In Praise of Joël Robuchon's Bread Cart
I spent most of my 42nd birthday alone and feverish in a Las Vegas hotel room. It's just a touch more surreal than the standard Vegas experience where flashing lights assault the senses and a gleaming pyramid sits just down-Strip from a demi-sized Eiffel Tower and nightly pirate battles, so I decided to just go with it and keep my reservation at Joël Robuchon at MGM. The fever and general malaise, I figured, was likely what I think of as the Vegas Flu—a product of secondhand smoke, firsthand cocktails, and the constant intake of recycled casino air followed by desert heat that threatens to dry-roast your tonsils if you open your mouth outside. I was going to feel like a dizzy dustheap no matter where I ate dinner, so I might as well do so in the presence of the world's finest mashed potatoes.
I have friends—I swear—but they'd all flown home that morning, assured that I take tremendous pleasure in being my own dinner date. I've been confident in my own company at the table ever since college when a friend told me he always felt that there's nothing more intriguing than a woman enjoying a meal alone. I do not feel awkward in the solitude, but I do to this day feel a twinge of panic when I walk into an incredibly fancy restaurant, worrying they'll scorn me for the riff raff I fear myself to be. I have been writing about chefs and restaurants for a living for a decent chunk of time, but that worry has never fully subsided and was in fact in full flower that evening as I tottered my way through the MGM casino floor. I wore my most expensive and least comfortable shoes so the maitre d' might be fooled for just a second longer, and sweated profusely because I'd opted to walk from my hotel just down and across the street. It seemed so close, but things in Vegas are never quite as they appear.
Including me, I suppose, because I was escorted into the lush, violet-draped, gilt-edged depths of the dining room without incident, given a small chair upon which to rest my cheap handbag, and offered a cocktail. But there might have been a live tiger in a tutu having a twist-off with Elvis' reanimated corpse for all I noticed. I only had eyes for the bread cart, stacked high with three bakeries' worth of fresh loaves, rolls, slices, and puffs.
Joël Robuchon's bread cart is a vehicle of floury excess and wonder, and I stole greedy glances at it for several minutes before the server sidled up with my French 75 and leaned in conspiratorially. Please don't be shy, they work so hard on this bread, and you should have as much as you want.
I was mortified that he'd noticed, but listened intently as he steered me through the options: a bacon-flecked baguette, airy gougeres, saffron rolls, yeasted buns, cheese-studded twists, rough-crusted sourdough, puffy milk bread, and a dozen more that have since escaped me. You can perhaps forgive me—there was so much bread, and it was all for me. I was afraid to ask, though, ashamed to skim back the veil of my want. You poor, naive girl, awed by bread. Have you been nowhere? Have you seen nothing of the world?
But this kind server had clearly seen this before and gently commandeered the filling of my plate. You like cheese? This gougere is a must. My personal favorite is this olive batard and it would be a personal failing on my part if you did not experience it.
I gave in. It seemed rude not to. But he was not finished. Under a tall, glass cloche rested a golden, waxy mountain that he took to deftly with a spoon, digging and dragging to form a generous curl that he set in the center of a rimmed dish. He sprinkled the artful mass with a pinch of flakes. It would be wrong to serve you bread without butter. And then he left me to it.
We have all eaten bread. It has been at the core of our collective humanity and survival for perhaps 30,000 years, say some scholars. Jesus Christ was historically down with the loaves and loved to share. It's what we're given as children to soothe our woes and settle our systems. With butter, it is a perfect, simple, self-contained meal if you let it be.
This bread was all of that and more—an accessible, generous inroad to a meal that might be intimidating in its construct (not to mention price) to some, a celebration of the highest art of the bakers and butter makers, and a quiet assurance that no one would leave the table hungry. And above all, it tasted something close to heaven.
I eased into my seat, set my fever and worry to the side for the next few hours, and simply enjoyed. When I came back one year later, I did not spoil the surprise. I allowed myself the gift of watching my husband's face curl into amazement as the server unfurled the litany of bread types and excavated a thick scroll from the side of Mount Butter. I'm so glad you're here to share this with me, I told him. Just wait until you see the dessert cart.