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Bouchon – Las Vegas, Nevada

Bouchon at the Venetian

Bouchon at the Venetian

Thomas Keller is the owner and chef of one of the world’s most highly acclaimed and famous restaurants, but despite all the accolades and honors the French Laundry has garnered over the years, he isn’t nearly as famous or popular as his celebrity protégés.

One protégé is a provincial rat named Remy whose aspirations to become a great chef despite a lack of formal culinary training mirror Keller’s own path.  Remy’s focus and fastidious attention to detail are known to be patterned after Keller.

To make the restaurant scenes as realistic as possible, the film’s producer interned in the French Laundry kitchen.  Other members of the film’s creative braintrust studied at length to channel the master’s style and passion.   Keller served as the key consultant for all cooking done in the movie, hence the authenticity.

Keller was also the creative genius behind the “world’s greatest sandwich” as prepared by another celebrity protégé, Adam Sandler in the film Spanglish.  The sandwich is an embellishment of the BLT, but the way Keller taught Sandler to prepare it, it is far from a pedestrian BLT.

It would seem that Keller is a celebrity chef behind the celebrities, but it might be more accurate to call him a celebrity to the celebrities.  He sets the standard to which other celebrated chefs aspire.  In the pantheon of the world’s greatest chefs, he is in rarified company, a towering figure who commands the respect and admiration of all other chefs.  He is the very best in the world!

Oppulence and class

Oppulence and class everywhere you turn at Bouchon

Keller’s magnum opus, the French Laundry restaurant, in Yountville, California has been selected by Restaurant Insider magazine as the top restaurant in the world on two occasions and has been among the magazine’s top four restaurants in the world in each of the past five years. Keller and his restaurant have earned multiple James Beard Foundation awards as well as a five-star rating from the Mobil Guide and a three-star designation from the Michelin Guide.  The list of credits reaped by Keller and his restaurant would fill a book.

What differentiates Keller from the rest are lofty and uncompromising standards that he applies to all facets of the dining experience.  Ingredient selection is painstakingly meticulous, a quest for the embodiment of perfection. Preparation of each and every meal–the assemblage of ingredients into exquisite composites–is an art form and a perfectly synchronized ballet in one.  It is the pursuit of perfection being achieved and the essence of purity at its most elegant.

Keller is known to be passionate about crafting the most inclusive dining experience possible for each and every dining customer.  His goal is that every customer be elevated to new heights of rapturous bliss. From all indications, he has succeeded.

The kitchen at Bouchon

The very busy kitchen at Bouchon

Why then, I wondered, would a veritable gastronomic god, a tower of refinement and class condescend to launch a restaurant in the Gomorrah of crass commercialism, already a denizen of the über chefs. Chef Keller did not sell out when he opened Bouchon in 2005.  His restaurant is as far removed from the notion that it’s in Las Vegas that it may as well not be.

Bouchon is ensconced in a seemingly clandestine alcove atop the Venezia tower, far away from the maddening throngs of buffet chasers, slot machines and the choking haze of cigarette smoke.  It’s the genuine needle in the fiberglass haystack that is Vegas Boulevard. From the enclosed car park, you have to travel via two separate elevators just to locate the tenth floor location in which the restaurant is safely removed from the rabble.  Expect to ask for directions at least once.

Bouchon is opulent yet unpretentious.  It is classic and timeless in its beauty, a true culinary arena in which the master can ply his trade in his own inimitable style. The ambience is elegant and inviting.  A handcrafted pewter bar and its plethora of libations has earned Wine Spectator’s award of Excellence.  Top Napa Valley wineries bottle wines exclusively for Bouchon’s award-winning carafe program.  A raw seafood bar near the restaurant entrance features an impressive array of oysters-on-the-half-shell from both the west and east coasts.

