I don't part with money easily. Generally, this isn't a problem for my lifestyle-- I have very few real needs. I don't drink, I don't need the latest tech toys, and Lord knows I don't care about fashion. While I do make a couple of trips to San Francisco each year for puzzle events, I don't galavant around the world. I don't go to concerts (unless you're dancing in the aisles, I don't see the point-- and I don't dance in the aisles). An old car gets me there just as well as a new one. Really, there are very few things I want to buy in the first place.
Then there's food.
I enjoy food. I like reading about it, I like making it, and I like eating it. Food makes me happy. But even so, I don't like dropping a big wad of cash on a meal. Food is ephemeral. When a dinner is over, you've got nothing to show for it but extra inches. Are the memories of a great meal worth the money you pay for it?
I read about the Great Restaurants of our time. I see their chefs on television. And it boggles my mind that such restaurants, where $100 is only the beginning of a meal, are able to sustain themselves. Who is their clientele? Outside of Hollywood and Wall Street, are there people who go out to eat at such places on a regular basis? Who are these people? How much more than me do they earn? Or do they make even less than I do, but run up their credit cards and leave nothing in their bank accounts? Are they living for today, where I'm living for tomorrow? Or do they just have expense accounts? I always have buyers' remorse after an expensive restaurant meal, especially one where the price is for artistry and doesn't necessarily result in leaving fully sated.
My wife and I are in Vegas for our babymoon-- a last trip together before the baby arrives and shackles us to hearth and home. We're here because she wanted to go someplace warm and sit by a pool to relax. I love Vegas. I love the energy of the place, the way the Strip comes alive at night with throngs of people, flashes of neon, and a palpable sense of fun waiting to happen. But this town is built for one thing: separating you from your money. The only question is whether you're going to give it away in the casino or exact some measure of trade for it elsewhere.
As far as I'm concerned, this trip is all about her. Couples like to say "we're pregnant," but really-- she's doing all the heavy lifting. I'm just around to, well, keep her from needing to lift anything else. So last night I took her to dinner at the restaurant of her favorite Top Chef Masters chef, Hubert Keller-- Fleur de Lys at the Mandalay Bay. Marital disclaimer: she did not ask to be taken to Fleur de Lys-- that was my idea.
The room itself was surprisingly plain-- a tall room with curved, stone walls and long gray curtains hanging from the ceiling. Each table was set with attractive floral plates specially designed for the restaurant. We opted for the 4-course "Elegance" menu, and between us managed to sample almost everything on it.
Dinner began with an an amuse bouche, which I think was the first amuse I've ever had. I had a tiny morsel of tempura cod over a smidge of puree (potato?) with a cayenne cream; my wife got a gluten-free candied beet with three dots of different beet vinaigrettes. A lovely bite to be sure, but... where did this whole amuse bouche thing come from? Could anything be more pretentious? A single bit of food, plated up to look attractive, but to tease your palate. If you enjoy it... tough, there's just that one bite. What a production that must be in the kitchen, to manufacture that single bite of food and present it just so.
The bread basket offered four choices: challah twists, onion herb foccacia, whole wheat rolls, and pretzel rolls. I tried all but the foccacia over the course of the evening, and while all were fine, none were remarkable. Oddly, all were served chilled. The pretzel rolls were my favorite, but would have been even better served warm. And I've ranted about this before, but... what's the deal with chilled butter? These days just about the only time butter is brought to your table is with bread. The whole idea is to spread it. So why are you serving me a rock-hard slab of the stuff that I'll have to carefully shave with my knife and still tear up the bread as I apply it, instead of a soft, pliable pillow that glides effortless across the bread?
