Recently I heard that Ruth Reichl (former NY Times restaurant critic and current Gourmet editor-in-chief) did not eat multi-course dinners anymore. After dining at Le Cirque in the Bellagio in Las Vegas, I can certainly understand where she is coming from. However, I would have not given up that meal for the world. (coincidentally the New York outpost of Le Cirque is the recipient of the famous ‘double review’ from Reichl. One as a common-but-disguised diner and one as a famous food critic; the service differed greatly.)
The first in a set of three birthday dinners, Le Cirque held a sense of excitement for me. I have never really dined in any high end restaurants in Las Vegas. Diego at MGM and Thomas Keller’s Bouchon at the Venetian were about as ‘big name’ (and big budget) as I had gone. After reading glowing reviews on Chowhound about Le Cirque (mostly about it’s value for money and high service standards) I booked a table online for myself, Michael and friend (and former chef), Connor.
I arrived at Le Cirque earlier than my dining companions, laden with shopping bags. As I sat in the lounge for my party to arrive, I was – well – doted upon by the maître d’ and hostess. It was not forced or over-eager, simply good, attentive service. Would I like some champagne? A cocktail? Perhaps a pomegranate martini? After Connor and Mike arrived, we were whisked to our table; a coveted corner booth/banquette with a view of the famous Bellagio fountains. My knees melted as I took it all in.
Murals on the wall depicted scenes from a circus, with adorable monkeys playing a large role. Later, the bread server told me, under her breath, that every staff member had a secret assigned character on the walls, picked according to personality. The ceiling was draped in brilliant fabrics. Their plates and table settings were…well, they were fantastic. I contemplated sneaking one into my purse, but the constantly hovering and always watching staff really put a stop to that. Damn.
Full table set
(it wasn’t until reviewing my photos that I realized the servers placed the monkeys at the exact same angle every time)
Their dishes are classic French. As we reviewed the menu, we were asked for our drink orders. I requested the aforementioned pomegranate martini and Mike asked if he might have a negroni. The maître d’ said as he walked away: “You can have anything you want”; a trend that continued throughout the meal. The bread arrived quickly; walnut-olive, mini baguettes and fresh, soft pretzels warm in a basket, served with salted and unsalted butter.
Pomegranate martini (closest) and negroni. Both arrived in shakers which were then poured almost to the brim, tableside.
After perusing the menu and options, all three of us decided to partake in the 5-course degustation menu. At $145 a person, it’s not cheap, but is not the most expensive tasting menu on the Strip. (Robuchon’s Mansion at the MGM probably fills that void; the truffle menu is over $500 and the 16-course tasting menu is $385 )
Also up for grabs: a truffle tasting menu for $300 or so and a three course prix-fixe set for $85. However, its location, ambience and service really catapult Le Cirque into the upper echelons of value in Las Vegas. The restaurant was quietly busy for our 7pm reservation; I’d say it was half full for our entire meal. Many groups of four, although a table of two was celebrating their anniversary nearest to us.
Just to complete the experience, I added on the wine pairing; a glass with each course for an additional $65. And was I glad I did; the sommelier, Freddy, was a treat and filled out the evening. However, he did keep pouring glass after glass of free tastings when he saw I was sharing with Mike and Connor, despite telling him I had to drive later. Other than that, he was charming, unpretentious, and easy to get along with. Overall, the service throughout the night was bang on. So much so, I began to think they had a microphone in our booth, listening to our comments. The portions were enormous given it was a tasting menu, and I was shocked I ate everything. The pacing probably had a lot to do with it. I believe it took us just over 2 and a half hours to dine.
I’ve probably already done enough writing. I will let the photos do the talking.
The draped ceiling at Le Cirque
Adorable monkey motif on the dinner plates
The murals, behind Mike. He is seated on the striped banquette.
Fountains, as seen from my seat.
Amuse bouche: Komomoto oyster with American caviar, served over crushed ice with blue curaçao for colour.
Unfortunately, Connor’s oyster was not properly shucked and he struggled to detach it from the shell. However, mine slid down my throat like a salty melting candy. This appeared to be one of only two missteps in the dinner service (the later being jus with a skin.)
