In the blue corner, from the Las Vegas outpost of his restaurant Bouchon...Thooooomaaaass Kellerrrr! And in the red corner, out of New York City's Les Halles, Toooooony Bourdain!
This prizefight first began to take shape a few weeks ago. I was en route to Las Vegas and watching the Vegas installment of Bourdain's No Reservations TV show. At one point, Tony was adamant about the fact that he made the best french fries -- hands down -- and that it really pissed him off when anyone suggested otherwise. Well, apparently someone in Vegas had pissed him off by suggesting that Thomas Keller's fries at Bouchon were, in fact, the best. Tony gets even more angry when he goes to Bouchon and begrudgingly loves the fries.
So when I ended up spending an extra night in Vegas thanks to the foibles of United Airlines, I decided to try Keller's famous fries for myself, and while I was at it, I ordered the Macaroni & Cheese. (Mac and cheese has long been one of my favorite foods, and if I were stranded on a desert island and could only have one thing, that'd be my choice.)
The fries arrived and I quickly discovered what had stirred Tony's ire. Now, I should say, french fry evaluation can be especially subjective. Some people prefer thick-cut, while others like shoestring. Some like their frites crispy, while others want them a bit softer. In my opinion, the Keller fries were stellar. Thin-cut (but not too thin), crispy (but not crunchy) on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside, and just the right proportions of oil and salt. The macaroni and cheese, on the other hand, was a big disappointment. The pasta was unremarkable in every way and reminded me of store-bought elbows. The cheese, though it had good flavor, was closer in consistency to soup than cheese.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, and a few thousand miles East, to Les Halles in NYC. The perfect opportunity to settle the debate. Tony, are you ready to rumble? It's time for a chowdown! I ordered the same two items -- Pommes Frites and Gratin de Macaroni. First, the inspiration for the chowdown, the fries. I must say that while they were very good, I liked the ones at Bouchon more. The Les Halles frites are medium-cut and the crispy exterior is a bit thicker. Again, there are those who prefer that style and if you do, Tony's in your corner. But if you're a thin-cut french fry junkie like me, Tommy K. wins Round 1.
But don't call the bout just yet. DING DING DING, Round 2, the Macaroni & Cheese! Les Halles' version uses penne pasta and gruyere. The penne was perfect and the cheese exactly how love it -- hot, bubbly and browned on top (photos to come - stay tuned). Ridiculously good. The stuff dreams are made of. Round 2 goes to Bourdain.
So we're one apiece on the food, and the tiebreaker will be service and atmosphere. At Bouchon, the service was good, not great. We arrived on the later end of service and it showed. The atmosphere was also a bit cold -- bright white floors, bright white lights. At Les Halles, on the other hand, the staff there was friendly as well as attentive but not overly so. The decor was traditional French brasserie style and they were playing great music. I could have happily spent the entire afternoon there, daydreaming of being stranded on a desert island with Tony making me Gratin de Macaroni.
The winner of this Chowdown: Tony Bourdain's Les Halles. Anyone care for a rematch?
Bouchon 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, NV 702-414-6200
Les Halles 411 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 212-679-4111