Banquettes are a plush blue velvet, providing the ultimate in comfort for at least one diner at each linen cloth covered table.  The floors are intricately patterned mosaic tiles.  Antique light fixtures give the restaurant a bright and airy feeling. The outdoor patio has limited seating.  It overlooks lush, verdant gardens, spewing fountains and a swimming pool in which the beautiful people display more meet on the hoof than some of the restaurant’s entrees.

The kitchen, that hallowed ground in which the restaurant’s incomparable creativity is plated is one of the best-run, most organized kitchens I’ve ever seen.  Yes, I was fortunate enough to have been given a grand tour of the edifice in which edible extravagance originates. At any given time there are about sixty people working in the kitchen and its various stations.  It’s the Ratatouille staff times ten and all engaged in various feats of inspired and specialized culinary arts.  The bakery and prep station were equally busy.

In its first year, Bouchon became the first restaurant to sweep the Las Vegas Life’s 6th Annual Epicurean Awards for 2005.  Readers acclaimed Bouchon the “Best French,” “Best New Restaurant on the Strip,” “Best Restaurant on the Strip” and “Best Restaurant.”

Beignets du jour

Beignets du jour

The menu offers traditional French country fare reflecting Chef Keller’s emphasis on using the very best and most fresh seasonal ingredients.  We visited during brunch on the Saturday in which I celebrated having survived five decades on Mother Earth.

The service at Bouchon also reflects Chef Keller’s high standards.  A tandem of attentive and very helpful waitresses were at our beck and call, offering advice when requested and answering all our questions.

Our sole surprise is what passes for “business casual” at this stylish bistro.  Several diners were attired in far less (emphasis on less) than would pass as business casual at most businesses.  It wasn’t a distraction for us, only a surprise.

Brunch features an impressive array of pastries, breads, fruit and yogurt, all ala carte.  The Beignets du Jour, housemade spiced doughnuts with Bouchon Bakery jam, bear little resemblance to their counterparts at the New Orleans French Market coffee stand Cafe DuMond.  These are actually shaped like donuts.

The beignets on the day of our visit were perfectly round, powdered-sugar-dusted donuts served with ramekins of peach and Nutella jam.

Watercress soup served cold

Watercress soup served cold

Nutella is believed to be one of the best-selling sweet spreads in the world, yet it’s relatively unknown in America.  It’s the classic taste combination of chocolate and hazelnut that seems to bring out the best of two complementary tastes.  If freshness could be bottled, it might taste like the peach jam on the second ramekin.  It tasted like ripe, fresh peaches right out of the tree.

I eschewed traditional brunch entrees to see what Bouchon could do with seafood and was thoroughly pleased with the Petit Plateau, a platter overflowing with the bounties of the sea: a half-lobster, nine oysters, three shrimp, three clams and six mussels.  A larger Grand Pateau at twice the price and quantity was also available.

The Petit Plateau was accompanied by four ramekins, two of which included ameliorants (horseradish and a mustard-mayonnaise sauce) to the cocktail and wine-based sauces.  The oysters needed absolutely no help so the additives went unused.

A dollop of cocktail sauce and a squeeze of lemon is all the oysters needed to preserve and enhance their natural briny essence.  Each oyster was grit-free though a fellow at the next table swears he found a small pearl in one of his oysters.

These were among the most fresh and clean oysters I’ve ever had.  Alas, in my feeding frenzy I must have consumed the note paper in which our waitress wrote down what types of oysters and clams we had.

Petit Plateau

Petit Plateau

Nothing goes as well with cold seafood as cold soup.  The special of the day was a chilled watercress soup the color of kryptonite.  A dollop of sweet garlic Crème fraîche and some seasoning were the only additives.  This was watercress soup as pure as it comes–and it was delicious.

Cold soup is not for everybody, but dissenters might change their mind with one slurp of this intensely flavorful soup.  It is thicker than conventional broth, but also more fresh-tasting and lively.

My Kim opted for more traditional brunch fare, a pork skirt steak, eggs and fried potatoes.  The steak was perfectly grilled and at medium, was as moist and tender as any steak.  A subtle marinade with equal pronouncements of sweet and savory elevated the steak to near greatness.

