| June 27, 2014 | Food & Drink
Daniel Boulud makes his triumphant—and highly anticipated—return to Las Vegas, and his friend Jay McInerney helps him toast the occasion.
The chef joins writer Jay McInerney in saluting Boulud’s return to Las Vegas.
After an absence of more than five years from the Las Vegas dining scene, Daniel Boulud roars back with DB Brasserie, a 266-seat venue at Venetian that seems aimed at the culinary sweet spot between haute and hearty. “I always love bistro cooking, but I wanted to do something more festive, more large-scale,” says the irrepressible and impish Boulud when I catch up with him for a meal at his flagship in New York a few weeks before his return to Las Vegas. We are perched in the skybox, the rectangular glass capsule suspended above the bustling kitchen of the three-star Michelin restaurant that made him famous, sampling some of the dishes that will be featured at the new Vegas restaurant.
When I first met Boulud, he had just opened his eponymous restaurant, although he’d already made a big name for himself with his stints at Le Regence and Le Cirque. I happened to live a block away and quickly became a regular, addicted to such dishes as Daniel’s Black Sea Bass en Paupiette with Syrah sauce. Up until that point, the restaurants I frequented were better known for their buzz than their food. Restaurant Daniel was my first serious exposure to haute cuisine, but happily the atmosphere was relatively informal, and I learned that if I arrived late I could eventually share a glass of wine with the chef, who turned out to be disarmingly friendly, at the bar.
Poisson fumés, with balik smoked salmon, smoked sable rillettes, potato dauphine, salmon roe, and preserved cucumber and dill.
While he made his bones as a master of haute cuisine, and trained with some of France’s greatest three-star chefs, including Roger Vergé, Georges Blanc, and Michel Guérard, Boulud grew up on a farm near Lyon and maintains a deep reverence for the hearty, earthy cooking of that city, often referred to as the homeland of French cooking. For all of his training in Escoffier classics and the nouvelle cuisine, his cooking has never left the farm, or the traditions of French home cooking, behind. Since his arrival in the States, he has also absorbed American influences and developed a special fondness for American ingredients, putting peekytoe crab, black sea bass, and other local foodstuffs on the culinary map. Indeed, his menu was among the first in the country to reference the sources of his ingredients, be it Saint Canut Farm suckling pig or Lancaster County guinea hen breast. I was amazed when he recounted, not long after we met, a recent trip to an island in Maine to visit the crab pickers responsible for his peekytoe crab. “We don’t have the appellation contrôlée system in America, but it’s important to showcase your ingredients and to show that your chicken is a special one from a particular place,” he tells me.
The new Vegas spot, like the French brasseries that spawned it, strikes a balance between culinary ambition and Gallic comfort food. “I wanted to do a classic Parisian brasserie—halfway between a restaurant and a bistro,” Boulud says. With its white tablecloths and ambitious wine list, DB Brasserie takes its inspiration from the grand Parisian iterations of the tradition, the kinds of places where you expect to eat well without having to whisper reverentially about the food.
His last Vegas venture, the much-loved, Michelin-starred DB Brasserie at Wynn, shuttered in 2010, and Boulud has had his plate full, so to speak, with openings in Toronto and Singapore and New York in the years since. “I definitely got quite busy in the time since we left Wynn, and I didn’t think I would go back. But this opportunity was exciting. Every chef in the nation and internationally is represented in Las Vegas, and I really enjoy the time that I spend there.” The new place, he says, is “a little more authentic, a little more urban, a little more Saint-Germain.”
Boulud’s chilled carrot soup with lime and caraway.
Designed by Jeffrey Beers International, DB Brasserie is situated just off the casino floor of Venetian. The bar area, with its floor of hexagonal tiles and its marble tables, seems like the place to nosh on some pâté de campagne or oysters and to throw back a cocktail or two, while the main dining room’s wide board floors, dark tufted leather banquettes, and white tablecloths seem an appropriate setting for a serious meal. The restaurant’s focal point is a large faux skylight reminiscent of those in classic Beaux Arts train stations.
Not surprisingly, the menu, presided over by Executive Chef David Middleton, includes French bistro classics like French onion soup, crispy duck confit, and steak frites. But the three different burger selections give an American spin to the menu, although Boulud dubs one of them, served with Morbier cheese and pork belly, the Frenchie. Dedicated foodies will remember that Boulud started the gourmet burger craze in 2005 with the DB Burger, the braised short rib and foie gras–stuffed masterpiece served at his NYC outpost DB Bistro. So far, no sign of that burger in Vegas. The DB Brasserie menu takes some unexpected twists and turns, like Thai calamari and Tunisian lamb with merguez sausage, as well as the all-American seafood classics: Maine lobster and Dungeness crab.
The innovative wine list, put together by Dinex Group wine director Daniel Johnnes, aka the dean of American sommeliers, is international in scope but has a decidedly American accent, with a generous selection of wines from California, divided into three categories: Pioneers, “the first to prove the quality of American terroir,” according to the menu; Classics, including such second-generation names as Kistler, Newton, and Ramey; and New Frontier, showcasing younger wineries inspired by old-world counterparts. Those who wish to wash down their coq au vin with a more traditional quaff will find plenty of French classics from Alsace, the Loire, and the Rhône. Boulud himself is partial to the wines of the southern Rhône, the region that has traditionally slaked the thirst of nearby Lyon.
As we were finishing up our meal, Boulud’s very pregnant and radiant wife, Katherine, arrived and eased herself into the seat beside Daniel’s. “Next week, I hope,” she replied in answer to the obvious question. And indeed, a few minutes before midnight on May 4, just four days before the grand opening of his second Vegas restaurant, Katherine gave birth to their first son. I predict a bright future for both. DB Brasserie, Venetian, 702-430-1235
photography by sabin orr (boulud, fish); seth olenick (mcinerney)