Best of the Best 2006: Dining
Cooking, like sports, is a young man’s game: A body can take only so many years of 12- to 14-hour days over an infernally hot stove. Chefs can begin feeling the strain in their 40s, and many depart the kitchen before they turn 60. Alas, unlike championship victories, which are preserved on videotape and in the record books, meals are ephemeral, and so too are restaurants. Chefs who retire court obscurity.
However, Frenchman Joël Robuchon is the Michael Jordan of his profession, a chef who has remained a star in and out of retirement. His first restaurant, Jamin, set a Michelin record by earning its third star two years after it debuted in Paris in 1981. When Robuchon closed Jamin in 1993 and opened Joël Robuchon in Paris in 1994, the stars followed. Two years later, he announced his retirement at the age of 51, but Robuchon did not leave the game completely: He wrote cookbooks, appeared on French television, and performed consulting work. Just as Jordan could not resist returning to the court, Robuchon was unable to stay away from the kitchen. In 2003, he reentered the restaurant business with L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris, a casual establishment that opened franchises in Tokyo in 2003 and in Las Vegas last fall. (Another L’Atelier was scheduled to debut at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan this spring, and more are planned for other cities worldwide.)
The Las Vegas L’Atelier, located in the MGM Grand hotel and casino, is twinned with the formal Joël Robuchon at the Mansion. The openings of the Las Vegas establishments—the chef’s foray into America—followed a blizzard of hype that included lobby posters in the MGM Grand that proclaimed of the Mansion, “Every meal you’ve ever eaten was simply in preparation for this moment.” Even Robuchon was not prepared to meet those expectations, but his restaurants more than acquit themselves.
L’Atelier is distinguished by its open kitchen surrounded by chairs from which you can watch a black-clad cook assemble a course before he places it before you. Here, you can sample Robuchon’s renowned potato puree, which is made with half a pound of butter and about a cup of whole milk. The L’Atelier variant also contains truffles and accompanies a free-range quail stuffed with foie gras. As indulgent as it is, this is a fitting dish for Las Vegas.
The tastefulness of the Mansion’s interior is more evocative of the Champs-Elysées than the Las Vegas Strip. The Mansion’s à la carte menu features another of Robuchon’s greatest hits, a version of his caviar and cauliflower cream dish. The restaurant also offers a 16-course tasting menu that permits Robuchon to flaunt his skills with delicacies such as sea urchin flan flavored with fennel and a frog leg fritter with chanterelles.
Robuchon may be growing old for this game, but with these two new Las Vegas establishments, he demonstrates that a restaurant bearing his name still is a crowd-pleasing slam dunk.
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
Joël Robuchon at the Mansion
Mario Batali’s landlords have found fault with Del Posto, the chef’s new Italian restaurant on the fringe of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. They claim he made some unauthorized renovations to the property and, as of early April, the parties were entangled in a legal dispute that could end in Batali’s eviction. If diners have any complaints about the restaurant, it likely will involve the menu’s communal offerings; several dishes are restricted to couples and foursomes. Other single-serving dishes that can be increased to feed an entire table are too delicious to share. Those who attempt to split an order of agnolotti—little envelopes of pasta filled with pork, capon, and veal parmigiano that arrive nested inside a folded white napkin—will find themselves in an unseemly race to consume as many as possible before they disappear.
Located in a newly completed complex on the grounds of Colorado Springs’ historic Broadmoor hotel, Summit is a modern montage of straight lines, curves, steel I-beams, and sheets of stone gracefully situated beneath the majestic slopes of Pikes Peak. New York architect Adam Tihany, whose long list of restaurant commissions includes Aureole, Per Se, and the lounge at the Mandarin Oriental New York, connects this sleek space to its rustic setting through his use of elemental materials, sweeping lines, and curves that mirror the boundless landscape.
Like the restaurant itself, chef Bertrand Bouquin’s cuisine blends the pastoral with the urbane. The Frenchman began his career at Le Prieuré in Villeneuve Lez Avignon and the three-star Bruneau in Belgium before immigrating to the United States, where he worked at Daniel and Café Boulud in New York. Bouquin combines his training in classic French cuisine with American ingredients to create his own all-American interpretations of brasserie-style dishes that are at once simple and sophisticated. Two menus are featured: The first is a selection of standard favorites, such as honey-and-ginger-drenched crispy oysters and New York steak in green peppercorn sauce; the second is an assortment of ever-changing seasonal dishes, which might include seared Sonoma foie gras or pan-roasted Alaskan halibut with port-wine reduction. Either menu, however, will showcase Summit at its peak.
Blue and Periwinkle, Eric Ripert’s restaurants at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, have more than a chef and colorful names in common: Both have menus that emphasize seafood—as you might expect given the restaurants’ island setting and the chef’s reputation—and both allow you to design your own meal by selecting any of a number of grilled fish, sauce, and side dish combinations. Blue, the more formal of the two establishments, also has a dinner tasting menu featuring items, such as tuna foie gras, that are favorites at Le Bernardin, Ripert’s acclaimed Manhattan restaurant. Other selections revel in the flavors of the Caribbean: The shrimp-fried basmati rice that accompanies a perfect piece of sautéed swordfish with coconut curry broth contains confetti-size pieces of pineapple, mango, red and green bell pepper, and tomato.
Blue and Periwinkle
Sonoma County Ripens
Cyrus Restaurant is named for Cyrus Alexander, a 19th-century California settler who planted grapevines in what is now Sonoma County. Like its namesake, the restaurant, which opened in March 2005 in Healdsburg’s Les Mars Hotel, also is a pioneer, as it has become the first Sonoma County establishment to rival the competition in nearby Napa Valley.