Greatness is an attribute not often ascribed to fried potatoes, but the silver dollar sized, wafer thin fried potatoes at Bouchon are unlike most fried potatoes.

Pork skirt steak

Pork skirt steak

Reflect on the best fried potatoes you’ve ever had and these will kick sand on them.  They are so perfect that you can actually stab them with a fork and pick them up without them disintegrating.  They are so perfect, they’ll distract you from the flavors of the skirt steak.  They are simply inspired.  If Keller’s kitchen can do this with potatoes, they earn all the accolades bestowed upon them.

Dessert options are plentiful and each as decadent as the other.  Our choice was a trio of Bouchons, small cupcake shaped brownies intensely flavored with fine chocolate and served with three premium ice creams: vanilla, mint-chocolate chip and chocolate.  Eve would have succumbed to temptation a second time if offered this dessert.

Bouchon certainly lived up to our lofty expectations.  It’s one of the two best restaurants in which we’ve dined since I started writing about our restaurant visits.  It’s so un-Vegas that stepping back into the garage elevators may leave you in a state of depression.

We did not have the great fortune to meet Chef Keller during this visit but were assured that he is a frequent visitor and not just a larger-than-life celebrity who lent his name to a money pit.  Maybe next time.

BOUCHON
The Venetian Hotel-Resort-Casino, Venezia Tower
3355 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, Nevada
(702) 414-6200
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 31 May 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 28
COST: $$$$
BEST BET:Petit Plateau, Chilled Watercress Soup, Pork Skirt Steak & Eggs, Beignets du Jour, Bouchons with Ice Cream Trio

Amlee Gourmet Restaurant – Las Vegas, Nevada

Amlee Gourmet Chinese

Amlee Gourmet Chinese

There’s a Cantonese saying that translates to “anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is edible.” The Chinese diet counts as delicacies some things which would repulse the more sensitive American palate.

It’s not just the Chinese who will imbibe, ingest and intake what we might consider sundry strangeness. Each culture, including American, has foodstuffs other cultures find shocking. One culture’s strange and inedible is another’s traditional favorite. Take cheese, for example. Until rather recently, few Chinese would eat cheese, considering it the fetid spoils of milk.

As it grows smaller, the world has become increasingly fascinated by watching the consumption of the bizarre–bizarre in this case being a voyeuristic term that doesn’t apply to the culture in which the food is enjoyed.

The Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmerm chronicles the adventures of an intrepid eater who will try any and everything put in front of him, regardless of how much it writhes, palpitates or squirms as he puts it in his mouth. It’s televised shockfest at its most appealing to those of us who think we’d try just about anything.

Compared to Zimmerm, most of us are rank amateurs. Thousand year old eggs, bird’s nest soup, chicken feet–that’s nothing compared to some of the food that has crossed his lips. Most of us find some of those foods so revolting, we’d rather that food not even cross our minds.

Mousho pork being prepared tableside

Mousho pork being prepared tableside

As a newly minted quintegenarian, my ventures into the world of culinary “I dare you’s” has gone the way of other youthful affectations. Now when I think of strange and different, it’s usually in reference to some sauce I haven’t tried before.

One such sauce is the strawberry sauce offered with chicken at the Amlee Gourmet Restaurant in Las Vegas, Nevada. I had encountered strawberry sauce in a Chinese restaurant only one time previous and that was more than thirty years ago in Massachusetts.

Considering all the other fruit-based sauces–lemon, pineapple, orange– are pretty passé, it’s puzzling that strawberries are relatively uncommon on Chinese dishes. In 2004, China was the third largest exporter of strawberries bound for the United States, so it’s obvious strawberries are grown in China, at least commercially.

The staff at Amlee couldn’t answer my questions, but they are certainly proud that their signature dish is so uncommon. Apparently other Vegas Chinese restaurants have tried to copy the dish, but results have been less than desired.

