Twist by Pierre Gagnaire- Las Vegas

I weave through the evening crowds on the Las Vegas strip as I make my way toward CityCenter.  The abrasive sounds of honking taxis and electronic slot machines pierce my ears and follow me everywhere.  Obnoxiously drunk college kids bump into me without an apology, almost spilling their beer from the fluorescent plastic yard glasses that they carry like a trophy.  While crossing the pedestrian bridge to get to the other side of the street, I get caught in a bottleneck of tourists who push me aside with their cheap cameras in order to get their postcard shot of the neon city.  The noise and the crowds start to get under my skin and I quicken my pace toward the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

I enter the dark and desolate ground floor of the hotel, wondering if I’m in the right place- there’s nobody there.  All of a sudden it’s so quiet that I can hear a pin drop on the black marble floors of the elevator lobby.  As I relax on the velvet bench in the elevator that silently whisks me up to the hotel lobby on the 23rd floor, I have a momentary flashback of a similar experience.  I remember the same feeling of escaping from a crazy urban jungle into a quiet zen oasis when I visited the Tapas Molecular Bar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Tokyo.  There too, a magical elevator transported me from concrete chaos to a chic hideaway in the skies with 360 degree views of the city lights.  Only this time, I’m finally getting my chance to dine at Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant.

Pierre Gagnaire‘s only US restaurant, Twist, which opened in December 2009, is accessed through a dark hallway from the spacious lobby.  A wondrous spectacle of 300 illuminated glass globes floating from the ceiling at different heights against a dynamic backdrop of the Vegas strip awaits at the other end of the dark tunnel.  The charming maitre d’ greets me by name and escorts me to a table against the back wall on the upper level which has equally good views of the open kitchen and the city lights.  It’s a surprisingly small restaurant where every seat is a good seat with an amazing view of the Strip.  I breath a sigh of relief for the tranquility and intimacy in this gorgeous restaurant which is unlike others in this bustling city where ‘bigger is better’.

The soft purple lights accent the dreamy atmosphere of this quaint and modern haven where I feel far removed from the bustle of the city below.  In true Mandarin Oriental style, this hotel and restaurant feel exclusive and private.  Even the bathrooms are exquisite, offering panoramic views of the city through its polished glass windows behind the sinks.  The service reflects the 3 Michelin star status of the world renowned French chef whose adoring American fans have rejoiced at the opening of this US outpost. For me it’s a blessing, as I’m still licking my wounds from last year’s trip to France when I had to cancel Saturday night reservations at his world famous restaurant on Rue Balzac in Paris because I was sick.

For a brief moment I blush and check below my feet as I’m led up the staircase to the suspended wine loft which hangs above the front desk.  I’m wearing a dress, and the staircase is made of clear glass.  It’s a sharp and clean space and I want to spend time looking at each bottle, but I’m anxious to finally savor the inventive and curious creations of the irreverent genius.  I don’t even notice the staff tucking me into my comfortable chair or adjusting my table setting as it’s all done quietly and smoothly.  Everything flows with the grace of a summer wind, all except for time which seems to stop.

‘Cuisine does not measure itself in terms of tradition or modernity.  One must read in it the tenderness of the chef’ – Pierre Gagnaire

The intricate menu opens to a description of the $285 tasting menu, titled ‘Homage to the American Product’.  Maine lobster with Riesling granité, Washington Bay scallops with turmeric, biscotti and apple-cinnamon paste, Sonoma foie gras served with vegetable cocotte and Confucius Duck of Sylvia Prizant with fresh morels, finished off by a 5 course dessert, entice my taste buds to explore this option, but I opt for some a la carte items that I can’t pass up.  The Sonoma Valley foie gras dégustation is a must for me, as well as the Langoustine appetizer.  We waver about ordering an additional appetizer of veal sweetbreads, but knowing that 1 course at Pierre Gagnaire means 4-5 offerings of eccentric interpretations of the main product, we keep it simple.  As we peruse the menu, we sip on refreshing signature Twist cocktails, lemongrass mojito and ginger pear bellini.

Meanwhile, an amuse bouche extravaganza arrives at our table, starting with the wondrous  Bluefin tuna chantilly with flax seed crackers.  The luscious whipped cream, infused with smokiness, is so light and airy that it practically floats up into one of the orbs in the ceiling.

Ginger lemongrass sablé with rabbit ear almonds is served with a mini pecorino cheese soufflé topped with a cheese crisp and spinach velouté dot.  I relish the crunchy pecorino morsel that tastes like refined comfort food.

The Guinness and Jack Daniels geleé with gingerbread crumble crust proves to be my favorite amuse with its dark and sexy flavors reminiscent of bitter chocolate.

