Truffles in Paradise

New Le Cirque chef Gregory Pugin has a seductive touch with contemporary French

Quality and consistency are necessary components of a restaurant’s longevity, and on that score, Le Cirque at Bellagio takes a back seat to no other in this city. What makes this even more impressive is that Le Cirque’s kitchen has undergone many iterations since Marc Poidevin offered French classics such as chicken en demi-deuil (“in half-mourning”), so named for the slices of jet-black truffle placed under the skin for cooking.

The new executive chef, Gregory Pugin, has his own style, but the restaurant remains a bastion of contemporary French cuisine on the Strip. It opened in 1998, after Steve Wynn recruited a reluctant Sirio Maccioni from New York, with the help of his then-VP Elizabeth Blau.

The classic circus tent design is by famed architect Adam Tihany, and it hasn’t lost any mystique. One still sits eyeball to eyeball with others, on plush chairs in a room that seats only 75. And Sirio’s oldest son, the elegant Mario Maccioni, still runs the room with confidence.

Pugin is only Le Cirque’s fourth executive chef, and by my lights, the best one they’ve ever had. He’s a protégé of Joël Robuchon, with one of those rare gifts for creating visual oeuvres without sacrificing taste. Le Cirque last week was given the AAA Five Diamond Award for 2012, the restaurant’s ninth consecutive year.

Freddy Montandon, one of the somms, plied us with their signature aperitif, champagne with raspberry puree, to get things rolling, as an amuse of green pea soup paired with a tiny lobster cake arrived.

There are two roads to travel here. One is to order the six-course menu dégustation at $125 per person, which kicks off with the restaurant’s classic lobster avocado salad. The other is the a la carte menu, which is divided into two parts: classic and contemporary.

This is a clever conceit. Many of Le Cirque’s customers come here expecting dishes like the aforementioned chicken with black truffles, accompanied by foie gras macaroni, or their justly famous loup de mer (sea bass) with crispy potatoes. I wanted to see what Pugin could do, so I ordered from the contemporary menu, and ended up being completely seduced by the chef’s technique.

My first course was a steak tartare—simply the best I’ve eaten in Vegas—of finely minced Australian Wagyu beef paired with heirloom tomatoes and fried lotus chips.

That was followed by white asparagus, practically obscured by slices of crisped jamón Ibérico, and a tepid, runny quail egg, all sloshed with a black truffle vinaigrette. The third appetizer may have been the most impressive of all, citrus marinated New Zealand langoustines, Osetra caviar and cubes of apple vodka gelee.

For main courses, we chose dos de Saumon Ecossais, trendy Loch Duart salmon from Scotland, beautifully pan-seared with braised Savoy cabbage and lardons, and espelette pepper-crusted Colorado lamb chops with an olive panisse.

The cheese course was ripe Alsatian Munster, and for dessert, we had a textbook raspberry macaroon topped with a candied rose petals. Later, Le Cirque’s exquisite plate of mignardises, a petit fours and chocolate assortment, provided an appropriate sendoff.

Service is impeccable here, and rarely misses a beat. The majority of the dining room staff has been here since the restaurant opened. The wine list, furthermore, is world-class, with hundreds of boutique wines from France, the United States and around the world.

This luxury, of course, comes at a price. Truffles are known as black diamonds in the trade, so come prepared.

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