Strawberry chicken is just one of the unique specialties crafted by owner/chef Steven Lee, a pioneer in the Vegas Chinese restaurant scene.

Lee is an affable man with a wide circle of friends. The walls of the front room are festooned with signed pictures depicting a beaming Lee in the company of such luminaries as former President Bill Clinton, U.S. senator Harry Reid, comedian Bill Cosby and a host of other show business celebrities and politicians. One can assume they have enjoyed the chef’s handiwork in the kitchen.

Our dinner served tableside

Our dinner served tableside

Amlee Gourmet Chinese is well off the “eaten path” on a street directly south of McLaren Airport. It’s several miles southeast of the famous strip and as such, is a destination restaurant.

The decor is tasteful and the staff is friendly and helpful. The tableside service is some of the best we’ve experienced in Las Vegas.

Best of all, the food is excellent. In previous visits to Sin City we’ve dined at four-star Chinese restaurants bearing the name of celebrity chefs and we’ve visited no-name dining establishments in Chinatown. Most have disappointed.

Amlee is the very best Chinese restaurant we’ve uncovered in a city with hundreds of dining options.

The menu includes several options not commonly found at other Chinese restaurants. The “Gourmet” portion of the restaurant’s name is certainly earned. It’s not just the strawberry chicken which has made Amlee famous and popular.

Moushou Pork

Moushou Pork

A great way to start your meal is with an order of moushou pork, a dish that usually won’t make your socks roll up and down unless it’s exceptionally well prepared. At Amlee, the moushou pork is exceptional.

One of the things that makes this dish stand out are the shards of marinated shredded pork which are deliciously discernable among the scallions, bamboo shoots, Shiitake mushrooms, bean sprouts and other high-quality ingredients.

The pancakes into which the amalgam is scooped aren’t of the paper-thin variety which crumble upon contact. In fact, we’ve had thinner tortillas in some restaurants than these pancakes. Each order makes four pancakes. A side of Hoisin sauce accompanies them.

Our waitress lovingly crafted our appetizer for us (nothing scares me more than the words “some assembly required”). Some moms don’t spoon-feed their children with as much care as our waitress showed us. She was exceptionally kind and attentive.

Our waitress also served our dinner tableside, wheeling a cart with our entrees to our table then portioning our entrees onto our plates. Let’s see a five-star restaurant do this.

The sauce for the strawberry chicken is a neon red-orange color and is nothing like strawberry jam. A thickening agent (probably pectin) brings the sauce to the consistency of light syrup, but true to its name, the entree does have the unmistakable flavor of sweetened strawberries. The sauce is applied generously to strips of white meat from the chicken breast and thigh which are lightly coated like fried chicken. The chicken is moist and tender with absolutely no fat or sinew as promised by our waitress. This is a high-quality and very delicious entree!

Amlee Beef

Amlee Beef

Another high-quality house-specialty is the Amlee Beef served over glass noodles. It’s rare to find a beef entree not covered in vegetables. It’s even more rare to find a beef entree with absolutely no fat or sinew, an entree in which the beef is tender enough to cut with a spoon.

Amlee Gourmet uses only boneless shoulder steak for this entree and the quality shows. Being no need for heavy sauces to mask inferior beef, your taste buds will experience nothing but lightly sauced (teriyaki and soy) pure beef grilled to absolute perfection.

Amlee Fried Rice is an absolute must with your entrees. This egg-fried rice includes shrimp, barbecue beef and pork as well as the standard vegetable accompaniment cut thin and small. It’s as flavorful and moist a fried rice dish as we’ve had in Las Vegas.

Amlee has several dessert options including chilled lychee fruit and glazed bananas, but there’s a chance you won’t have room for dessert–and will still have plenty of leftovers to take home. Frankly, I’d like to take Amlee Gourmet home to Albuquerque with us. It’s the type of Chinese restaurant the Duke City needs.

