by mitchell wilburn
Fall is such a cozy time — and a time for chefs to get creative with a whole new palette of flavors. Gone are the warm-weather veggies like tomato and corn, and in are the flavors meant to withstand the cold months; squashes, gourds, all manner of things cured, fermented and aged.
At Le Cirque in the Bellagio, the young, rising superstar executive chef, Wilfried Bergerhausen, is taking these cues and traditions, and using them to transport us to a world of flavor.
Bergerhausen has garnered a quick and passionate following of fine-dining lovers, even to the point where his dishes have become instant classics for the Le Cirque menu. His Maryland blue crab salad, served in the carapace, is one of two, and it is opulent for its heavy layer of caviar that blankets a mixture of crabmeat, avocado and brunoise apple. The theatrics of a dry-ice fog floating from underneath only heightens the excitement level, indicating the beautiful meal to come.
His “La Caille” dish, however, is something all together transcendent. It’s possibly the most “Vegas” dish they have, but not for lack of refinement. It’s a quail farci au foie gras — the boneless breast stuffed with fois gras and Burgundy truffle — on a bed of potato mousseline and Alba white truffle in the shape of a tree. The quail itself is wrapped in gold leaf, which exes and pulsates from the heat coming off the dish like it is a living, golden seed from which the beautiful stark white tree is growing. This dish is so elegant, so refined, and so utterly delicious, it is the kind of food that “fit for a king” does not even describe. This is food t for an angel.
The soup course in recent menus has been where Bergerhausen really has been able to come off the rails and experiment, pushing the boundaries of flavor and imagination. There is no disappointment in this fall offering, which draws from his childhood memories of having melted raclette in Valais, Switzerland. This creamy, slightly funky cheese is meant for melting like fondue, and is traditionally paired with pickled or root vegetables. Here the chef starts with a small, warm center of raclette, which he dots with beech mushrooms pickled with herbs and spices, with a dried, aromatic crumble and con t baby potato cooked with garlic. The soup is a creamy sunchoke puree, almost in equal proportions to the addictive melted cheese, together with the potato and mushrooms, making each bite an explosion of wild flavors.
In this season, there is much more excitement and misdirection from the kitchen. The staff is using surprise and tableside presentation to their benefit, with some dishes almost more performance art than plating. Their veal cheek dish is a terrific example of this: servers place a dome-lidded plate in front of you to reveal … nothing but a plain, round spot of potato puree! An empty plate, a shock from the flourish of the reveal, is then plated with a slow-braised veal cheek with a black trumpet mushroom crust. The little succulent lump comes out of a cigar humidor delivered to the table, but not before adorning the potato puree with a shower of freshly shaved Alba white truffle and a pour of savory porcini jus.
Something that years of seeing these elegant, precariously constructed dishes coming from these celebrated kitchens will make one realize: One of the great pleasures of fine dining is the excitement of destroying something beautiful. Something so laborious, so precious, makes it all the more thrilling a luxury to consume and literally make it a part of you.
The Bellagio has been home to amazing exhibits of art; world-class masterpieces regularly make their home in the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. Currently, and until February of next year, the gallery is hosting Town and Country: From Degas to Picasso, juxtaposing 19th- and 20th-century scenes of bustling new metropolises with pastoral halcyon days. Printed with astonishing clarity on a wafer of sugar is Edgar Degas’ 1869 “At the Races in the Countryside,” one of the more prolific pieces of the exhibit. This is plated on a layer of red velvet cake, with mascarpone and frozen cubes of berries, all in an actual, ornate, golden picture frame. Diners can observe and appreciate this beautiful depiction of French rural life — the real priceless version mere yards away — and then shatter the image into pieces with their spoon. The act is cathartic; the cake, delicious.
Le Cirque is a restaurant that always has flourished on choosing the right chef for the right time. Daniel Boulud was chosen in 1986 to head the New York City flagship, where it became one of the highest-rated restaurants in the country, and launched the celebrity-chef career of Boulud. Now, the restaurant has chosen Bergerhausen, and everything is pointing toward a meteoric rise to prominence. Dishes like these, that show such unique luxury, experimentation and creativity, are all things that spell the beginnings of great things to come for the already legendary and exquisite Le Cirque.