchon, there is no attempt to hide Joël Robuchon’s restaurant. Or restaurants, for it was eventually decided that there should also be a branch of L’Atelier and the two sit side- by- side, next to the entrance to the Mansion, but still on the gaming floor of the hotel. The entrance to the high- end restaurant—two huge, floor- to- ceiling curving doors—is just twelve paces from the last slot machine. Inside, though, every part of the restaurant has been so heavily engineered that you cannot hear any of the noise from outside.
Inside the dining room, which seats just forty people, there is a $28,000 chandelier by Swarovski. There are vases by Lalique and an outside "garden" that isn’t outside at all, but that takes $8,000’ worth of plants a month to maintain. There is a trolley with twelve different types of bread at the beginning, and another with twenty- five different types of petit fours at the end, plus a wine list as thick as a paperback book. Everything is dressed in "regal" shades of purple and a specially commissioned interlocking pattern is repeated from the handles on the cutlery to the carpet to the curtains.
Although there is a standard menu, Joël Robuchon at the Mansion specializes in multicourse tasting menus. I sat down at the table. I was handed a folder made of a thick glossy card, which I opened. I began reading. The sixteen- course tasting menu, the one I wanted, the one I was determined to try, was listed at $350 a head. Before drinks. Before tax. Before service.
THE MONEY THING
A few years ago I spent £49 ($98) on wine in a restaurant. Not impressed? You should be. It wasn’t for a bottle (let alone for two). Nor was it for some fancy- pants champagne. It was for a single glass, and not a very big glass at that. I know what you’re thinking. If you’re polite you’re thinking "more money than sense"; if you’re not polite you’re swearing at the page. It’s okay. I can deal with it. Because the honeyed amber fluid in that glass, served to me at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London’s Chelsea, came from a bottle of Château d’Yquem, the greatest white wine on the face of the planet, and it was worth every penny. Or, at least, it was to me, which is the same thing.
The fact is I have no problem with the notion of spending large amounts of money on hugely expensive restaurant experiences. I make no apologies for this, even though our puritanical culture so often demands it. £200 ($400)* a head for lunch? Yes, please. £50 ($100) for a starter? Seems fair enough to me. £75 ($150) for a main course? Bring it on. In France I would not need to explain myself. There, spending serious volumes of cash on dinner is a national spectator sport.
In Britain the choices are more limited. For example, at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, the top- rated restaurant in London, the basic menu is still a mere £85 ($175) for three courses: for the tortellini of lobster with herb velouté and the sautéed loin of venison with a bitter chocolate sauce and a gravity- defying coffee soufflé. No worries: There’s always the Château d’Yquem by the glass to help you top up the bill. The thing is, a whole bottle of Yquem will set you back hundreds of pounds at the very least. A big vintage—a 1928, say or an 1880—can cost as much as £30,000 ($61,375) on a restaurant list, and while I may be keen on big- ticket dinners, there are limits to what I can afford. Frankly I’d given up all hope of ever getting to taste the stuff. So that Château d’Yquem by the glass was practically a social service on Gordon Ramsay’s part. Indeed at £49 ($100) a pop it should really have been regarded as a bargain. And I never could resist one of those.
Except that, when I went to Joël Robuchon at the Mansion, just as when I went to the Auberge de L’Ill in Alsace, I wasn’t the one picking up the bill. In fact, I wasn’t expected to pay for anything much in Las Vegas. It was all on the house. It is not always like this. Whenever I review restaurants for The Observer, the newspaper reimburses me for all the meals I eat. I book tables under a pseudonym and, while I have never gone as far as Ruth Reichl, who used to review for the New York Times disguised as her own dead mother, I try not to draw attention to myself. We never accept freebies for review.
Meals eaten for features have always been a different matter, however. At The Observer we are allowed to accept "hospitality," where the experience would inform what we are writing about, and that pretty much covers all eventualities, including gluttony. Within hours of contacting the Las Vegas tourist authority, which has offices around the world, I was being pelted with offers of hospitality. I was being hosed down with them, assaulted by them. My e-mail in- box filled up with suggestions for meals I could eat, and places that would love to have me, and ones that would be mortally offended if I didn’t at least drop by for cocktails and canapés. (The most worrying was the offer direct from Freddie Glusman at Piero’s, but only because he is a known associate of convicted killers.) I could have survived in town with an empty wallet for a fortnight on the offers I had received. Instead all I had was a few nights and an appetite, which, while enthusiastic, had its limits. Choices had to be made. Selflessly I had chosen Joël Robuchon at the Mansion to be among those restaurants where I ate for free.