Amlee Gourmet Restaurant
3827 East Sunset Road
Las Vegas, Nevada
(702) 898-3358

LATEST VISIT: 31 May 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 22
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Moushou Pork, Strawberry Chicken, Amlee’s Beef, Amlee Fried Rice

Rosemary’s Restaurant – Las Vegas, Nevada (CLOSED)

Rosemary's Restaurant

Rosemary's Restaurant, about ten miles from the Vegas Strip

You might think that a chef and proprietor whose restaurant has garnered almost every conceivable accolade might be almost unapproachable, perhaps even haughty and aloof…that being among the gastronomic glitterati, he wouldn’t make time for admirers of his culinary craft.

We learned during a June, 2006 visit that THE Michael Jordan (the other one was a pretty fair basketball player) is one of the nicest, most unassuming and genuinely endearing celebrity chefs we’ve ever met. We had the great fortune of running into Jordan at his restaurant and he wasn’t solely concerned with what we thought of our meal (we loved it, of course). He engaged us in conversation about New Mexico, Chicago, restaurant critics and Chowhound, a Web site he admits to visiting when he wants to take the pulse of his diners.

He was genuinely appreciative of our having driven nearly 600 miles to dine at the fêted restaurant he and wife Wendy launched in 1999 after being fixtures at Emeril Lagasse’s New Orleans Fish House, the MGM Grand Hotel’s trendy restaurant.

With the launch of Rosemary’s (a drawing of a sprig of the popular spice graces the to-go menu) in a fashionable west-side Sahara location, the Jordans were among the first impresarios to open a high-end gourmet restaurant off the strip. The move paid off in short fashion as the restaurant soon began earning the plaudits which are now inconspicuously splayed on the walls leading to the restroom (did I mention Jordan was unassuming).

Occupying wall space are several covers from Vegas Living magazine which for eight consecutive years (2000-2007) accorded this west side restaurant the lofty distinction of “best restaurant off the strip.”

Rosemary’s has also been a perennial selection as “best gourmet restaurant” on the Las Vegas Review-Journal‘s Annual “Best of Las Vegas Awards.” It has been featured in Gourmet magazine, Bon Apetit magazine, Great Chefs magazine and a host of other publications.

Arugala and Granny Smith apple salad with dry-aged carpaccio beef, Maytag Blue Cheese, candied walnuts and port wine drizzles

Arugala and Granny Smith apple salad with dry-aged carpaccio beef, Maytag Blue Cheese, candied walnuts and port wine drizzles

It earned a “27” rating in Zagat’s most recent survey of Las Vegas restaurants, making it the city’s second highest ranked dining destination. Aside from Lotus of Siam, there is probably no other Vegas dining establishment which lights up Chowhound’s message boards quite as frequently or with such overwhelming adulation. Those message boards are almost salivatingly effusive in their adoration for a starter called “Hugo’s Texas BBQ Shrimp with Maytag Blue Cheese Coleslaw,” a starter which, by the way, you can find the recipe for on the restaurant’s Web site. Words don’t adequately rhapsodize the mellifluous melodies this unique appetizer dances on your taste buds.

Characteristic of the Jordans, Rosemary’s offers value menus that won’t empty their diners’ wallets. That includes a lunch-time bargain no one in their right minds would pass up–a prix-fixe of just $28 for an appetizer, entree and dessert (a $5 off coupon can be printed off the Web site).

For dinner, the prix-fixe offering is still a bargain at $55 per person. Paying for each item separately would easily add 30 to 40 percent to your bill of fare. Wednesdays is ladies’ night at Rosemary’s as tables of lady diners pay only half the normal cost of their meals. It’s no wonder Rosemary’s has merited such loyalty!

Aside from the aforementioned Hugo’s Texas BBQ Shrimp, the starters include some of the best salads imaginable–salads in which each individual ingredient might elsewhere be solely featured, not just serve as but one of several ingredients harmonizing beautifully on your taste buds.

