This past week has served up some serious Winter Wonderland material. Not only is our West Seattle home nestled in a good foot or so of snow, but we were in Vegas for its newsworthy snowfall last week. The green glow the snow took on in the lights of MGM Grand was something to behold!

For our fourth and final trip to Vegas this year, we stayed mostly at the Palazzo, the new tower on the Venetian property. Top-notch rooms, spacious, lots of great amenities. So swellegant that when we moved a few blocks south for our last night, the rooms at Paris seemed somehow less enchanting than they’d always been before. I played in a live blackjack tournament at the Rio, which was a little intimidating but went just fine. Didn’t win anything, but my play didn’t scream “novice” either, so I was happy. Even lead in chips at my table at the check-in point five hands before the end of play. It was a nice change of pace from slot and video poker tournaments we usually frequent.

This December trip has become an annual tradition to celebrate the husband’s birthday. It’s a fun town in which to answer that old “where should we go for your birthday dinner?” question. A couple recent favorites for the occasion include Okada at the Wynn and Hugo’s Cellar in the Four Queens Casino downtown (the two could not be more polar-opposite in style, each delicious and satisfying in their own way).

Last week we chose L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon for the fête. (Had we won a big jackpot prior to the dinner, we’d have happily upgraded to the more posh, formal, refined restaurant, called simply Joël Robuchon, next door. Another trip, we hope to make that happen!) The upscale-counter-service concept created something of a stir in Paris when Robuchon opened his Atelier there in 2003. I happened to have a trip to (the real) Paris that summer, the restaurant within walking distance of my longtime favorite hotel. Looks like they’ve become a bit more accommodating about reservations, at the time I recall a strict no-reservations policy. The elite French diners dropped off by their drivers strutted in to the hostess desk, past all of us waiting patiently on the sidewalk, haughty heads held high. Then returned to their cars at a quicker pace, muttering unpleasantries in such lyrical fashion, after confronting the fact that no pedigree or social rank was going to secure them a table. The wait was to be 45 minutes-plus, just like the rest of us. I don’t recall details about the meal, but we ate very well and had a lot of fun.

But back to Vegas. They do take reservations at this Atelier, though in these slow times they were also able to take walk-ins from the Cirque de Soleil theatre adjacent, with the KÀ production. Dinner was outstanding, service polished but friendly, the theater of the kitchen an enticing show to accompany our meal. Though it was tempting, we passed on the menu découverte, a 10-course selection that included langoustine carpaccio, creamy pumpkin soup with confit chestnuts and your choice of quail or hanger steak for the sole meaty element. We ordered, instead, from the left side of the menu, which was described as a chance to craft your own tasting menu, we were recommended to each choose 3 to 4 dishes.

Our amuse bouche was same as that for the découverte, a foie gras parfait topped with a thin layer of port reduction, then a generous layer of parmesan foam. Ohhh, baby, baby, delicious and decadent. And lucky me, I got two, this wasn’t quite Bob’s speed. Next we both had the layered Mediterranean vegetables, something like an elegant, pure-and-simple take on ratatouille, large slices of the grilled vegetables layered with buffalo mozzarella and herbs, very fresh and delicious, almost tasted like summer (a fun surprise on a snowy night).

We both also chose the langoustine, described as a “fritter” with basil pesto. Wow, so wonderful. Though not much like a fritter, to my mind. One large, perfect langoustine topped with a leaf of basil, wrapped in Feuilles de Brick
and lightly fried. A tiny but perfect little microgreen salad alongside was an ideal accent.

From here, we diverged. Bob really reveled in the fresh anchovies that had been marinated and served with sliced eggplant confit. Presentation was gorgeous and simple, a perfect, generous rectangle of the anchovies atop the layer of eggplant. I, meanwhile, was moaning quietly over the veal ravioli with fried artichoke scattered over the top. The pasta was paper thin and very delicately enclosed the veal filling. A rich veal reduction served as the sauce, and those crisp fried artichokes complemented beautifully. I was in heaven.

I wrapped things up with the quail offered on the découverte menu, the boneless breast stuffed with foie gras, the roasted leg alongside, accompanied by the famous, luxuriant Robuchon mashed potatoes that were generously embellished with truffle. Wow. The classic version of the potatoes was served alongside Bob’s John Dory, which had been pan-seared and came with baby calamari and artichokes.

(When I started working for Patricia Wells back in the early 1990s, she was just wrapping up work on Simply French with Joël Robuchon, I helped a bit with some of the book’s final details. There, the secret to his purée de pommes de terre  is spelled out. A couple highlights include the proportion of 2 pounds baking potatoes to about 1 cup of butter, and the technique of both pressing the potatoes through a food mill, then passing them through a fine tamis. See? totally luxuriant and worth every penny.)

The birthday boy’s dessert of choice is always cheese. Here’s where we hit a serious jackpot. With the 3-star Michelin restaurant next door, guests at l’Atelier have a chance to sample some truly outstanding cheeses that are brought in from France regularly to stock the cheese cart next door. Granted, we had just the 4 selected choices rather than a whole cart to pick from, but that will be a joy for another day. The four we had (and here I’m kicking myself for not taking better notes…) included a Sainte-Marue de Touraine goat, a tomme de brebis, and the rest is a blur of artfully aged milk. The presentation was, to our minds, cheese plate perfection, no honey or relish-this or pickled-that. Just a tiny green salad for a bright, fresh palate contrast.

The chef saw how much we enjoyed the cheeses and offered a plate with more of the tomme de brebis, what a treat that was. Though I was maxed out by that point; Bob was happy as could be.

It was a marvelous evening, really delicious, creative, finessed food, an ideal way to celebrate a birthday. Not inexpensive, we topped $300 with tax and tip (of which just 2 glasses of wine). It can be unnerving to look at a menu with small plate prices ranging from $20 to $38. But I was pleased with the size of the portions (more than a few bites) and for the quality/flavor values, the price was right. I’d go back to l’Atelier in a heartbeat. Though still looking forward to walking into the grander sibling alongside with a fistful of hundred dollar bills on one of our next trips.

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