Dinner at Thomas Keller's Bouchon

This wasn't the plan. The plan was to finally use our Restaurant.com coupon at Panevino's, across from the airport on Sunset. That plan in mind, we both eschewed the usual jeans for black pants. I chose a black blouse and - this rarely happens - checked myself out in the mirror.

"Mike, I have a great idea for a politically incorrect image."

"What?"

"You know how people always complain when their black pants and black shirt don't quite match?"

"I think you match."

I gave Mike a look fitting for a husband who tries to make a reassuring statement about what you're wearing without even glancing your way. But, since he wasn't looking, he missed my scorn.

"Anyway, it would be funny if there was a photo with these two black guys, maybe one with very dark skin and another of a more cocoa shade. And they could be hanging out with a white guy. The caption - in one of those meme-style fonts so everyone gets that this is just silliness - would say, 'Don't you hate when your blacks don't match?'"

Mike maybe laughed (I know, I don't deserve it) and put on a black Polo.

"What are you doing?"

"What?"

"We can't both wear black shirts with black pants! We look like a bowling team. Like on Antiques Roadshow when we both wore blue shirts."

"It's okay."

"Or stagehands. Or fat ninjas."

But neither of us wanted to change clothes, and what the hell, maybe it's adorable that we matched. I felt like now my imaginary and potentially offensive joke photo would need four black guys in it.

(I just searched Google Images for "black guys." Yes, internet, I was going to make you a present. The third image was porn. I tried searching for "white guys." No porn, but plenty of good-natured jokes about white people. What does this mean? I get the prevalence of jokes, but what's with all the choco-rotica?)

We drove to Panevino only to discover that they are closed on Sundays. What? Aren't we in Las Vegas?

(If this were a video report, here we'd cut to the footage of the coupon blowing out of the car and Mike, dressed to mime a windy day, chasing it across the entirety of the Panevino parking lot, and me stunt driving the car in a wide arc to intercept.)

There's a special circle of Hell just for establishments that have elaborate websites but nowhere do they post their hours of operation.

Okay, let's think. What's one of those business casual-y places where we always consider going, but then we don't because we're wearing jeans or capris or whatever?

Mundo? For which we also had a coupon? Rats, closed on Sunday evenings.

I pulled into the back of the Tropicana, off Reno. We both got out our phones and started Yelping. I'm all about "notching" things ("Let's notch it!" is my Yelp profile catchphrase), and of course Mike is in the midst of his Las Vegas Farewell Tour. (So am I, really, as I probably won't go out to eat anywhere interesting once he's gone.) Tempted by Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill but wanting something we hadn't tried before, but something that would be a bit original, I started looking at celebrity chef restaurants on the Strip.

Unfortunately, many of those establishments were dressy, and we hadn't quite achieved that. (The Yelp search interface seriously needs to be able to filter by dress code.)

Then I saw it: Bouchon.

"It says the dress code is casual." But, after searching on Google and within Yelp results, we saw people expressing some hesitance in calling it "casual." Hmm. Well, we were on the high end of casual, so why not just go look at the menu?

(Other peeve: restaurant websites that don't offer the establishment's menu. True, there are some third party menu websites, but I've been burned too many times to put much faith in them. I understand that some restaurants change their offerings frequently, but that's not the usual case. And yes, there are daily variations and specials, but how much time does it take to have one savvy member of your staff type or even just tweet the specials every morning?

All of this said, Bouchon does have an online menu, but it's completely unfriendly to iPhones because it doesn't use HTML to let users scroll down, so all you can see is the first few items. Remember when I was annoying the world with shouty despair over web accessibility in 1994, and the response was, basically, "fuck the sight impaired on their text-to-speech browsers and the people who turn images off to browse faster"? No, no one does, but believe me, now I'm all "Ha HA! Accessibility DOES matter! Are you going to shrug off everyone with a smartphone?! Ha HA, I say!")

