Restaurant Charlie and Bar Charlie at The Palazzo Hotel

A few days before I left for Vegas, I called the Palazzo Hotel to book a table at Restaurant Charlie. I had heard rumors and rumblings that it might be open, but nothing for sure, and I actually had to speak with four people at the hotel before anyone could tell me concretely one way or the other. Suffice it to say that I wasn't exactly sure what to expect when I got to the restaurant, as the data available on the internet was also vague- steakhouse? seafood? casual? upscale?

The sign at the door answered the seafood question right away:

When you enter the restaurant, there is a bar to the left and another to the right. The one to the right turns out to be Bar Charlie, which is a restaurant-within-a-restaurant. It is a 20 seat bar behind which chefs work preparing 8 and 15 course Kaiseki style tasting menus, which are paired with wine, sake, cocktails, and beer. More on that in a bit.

The bar on the left is much more brightly lit, and is a pre-dinner cocktail bar. While the servers told me that there was a very progressive and involved cocktail program going on here, due to my time restrictions (I had to leave for the airport after my meal[s] ) I didn't undertake a thorough investigation. I will say, however, that I didn't see any of what I have come to think of as the trademarks of a top-notch cocktail scene: piles of citrus, hand juicers, dozens of unmarked glass bottles of homemade bitters, tinctures, and other "stuff"- but again- I only had one cocktail all night and I didn't watch it being made, so I will reserve judgment.

From the cocktail bar, you walk through a very impressive glass enclosed wine cellar, which I was told will eventually hold 5,000 bottles (they are at about 1200 now, they said). The dining room itself is very spacious, with extremely high ceilings and plate glass windows along the far side which gave the room beautiful light, if a bit of glare as the sun set outside. there was a semi-private dining room in the rear to the right which held several tables and could be closed off with a curtain, and another to the left, which contained only one table that could seat up to 16, I think, and looked really great- like a cockpit, I thought. The decor is mostly beige and browns, with lovely robin's egg blue velvet chairs and banquettes. The theme is very contemporary, and I would say verges on the generic. Thankfully, I'm not alone in that opinion- my captain informed me that plans for a redecoration are already in the works.

My initial reaction to the space was to think-"oh my goodness- this is Trotter's Per Se!" While neither the kitchen, the dining room, nor the menu achieve the surreal grandiosity of Per Se's, this is clearly a very ambitious project, which, if guided by a very firm hand, will have lots of potential for greatness.

The main dining room is a la carte, which I found a little upsetting, since the menu read so beautifully. Even with my meals at Guy Savoy and Robuchon making me feel like a fattened goose, and with a hangover with its own zip code, I wanted to try everything on it. Even the skate terrine, although I wouldn't want to eat that, just look at it and figure it out. But, I digress. (click on the pictures to enlarge them to full size)

I finally decided on a glass of the Soter "Beacon Hill" Brut Rose, with the amuse, a riff on bacon and eggs. Poached quail egg, parsley puree, and a few other components I can't remember . Very delicious, indeed.

Marinated New Zealand Tai Snapper with Santa Barbara Sea Urchin & Hijiki:
If you're enlarging the photos, you may notice a detail on this one which was one of my favorite things about the whole restaurant- the most amazingly beautiful fresh seaweed is used liberally throughout the menu. I am in love with sea vegetables, and I think that this is a really great development to see. Its not a product that I've ever really worked with, so I grilled the cooks at Bar Charlie about it. They say it comes in wrapped in the Tokyo newspaper. Also, this uni was absolutely perfect- so fresh and sweet. Mmm.

Braised Octopus with Picholine Olives, Serrano Ham & Scarlet Peppers
This was an interesting dish in that it was very homey and rustic- it would have been right at home on the menu at Casa Mono or something. There are only two reasons that it fit right in on a menu this refined (ie- expensive!). First, it tasted amazing. I am saying that even though it was heavily oversalted. I mean, this was scrumptious. If the seasoning had been a tad less aggressive, this would have been out of this world, top 10 all-time good. Second, they cooked the octopus overnight in sous vide, and if I had to guess, at a pretty high temp (like a proper simmer), in the delicious tomato sauce. This caused the skin to shred and disintegrate, and some of the suckers to fall right off, and created a whole new texture in octopus. It was firm yet entirely yielding, without any gelatinous parts- I mean, divine. I don't think I've ever had octopus cooked sous vide before, and while I don't think it's the best technique for everything, this absolutely convinced me that it is definitely the best way to prepare octopus.

