Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Las Vegas (June 2011)

Just about everyone I know with even the remotest interest in food can recall that most enchanting of thoughts, the thought that “this is the best meal in my life.” For me, it happened at Melisse in December 2009–a meal, alas, I don’t have photos of–after finishing their Carte Blanche menu. If one is lucky, there comes a point when one must pluralize the noun and beginning referring to one’s best meals. That happened earlier this year at Providence. After Wednesday night’s amazingly paced four-hour-and-fifteen-minute marathon of deliciousness, I am happy to yet again broaden that elusive distinction.

Having enjoyed the contemporary American cuisine of Shawn McClain the previous evening, I was looking to experience the food of some of France’s gastronomic titans. For those who haven’t kept abreast of developments in the Vegas dining scene, let me give you a brief overview. No longer is Vegas just the place where ingredients are moribundly kept alive with Bunsen burners and heat lamps at the $4.99 all-you-can-eat buffets. There’s been a dramatic maturation; in less than a decade the Mount Rushmore of Michelin three-star chefs from France has descended upon the city, starting with Joel Robouchon and followed by Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy and most recently Pierre Gagnaire. And it was the latter two with whom I was interested on this trip.

Gagnaire is perhaps best known for his habitual inability to get one course to fit on one plate (indeed, when I saw how narrow our table was, I told my mother spacing could be an issue, and sure enough on more than one occasion, our server, David, and our primary runner, Louis, could be seen working the angles in their heads so as to find those few extra inches to keep the plates from imbricating). That creativity, which many on yelp and elsewhere find obnoxious, motivated my decision to dine at Twist, Gagnaire’s only U.S. installation located on the twenty-third floor of the Mandarin Oriental. The man charged with carrying out Gagnaire’s vision is Pascal Sanchez, who has worked for the famed chef for over 10 years, and in so doing probably knows Gagnaire’s food as well as Gagnaire himself.

Seated without a moment’s wait for our 6pm reservation, we were presented menus–the only question being, what would we add to the tasting menu–and welcomed both by the aforementioned David, who proved to be one of the deftest servers we’ve been lucky enough to be looked after by, and Matthias, the general manager through whom I made the reservation.

We started with an amuse trio: (1) a potato chip filled with date purée and aged balsamic, (2) a pastis (an anise-flavored liquor) gelée with caramelized black pepper and (3) and a one-bite steamed pork bun topped with caviar. If there was any theme among these three seemingly disparate tastes it would have to be balance: the sweet and salty interplay of the potato chip, the licorice-laced lump cut by the pepper and the delicate bun serving as a neutral vessel for the hoisin-glazed pork and creamy caviar. Unlike the botched version of bun and caviar at SAAM, Twist got the size just right.

With amuses cleared, Louis brought out a plate of three freshly baked breads: a baguette, multigrain,  and raisin-molasses served with salted and unsalted butters from Normandy.

The first course of the tasting menu was simply titled “Yellow Tail.” As was the case with every course, though, the simple description belies the ornate parade of plates that follows. Yes, there was nicely balanced ceviche of yellowtail seasoned with lime zest, espellette pepper and Spanish extra virgin olive oil, but there was also the most delicious vegetarian dish I’ve ever eaten! And I’m not going to qualify that statement with a”since my dinner at Coi” or “since Jose Andres’ ‘Caprese’ salad.” Nope, this salad of green and white asparagus, pomegranate seeds, strawberry and chive flowers sitting atop a black olive gelée–with the marriage of bitter, acidic, sweet and salty getting along as if polygamy were legal–surpasses them all. If I could make vegetarian food taste like this, there wouldn’t be a need to eat meat. Even one suffering from myopia could foresee that this meal was going to be incredible.

Our first supplement to the tasting menu was “Twisted Bouillabaisse,”a capacious interpretation of the traditional fish stew. The trio of plates included (1) a salad of romaine hearts, anchovy, caramelized eggplant and chives, (2) a cauliflower velouté colored with saffron, red pepper marmalade, poached artichokes, fennel confit, candied garlic and an artichoke-olive oil ice cream and (3) a fish cocktail of snapper, sea bream and red mullet with fennel fronds. Chef Sanchez went two for three on this one; while the salad and velouté were stunning, the trio of fish was served cold and devoid of any seasoning. Here, Gagnaire and his progeny remind me of great writers who don’t have copy editors–amid the brilliancies, there’s also the occasional typo or pleonasm. I mean I get that they wanted us to taste the essence of the fish unadulterated, but a little salt would have been appreciated.

