The Heat in the Desert isn't all from the Sun!
I have been going to Las Vegas since the early Sixties, when I was the publicity rep for 16-year old Paul Anka and watched him sing "Diana" every night at The Sands Hotel. The desert city was different then, much more casual and fun. I have watched it change over the years to the corporate monstrosity it has become today. Yes, I go a few times a year to see the shows and sample the new restaurants, and I do realize that it has become the most 'intense' restaurant city in the world, with the deepest concentration of major restaurants anywhere on the planet. But if anyone had told me years ago that I would enjoy some of the finest French dinners of my life here, I would have scoffed at the notion. Two years ago I went to the opening of Parisian Chef Joel Rubichon's restaurant (Joel is at MGM Grand) and was blown away (16 courses for $375), and then Guy Savoy at Caesar's Palace did the same some time later. I'm not a fan of Alain Ducasse so did not bother with his new one. But it was my favorite French master chef, Pierre Gagnaire, that I was eager to savor here, and recently I had the opportunity to do so when my sister Ann and brother-in-law Kim Sowers came from Florida to work the jewelry show. Although in the past I have enjoyed Steve Wynn's Bellagio and Wynn's, I decided to stay at the new Mandarin Oriental,Las Vegas where Pierre's restaurant, Twist, was located. What a good choice!
Twist is Pierre Gagnaire's signature restaurant!
In Hong Kong I once had a chance to interview the Group Chief Exec of Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, a Frenchman named Edouard Ettedgui, and he told me then they intended it to become the best luxury hotel group in the world. Last week their Vegas p.r. man, Alex Acuna, met me at the 23rd floor check-in lobby and told me that when it opened in December, it was the 25th hotel in the chain (including those in the Group under development.) . The 47-story non-gambling hotel (3752 Las Vegas Blvd. South, (702) 590-8888) is situated in City Center, MGM Resort International's spectacular $8.5 billion-dollar development. It's a mixed use residential and hotel property, and I found it to be as chic, sophisticated and urban as the other Mandarin Orientals which I have visited in Hong Kong and New York. My old friend Adam Tihany did the interior design, and it is so cutting edge that it took me about a half-hour to figure out the bedside electronic panel which controls how to open and close the drapes and work the TV and lighting system. It is the epitome of contemporary elegance with a subtle Oriental design.
But it is the extraordinary Twist Restaurant to which I wish to call your attention. Some years ago the charming, idiocyncratic French chef, Pierre Gagnaire, came to Los Angeles for a week to cook at L'Orangerie. I was writing an article about this legendary figure, so was allowed to follow him about in the kitchen for a few days...only to see him leave town in a huff after the restaurant's owner complained about the cost of the chef's ingredients! The following year I was in Paris and dined at his restaurant at the Hotel Balzac. Gagnaire's cooking has been described as...experimental, whimsical, inspirational, unpredictable even...a study of going just over the edge of what's acceptable. It's all of that....and so exciting to boot. Those of us who were fans of the original Iron Chef TV show in the early days will remember his epic homard lobster battle with Iron Chef French Sakai, which Pierre won handily. By 1998 he had acquired his third Michelin star and began experimenting with molecular gastronomy. He opened in London, a bistro in Paris, and then moved to Asia with several restaurants, including one at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. Twist, with an investment of $7 million, is on the 23rd Sky Lobby floor of the Las Vegas hotel. In response to an inquiry, his wife Sylvie wrote me that it has been in the works for three years, and he didn't intend it to be a true 'gastronomic' restaurant, nor a bistro either...somewhere in between is how she described it, uniquely American in character. He has been described as a pioneer in French fusion cuisine; here diners are presented with familiar French flavors with a "twist" (of genius) by the chef.
On a Friday evening in June, my sister and brother-in-law and I settled into a nice rear table and greeted Chef de Cuisine Pascal Sanchez, who has been with Pierre for eight years, coming here from Sketch, Pierre's London restaurant. He told me that he enjoys living in the desert and is astonished at the quality of the produce and protein which is available to him. We laughed at Pierre's quotation on the front of the menu: ""Cuisine does not measure itself in terms of tradition or modernity. One must read it in the tenderness of the chef."" Pascal is a charming and tender chef. The restaurant, designed by Adam Tihany, is a subtle blending of silver and gray tones, with 20 ft. picture windows and 300 shiny spheres, a 'floating' wine loft, and just 72 seats.