At first I was a little uncomfortable about this, not least because I wasn’t entirely sure what category my efforts at the table would be falling under. No, I wasn’t reviewing for the paper. Some of my experiences would end up in its pages, but not all of them. I just wanted to pursue my perfect meal, and that meant eating in a whole bunch of really good and improbably expensive places, as cheaply as possible. As ambitions go, it’s hardly up there with "cure the world of all known diseases" and "usher in an era of global peace." When I ate the £300 ($600) truffle- wine combo at the Auberge de L’Ill my wife had told me that the only thing that mitigated what would otherwise have been morally reprehensible behavior was the fact that I hadn’t paid for it. There was, she said, a smear of virtue in freeloading. I wasn’t convinced.
"Non, non. Bretagne."
"Oui. Bretagne." He thought for a moment, summoning the vocabulary. "It is better."
I stared at the plate. My dinner had traveled farther to be here than I had.
This single dish represented the one great argument against restaurants in Las Vegas: that, while there may be a lot of places to eat in the city, not a single thing they serve comes from nearby. Everything has to come from elsewhere—a tiny minority by road from Los Angeles, over four hours away, but most of it by air. In London, when I had mentioned my coming adventures in Las Vegas, friends of mine hadn’t even tried to hide their disdain. How could Las Vegas be regarded as a great restaurant city when it had no local food culture upon which to draw?
I see the appeal of the cult of locality, the idea that for a restaurant to be any good, it must draw its produce from nearby. I cannot deny that, over the years, I have eaten some fantastic meals that took their ingredients from as close by as possible. I remember once eating a plate of shellfish at a restaurant in Scotland, while outside, just a few feet from my table, the small boat that had landed them bobbed on the ebb and flow of the tide. There is no doubt that the location added to the experience. And location was all at the Auberge de L’Ill. But a commitment to locality, to what in its truest form the French refer to as le terroir—the soil—can also lead to an ossified gastronomic culture. Visit Toulouse and every restaurant will offer cassoulet. In Marseilles it will be an endless list of expensive but mostly indifferent bouillabaisses, and in Strasbourg you can eat anything you like, as long as it is choucroute. It is provincial pride, for pride’s sake.
The definition of local also seems to be surprisingly elastic. The country inns of France might well get their ingredients from within a five- mile radius. Chez Pannise, in Berkeley, California, which, for more than thirty years, has noisily pursued a doctrine of organic produce, grown by local suppliers, expands the concept of local to include the Chino Ranch, in San Diego, 500 miles away. The fact is, most of us in the developed world live in cities, and the ingredients we eat are always going to have to come from somewhere else.
Very early one morning, during my stay in Las Vegas, I went out to see the cargo operation at the city’s airport, which is housed in a set of steel sheds off a dusty avenue on the edge of town. In the cold rooms of the cargo handlers I saw boxes of prime fish from the Pierless Fish Corp in Brooklyn. There was meat from Hawaii, and oysters and clams from Boston. There were boxes of tuna and sea bass. There was food from everywhere. And every few days or so, a box would arrive containing lobsters from Brittany because the man once named the chef of the century thinks they are better than the ones from Maine. As he sees it, once the lobsters are in the air, it doesn’t matter how far they .y, so he might as well have the best. That, it seemed to me, was the most important thing about restaurants in Las Vegas. All the ingredients might come from elsewhere, but they are of the highest quality available. It’s all the best non- intensively reared, free- range, and organic fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish.
Alongside this admirable commitment to quality is another concern, however, about the impact of all that airfreighting on the environment. I want to say it’s something that doesn’t bear thinking about but, of course, it does, and at some point I will have to think about it.
For now, though, I am being stared at by one of the world’s leading chefs as they bring me a slice of his thinly cut veal, which, unlike the lobsters, has come from only a few states away. It is a fantastic piece of meat, soft, sweet, velvety.
Just as we finish the veal, Robuchon indicates a black- and- white photograph sitting on the shelf beside my shoulder. There is Robuchon, grinning madly, and next to him is a tall woman with shiny hair and more than her fair share of teeth.
"Céline Dion," Robuchon says enthusiastically.
