The most memorable dish I encountered last year wasn’t served in a tony on-Strip restaurant. And it didn’t come on a dish, but rather a nondescript white bowl, an appetizer prepared and served by students at UNLV’s ninth Chef Artist series dinner under the watchful eye of Las Vegas chef André Rochat.
Twin braised veal cheeks were tucked gingerly into a bed of creamy Gruyère-laced polenta, blanketed in a savory Burgundy sauce. As I had arrived late, UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration dean Donald Snyder himself tracked down a bowl for me, to make sure I got in on the goodness. The dining room quieted a little as the diners scooped up the last of it appreciatively.
This homey, rustic dish, an entrée at Rochat’s eponymous restaurant in the Monte Carlo, is a bit of juxtaposition to that refined and elegant hideaway just off the casino floor. But it’s easily his signature, indicative of the sort of meal Rochat enjoyed as a child in Savoie in the French Alps, where the weather is cool in summer, cold in winter.
“As a kid at home we used to—and still today—we eat all the innards of beef and veal: the head, the heart, everything,” Rochat says. “The cheeks are part of it. It’s just a typical dish that we would make [year-round].” If you shy from working with veal cheeks, know that this stick-to-your-ribs meal is essentially just a stew. Rochat shares that the secret is the gelatin in the cheeks, so the meat can be swapped out for any other that benefits from a long, slow braise.
Beneath the stewed cheeks sits the creamy polenta, a staple in his childhood home, back when “things were a lot more simple, easier.” He recalls his mother making polenta cakes, which were stored, then sliced to be grilled in the place of bread. But for a dish like this, she would use fresh, soft, coarse-grain polenta. “My mother was a great cook,” Rochat says, fondly. “I used to be in the kitchen with her all the time.”
For home preparation, Rochat, who often takes on interns in his kitchens and calls the UNLV students “good kids,” recommends using instant polenta as the true coarse-grain stuff takes a long time and is very tricky. Whichever you choose, he advises that you must eliminate all lumps right away, as you cannot correct later.
When I recall the rich flavors and the velvety texture of the cheeks—which, by the way, yield even to a spoon—I think of cold, wet weather and the comfort that would come from a steaming bowlful and a glass of wine. As for the ideal partner in crime, Rochat recommends enjoying “mild” red Burgundy or a Cote du Rhône, such as the 2008 Tardieu-Laurent Gigondas Vieilles Vignes ($105 at Andre’s). “I’m partial to Burgundy myself,” he says.
Oui chef!—I intend to master this dish before the stew season is out.
Braised Veal Cheeks with Burgundy Sauce and Creamy Gruyère Polenta
12 veal cheeks, trimmed
4 cups good-quality burgundy wine
4 cups veal stock (chicken stock OK)
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 onion, peeled and diced
6 stalks celery, diced
1 head garlic, split lengthwise
½ cup tomato paste
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
All purpose flour
Salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a heavy-bottom skillet, warm enough olive oil to coat the pan. Season the veal cheeks with salt and black pepper and dredge them in flour. Over medium heat, sauté the cheeks until golden brown on both sides. Remove the cheeks and set aside.
In the same skillet, add the diced vegetables and garlic. Sauté until they have just a little bit of color. Add the tomato paste and lightly toast. Sprinkle ¼ cup of all-purpose flour into the skillet and stir to combine. Add the herbs and deglaze the pan with the wine. Add the cheeks back to the pan as well as the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Cover with a tightly fitting lid or aluminum foil. Place in the oven and allow them to braise until tender, about 2 hours.
While the veal cheeks are braising, prepare the polenta (recipe at WeeklySeven.com/dining). When the veal cheeks are tender, remove them from the pot and set aside. Strain the braising liquid through a fine chinoise (China cap strainer). Reduce if necessary to reach a sauce consistency. Place the cheeks back into the sauce and reserve warm until served.
To serve, warm four medium size bowls. Place about a cup of warm polenta in each. Place three veal cheeks in the center and spoon some of the sauce over top and serve immediately.