Our first course was a truffled cream of onion soup with a braised duck ragout crepe (I didn't bring a camera, so... Internet to the rescue!). The bowls were brought to the table with just the crepes, a single shaved truffle, and a swirl of red wine shallot puree at the bottom. The soup was then poured over, tableside. My wife is trying to eat gluten-free, so hers came without the crepe and mine came with an extra. I'm sure you have entirely the wrong image in your mind for the crepe. It was about the size of a Tootsie Roll or Jolly Rancher-- a ragout of duck bound together by a very thin crepe. The soup was delicious. We both agreed we could have swam in it. I'd expected something more like a French onion soup, but it was nothing of the kind. There was not a single onion in sight, but the flavor was unmistakable. The texture was smooth and velvety, and while my wife enjoyed hers, I certainly enjoyed mine more because I got to partake of the duck. Only for two spoonfuls, one per crepe, but those two bits elevated the dish to an entirely different level. Our server said this soup was their most-Yelped-about dish, and I can certainly understand why.
Next, my wife had the salmon mi-cuit (partially cooked) in whole grain mustard sauce, which chef Keller had made in the dorm room episode of Top Chef Masters. I had veal and Yukon Gold potato ravioli with sunchokes, pea shoots, and veal jus. That's a sunchoke foam atop the dish in the photo, and I now understand why so many people on Top Chef roll their eyes over foams. Does that look good to you? It's as if the Brundlefly predigested something atop my food. Aside from a bubbliness, it didn't impart much flavor. The ravioli were soft, but otherwise unremarkable. By far the best thing about this dish was the veal jus. I brought the bread guy back to the table so I could get something to sop up all that fabulous jus, and didn't let the server take the plate away until there was nothing soppable left. Wife's review of the salmon (her portion was half what is pictured): "Good, small, nothing spectacular. The sauce was nice."
Next up were the highlights of the meal. For my wife, a filet with potato puree, and for me, stout-braised beef short rib with root vegetable puree and stone-ground mustard, with a jus poured around the plate at the table. Wife: "Fantastic! Cooked to perfection, melt-in-your-mouth. Sauce was delicious, and the potatoes were wonderful-- smooth and creamy." As for me, I don't think I've ever had a better short rib. The meat was spectacularly fall-apart-with-a-fork tender, with just the right amount of fat distributed throughout the meat-- not fatty at all, but unctuous and gelatinous in a delightful way that lubricated every bite. The hint of mustard was just right. The puree, while smooth and creamy, was a mere supporting player-- the short rib was the unquestioned star. I just wish there had been more of it!
Dessert was merely OK. She had a quartet of fresh sorbets (blood orange being the standout), while I went with the warm chocolate fondant cake with popcorn ice cream and peanut butter milkshake. The cake did what it was supposed to do-- oozed warm chocolate when opened-- but the salted caramel center hinted at by the menu failed to show up on my palate. The popcorn ice cream was terrific-- think Crackerjack, not movie theater. I didn't expect to like the milkshake (not a fan of peanut butter in any form other than peanut butter) and I wasn't surprised, although my wife happily sucked down the remainder for me.
A plate of 5 half-bite dessert morsels followed, including a fabulous peanut butter, chocolate, and graham cracker square that I'd have eagerly taken in a full brownie-sized bar.
The menu was $89 a person, and our Restaurant.com $50 certificate (which wound up covering tax and tip, but nothing else) was greeted with cheerful enthusiasm. Service was terrific throughout the meal from all parties. My water glass was never empty, our server was a pleasant guide, and the kitchen was very accommodating with my wife's desire to go gluten-free.
So was the $180 meal for two worth it? I'm not sure. Neither of us left the restaurant feeling full, but neither were we hungry. I would have loved to eat more (especially that short rib!), but I certainily didn't need more. There were memorable dishes and some misses. Service was efficient, pleasant, and unobtrusive (not that I need rappelling wine angels, mind you). We enjoyed ourselves and looked forward to each new dish. This is certainly not something I'd do on a regular basis. I think my expectations are too high. For the price, I expect to be not merely pleased, but wowed. Upscale dining may not be my scene. I'm just a value shopper. The meal I had at Poppy in Seattle last month was every bit as good as this one, and was more fun, less full of itself, and less expensive. I'm glad we went to Fleur de Lys. I'll even do it again somewhere else sometime, perhaps even this trip. But I'll take a great hole-in-the-wall over an overpriced celebrity chef any normal day of the week.