Chef adds a dash of fun to food at Fleur at Mandalay Bay

I remember, a few years back, when chef Hubert Keller created Fleur out of his Fleur de Lys at Mandalay Bay.

As might be inferred from the name, Fleur is a sort of abbreviation of its predecessor. Like the San Francisco original, Fleur de Lys was of the old-school (but I mean that in only the best way) with multicourse dinners that were grounded in tradition with bits of Keller innovation.

Fleur is much lighter, on a number of different levels (well, except for the actual lighting). While there’s a selection of entrees on the menu, there’s an emphasis on small plates, the tapas-esque style of eating that is increasingly popular because of the variety and flexibility it provides and sense of community – whether that’s a community of two or 20 – that it engenders as the dishes come out of the kitchen and are passed around the table.

Keller has told me he wanted Fleur to provide some surprises – some entertainment, some fun – as part of its food. And since this was the man who practically founded the upscale-burgers movement, I expected his take to be pretty cool. After finally making it to Fleur, I can say that for the most part it is.

I’ll bracket this with two dishes I remember talking to him about, the Heirloom Gazpacho with Watermelon Pop Rocks ($9) and the In the Shower Mac and Cheese ($18).

The gazpacho was an absolute triumph. It’s served on a cold stone slab to keep it thoroughly chilled, with a cherry tomato propped up in the center. All around it was the gazpacho, rich with the under-the-Tuscan-sun-over-the-Tuscan-dirt flavor of heirloom tomatoes. Also in the mix were crunchy bits of basil “crystal” and, yes, watermelon Pop Rocks. I checked with the waiter about the latter – I didn’t even know they still were making those icons of cult-level candy – to ensure that this wasn’t instead some sort of molecular gastronomy whimsy. The fact that they’re the real thing is somehow even better, and there they were, popping up and down in the soup like so many bubbles, and releasing bursts of watermelon flavor that greatly enlivened the gazpacho. In more ways than one.

Pan con tomate ($7), a tapas standard, was more ordinary but no less delicious, the bread toasted and garlicky, the flavor of the tomato nicely concentrated.

Goat cheese flambe ($14) was a perfect melty blend of goat cheese, piquillo peppers, pesto and just a bit of prosciutto.

The Flatiron Chimichurri ($18) was slices of impossibly medium-rare tender meat with deep, beefy flavor, brightened considerably with the herby/grassy chimichurri that topped it, with a slab of creme-fraiche-topped potato on the side.

Which brings us back to the In the Shower Lobster Mac and Cheese, which was not quite up to Keller’s standards. The iconic elbow macaroni was suitably al dente, but the cream sauce that cloaked it just didn’t have much in the way of cheesy flavor. That may be by design – so it wouldn’t overpower the chunks of delicate lobster – but this lobster was no shrinking violet; if anything it was on the strong side, its flavor nearly overpowering the whole dish.

We finished up, though, on a very positive note, with the almond panna cotta ($10). The panna cotta was served with a sprightly strawberry-citrus “soup,” well-balanced and fresh-flavored, and a scoop of sorbet made with blackberries and kalamansi, a lesser-known citrus fruit. But the genius, I thought, was in the honey tuille, which I expected to be served whole. Instead, it had been crumbled and provided a delightful crunch throughout the dessert.

Service throughout was fine, for the most part, but upon presenting our bottle of wine to us, our waiter took it away to open it, which was odd. He also apologized profusely for a delay we hadn’t noticed and seemed doubtful about the panna cotta, but in other ways he was smooth and efficient.

Much of the Fleur de Lys decor, we were pleased to see, has been retained at Fleur, the curtain-draped booths and stone walls and soaring ceilings, although the rose-filled petal shape on the wall has been converted to a piece of pop art.

So an era has ended, but another one is well on its way. And nowhere is that done as well as in Las Vegas.

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@
reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474.

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