Co-owners Nick Peyton, who serves as maître d’, and Douglas Keane, who is the chef, came from San Francisco’s Restaurant Gary Danko and brought polish and style to the 65-seat space; a hostess announces arriving guests to the chef by phone before guiding them to their tables. Keane’s dishes, which include breast of squab with rice cake and glazed prunes, truffled red wine risotto in Parmesan broth, and Thai marinated lobster with avocado, mango, and hearts of palm, attest to his range.
The chef uses local ingredients to great effect, especially in the compote of Santa Rosa plums that complements his chocolate mousse, but the restaurant’s 600-selection wine list and its assortment of about 30 cheeses embrace the entire world. Cyrus’ reverence for all things first-rate has broken new ground in Sonoma’s culinary landscape—and blazed a trail for future excellence.
Fun With Science
Grant Achatz has long been on the cusp of greatness. He distinguished himself as a sous chef at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., during the late 1990s, and then earned praise for his tenure at Trio, a restaurant in Evanston, Ill., where he offered a black truffle explosion: ravioli that, when bitten, floods the mouth with truffle broth. This and other innovations prompted the James Beard Foundation to name him as the Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2003, and with the debut of his first restaurant, Alinea, in Chicago in May 2005, he validated the Beard folks’ selection. Achatz uses new techniques and tools to create such dishes as an amuse bouche of a dollop of frozen olive oil, topped with shaved Parmesan and black pepper, and presented on a special plate that holds its temperature at -40 degrees Celsius. Alinea also employs custom-designed serving pieces and utensils, including the metal pin on which the frozen olive oil is impaled. (Waiters warn diners to avoid skewering themselves when they lift it to their mouths.) Achatz ensures that the culinary adventures will never grow old by retiring dishes permanently after three months on the menu.
Two years after winning the James Beard Foundation’s best new restaurant award for 2003 for L’Impero, in Manhattan’s Tudor City district, chef Scott Conant set his sights on Midtown by opening Alto in April 2005. Conant, who expands his knowledge of authentic Italian cuisine by regularly visiting the country, named the restaurant for Italy’s Alto Adige region, an area in the extreme north, where Austria’s culture once was dominant. Alto originally reflected the region’s Austrian influence by offering such dishes as a pork entrée with caramelized cabbage and potato schupfnudeln. These items apparently perplexed too many diners expecting more familiar Italian fare, so Conant has eliminated the schupfnudeln and replaced the strudel dessert with cannelloni. But these and other dishes, including chestnut risotto with braised wild boar and preserved black truffles, prove that Conant’s talent for pleasing the taste buds remains unaltered.
Less Is M ore
Alain Senderens happily forfeited three Michelin stars when he closed Lucas Carton, his legendary Paris restaurant, in May 2005 and announced plans to create a new establishment that would offer, in his words, “three-star cuisine without the three-star prices.” When the chef opened Senderens in the old Lucas Carton space four months later, the linens, china, elaborate floral arrangements, and overly formal service that are typical of Michelin three-star restaurants had vanished. Signature dishes also underwent makeovers: The menu features Challans blackfoot chicken instead of Bresse chicken, accompanied by a risotto garnished with smaller slices of white Alba truffles.
Michelin’s 2006 guide to France appeared in February and bestowed two stars on Senderens, a showing that no other rookie restaurant has managed in the history of the publication. Regardless, Senderens continues to serve what he likes and how he likes, and the less expensive ingredients have not impoverished his menu. His duck Apicius, a dish that is roasted with honey and spices in the style of ancient Roman cuisine, retains its complex flavors, and his signature Tahitian vanilla mille-feuille dessert is still marvelously light and crisp.
Smell Of Success
Chef Bill Telepan, who opened Telepan on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in December, wins you over with his food before you even sit down. As you climb the steps to the front door of the 110-seat restaurant, sumptuous aromas greet you. They may be issuing from an appetizer of hen of the woods mushrooms, which are arranged diagonally around a poached egg like rays streaming from the sun. Telepan cooks like someone who places eggs at the center of the universe, but the coddled egg in a midcourse menu dish is eclipsed by, of all things, a side of house-made scrapple. The chef, who worked in Manhattan at Le Cirque, Le Bernardin, and Gotham Bar and Grill before making his name at the now-defunct Judson Grill, has a repertoire that hardly is limited to breakfast foods: Black truffle pierogi, lobster Bolognese, and a slow-roasted rack of organic lamb are on the menu as well.
Everything about Ame seems to be open to interpretation. The Japanese word from which the restaurant takes its name translates variously as “candy” or “rain,” and depending on whom you ask, the menu is described as contemporary American, New American, New Japanese, American-Japanese, or simply (to employ that handy but utterly useless placeholder to which we often resort when language or imagination fails us) fusion. But regardless of which culinary kingdom, phylum, or order taxonomists of the table choose to place this San Francisco eatery at the newly opened St. Regis Hotel, the end result of owner-chefs Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani’s efforts is invariably a playful and creative experience.
Taking its cue from the nearby San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Ame’s interior is linear and contemporary, without descending into the whitewashed and chromium-trimmed sterility favored by so many restaurateurs. The mesquite wood floors and a red lacquered wall give the space warmth and vibrancy, while the floor-to-ceiling windows, which look out onto Mission Street, lend the dining room a neighborhood ambience. One feels as though one could wander casually in for a bite; and (despite the demand for reservations) one can, thanks to the first-come, first-served sashimi bar, where specialties include a medley of five marinated tunas that melt on the tongue. Another outstanding starter is the poke, which consists of chopped fish wrapped in rice and fried nori with a shiso sauce. While the sake-marinated black cod with shrimp dumplings is a favorite among regulars, palates more disposed toward Western flavors will find refuge in the osso buco with artichokes and mint.