The Eiffel Tower sparkles in the distance. A helicopter swoops down on New York’s skyline before making a sharp turn towards Lake Como. A goliath-sized image of Bette Midler dances across a JumboTron above Caesars Palace, while fireworks spew out from a volcano on Treasure Island… The full-sensory stimulation of a Saturday night in Las Vegas is unfolding brilliantly outside the windows of Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas, at Twist, the latest restaurant from the French world-renowned chef, Pierre Gagnaire.
Meanwhile, the mood inside is joyously peaceful. Well, for a moment it’s peaceful. Suddenly, an army of waiters surrounds my table, and a parade of bite-size canapés begins to land. First is a duo of quivering, translucent brown cubes. ‘A cocktail to start,’ the waiter says, winking. I pop these into my mouth, and instantly the flavours of ‘Guinness!’ and ‘Jack Daniel’s whiskey!’ scream across my tongue.
My attention captivated, I sit up straight. I feel my smile widening as the next dish arrives: a confetti salad of microscopically chopped cuttlefish, sweet green peppers and haricot vert, which is scooped up and devoured in a single bite just as the next item is making its way to the table. A piece of smoked sardine, along with a raisin, balance atop a fried potato crisp.
Before I’ve had a chance to react, the next bite is already incoming: flaxseed breadsticks, delicately long and slender. I grab the sticks, as instructed by the staff, and gently scoop them into a fluffy, cloud-like Chantilly cream that tastes not of Chantilly cream, but of… bluefin tuna?
Twist defies Las Vegas stereotypes…
it’s a normal size restaurant in an oversized town
I feel a powerful urge to put down my fork and discuss what is happening with my tablemates, but our conversation keeps getting postponed by the imminent arrival of the next curious bite: crunchy, cheese-flavoured crackers, followed immediately by penny-sized almond cookies in the shape of bunny rabbits…
Finally, the dust settles, and all we know for sure is that we’ve just been knocked off balance, nudged outside of our comfort zone, confronted with unexpected flavours and outlandish juxtapositions. The dining room is calm once again, yet we’re still dizzy – riveted to our seats, hungry for more.
Pierre Gagnaire didn’t become one of France’s most famous chefs by playing it safe. He’s a legendary risk-taker who has pushed the boundaries of modern cuisine. His first Michelin three-star restaurant, located in St Etienne (outside of Lyon) went bankrupt, yet he refused to be silenced. He moved to Paris and started over, soon earning back all of his stars. Flash forward: his expanding empire includes critically acclaimed restaurants in London, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, Dubai, and now Las Vegas. Gagnaire had long desired to open a restaurant in the States, but he never expected that his foray would land him in Las Vegas – a city he knew little about before Mandarin Oriental floated the idea. Still, he thought the destination sounded rather exotic, so he flew to America right away to see at first hand this wildest of fantasy lands in the Mojave Desert. His first reaction was utter shock. ‘Everything seemed so surreal,’ he says. ‘For the first 24 hours, that whole time, my mouth was wide open.’
But the following morning, while having coffee with his wife, the city’s magic started to click. ‘I realised I was falling in love with it,’ he says. ‘Las Vegas is exotic. But it’s not the sort of exotica I was expecting. They call it Sin City, but I don’t think that’s the best nickname. It’s not like that at all.
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