Walk down the wide corridor that leads to Mandalay Bay’s convention center, and you’re likely to see a crowd gathered on the left side, peering through wide windows at something fascinating below. Framed perfectly in that window is Aureole’s wine tower, the bottle-laden centerpiece of Charlie Palmer’s progressive American restaurant.
Progress is everywhere you look here. It’s visible around the resort, with Light Group’s buzzy new Kumi across the hall, the months-old Light nightclub around the corner and Rx Boiler Room a short stroll away. And it’s on display downstairs at Aureole, where the Wine Angels are flying in new uniforms accented with light strips to make them more visible (think Mission Impossible meets EDC) during a recent tasting dinner on September 17. The kitchen is turning out food that still surprises and pairing it with “discovery” wines you can’t wait to drink again. Oh, and Charlie’s got a new cookbook of recipes designed to be enjoyed in the great outdoors. No big deal.
Tonight, Charlie’s in the kitchen, preparing five courses of thoughtful, elegant cooking highlighting premium American ingredients. Even the passed hors d’oeuvres have extra panache. See: cool melon soup served in a quail egg on a nest of crispy prosciutto.
Paired with an unpronounceable Basque wine that has the table oohing—you want to try? Txomin Etxaniz Txakoli—our first course is “the most amazing shrimp prawn you can put in your mouth.” They’re spot prawns from Santa Barbara, served grilled over Japanese charcoal and tartare-style with Osetra caviar and consommé gel, the light sweetness of the seafood mingling beautifully with the smoke and brine.
The rest of the meal continues in the same vein—loup de mer with chorizo-stuffed calamari, roast duck breast from Moulard birds often used for foie gras, a citron potato au gratin that is creamy yet bright with good crunch of crust and one of the best things I’ve ever seen done with a spud. For the main course, we have a gold-label Oregonian Wagyu strip loin that would rate an A3 on the Japanese marbling scale and braised beef cheeks with velvety porcini mushrooms.They're paired with a powerful 2007 Chêne Bleu Héloïse. The bold Rhône Valley Syrah/Grenache/Viognier retails for about $90, and we're drinking the only bottles of it that have been opened in the country.
By the time dessert is served (in three courses) Charlie and pastry chef Megan Bringas have joined the table. While I nibble goat cheese cake with chicory ice cream, a luxurious ode to fall flavors, Charlie talks growing up as an Eagle Scout in upstate New York and Megan sings the praises of community college. It’s a warm, comfortable end to wonderful evening, and proof of another kind of progress: fine dining that doesn’t feel overly formal. I’ll drink (another) to that.