When we got to the Venetian, we realized that we didn't actually know where Bouchon was. It turns out that you need to take a guarded elevator. "We just want to look at the menu," I said apologetically.

"You want to eat at Bouchon? Come this way. Take the elevator to the 10th floor. Cross the Sky Bridge."

Getting past the guard was much easier than I expected.

The young women in front of us were wearing casual but stylish blouses with jeans. "We're okay," I said to Mike. He spoke to the hostess, and we were seated right away.

But I get what people mean about how it's casual but not casual-casual. Even though there were people in jeans and sleeveless shirts, there was an overall "smartness" that made me glad my slip-on black faux-sneakers were under the table.

The waiter asked if we wanted still, fizzy, or bottled water. Or (the pause of the period was clear) house water. "House water," I said. And did we care for some wine or a cocktail?

"Actually, do you have ginger ale?" "Er..." The waiter appeared to try to figure out exactly what that was.

"Or do you have soft drinks?" Mike asked. The waiter backed away from the table a bit.

"I could... maybe I could try to find a root beer?"

"Do you perhaps have something like lemonade?" Mike asked. The waiter continued to struggle with all of these wild demands.

"I.. I think we might? I will check."

Awhile later, Mike was brought a modest glass filled with chunky, close-fitting ice and ordinary lemonade, which the waiter referred to as "juice." Suffice to say that refills were not free.

Eventually the waiter returned and came to where I was sitting, looking expectant with his pen and pad. I looked expectantly back at him. He looked down. "Ah," he said, and he took the paper square that had been around my napkin. "Actually, this is the menu."

Okay, Mike and I don't have to put on our company manners very often, and I didn't attend any kind of accredited charm school, but despite my Falstaffian appearance, you can actually take me out into polite society. I have a sure hand with multiple forks, and I would never shame my firmly middle class upbringing by spooning soup toward me instead of in gentle, counter-intuitive, outward sweeps. So, I don't think people are bred to just know that their overlarge napkin holder unfolds into a menu.

(I saw the hostess explain the menu to all the parties seated after us. We were seated by a waiter, not the hostess, so I guess our situation was unusual. We laughed, but the waiter seemed kind of embarrassed for us and I felt like there was a certain remedial tone to everything he said afterward, but maybe that's just me.)

Menus available at last, Mike was disappointed that the salad he'd eyed on the menu at the non-Bouchon (but phone-friendly) website wasn't there. (See? This is why you post your menu so that everyone can read it. Control your online presence, people.) Still, the salade des.. oh cripes, I'm not going to type all of the French. Je suis désolée, Madame Mosher (9th and 10th grade French teacher).

What I mean to say is that we found enough that looked good. Several specials were available. We both decided to start with the potato and leek soup (a special), then Mike would have the new potato salad and I would have the endive salad. From there, Mike chose the steak and I chose the gnocchi.

Bread arrived, placed directly on the table with butter and a cup of pistachios.

Hrm. No little bread plates? Or a butter knife? Well, I guess the table was covered with paper for a reason.

The bread was that perfect (to me) blend of crusty on the outside and springy/soft (but dense) on the inside. Mike was particularly pleased with it, but OCD me was having a hard time reconciling all of the crumbs falling all over the table thanks to that thick crust. (It didn't help that it took a bit of oof! to break the bread.) I felt weird putting my chewed-on piece just down on the table in front of me, and I couldn't help but try to covertly brush all of our crumbs under the pistachio dish plate.

The "water-waiter," who also did some bussing and seemed to be a nice (if serious) guy, happened to notice, though. He moved the dish to the side (exposing all of our shame crumbs) and took a silver rod from his pocket. This was (I later asked) a "crumber," which he used to sweep all of the crumbs into its "holding groove" then dispose of.