Kebabs done the Rosemary's way

Kebabs done the Rosemary's way

The arugala and Granny Smith apple salad with dry-aged carpaccio beef, Maytag Blue Cheese, candied walnuts and port wine drizzles is such a salad. You could deconstruct it and enjoy the results immensely, but it’s best left intact so you can marvel at each taste sensation.

The dry aged beef is razor thin, like a sheet of beef tissue, but it explodes with taste. The blue cheese is the ultimate in fetid fromage, a pungent cheese with an acerbic bite that fanatics like me love.

The spinach salad with pecan vinaigrette, sliced smoke duck breast, goat cheese and drizzles of port wine syrup is another lavish salad offering which will earn your unfettered affections. The complementary yet contrasting tastes of sweet, savory and sour compete for the undivided attention of each of your 10,000 taste buds, leaving an indelible impression with each palate-pleasing bite.

You can easily become just as enamored of the main courses.

Airliner Chicken Breast

Airliner Chicken Breast

The grilled wild king salmon on a bed of Granny Smith cabbage slaw with candied walnuts, port wine syrup and toasted wine vinaigrette is quite possibly the very best piece of salmon I’ve ever had. Despite the advertised “wildness” of the salmon, it didn’t have the prominent “fishy” taste you sometimes find in this cold water fish. Instead, the salmon was of perfect texture and a slightly smoky taste complemented beautifully by the sweet and slightly tart cabbage slaw.

Another phenomenal main course offering is the grilled breast of chicken on a bed of “Hoppin John” with caramelized sweet onions and a Creole mustard Beurre Blanc. If you’ve never experienced really good Hoppin John, you’re in for a treat as each spoonful provides a rich experience of textures and tastes. The chicken is perfectly grilled with an almost ethereal skin covering some of the most moist poultry and succulent you’ll ever have.

The seared steak Dianne wrapped in apple smoked bacon with herb roasted potatoes, wild mushrooms and Madiera sauce tastes better than it reads. The steak is unbelievably tender and is complemented beautifully by its component sauce and accompanying ingredients.

Goat Cheese Cheescake with Raspberry Coulis

Goat Cheese Cheescake with Raspberry Coulis

If there’s anything that can possibly top the outstanding main courses at Rosemary’s, it’s the decadent desserts. Sweet-toothed diners will experience such heavenly post-prandial perfection as:

Chocolate flourless cake with Scotch caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream, which emphasizes the richness of semi-sweet chocolate without overwhelming the diner with sweetness.

Goat cheese cheesecake with Scotch caramel sauce, simply one of the very best desserts I’ve ever had anywhere. You haven’t really had cheesecake until you’ve had it made with goat cheese, one of nature’s perfect foods.

Lemon ice box pie with raspberry coulis, whipped cream and raspberry sorbet, a dessert in which the prevalent taste sensations are sweet and sour. These contrasting tastes perform a delicious dance on your tongue.

Rustic apple tart with caramel sauce, candied walnuts and cinammon ice cream

Rustic apple tart with caramel sauce, candied walnuts and cinammon ice cream

One of the differences between a dining experience at Rosemary’s Restaurant and one at home is that even with a recipe for one of the restaurant’s signature items (Hugo’s Texas BBQ Shrimp), the version you concoct just won’t elicit the swoons of pleasure you may have involuntarily uttered when you first experienced it at Rosemary’s.

Even if you follow each step of the recipe to the letter, you may conclude after one bite you’re just not as gifted as Michael Jordan, so it may just be time for another visit to his wonderful restaurant.

Rosemary’s Restaurant
8125 W. Sahara
Las Vegas, Nevada

LATEST VISIT: 30 May 2008
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 26
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Maytag Blue Cheese Coleslaw, Goat Cheese Hazelnut Cheesecake, Airliner Chicken Breast, Soy Marinated Bistro Filet Kabobs