I look at the picture again and, of course it’s her; she has a residency at Caesars Palace, in a theater specially built for her. The table we are sitting at, Robuchon says, is Céline’s table. It’s where she always sits when she comes, which is often. She always comes in the back way. Céline Dion! Oh, God! Why couldn’t it have been someone else? Elton
John would have been fine. I wouldn’t have minded sitting at his table. Or Wayne Newton. Or the guy who plays the crab in the Cirque du Soleil production that is running at the theater just outside the restaurant. But Céline bloody Dion? If it had been my call, I wouldn’t have built her a theater. I would have built her a maximum- security cell for crimes against music. Clearly, Robuchon loves her. He adores her. It is proof, if proof were needed, that you should never get to know your heroes.
Thankfully, a short while after our Céline Dion moment, Robuchon is called away to meet a table of Japa nese diners who, remarkably, are not only paying for dinner, but have bought a bottle of a 1957 Château Latour. We can relax at last but, however ungrateful it sounds, the joy has gone out of the meal. Partly it has been the stress of sitting with the chef. Partly it was our own fault. Our booking was for 8 p.m., which was too late for a menu this long, and now, close to midnight, we are both flagging.
We consider commandeering the petits fours trolley and riding it out the doors but there are just too many staff working the room. We’d never make it. We even suggest we’ll give the petits fours a pass, but the waiters look appalled. They promise it will only take a minute or two. It doesn’t. They insist upon introducing every single one of the twenty- five options: the sake meringues and the red- wine tuiles, the caramel chocolates and the macaroons and the nougat. I have no recollection of what they are like. By that point all I wanted was to sleep.
The next morning I awoke and spotted, at the end of my bed, a vast breast of brioche. This, a loaf the size of my own head, was the going- home present, a perfect symbol of the excess of Joël Robuchon at the Mansion: After the meal of the night before, I can’t imagine anybody being able to do justice to a brioche this big. Still, I like to show willing. I pull off a lump and chew. It’s pretty good.
Over the following days, I work my way around the restaurants of Las Vegas. I go to Bartolotta at Wynn, which will soon be named one of the best new restaurants in America, and have fillets of red snapper with miserably small clams and dried- out mussels for $32. I visit the Mesa Grill at Caesars Palace and try a fine spicy tuna tartar with hot sauce and avocado relish, and an uninspiring Caesar salad. One morning I am taken on a tour of what will eventually be the site of Guy Savoy Las Vegas, the first restaurant from the Michelin- starred chef outside of France, which is also at Caesars. It will be managed by his son Frank, who takes me to a dusty corner of the building site and points to a spot that, he says, will be occupied by the best table in the room.
"Why will this be the best one?"
Frank, who is a tidy young Frenchman in a pastel- colored sweater despite the Vegas warmth, smiles, excitedly. "My father’s restaurant in Paris is only two miles from the Eiffel Tower, but you cannot see it." He points out the window. "But from here, you can." I look up. We are just across the road from the Paris Las Vegas Hotel, complete with a quarter- sized replica of the Tower. It is clear that Frank Savoy loves Las Vegas.
That evening I take the lift to the sixty- fourth floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel; not long afterward, I am considering throwing myself back off again. Suicide might seem a drastic response to a bad restaurant—and Mix at the Mandalay Bay is very, very bad; it’s a jazz riff on bad; a master class in the finer points of bad—but at least the sight of a diner plunging to earth would wipe the smirks off the waiter’s face. Mix belongs to Alain Ducasse, who is the only chef to have had a trio of restaurants with three Michelin stars, in Monte Carlo, Paris, and New York. (He has since closed the New York outpost.) He has a couple of dozen others, too, in Switzerland and London, Beirut and Hong Kong, among other places, plus here, at the top of this tower.
It is so high up that the stove had to be .own in, slung beneath the belly of a helicopter. There is a long, shiny bar area with the best view of the city, and beyond that a huge white space, hung with glass baubles, with, at one side, an open kitchen so you can watch the chefs do terrible things to fine ingredients. Allegedly, the restaurant and bar cost over $20 million to create. Now they have to recoup that investment, by charging astonishing prices. Personally, if I had been paying, I would have preferred a mugging; at least when you’re mugged you aren’t left with a nasty taste in the mouth.
I take an instant dislike to Mix, not least because it saves time: I hate the moodily lit white- out of a space. I hate the barman who can’t mix a good cocktail, the booming music, and the homemade peanut butter that comes with the bread and makes me think the poor cow was milked unnecessarily. I hate the white cube that houses the men’s toilets and which is dirty and scuffed, and littered with discarded paper tissues. Mostly I hate the food. In the middle of the menu is a list of "Alain Ducasse Classics," which, allegedly, are served at his restaurants in Paris and Monte Carlo.