The Nolpi salad of finely diced cuttlefish, haricot vert, red bell pepper and celeriac doesn’t have much flavoring but it offers a wonderful play of crunchy and chewy textures.

As we try to decipher the 43 page wine menu, we talk about the small nibbles that we just had, only to realize that we hadn’t even ordered our food yet.  There’s so much enthusiasm at the table already and dinner hasn’t officially started.  Even the breads are amazing- molasses raisin bread, mini baguettes and auvergnat are served with wedges of addictive seaweed butter and salted beurre Bretagne.  My anticipation and excitement grow by the second- this is going to be a thrilling and wild ride, and I am buckled up and more than ready to go.

3 servers descend upon our table at once, each carrying 3 plates for a total of 9 to start off our appetizer courses of Langoustine and Foie Gras Dégustation.  We are given strict instructions to start with the pan seared langoustines, served with chanterelle and trumpet mushrooms in a langoustine broth,  seasoned with ‘Terre de Sienne’ spices of piment d’Espelette and coriander and finished off with orange zest.  The fungi bring a distinct earthiness to the rich and creamy broth which we happily lap up with bits of bread.  I wonder if I can order a jar of this marvelous bisque to go, to take a piece of Gagnaire heaven back home with me.

A blushing exoskeleton carries its naked flesh over its shoulders in this interesting seafood plating.  A poached wedge of pear accompanies the perfectly grilled langoustine which is flavored with ginger teriyaki Diablo sauce.

Langoustine mousseline with spinach velouté, perfumed with Sherry Amontillado and garnished with dill spears, is creamy and rich.  As I dig my spoon into the pillowy mousseline, the vibrant green color of the velouté comes bleeding out.

Dark brown langoustine geleé is brought alive by the acidity of the sweet and sour heirloom tomato Juliette marmalade, and topped with a fine dusting of  lobster coral.  The minerality of the Leth Gruner Veltliner Steinagrund 2008 that our server pairs for our langoustine dish goes particularly well with the slightly bitter finish that the lobster coral brings to this otherwise rich dish.

My favorite dish of the evening is the fifth and final dish of the langoustine course, the plump and sweet langoustine tartare, served on a platform of wakame seaweed ice to keep the dish at an optimal cool temperature, and nestled under a blanket of nori confetti.  The succulent langoustine tails, such delightful little treasures of the ocean, are held in place with a dollop of creamy nori chantilly and flavored with a spicy grapefruit syrup that brightens up the dish.

The 4 course Sonoma Valley foie gras Dégustation begins with a seared wedge of buttery foie, flavored with sweet and sour duck glaze and accessorized with a complex amalgam of salty and sweet.  Soft chunks of sweet apple marmalade and slivers of Iberico ham take refuge atop the foie gras boat that floats on a puddle of bright aromatic Spanish olive oil.  The fruity olive oil surprisingly doesn’t weigh down the foie gras, but instead enhances and even lightens the fattiness of the protein.  This is a resonant and delightful dish that is well thought out.

Seared zucchini buttons embedded in the top forest green layer of spinach pureé add much needed texture to this otherwise disappointing dish of foie gras custard.  I can’t get past the second bite of the foie gras custard which hides underneath the mossy vegetable swamp, and I apologetically send this dish back.

Perfectly round and toasty foie gras croquettes are served on a bed of delightful Trevicchio coulis made with radicchio and pickled red onions.  The rich and slightly tart purple coulis really makes the dish shine.

The fourth and final interpretation of foie gras is my favorite, a simple terrine flavored with Amontillado sherry on a bed of fig pureé and stabbed with delicate shards of crisp toasted ginger bread at skewed angles.  A splash of ginger bread powder completes the picture of what looks to me like a foie gras under attack.  The buttery and rich wedge of foie gras is exquisite, with each precious bite ending in a sweet lingering note of sherry.  The pairing of our foie gras dégustation with a glass of 2005 late harvest Alain Brumont Brumaire proves to be most triumphant with this terrine.

Our wonderful server surprises us with a complimentary palate cleanser of red beets and champagne parfait.  Succulent cubes of red beets marinated in campari and rum are topped with a layer of refreshing champagne sorbet and an airy beet würtz spuma finish.  The earthy and sweet flavors of the beets are well balanced with the fresh and fruity sorbet, and the vibrant color of the red spuma is mesmerizing.  It’s a sensational dish that almost makes me shed tears of joy.  I would love to try to replicate it at home.

Potato ice cream with chopped eggs and a generous dollop of Osetra caviar also resets our palates with its cold temperature and clean crisp flavors.  Naturally, the caviar is the leading actor here and the supporting cast of potatoes and eggs follow through with their performance.