The crumber was neat to see the first time, but the second time it had to be used (after the soup was cleared and we'd turned back to the bread), I was thinking I would defintiely have preferred little plates instead of feeling so uncoordinated and messy. Or am I just too middle class to know how to crack ubercrusty bread without requiring a clean-up crew? Maybe it's an environmental concern (fewer dishes to wash), but then why serve the pistachio cup on a little plate? The butter cup didn't get a little plate. This is all more thinking than I feel the bread deserves, as good as it was.

And let's have a word about the water again. When the water-waiter would refill our glasses, he would only fill them about 2/3 of the way. Sir, this is Las Vegas. It's essentially summertime. You apparently don't sell any non-alcoholic drinks. (Friends of Bill, beware.) We already know, even before seeing the dessert menu, that our tip is going to be more than we pay for most meals. And there we were, conserving sips.

Was it a ploy to get us to order bottled water? Refills didn't appear at all during our main course, which made my dish of essentially unsauced gnocchi (more on this in a moment) more like a pile of tator tots than I would have liked. During dessert, the water-waiter looked a bit shocked when we agreed to a water refill. (Then why ask?) He barely refilled our glasses past the halfway point. The only explanation I have is that this is some penny wise/pound foolish attempt to be conscious about water waste. In which case, why the heck no soft drinks? I'm not suggesting that Bouchon "proudly serve Coke/Pepsi" products. I was ready to pay silly prices for an Italian-style soda or a sparkling water with cordial, something like that. (Again, do they really wish to alienate those people who, for whatever reason, choose not to drink alcohol?)

I liked the waiter who was in charge of bringing out the food. He described everything fully as he placed it and seemed friendly and accessible, always ending with a Bon Appetit! I hate to keep playing the "at these prices" card, but, to me, hospitality is the backbone of the restaurant business, and Bouchon was unremarkable if not somewhat wanting in this area. I know I'm American and thus have stricter expectations for congenial waiter behaviour (or so my Aussie tells me), but all I want to do is feel welcome. This can be done in a warm, refined way without resorting to TGI Fridays' tactics, but - except for the "food delivering waiter" (is there a special title?) - I didn't feel like anyone was particularly pleased to be sharing world-famous, Michelin-rated, bestselling cookbook author Thomas Keller's creations with us.

Our waiter had asked if we wanted the soup, salad, and main brought out "1, 2, 3" or all at once. If you'd seen our table (a two-top with a chair on one side and a shared bench on the other), you would've wondered how he planned to get six dishes on there, but it was nice to be asked. Lately everywhere we go, main dishes seem to come while we're still eating our salads.

The potato and leek soup had a dollop of "hazelnut marmalade" in the middle and was "finished off with extra virgin olive oil."

The soup was velvety smooth, and the hazelnuts added an unexpected and pleasant edge. This is what I'd hoped to find at Bouchon: expert preparation with that little signature "twist" you don't see elsewhere.

The portion was quite generous, so unfortunately, after the hazelnut center was gone, the soup quickly became "samey." My early bites also had an interesting "tang" to them that disappeared around the same time. (Lemon?) Speaking of which...

The waiter stopped by. "How do you like the soup?"

"Delicious," I said.

"What are the dominant flavours?" he asked.

Er. Potato? Leek? Mike quickly made his mouth busy with eating. I was on my own. "I think leek, but there is a really pleasant tang, too. I'm not sure what it is?"

"Mmm hmm." The waiter almost smiled a little, nodded a little, and left.

What the hell was that? So, not only did I possibly fail the quiz, but I don't know the answer to my tang question. This is just bad soup pedagogy.

Our salads were presented beautifully. Here is Mike's Salade de Pommes de Terre (new crop potatoes, pearl onions, spring garlic, and confit of egg yolk - yes, I am copying and pasting from the phone-hating online menu, although the Oxford comma is mine since bread crumb explosions aren't my only hangup):

And here is my Salade de Cresson et d’'Endives (watercress, endive, Roquefort, and walnuts with walnut vinaigrette):

Mike: "Isn't Roquefort now banned in the United States? Or under heavy tariff?" "Oh yeah, I remember that." This added some excitement to the salad, although now that I've checked Wikipedia, I see that our Roquefort import issues with France have since been resolved.