We all chose to go with the Tasting Menu ($185, $280 with wine pairing, which we ignored when learning that they carried my wine-of-passion, Laetitia's Pinot Noir, which suited us all evening.)
My favorite red is the Laetitia Pinot Noir from Central Valley of California!
The menu describes it as six individual courses, but within each course is a multitude of dishes. A trio of delectable breads were offered, along with a seaweed butter and a fantastic cow's milk unsalted butter from Isigny in Normandie. Several canapés appeared, ranging from an Irish gelee trio (Guinness, Jack Daniels) to a cuttlefish salad to a Yukon gold potato chip with a smoked sardine. A fourth was several spears of savory, spicy flaxseed-and-garlic crackers set into a Bluefin Chantilly (actually a tuna cream). A fifth was a cheesy Pecorino cracker with a tinge of spinach, while the sixth was a toasted almond sable cookie. This was all before the first course appeared! Which was labelled: Shellfish & Red Beet. A red beet carpaccio with a shellfish salad on one plate, a soja-glazed piece of smoked eel on the second. Complex flavors already appearing....so much more to come. The second course was simply labeled: Sea and Earth. Santa Barbara prawns in a spicy grapefruit syrup with a ginger-potato salad. The second plate was poached duck foie gras, Iberico ham, and scallop mousseline. Oh, my, such an intriguing mix of disparate flavors. But this course was not yet finished...a plate of baby greens with an eggplant tuile, followed by a black-and-blue carrot gelee with squid ink gnocchetti and seaweed. My head was already spinning.
Third course was simply called: Black Cod. A grilled fillet of fish poached in citrus butter with a molasses-white balsamic glaze. Exquisite soft, fatty morsels (Nobu will be jealous). A small plate of mache salad with Manchego cheese, one of my favorites. My sister laughed when she saw the next plate: asparagus ice cream, green apples and Paris mushrooms, yet it all worked beautifully. An interlude was called Hibiscus: a gelee of the flower with mascarpone cream and Malabar pepper-braised turnip.
Now the serious course followed: Grilled Prime Sirloin. The sliced steak was accompanied by stewed celery-rhubarb, a Pinot Noir jus, and preserved shallots. The next plate featured a broccoli salad, egg "mimosa", and a red cabbage gelee. Grilled zucchini and beef carpaccio with a black olive marinade brought up the rear of the course. By then, we were overwhelmed by the mix of flavors and textures, the wonder of it all. An unexpected supplemental course of Santa Barbara Spiny Lobster appeared, and though we were pretty full it was finished off with dispatch.
Grand Dessert Pierre Gagnaire was five desserts inspired by French traditional patisseries. Lemon, of sorbet, water, cream. Honey parfait with dried fruit syrup. The Evil, as he calls it, saffron-tequila bavaroise, peppered mozzarella ice cream, coffee tartlette, whiskey chantilly, milk chocolate-pistachio glacee, chocolate grapefruit with Campari. I will confess that when I return for another dinner (and I shall) I will go a different route, ordering from the a la carte menu. There are too many other signature Gagnaire dishes I want to try...things like his veal sweetbreads, langoustines, foie gras degustation, Alaskan king crab, loup de mer, filet of' 'Never Never' veal, Confucious duck..and the like. Service by David and assistant Steve was professional and attentive; the coffee and petit fours were excellent, and the sommelier knew her stuff.
Someone once wrote, "Pierre Gagnaire's food is unconventional, surprising, jarring even, with some truly unique combinations of tastes, textures, temperatures and ingredients. It is challenging, sometimes confusing, and oftentimes intellectual. I felt that some of the food was beyond me - it must be approached with curiosity, playfulness, and a keenly open mind."
In the sea of neon and confusion which is today's Las Vegas, for me to find this zen temple of food contemplation is utterly satisfying, but then again I always wear a 100-year old jade Buddha around my neck to protect me from bad influences and equally bad food. Is Pierre's restaurant for everyone? No, of course not, it is interesting, confusing, thought-provoking. But I, for one, love it!
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