My last course in the main dining room was the Hand Harvested Sea Scallops with Parsley Emulsion & Yogurt

Now, before I rave about how delicious this dish was, let me just underscore the fact that this dish is priced at $42- for three scallops. For a foodie like me, worth it, but I'm guessing that they're going to get some serious flack from some of the folks who end up dining there who are eating because they're actually hungry- not out of professional curiosity or love for the craft. Call me crazy, but I think there might be a few visitors to Las Vegas who don't put "demented foodie" at the top of their list of hobbies. I predict prices coming down, or portions increasing within a few months, as Chef Trotter gets a little more accustomed to running a room with an a la carte menu.

As for the dish- dead on. Now, I know that some of you will look at those scallops and say that they don't have a perfect sear. But they were cooked perfectly from one side to the other, not raw, but not too cooked, so I won't complain about aesthetics. The parsley and yogurt sauce were in ideal balance with the curry powder (house made, I'd guess) sprinkled on the plate. My captain, who was very distressed that I wasn't drinking very much (aforementioned hangover, impending redeye flight, etc), saw to it that I had a glass of a very nice village Chablis, which was a perfect match, bringing even more harmony to the dish. One commentary that I will make about this restaurant is that the wine pairings were first rate. Even in Bar Charlie, where the pairings and the menu were a bit more experimental and fluid, the wine choices were spot-on.

After I'd finished I was presented with the dessert menu. I chose not to order any, but I did make note of their extensive and very carefully curated tea selection. That is a neat thing, I think. I meant to order a pot, but forgot in the bustle as I was whisked off on a kitchen tour (mea culpa- no photos!!!)

The kitchen is small and very efficient. Chef Trotter chose to use two 6'(I'm guessing) American style flat-tops back to back, with a 3' rail facing the pass. I LOVE that set-up. The whole Moltini/Bonnet thing has it's appeal, I guess, but I've always preferred a good Dodge pickup to a Ferrari anyways. I just don't understand why guys want to buy flashy $150k stoves that you can only fit 6 pots on. For that amount of hassle you might as well just do your whole service on induction, and save yourself $120k, plus your whole gas bill. Anyway. I think that the setup was fish+ meat on the far side, with hot+cold apps on the other with (it looked like) three guys on the pass, and pastry on the other side of the lowboys from cold apps. They had three over three Traulson reach-ins, and a small amount of refrigeration in the back, but overall a very impressively small amount of cold storage for a restaurant that size, which is another great sign of a well-designed kitchen. The one thing I didn't notice was where their circulators were- probably to the back of the stove.

The third distinct dining area in the restaurant (with its own 10 course menu) is the very awesome chefs table, which is on a little loft with lucite walls over the stove, so that you can watch the whole service from a birds-eye view. I can't wait to see pictures from somebody's dinner there!

After my tour, I moved on to my second dinner at Bar Charlie (I asked if I'd get a t-shirt, but they said you only get a prize if you eat in the dining room, bar, AND chef's table consecutively. Maybe next time)

This is a dark, intimate space, with 20 seats facing the food preparation area (not a kitchen, really, only 1 induction, more like a really big garde manger). This is presided over by a very serious looking Japanese gentleman, whose exact job title (chef de cuisine of the bar?) I'm not sure of. In fact, the folks here were pretty cagey about job titles- when I asked if someone was a sommelier, I was assured that all of the dining room staff were on equal footing, and that the same went in the kitchen, that everyone could work every station, and that there wasn't "rank". Yeah right. Nice idea, though.

There were 2 or 3 other cooks working the bar the night I was in, and they said they thought that they'd probably max out around 5 or 6 when they get very full. This space reminded me a lot of Degustation in NY (nix the planchas etc.), and I anticipate that the pace of service will be similarly erratic once they're slamming. There is a kind of algorithm that seems to limit the number of highly intricate tiny dishes you can serve to a given number of people when your space is limited (and you have to run into the other kitchen to actually cook anything). I think that'll be okay, though- my meal could have comfortably taken much longer than it did. If you're going in for something like this, you're probably not too pressed for time to begin with.

I didn't take notes, so forgive my sketchy descriptions. I'll do my best. Again, everything was very, very good. Here are a few (crappy) ambiance photos:

Sadly, I also didn't get a great photo of this. It was 8 hour 64 degree eggs, with crab meat and crispy rice. I love eggs, and this was delicious.The pairing for this was a beautiful sweet sake called Rihaku Nigori Sake Dreamy Clouds.

Next was this lovely dish, arctic char with blood orange segments and vinaigrette, with fried seaweed on top. This was very lovely, perfectly light and in balance, and the fish was the perfect temperature. The pairing for this was a very unusual sparkling sake, which reminded me a lot of Zima, if Zima wasn't gross. I'd never had a sparkling sake before, but I'd highly reccomend it, although I will warn you that this one, at least, was pretty sweet.