To start: Lobster salad “Le Cirque“
This is one of the signature dishes, and rightfully so. Four large sweet chunks of poached lobster sat on a bed of avocado and green string beans, topped with tender frisée and microgreens and wrapped with cucumber. Spicy mayonnaise and balsamic vinaigrette on the side. Oddly, we did not receive the truffle chip that seems to be customary with this dish. The wine pairing was a 2002 Chablis, Vieilles Vignes from Burgundy.
First: Sautéed Hudson Valley foie gras
This rich slab of foie gras came on a bed of Asian pear, raspberries and topped with microgreens. What made this all the more decadent was the wine pairing: a Hungarian wine from the Royal Tokaji wine company, the 2003 5 Puttonyos. As Freddy, the sommelier said: “I like to serve fat with fat.” It was sweet, thick and rich. Excellent with the foie gras and fruit compote.
Second: Tomato-caper risotto, served with salted cod croquette and a quail egg.
This little pot may look diminutive, but let me assure you it was not. The hearty helping left me wanting more, and I was almost licking the velvety sauce out of the pot by the end. The salty capers bursting in my mouth paired unexpectedly well with the creamy, almost sweet risotto. Wine pairing: 2004 Domaine Leflaive le Clavoillon Puligny-Montrachet, from Burgundy.
Third: Paupiette of sea bass with braised leeks and red wine sauce.
Again, an enormous portion. Freddy came over with the wine, which was a 2002 Volnay “Vieilles Vignes” Jean-Marc Bouley. He said it was supposed to be the same wine in the sauce, or that he at least gave a bottle to the kitchen to use, and hoped that it made it in the dish. The synchronicity was really neat, and I enjoyed swilling back the wine and sauce at the same time. The crispy potato “skin” around the rich sea bass was a nice touch.
Fourth: Beef tenderloin, on wild mushrooms and pea mousseline, topped with potato “souffle” and dusted with cocoa nibs.
Extremely elaborate. A very fancy way to present a pretty basic meat and potato meal! This dish was very Vegas…the souffle on top was very reminiscent of the “cloud” that hovers over Fashion Show Mall. It tasted like a high end potato chip. The meat was tender, and the mushrooms a treat. The mousselline was the very essence of baby peas, and I couldn’t get enough. Mike was disappointed there was a skin on the jus from it sitting a bit too long. Seconds later, the maître d’ was at our table, confirming everything was alright. When we stated it was, he was insistent well tell him if something was not. This was when I began to suspect hidden microphones at the table. It was disturbing…how did they know?
Our set of silverware for the course included this adorable bee-decorated steak knife.
The wine pairing was a hefty red; a 2004 Chateau Moulin Saint Georges.
Then…the final stage: dessert.
Pre-dessert: Macerated berries with vanilla (?) sorbet and gold leaf.
The “bowl” was sugar and edible, although it hurt my teeth to eat it. At the start I had informed our server I was allergic to papaya and he was pleased I did, for this dish featured it heavily. Instead, I got wild berries. This refreshing course was light and cleansed our palates for…the main event, “dessert fantasy.”
Ice bowl with tequila sorbet and various fruits.
Chocolate souffle with crème anglaise and strawberry sugar.
We each received a different dessert, much to my pleasure. Michael received an ice bowl full of fruity frozen delights with tequila sorbet, I believe. (may have been strawberry soup, however) I got the chocolate souffle, which was a disappointment. Not in presentation or execution, though! I was simply more in the mood for a light fruity treat, such as the one Mike received. I later pawned my super rich, yet undeniably airy and light souffle off on Connor and Mike.
Connor’s was the most impressive dessert (although I neglected to ask for a taste of it!) A small black shiny “pearl” bombe the size of an plum was brought out on a plate. Placed in front of Connor, a hot chocolate sauce was poured on the bombe, melting the chocolate shell to reveal layers of praline and white chocolate ice cream. How amazing is that?
The final wine was a glass of 2003 late bottle vintage port.
To finish, petit fours.
I snatched the lemon meringue which was not overly cloying or sweet, and a perfect finish to the meal. Also on the plate, chocolate rice puff, some sort of jelly, raspberry tart, a chocolate praline or some kind and some marshmallowy thing. (can you tell I was growing weary by this point?)
A small memento to bring home. It’s a jewelry box, with two hidden drawers which were filled with two decadent truffles. As if I needed anything after that feast!
While not cheap, and not overly experimental or odd, the food and atmosphere were solid and a real bargain. The service, however, is what will make me consider going back. If not to visit Freddy, then to try their rabbit…