(I remember reading a good article on this once, which Wikipedia sums up well. At some point, Europe banned our country's hormone-laden beef. The US Trade Representative, feeling a bit frisky as the Bush administration came to an end, jacked up the tariffs on many European luxury goods to sky-high numbers in retaliation. Classy. And by "classy," I mean "Douche move, Susan Schwab.")

Despite the Roquefort intrigue, Mike made the better choice on the salad. The little I tasted of his was delightfully soft and savoury.

Mine felt like it was missing something. The (unadvertised) Kalamata olives just increased what should've been a subtle bitterness from the walnuts and walnut vinaigrette. Other than the clump at the top, the Roquefort was hard to find and so finely crumbled that it was equally hard to spear. A little fruit or a bit more cheese would've made this a more interesting, satisfying salad for me. Instead of ingredients that played off the novelty (to me) of walnut vinaigrette, the salad just felt unfinished and artless in its bitterness.

I often label Mike as "picky" because, even though I'm a vegetarian and thus would be the one you'd expect to veto our choices when dining out, he seems to overtake my vetoes at a 3:1* ratio. (*Unscientifically measured because I don't have a special pedometer that calcultes the number of miles I've rolled my eyes when he claims there's "nothing" for him at a restaurant.)

One of Mike's aversions is anything fungal. I've known several people like this, and I myself grew up hating mushrooms. We don't like what we don't like, true, and I know I'm done with giving second and thirtieth and hundredth chances to cooked spinach, which is always going to be Satan's special green bowl of stringy diarrhea, as far as my mouth is concerned.

I got over my dislike of mushrooms just through trying them in some new ways, so it does irk me when the aforementioned "several people" won't even try something they haven't tasted since childhood, but whatever. I'm not the boss of the world. You can tell by all the people under 21 with neck tattoos.

(I should admit that "several people" is mostly "the thoroughly smug and bitchy wife of an ex-boyfriend's best friend." I can barely remember what those three people looked like, but annoying remarks ride in my sulk pocket until I can complain about them in some public way. After twentyish years, finally! You kids don't know how lucky you are today, with your instant public venting opportunities. Now just put some more career contemplation time between turning 18 and your first neck tattoo, and we'll be cool.)

So, I was really proud of Mike for ordering a steak that was served in truffled liquid. (Specifically: Steak Bouchon, grilled New York strip steak with potato boulangère, celery branch, and black truffle jus.)

The steak was cooked perfectly, and Mike particularly liked the potatoes. I was also proud of him because I know he would've preferred to have gone somewhere where he could've had something more inventive than steak. But, if you don't like seafood/fish, lamb, some types of sausage, sandwiches for dinner, roasted chicken unless you know it will be roasted just-so and even then, or gnocchi without sauce, then at Bouchon you have two choices of steak. (And you must accept that you are a picky eater.)

So, while the steak was good (although, no, he didn't care for the truffle jus and wished it wasn't on his steak), it wasn't really Mike's thing, which isn't Bouchon's fault. Just a comment.

"Maybe I just don't like French food," Mike said later.

"Is Bouchon's French?" I countered. A few moments passed and I continued. "I mean, other than the French name, and the way they call it a bistro?"

"The menu is in French."

"Oh yeaaaah." Me just s l o w sometimes.

Okay, let's discuss the Gnocchi à la Parisienne: sautéed gnocchi with a fricassée of garden vegetables and brown butter sauce.

I sometimes get ravioli in brown butter sauce here and there, and when I do, there is definitely more moisture present than what I found in this dish. I know that picture makes things look like they're glistening with delicately applied browned butter, but that's a lie of the light. Gnocchi are (as you no doubt know) little potato dumplings. The taste gets very dry, and very old, very fast if all you have is the smidgy bit of sauce at the bottom, a few clumps of regular butter (look to the right), and four or so tomato strips for moisture.

