It’s been 18 months since we were last in Las Vegas. The last time it was the depths of winter. It was Christmas, though we were pretending it wasn’t. Vegas was a strange half place stuck between glimmering lights and the depths of darkness. The streets were all but deserted, bar the kind of people who are no longer invited to family holiday festivities. On their own, or in sketchy groups they spun on gaming stools and drank beverages thick with corn syrup and booze out of plastic guitars that dangled from their necks.
This time we’re here for a quick pit stop on a road trip that will take us from San Diego to Chicago. It’s us, a white Prius I’ve nicknamed Pete and five days. There were a few routes we could take, but the pull of a little luxury at a good price and a sound meal that didn’t involve avocado or beans was too much.
Vegas baby, Vegas.
When we arrive it’s Saturday night. It’s so searingly hot my hair spirals into defensive curls. The temperature gage in the car says 113 F. By 6.30 pm the strip is a teeming crowd of pheromones and fanatics. Sports, sex, Garth Brooks and gambling. There’s something for everyone. In the lobby of the Trump; a shiny new gold bar of a building, just off the strip there are at least five girls in playsuits and platform wedges, shrieking and making plans for their assault on the strip. Playsuits. When did they become a thing?
Our destination for dinner was a simple choice. Steak. Frites. Snails. Chocolate mousse. We’re heading to Bouchon.
The last time we ate at Thomas Keller’s interpretation of a Parisian bistro was at the original; in Yountville. It’s a meal that has become mythologised, tossed back and forth between us when life gets a little scratchy. There was rain outside and the windows were foggy. There were truffle frites and a couple of glasses of cote du rhone. It was a simple, perfect meal.
The Vegas version of Bouchon is a little different.
For one, it’s not on a quiet main street of the Napa Valley that’s blinking with twinkle lights for the holidays. It’s inside the Venetian. “Just head past the grand canal, keep to the left of the gondoliers in the Grand Canal, go past the big American flag and then across the gaming floor. Then head to the guest parking area and take the lift to level 10″. Ok.
Vegas and the Catholic Church are both tarred with a reputation for occasional visual excess. So it stands to reason that Vegas’ version of Roman aesthetics should be a gilded lily, dipped in oil, polished and photographed with a flash on. The anti chamber of Bouchon is heralded by ceilings 24 foot or so high, held up by gold columns interspersed with salmon tinged cherubs and friezes of maidens clutching sheets to guard their modesty. Each panel of the ceiling is painted and each window shows frames more sculptures and curlicues.
Bouchon itself is every cliche of a Parisian bistro, put in a stick blender. In Napa it’s intimate and elegant. In Vegas the size of the restaurant is on a scale better suited to a school cafeteria. Within it are high backed booths, the wooden chairs and gilded mirrors with specials inscribed in white cursive. Then there are the essentials of Vegas; flatscreens suspended in corners live broadcasting a splattering of sports channels.
On our way in we make our way past the bar and iced displays of ‘fruits de mer’. Past banquets and booths and behind a tightly squished group of 10 hooting hens who all seem to have spent some dedicated time eating their feelings.
In Napa the crowd is made up of people acclimatising to the good life before a meal at French Laundry, or smartly dressed locals. In Vegas half of the crowd have tumbled in from the gaming floor or the wave pool at the Mandalay Bay. There are flip flops and board shorts and sneakers with white socks pulled up high.
But there are things that are still the same. The menus are still brown greaseproof pape folded around napkins and the item listed on them s ring many bells.
The pistachios come complimentary and warm as does the baguette which comes in fern like fronds.
The snails twirling in garlic, butter with a jaunty hat of puff pastry are still there, though pretty timidly seasoned.
There’s a special of tete du porc; three different bits of a pig, melded together into a warm and rough timbale.
For cut through on the plate there’s a charcuterie sauce, made up of tiny dice of carrot, celery, cornichons and capers with a meaty jus and some delicate frisee. It’s darn good.
The steak frites is close to what The Hungry One remembers; the beef charred on the outside and ruby pink inside.
There’s a fat pat of butter flecked with tarragon, parsley and garlic. Dwarfing it is a mound of chips that look more like a pile of kindling stacked to survive a harsh winter.
The roast chicken is close to my fond recollection; the skin pulling back like over-starched sheet.
The breast and leg are indulgently tender. Pooling around it is a sauce made from chicken jus and bulked out with whole chantarelle mushrooms and sticky roasted segments of fig. It’s a murky and mustily curious combination that works because the chicken plays it so straight.
There’s a carafe of 500 ml of pink wine and a glass of cote du rhone for The Hungry One. There’s fantasy talk of setting up a surfing camp north of Sydney and mocking out menus. Now that would be a good life. For dessert there’s chocolate mousse to share that comes in a squat pot more akin to a sugar bowl.
Forming a thick skin on the top is some serious dark ganache. Beneath is a pit of mousse with more chew than air. Lange du chat biscuits form a star to the left before they get snapped by the heft of the mousse.
There’s espresso that is borderline drinkable, and then; that’s it.
When we stand to leave the girls behind us are onto their sixth bottle of chardonnay and are hoeing into extra orders of fries on the side. There’s a group crowding the bar that are still clutching their mix drinks from the gaming floor, trying to convince their friends to hurry up and join the queue at Tryst.
For us it’s a walk down to watch the Bellagio fountains sway to Elton John’s ‘Song for Guy’. It’s another glass of wine at Mario Batali’s St Marco’s while listening to a classical flautist in a mock up/ cock up of St Mark’s square. It’s some careless hours while we keep entertaining options of what we might do and where we might go, both that night and in years to come.
In Vegas it’s easier to make grand plans. While you’re here things might not be perfect; but in the midst of such ludicrous sights and the occasional passable imitation; nearly everything seems possible.