 The second of our three supplements we made to the tasting, a trio of foie gras, was just straight sinful: (1) foie gras parfait, brunoised duck breast, a port gelée, chives and toasted sesame seeds, (2) a terrine of rum-glazed foie gras studded with a peppery tuile atop a tangy chutney and a smile-inducing banana-artichoke soufflé and (3) shaved foie gras with pomegranate seeds in a black current sorbet. With each bite, I couldn’t help but wonder how mad my arteries were at my limbic system.

After a bit of a detour, we returned to the tasting menu. Described simply as “Summer in the City,” there was (1) a scallop mousseline topped with steamed leeks and Australian white summer truffles all in an earthy Périgord sauce, (2) a combination of rock shrimp, braised pork belly, cauliflower and zucchini sitting in a lemongrass-mint broth with fried squash blossom at twelve-o-clock, (3) pickled daikon radish and chives with–brace yourself–foie gras ice cream, (4) a watermelon-carrot-cantaloupe ice cream with pickled daikon radish and (5) a red mullet with shaved Australian white summer truffles in that same Périgord sauce. Let’s get the obvious out of the way; the foie gras ice cream was revelatory. The other standout was the reengineered scallops, made by puréeing fresh scallops with cream, forming them into that stocky scallop shape and steaming them just long enough for them to maintain their structural integrity on the way to the table, at which point they melt in one’s mouth with the texture of a luscious cream.

Having lost count of the number of courses at this point, we moved on to beurre blanc-poached langoustine with fava beans in a coconut-paprika green curry. There was nothing fussy about this dish, just great quality shellfish with a broth as good as one is poised to find, and I made sure to use the entire raisin molasses loaf to sop it up.

On we moved to the intermezzo. Normally an intermezzo is served to cleanse the palate, providing a bridge from the main course to dessert. As you can probably tell by now, Pierre Gagnaire and company don’t do normal. Twist served their intermezzo of broccoli cream, grilled aubergine, Glenmorangie (a single malt scotch whisky) granita and the equivalent of a cantaloupe fruit roll-up topped with a raspberry. 

Next up, the main course: corn-fed chicken roulade stuffed with almond and pistachio paste, grilled spicy tomatoes and black gnocchi with a bowl of ajo blanco (white gazpacho) with pearls of cucumber. Everything on the plate was immaculate from the pillowy gnocchi and grill-kissed tomatoes to the succulent chicken. To gild the lily, I took two baby’s fist-sized dollops of the salted butter and melted them across the entire surface area of the tournedos.

With the savory courses out of the way, it was now time for the parade of dessert plates to begin. While the chilled gazpacho served as a pleasant palate cleanser, I thought a proper intermezzo–read, a supplemental dessert–would be a smoother segue into the actual dessert. So I went with the nebulously-titled “San Remo,” which included (1) tandoori-dusted mango, julienne of jalapeno, Moscato granita and cassis syrup, (2) baby arugula salad with lemon confit purée, (3) a lime meringue with lemon foam and brunoised Meyer lemon and (4) a piquant limoncello-glazed lemon ice cream with meyer lemon meringue and Meyer lemon supremes.

By this point, my mother had grown considerably fatigued, hoping the fusillade of sweets would end, but as Louis cleared our plates, he rather sinisterly said, “there’s more coming.” And out it came (to the point where they actually had to bifucate dessert into two phases so as to be able to fit the plates on the table)–(1) a raspberry-basil salad with raspberry coulis and sorbet and a grenadine chantilly, (2) a strawberry sorbet garnished with radish, fresh strawberries and golden raisins, (3) sautéed cherries flambéed in kirsch, (4) a cantaloupe juice and vodka cocktail, (5) a rhubarb granita, (6) a rum baba with brunoised green apple and pistachio chantilly and (7) a Jivara milk chocolate cube with candied lemon peel. 

Finally reaching the meal’s end, Louis brought out cassis and lime meringues and a tray of petite fours, including, a seed-studded ball of fig paste, a cucumber sablé, a milk chocolate-orange cream with orange salt–easily the apogee of the quartet–and a fig sablé. 

There are those who inspire you to cook. And there are those who make you ask yourself, why bother? Gagnaire and Sanchez fall into the latter. Their food is ridiculous. It’s over-the-top. But it’s also delicious. And there probably isn’t a city better suited for it than Vegas.

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