Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Foodie Diaries: Bouchon at The Venetian

It will surprise none of you, dear readers, to discover that I consider myself a bit of a foodie. Whenever I make one of my frequent pilgrimages to Las Vegas, I always make sure to have at least one meal at a spectacular restaurant from a world-class chef (while, at the same time, never neglecting to pay visits to junky buffets and fast-food joints like Smashburger).

So I've decided to start documenting my amazing trips to the culinary Valhalla of Sin City with this blog, and I'm opening my foodie diaries series with a doozy: a visit to Thomas Keller's Bouchon in The Venetian.

There is maybe no American chef more revered by foodies than Thomas Keller, whose French Laundry in the Napa Valley has been described by many as the greatest restaurant in the world and whose Per Se in New York has been described as even better than The French Laundry.

Like a good (and snobbish) fan of great food, I'm a little suspicious of the whole "celebrity chef" phenomenon, which has become an over-marketed and media hype driven phenomenon that's more about the cult of personality than good cooking. The mere fact that Guy Fieri is a household name is enough of a crime against humanity to convince a jury to give the trend a lethal injection, but then again, there are some chefs that deserve to the fame that comes with truly artful cooking... and Thomas Keller is one of those chefs.

Keller is famous for bringing an obsessive attention to detail to everything he cooks. While he's acknowledged that the idea of creating "perfect" food is truly an impossible goal, it's never deterred him from striving madly for pure perfection. He's like an elegant and witty mad scientist of deliciousness, and I can't overstate how much of a artist and rock-star the guy is in the food community. The guy even designed all the food and restaurants in Brad Bird's elegant Pixarserpiece Ratatouille, a fact that just adds an extra spice to Keller's epic menu of life awesomeness.

Las Vegas has become such a foodie town that even a serious artist like Keller has brought his brand to the glitzy glare of Sin City, where he opened his second branch of Bouchon Bistro. I've been obsessed with tasting Keller's cooking for years; though I've made stumbling and clumsy attempts at recreating some of his recipes from his best selling cookbooks, dining on food made by Keller and his trusted staff had become my culinary white whale for a few years, a dietary obsession I spent nights awake dreaming about; but The French Laundry is far (far, far, faaaaaar) out of my price range and I don't have the patience to suffer through the restaurant's legendarily long waiting list. But as a consolation prize to tide me over until I'm rich and important enough to eat at The French Laundry (translation: I'll probably never knock that one off my personal bucket list), I booked a table at The Venetian's version of Bouchon in preparation for my most recent trip to Vegas.

The other foodie who traveled with my group of friends to Sin City (or nerd to the rest of the group) and I sat down in the charmingly themed French bistro and started with a Pate appetizer. Pretentious, sure, but we were at a Thomas Keller restaurant, and we had to go big or go home. Keller is famous for his Steak Frites, and while "steak and fries" may seem a bit pedestrian for a gourmet restaurant with a menu curated by a celebrity chef, I can assure you there was nothing pedestrian about this mind-blowing dish. The pan-seared flat-iron Steak is served with caramelized shallots, but I think the real secret to the flavor explosion in the tender bites of prime meat is simple; an excessive use of deliciously sinful maître d'hôtel butter (make note that this is not a criticism by any means). The accompanying fries were another story entirely; with a taste akin to a gourmet take on McDonald's style fries (once again, this is anything but a criticism), I was shocked with each bite at how amazing they were; it's bold but I'm pretty comfortable declaring them the best fries I've ever eaten (and I really like french fries, you guys).

Obviously, you can't do a true foodie dinner without good wine, but ordering a good bottle can be hard to swing for an inconsistently employed freelancer like myself... so the fact that Bouchon offered great wines in carafes was a money saving miracle. We ordered an excellent Tempranillo that paired perfectly with the meat and fried potatoes to put us in a food coma.

But not enough of a food coma to discourage us from ordering dessert (because are you crazy? We may have been full but we fought through it, obviously. We were eating at a Thomas Keller restaurant, after all, so dessert was a forgone conclusion/ bad decision from the beginning). We enjoyed/ regretted the delectable cream puffs in equal measure, marveling at and feeling sick while contemplating the vanilla ice cream stuffed into them and warm chocolate sauce drizzled on top. Paired with an espresso, the dessert may have revealed the meaning of life to me; and the meaning of life is that we're all struggling day to day so we can earn the right to eat food cooked by Tom Keller.

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