A tranche of seared foie gras is so overcooked, it crumbles away in the mouth. Lobster is served "au curry" in a sickly sweet sauce, flavored with something that reminds me of the seasoning mix from a pot of instant noodles. Tasting it, I think the entire Indian subcontinent would have grounds upon which to sue the restaurant for defamation of its good name. Starters at Mix cost around $25. Mains are priced between $35 and $50 and top out at $75. I know I said I don’t mind restaurants charging big money for high- end experiences, but the food does have to be edible. It’s a minimum qualifying standard.
I check out the wine list, which is full of big- name wines at bizarre prices. For example, there is a 1961 Château Latour. It’s listed at $8,416. Why not $8,400 or $8,450? Where did the random $16 come from? I call over the sommelier.
"We just mark up everything 300 percent," he says, with a "What are you going to do about it?" look on his face.
Eric was my kind of guy. He told me about his favorite restaurant experiences, compared the carpaccio to others he had eaten elsewhere, swooned over the king crab tempura, and nodded approvingly at the curl of gold leaf that decorated one of the dishes. Eventually, though, I realized that underneath all this talk of restaurants visited and winnings spent and dishes eaten, there beat a true gambler’s heart.
We had just .nished our chocolate cake with green tea ice cream.
"Have you ever eaten fugu?" he asked, referring to the Japanese blow-fish whose organs contain a deadly poison, tetrodotoxin, which every year kills a number of diners. Nobody is sure how many. In 1958 more than 150 people were reported to have died as a result of fugu poisoning. More recent studies have claimed that only one or two people now succumb to its effects annually.
I told him I hadn’t.
"What do you think it would be like?"
I shrugged. "I don’t know. I think it’s a macho thing. I don’t think people eat it because of the taste. They eat it because they want to show how fearless they are."
Eric nodded sagely and thought for a moment. "What are the odds?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean is it 1,000 to one that you’ll die? Is it 2,000 to one?"
"I don’t know. I suppose the odds are even longer than that. A huge number of people in Japan eat it every year and the number is growing. Relatively few of them die. So . . ."
He called over the maître d’, a Japanese- American woman called Jo, and asked her if the restaurant served fugu.
She shook her head. "You need a license to serve fugu, and we don’t have a license."
"So I’d have to go to Japan?"
"I guess so," Jo said, humoring him.
Eric smiled. "What do you think the odds would be on dying?"
Only in Las Vegas.
I had one last stop before returning home, a place called Lotus of Siam, which is reputed to be the best Thai restaurant in America. Weirdly, the best Thai restaurant in America is not located in one of the overstuffed, marble- clad hotels on the Strip. Instead, it’s in a mall on East Sahara Avenue, fifteen minutes away. Still, if it was the best of anything, I surely had to be there. I checked my bags at the airport, picked up a cab and, declining the driver’s kind offer to supply me with a hooker for the night from the glossy catalog he kept on his dashboard, drew up outside Lotus of Siam.
The second reason I had enjoyed my meal was rather more basic than that: I had paid for it myself. I had slipped my credit card out of the warm leather slot where it had sat unmolested for so many days and had used it to settle the bill of $38.72, including tip. Freeloading might have been entirely justified in Vegas. Doing anything other might well have seemed foolish. But the mechanics of it couldn’t help but detract from the experience. It made me a supplicant. It robbed me of control.
When I was eating on the house I was always somebody’s bitch.
That was something I didn’t like. Somehow, from now on, I would have to pay for every meal myself. Of course it would be expensive, but if I didn’t do that, I would never .nd the type of experiences I was hunting for. I would never understand what was happening out there. The journey would be wasted. It was time to return to London, consider the finances, and then head off again in search of dinner.
I couldn’t just go to any old place, though. Yes, I had already identified lots of cities that were worthy of my attention, but if I was going to start lifting my own credit card in anger I needed to head someplace where money was what mattered, where money was the universal language. I thought about this but knew pretty quickly what I was going to do. A little over a century ago my forebears had .ed the Russian Steppes, pursued by the Cossacks. Well, now I was going back. I was going to Moscow. Everything I had read of those years had led me to understand that the Jews of Russia ate very badly around the turn of the last century; a diet composed mainly of sugar beets, potatoes and, if they were lucky, chicken fat. That was something for which I intended to make amends.
Excepted from The Man Who Ate the World by Jay Rayner
Copyright @ 2008 by Jay Rayner
Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.