Bouchon -- An honest bistro
Tucked away on the second floor of the Venetian resort, Thomas Keller's Bouchon bistro is a well-known destination for the serious foodie. It is place that celebrates the authentic, which is evident in antique cast iron lighting and French murals on walls that have been painted to look like the product of 100 years of patina. But most of all, this is evident in the food. There are no sauces painted on the plate by chef-artists armed with piping bags here. This is a restaurant where you order your meat rare, scatter pistachio shells on the table, and chow on perfectly prepared pommes frites with big, earthy red wines.
First of all, this is a restaurant that demands your complete attention. There is no view here. There are no fountains, flashing lights, open fires, or shops to distract. Nobody wanders into Bouchon off the street. The patrons at Bouchon are here because they heard their friends talk about steamed mussels and steak frites. They are lured in with the promise of superlative charcuterie. They come because they've heard of the famous relationship Bouchon chefs have with their seafood vendors. Most of all, they come to eat the kind of food you simply cannot get anywhere outside Lyon.
This is the restaurant where chef Anthony Bourdain became famously flustered with the fries, spilling red wine all over the table in a fit of jealousy. Bouchon may have what is considered to be the finest pomme frite on the planet. The fact that they'll sell you an order a la carte for $5.50 is just one of the endearing qualities of this bistro.
It is a bit of a hike to get to Bouchon. Down long marble halls, up an elevator, and down more long marble halls, the Venetian's baroque opulence lessens as diners turn the corner and are smacked square in the olfactory senses with the smell of reducing jus and julienned potatoes frying somewhere in the kitchen.
The restaurant is quite long, and almost resembles a railway platform. Wrought iron lights look like they were ripped off street corners and transported to Las Vegas Boulevard. Murals of bicycles and hats by Paulin Pâris adorn the walls. But the first thing that catches the eye is the pewter seafood bar, 30-feet long, showcasing the freshest shellfish to be found in the Las Vegas valley. The pewter bar continues most of the length of the restaurant, showcasing the bistro’s liquor selection.
Nina and I were led to our table and a bowl of pistachios and braided bread were rather haphazardly deposited on our paper tablecloth. I ordered Washington oysters and a glass of Chimay Cinq Cents to start. I had been looking forward to the oysters all week. We had the best oysters of our lives at Harrod's in London not two months ago, and I wanted to see how Bouchon's selection stacked up.
Kelly, our waitress, brought orders of Savavie, Shamis Bay, and Sister Point oysters. The oysters were served with a traditional cocktail sauce and a shallot-infused red wine vinegar. I found both sauces (and lemon, for that matter) to be entirely unnecessary. The oysters were divine. While Nina preferred hers with a little vinegar, I thought the natural oyster liquor and the slight Belgian twang and sour note of the Chimay was all they needed.
So, how did Bouchon's selection compare to Harrod's you may wonder? The Biscay oyster liquor tasted more of the sea, but the flavor of the meat was heavenly. My Washington oysters had a liquor I could drink by the glass, and an excellent flavor as well. Considering my oysters at Bouchon cost half what I paid at Harrod's, I was very pleased. The flavor of both clung tenaciously to the palate, in this case only relenting for my onion soup.
For an hors d'oeuvre Nina stayed with seafood, ordering the Beignets de Brandade de Morue. The cod was absolutely silky, wrapped in a pear-shaped, lightly-fried beignet. The three beignets sat on a confit of sun-dried tomato – the acidity brightened the fish while the sweetness complimented.
I took a different tack: French comfort food. I ordered the onion soup, and I am so glad I did. I own the Bouchon cookbook but I have not attempted the onion soup. According to Keller, the onions must be caramelized for five hours. Five hours!
I was happy chef Marc Hopper took the time when my generous crock of beefy goodness arrived. After my first sip of broth, I thought “veal” but Kelly told me it was simple beef stock. It may have been beef stock, but it certainly wasn’t simple. The stock was velvety and luxurious, with a hint of marrow. The onions bought their caramelized sweetness to the dish. Even after tasting the soup, I don’t think I’d want to spend five hours making a batch. I’d rather return to Bouchon and pay nine-fifty.
Nina kept with her seafood path, ordering the Dayboat Scallops off the specials board. The dish featured four U-15 scallops in a red wine butter, with crusty skins and tender centers. The accompanying pomme pureé bought comfort to the dish, and provided a venue for mopping up all the red-wine butter. The scallops were paired with sweet sautéed rhubarb. Nina said the rhubarb was all the dessert she could possibly need.
I thought about my dessert course, until my Steak Frites arrived. Bouchon uses the flatiron cut from the shoulder. The flatiron is all the rage these days, because once the connective tissue is cut away, the steak is second in tenderness only to the tenderloin, and has the powerful flavor of a skirt steak. I ordered mine rare and it arrived perfectly rare and well rested. A mountain of the best frites I had ever tasted came with, and this dish absolutely finished me.
The steak itself was just what I expected from a bistro, full of big flavor, topped with caramelized shallots and a maitre d’hotel butter. You have to love the French for topping their beef with several ounces of dairy fat.
I enjoyed a ripe Grenach/Syrah blend with my steak and Nina paired her scallops with a Melon de Bougogne. Nina finished her scallops and was enjoying her rhurbarb as I wrestled with a seemingly unending pile of frites, sopping up beef juices. I finally had to cry “uncle.”
I would love to comment on the desserts here, but that will have to wait for another review. I was killed by french fries, which in retrospect is not a half-bad way to go. The dessert menu also features six excellent cheeses, and an assortment of tarts and crémes. I was hoping to have a go at the profiteroles.
There is a generous assortment of ports, sherries and dessert wines. Bouchon also offers cigars, but sadly only “to go.”
To summarize, I had very high expectations of Bouchon, and the chefs delivered. Every item on the menu is a classic, and created using slow, traditional techniques.
Manager Dan Boyer told me the only problem he faces is customers who arrive at Bouchon expecting “French Laundry Lite.” I can see his point. The food of our great-grandparents has sadly become foreign to us. There is no tripe or cheek meat to be found at the meat section of the local megamart. And the kind of butchers who specialize in unusual cuts are fast disappearing from the American landscape. More’s the pity.
Bouchon is a screening of “Casablanca” in a world of digital effects. It’s old school, steeped in tradition. For the uninitiated, Bouchon is crash course in honest French cuisine.
Nina and I will be returning here often. If nothing else, I anxiously await trying the steamed mussels with fries.