Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Brilliance of Bouchon

Tucked away on the 10th floor of the Venetian Resort, Hotel, and Casino is Bouchon. American chef, restaurateur, and cookbook writer Thomas Keller helms Bouchon, which opened at the Venetian in 2004. After great success—multiple awards from the James Beard Foundation, Michelin Guide, and Restaurant Magazine—with his landmark Napa Valley restaurant The French Laundry in Yountville, California, he joined forces with his brother Joseph (currently owner/chef of Josef’s in Las Vegas). Together, they opened the Yountville location of Bouchon in 1998, subsequently opening the Las Vegas location in 2004 and the Beverly Hills location in 2009. Keller explained that “Bouchon is based on [his] memories of the amazing bistros [he] would frequent while traveling in France, such as Chez Paul and Hugon, where they serve meals almost family-style in very small dining rooms. Oftentimes the husband cooks and the wife greets and serves. First courses, headcheese, or a charcuterie plate may be passed from table to table. These neighborhood places serving simple, traditional dishes in a home-like atmosphere provided the model for what [he] hoped to create in Yountville.”

“Bouchon” is actually a term describing a type of restaurant found in Lyon, France, known for serving traditional Lyonnaise cuisine. Dishes are commonly quite fatty and heavily oriented around meat, such as sausages, duck pâté, or roast pork. Not all the dishes at Keller’s Bouchon are overrun with lipids, fortunately. His goal was to showcase his favorite French bistro food at a restaurant more casual than The French Laundry, where he could “explore and deepen the culinary heritage that [he] admires so much.”

The meal began with bread and butter. This was no ordinary bread and butter, though. The epi bread was shaped like a shaft of wheat, its leaves easy to peel off and consume. It was perfectly crusty on the outside, light and chewy on the inside. Each bite was imbued with flavor. It reminded me of the amazing baguettes I ate every day when I visited Paris; I thought I wouldn’t be able to find this type of bread anywhere outside of France! The butter, served in a ramekin, was top-notch. Its rich, creamy taste and texture paired perfectly with the bread. They were also accompanied with pistachios warm from the oven, a way of cooking the nuts that had never occurred to me before. (From now on, I’ll always pop my pistachios in the microwave for 20 seconds!)

My dining companion and I shared the appetizer special, a Dungeness crab salad. The crab was mixed with only the barest hint of crème fraiche and chives. You could tell this was practically pure crabmeat. The mixture was piled high in a glass container and topped with a smooth avocado puree, then served on a wooden board accompanied by roasted tomatoes, toasted brioche, and more crème fraiche and avocado puree. The different textures and flavors worked together seamlessly. Our waiter suggested using the salad as a spread on our toast points, so spread we did! The crab was extremely fresh; the two other ingredients in the “salad” only helped bind the many shreds and pieces of crab together and hardly detracted from the overall straight-from-the-sea flavor. With the brioche as a baseline, the avocado provided creamy depth and the tomatoes left a smoky, acidic punch.

At last, our entrees came! I went with the special of the day, a skirt steak served with English peas, turnips, eggplant frites, and cheese fondue. The meat was incredibly tender and sliced as easily as butter. It was absolutely succulent, oozing with juices and rich with flavor. The seasonings used, although simple, were just the right amount and accentuated the savory beefiness of the meat. (My mouth’s watering just writing about it!) I didn’t care for the eggplant frites so much (each was about the size of a string cheese stick and rather plain in taste compared to the rest of the fare) nor the cheese fondue (although velvety, it was too thin and didn’t adhere to the frites very well). However, the rest of the food we dined on more than made up for that little hiccup. My companion went with steak-frites, classic French bistro fare. I can honestly say that these were the best French fries I’ve ever eaten. Thinly cut—practically shoestring—and salted just enough to draw out the potato’s natural flavor, the fries had the perfect crisp exterior with a soft interior that melted in your mouth. The pile served with her dish towered over her steak (quite the impressive feat), so I was quite happy to help her demolish the stack. She quite enjoyed her steak as well, a pan-seared prime flatiron topped with caramelized shallots and a thick round pat of maître d'hôtel butter.

We didn’t have room for dessert, although I wish we did! The menu included sweet offerings like Marquise au Chocolat (dark chocolate mousse with burnt orange cream), Ile Flottante (meringue with vanilla crème anglaise, almond, and caramel), and Profiteroles (filled with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce). Luckily, they have a related kiosk downstairs known as Bouchon Bakery, which serves up breakfast treats (i.e. croissants, pain au raisin), lunch offerings (i.e. sandwiches, quiches, salads), and after-meal treats (the true stars of the place! i.e. French macarons, tarts, éclairs, chocolate brownie-like bouchons). Their oatmeal raisin and double chocolate chunk cookies are phenomenal. Needless to say, we frequented the bakery many times during our stay in Las Vegas.

Our Bouchon experience was unforgettable. From the refined brasserie interior to the impeccable service to the wonderful food, this special place is worthy of its acclaimed recognition.

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