4 enticing options for seafood include Alaskan halibut with hibiscus gelée, Maine lobster with duck foie gras cake, Loup de Mer with cauliflower velouté and John Dory with fennel pearls and star anise, but we’re hungry for the meats.  La Terre land critter selections like Nebraska bone-in rib eye, filet mignon, filet of veal and guinea hen all stimulate my salivary glands, but we forego these options to order rabbit and lamb.  Our rabbit course kicks off with an amazing marjoram stuffed saddle lightened with the vibrant colors and flavors of basil pesto, pine nuts, basil oil, tomato caviar and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.  I am pleasantly surprised at how tasty this dish is, given that it is a fairly straightforward and simple dish with ingredients that we can relate to, unlike the quizzical and exotic flavor combinations of Gagnaire’s other dishes.

Morsels of pan sautéed rabbit leg dusted with cornflower, juicy chunks of chanterelle mushrooms, glazed turnips and snow peas in a lime jus all take refuge under the dainty umbrella of a crispy peppered nougatine.

Our Colorado lamb course starts with a juicy cut of mousseline wrapped tenderloin atop a blanket of thinly sliced braised turnip and beetroot, flavored with red wine lamb jus and garnished with smooth green blots of zucchini purée.  The soft mousseline encasing imparts an interesting layer of texture to the tender meat.

I happily gnaw every possible bit of flavorful meat and fat off of the lamb rib chop which is gallantly displayed on a mound of crispy spring cabbage encircled by an oregano and tamarind lamb jus moat.  A smidgen of dark brown tamarind mostarda brings a complex earthy accent to the well balanced dish, which pairs nicely with a glass of 2008 Laetitia Pinot from the local California vineyards of Arroyo Grande.

A light and refreshing cold Provençal Tian tower made with alternating layers of slow roasted lamb leg, heirloom tomato, microbasil and a hint of mascarpone cheese is the perfect way to end the savory portion of our meal.

Twist offers a la carte desserts for $16 each, but when you can order the 5-course Grand Dessert Pierre Gagnaire with seasonal fruits and vegetables for $24, the solution is quite simple.  The first dessert course, called LLLemon, is an invigorating citrus tasting flight of lemon sorbet and candied citrus rind in a lagoon of pink Thai grapefruit and citrus gelée.

Sweet honey cream sports a wide-brimmed almond tuille embellished with dried raisins at a tilt like a sassy Southern belle at the Kentucky derby, and the luscious quince syrup that finishes off the honey parfait is even more memorable.

The red cassis carpet is rolled out for the dainty morsels of coffee tartlette with whiskey chantilly and cassis gelée stuffed milk chocolate-pistachio glacée.

The whimsical vegetable dessert, titled The Evil, highlights a scoop of peppered mozzarella ice cream with tomato confit and microgreens, finished off with a film of dried tomato skin and sprinklings of candied eggplant.  It’s an interesting savory dish that one would normally expect to see in the appetizer menu rather than the dessert menu, and I wonder about the inspiration behind naming this vibrant and virtuous dish The Evil.

My favorite dessert is the beautifully layered sweet decadence of ginger and campari marinated Thai grapefruit, chocolate cake, chocolate cremeux and chocolate disc.  The subtle bitterness of campari liqueur and the hint of citrus from the bottom grapefruit layer bring sophistication to this triple chocolate decker by tempering the rich luscious cremeux from being too overwhelming.

In his website, Pierre Gagnaire writes that his restaurant is one which is present in the now, facing the future and respectful of the past, one which strives to give pleasure through a generous yet lively cuisine which takes risks.  I reflect back on my splendid meal of visual, gustatory, olfactory and tactile delights where every dish was a novel artistic interpretation and fantastic insight into his creative genius.  Every dish at Twist certainly had a twist, with flavor concepts and plating which were clearly outside of the box, yet done in a quiet and sophisticated manner that was believable and familiar.  At times saluting classic French cuisine, always using incredibly fresh local ingredients, and otherwise pioneering unconventional and whimsical compositions, this wonderful chef and his unpredictable cuisine has left me in awe.  Such brilliance only comes around once in a while, and I was honored to have had the opportunity to enjoy his creations.  A revenge visit to finally make it out to his flagship restaurant on Rue Balzac to redeem myself is in the works now.  Until then, I will continue to cherish the beautiful memories of this enchanted evening at Twist thanks to the legendary chef who always seems to have an ‘excès de vitalité!’

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire

Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas

3752 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(888) 881-9367

Random trivia:  Did you know that rabbits eat their own night droppings, called cecotropes?  When a rabbit is engaging in cecotrophy, it is eating nutrient packed droppings from its anus.  Santé!