Then came this great fish dish, a fillet of a small fish whose name I can't remember, dipped in panko and fried, over a carrot ginger puree(?), with baby carrots. Very delicious, it reminded me of the fish fries we used to have when I was little, when the smelts were running. Perfectly fried, light, not overcooked.

This is tempura fried abalone, with shaved fennel, fennel puree (?) and a fennel chip. I don't usually like abalone that much, but it sure tastes good battered and fried! The fennel was very refreshing. This was paired with a great white burgundy (Macon, maybe?), which had very surprising, sauv blanc-esque fennel notes to it. This was one of the really amazing pairings of the night.

This is the kurabota pork soup, with soba, maitake mushroom, and fermented black beans. Another delicious, oversalted dish. They're really going to have to watch that- they're cooking like cooks. We all love salt, but this would have knocked a housewife from Kansas right out of her chair. Paired with a Volnay, which seems to be THE village, at the moment- I was served Volnay at Guy Savoy and Robuchon as well. This worked well, as the earthiness matched with the pork, and the tart fruit cut through some of the richness and salt.

This is a salad of lobster knuckles and seaweed on mango puree and sweet potato mousse:

Absolutely a gorgeous dish. If this had had something crispy on top, it would have been perfect. That seaweed alone was a revelation. The sommeliers, who at this point had sussed out that I know a little about wine, tried out a risky pairing on me: a 1990 Vouvray. The wine itself was stunning- as rich and viscous as a Quarts de Chaume, sweet and luscious, and yet mineral. Unfortunately, the texture of the wine was a bit heavy for the dish. I would have chosen a Sauvignon Blanc, or even a Muscadet de Sevre et Maine sur lie for this, and I would have served the Vouvray with something a bit more acidic or salty, as time seemed to have softened its edges a bit. A great learning opportunity, overall.

This was my dessert amuse:

A Meyer lemon sorbet with blueberries and micro basil. This was paired with a lemon drop from the cocktail bar, made from a house infused lemon vodka. The flavors here were good, but the whole thing was just way too sweet for me. I only eat sugar at these special dinners, and I just can't handle this much sweetness anymore.

I didn't manage to photograph my dessert, a rich and delicious cocoa nib cake, which was served with a gorgeous, special 1971 PX sherry, which would have been plenty of dessert for me on its own. A fitting finale to a wonderful evening. I really loved my meal here, and was really impressed with the contagious excitement of the whole staff. I hope they make a great go of it, and wish them the best of luck.

And now, dear reader, a cautionary tale: when you've got a redeye flight home, and a date in the morning for the flower show with your mom, avoid this:
Alas, I've got only myself to blame!


Joel Robuchon at the Mansion, MGM Grand

Since I first started to cook, I have been indoctrinated in a mantra: "We cannot achieve perfection, just strive for it every day". This is the motto of the great chef Joel Robuchon, and it is an idea upon which a whole philosophy of the culinary arts rests. Imagine my amazement, my shock, as I sat at Joel Robuchon's breathtaking restaurant at the MGM Grand, of all places- one of only four diners in the restaurant- and ate a perfect meal. It was like seeing a unicorn, or a purple sky. A meal of a lifetime.

Le Petit Pois Floating island on top of cream of peas with hint of mint, veal juice, sesame seed fritter

Selection of 24 Breads, Baked Daily

Bacon Bread, Gruyere Baguette

Le Caviar Green Asparagus topped with Oscetra caviar, delicate gelee and a smooth cauliflower cream, thin couscous and Oscetra caviar

La Saint-Jacques Pan seared scallops with fregolas pastas and coral emulsion

L'Oeuf Egg yolk in an herb ravioli, baby spinach and morels

La Symphonie de Truffe Black truffle in a hot pastry, onions and smoked ham, first vegetables in a green cabbage ravioli, light truffle cream on top of celeriac custard

Le Parmigiano Reggiano Parmesan and vegetable consomme with baby leeks

L'Oursan Sea urchin, potato puree with a hint of coffee

Le Turbot Roasted turbot "on the bone" with chestnuts and truffle stew

Le Boeuf Grilled Kobe beef, roasted foie gras with port, cheese macaronis, black pepper cristalline

Les Pousses de Soja Soy bean cooked risotto style with mushrooms and chives

Le Rouge Spice Red berry coulis perfumed with spices, muscovado sugar from Maurice island and pineapple sorbet

La Fuji Slowly caramelized apple, cider vinegar panna cotta and peanut ice cream

Ice Creams and Sorbets