(I did try to eat the gnocchi with the shown spinach, because I'm not really that big of a weenie on cooked spinach if it doesn't have a strong smell, but that just made it taste more dry.)

I will concede that the gnocchi was nicely prepared, but as I said way back when, after five or six, there was a definite "fanciest tator tots ever" vibe to this very dry experience. A few nights ago we finally tried Nora's, a place many call their fave Italian in Las Vegas, and their gnocchi was lighter and more pillowy than what Keller is serving at Bouchon, plus they offered adequate sauce. Bouchon's gnocchi is ultimately so disappointing that, given Keller's credentials, the only explanation I have is that this is preciousness for the sake of it.

While we waited for a dessert menu, our water-waiter offered to box our leftovers. He came back with a lovely bag with - gasp! - a rope and a half of bread on the top. Okay, that was pretty nice of them. I felt like I'd just been given a goodie bag at a culinary trade show, and I surreptitiously snapped a pic of it next to me. (All of my photos were discreetly taken, as felt appropriate to the atmosphere, and of course I never use flash. Blur is my badge of pride.)

As Mike pointed out, this is the hot tip for Bouchon: always get something to go so you can have more bread. I don't think the bread is any better than Bon Breads or Bonjour Bakery or the loaves they will sell you at Baguette Cafe if you ask, but it is good bread.

Before the official dessert menus came, we consulted the regular menu (I asked to keep mine) and decided Mike would get the chocolate marquise and I would get the lemon tart, then we would try each other's dishes. But one of the specials was chocolate brownie with coconut ice cream and a pineapple something, so I changed my mind.

Mike's "dark chocolate mousse with burnt orange cream"

Mine:

"This is the best thing I've had during this meal," Mike said. My dessert was yummy (could've used a little more pineapple for my taste, and those little cubes were tasteless, but maybe that's a nitpick), and I think it was probably the best part of my meal, too.

But then I think about that other Keller in town, Hubert Keller of Fleur and Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay. The link goes to my Yelp review, where you can see that I gave Fleur three stars. It wasn't the best of experiences in terms of service or food.

And yet, H. Keller's cilantro granita with pineapple carpaccio still calls to me in stray moments. Elegant, inventive, surprising, and just incredibly tasty. I may go back to Fleur just to have it once more, or I may keep my memory untainted with the risk of a second try. Here's a pic:

Cilantro granita changed my mouth

I didn't see anything like that on Bouchon's menu. Maybe they were tired of typing by that point and left off a bunch of description that might've changed my perception, but despite being good, and the best part of my meal, there was nothing extraordinary about my brownies, about my coconut ice cream (Babycakes at the M Resort has coconut ice cream and coconut sorbet that outshine this), or about that ridge of pineapple and shaved coconut, other than it was very pretty.

In short (Rocky Horror Crowd Participation Voice: "TOO LATE!"), the most expensive meal I've had so far in my life should've been better. It was great fun to try, and the highs and lows of each dish held my attention and kept the anticipation going, but when I write my Yelp review, I will give it 3.5 stars. And since half-stars aren't available to reviewers on Yelp, I'm going to round down and question that half star in the first place.

No non-alcoholic drinks unless you enter lengthy negotiations for some mediocre "juice"? A waiter who pretends(?) to be flummoxed by the notion of soft drinks? Stingy water refills both in the pouring and the frequency? A general lack of making me feel like a valued guest or at least like part of a fine dining experience?

Add to this a menu of dishes that never quite delivered a "signature quirk" that would set them apart from the competition, and I would advise the me of yesterday to either raise my fashion bar and try a different celebrity chef or just enjoy three very nice high-middle-road meals for the price of this one.

04 June 2012 |



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