Birthday at Bouchon

For my birthday last week, I happened to be at a conference in Las Vegas. So for dinner, we went to my favorite restaurant there, Bouchon. Bouchon is part of the empire of Thomas Keller, the chef (and useful cookbook author) whose flagship restaurants, Napa Valley's The French Laundry and New York City's Per Se, are perhaps the most lauded in the United States. Since they're also priced like it, I've never been to either. Unlike his 3-Michelin-star joints, Bouchon's menu isn't dominated by innovative concepts and idiosyncrasy. The idea is classic French bistro food prepared well. That's not an insult; classics are classics for a reason, and I love French bistro cooking. Bouchon is special because it brings Keller's attention to detail and top-quality ingredients in at a more accessible price point, and you won't complain that you've had a lot of what's on the menu before.

The meal started of with a bang. If you like cocktails, my tip is to order a Manhattan if the restaurant has a decent rye. Bouchon has Michter's -- very good, despite the departure from its Pennsylvania roots -- and while it's largely a lost art in the midst of a "generation lobotomized by vodka" the Manhattan was absolutely perfect. They also had some well-selected taps, and my friend enjoyed a Delirium Tremens, his (and my) favorite Belgian ale. Having had a stiff drink we thought a full bottle of wine from the excellent (if very pricey) wine list would be overkill, so we ordered a carafe of an a very good red Rhone from Beaumes-de-Venise. For the appetizers we split an excellent plate of homemade charcuterie with pickled vegetables and a salad with hearts of palm, cippolini onions, rhubarb, and rhubard gellee. I love hearts of palm, and the salad showed them off perfectly with the combination of tart and spice.

For our main courses, I went very simple, getting a roast chicken. As non-innovative as can be, but the beautifully prepared free-range chicken was easily the best I've ever had, and the accompaniment (forest mushrooms, fava beans, pea tendrils, pickled mustard seeds, and an au jus) provided flavorful accents. It was even better than the braised short ribs I had last time. My friend, who had already tried the chicken on a previous visit, tried the leg of lamb. The lamb was also exceptionally high quality and cooked precisely to the requested medium rare. I couldn't try the sides (spring peas, swiss chard subric, glazed trunips, and a garlic au jus) because of allergy issues, but my friend have a strong thumbs-up across the board. Especially interesting was the subric, a sort of julienned vegetable croquette I couldn't have because it was fried in peanut oil. For dessert, we were comped an order of profiteroles for my birthday. This isn't my favorite dessert -- obviously, my allergy limits my options -- but these were excellent, a substantial improvement over the mediocre creme caramel that was the only duff note in our previous visit. The homemade ice cream, in particular, was fantastic; if you aren't compelled by the other options I would recommend it as a stand-alone dessert.

The atmosphere is also a major plus. The well-spaced tables in a room tucked away in the second floor of the Venitian were comfortable. The service was as attentive and friendly as could be expected -- waters glasses were filled regularly, a napkin I dropped was replaced immediately, and there was none of the tacky upselling from servers that sometimes mars even good restaurants in Vegas (with Mario Batalli's otherwise very good Carne Vino being a particularly egregious offender.) The staff accommodated my allergy without complaint. The food might be more causal, but the service is three-star all the way.

Overall, this remains my favorite restaurant in the city that I've visited quite a bit, and indeed the second meal was better overall than the first. If you like classic bistro cooking or want to try Keller but don't have the capital or perseverance to get a Per Se reservation, I recommend that you try Bouchon.


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