It’s barely evening when we enter Lavo—one of the newest restaurants on the Vegas Strip. Run by the entertainment machine behind the hugely successful nightclub Tao, Lavo is a 300-seat restaurant, nightclub, and—according to their publicity materials—a bathhouse located in the Palazzo Hotel metropolis. Though a nightclub/restaurant isn’t at the top of my list for places to visit, Lesley Balla—the singular voice of Eater LA–suggests Lavo will be the perfect place to see what Las Vegas tastes like when a masterful, Los Angeles chef is at the helm.
We get the star treatment right away, thanks to Lesley Balla’s reputation for reporting on restaurant trends from Southern California all the way to Las Vegas. Though it’s early, I’m surprised to see that glitzy dining room is not empty. Past the low hung chandeliers and the glass walled bridge leading to the upstairs nightclub, sit a pair of empty Turkish bathtubs. After we take our seats outside on the patio, we are told the tubs are for more than just decoration–they are home to the dining room’s naked bathing girls.
The menu of Lavo is striking—not because of its extravagant dishes—but for its hectic minimalism. Using the much aligned words “Mediterranean-inspired”, Lavo’s one-page, card stock menu is written for Joe the Plumber; appetizers and entrees appeal to common cravings and need little to no explanation. For appetizers there are baked clams; fried zucchini; a Mediterranean dip plate of hummus, baba ganoush, artichoke; and crudo. Perhaps inspired by a TGI Friday’s menu, there are other starters that include hamburger sliders and an Italian themed knish. Out of respect for my stomach and the chef, I order crudo to begin with, and skip the sliders.
Ludo Lefebrve, a one time Los Angeles culinary darling, is known for his good looks, sensuous cooking, and adventurous flavor combinations. As the chef of L’Orangerie and Bastide, Lefebrve was an opinionated chef with an artist’s vision. I lean across the table and whisper to Balla: Beyond Lefebvre’s good looks, how does a chef of his caliber feel about helming such a behemouth entertainment machine?
Just then, I spot a large crowd of people forming along the sidewalk of the neighboring hotel across the street. “What’s going on?” I ask, knowing full well that Balla will know everything.
“It’s for the Sexy Sirens of Treasure Island show,” Balla explains with a sly grin. “They took the family out of Treasure Island and brought back sexy with ‘TI’.” She takes another sip of the sparkler. “Just wait till the music starts.”
Moments later, the hauntingly bad musical number begins. Reminiscent of a synthesizer-heavy musical from the 80’s, the music blasts from loud speakers and massive pirate ships set sail on the Treasure Island Hotel lagoon. Shouting pirates wave swords and shoot off pyrotechnics as beautiful, barely clad sirens sing and dance from a nearby siren ship. With cheesy dialogue, music, and fireworks so loud, it’s a wonder the hostess didn’t warn us in advance of the noise. That’s when I realize I’m in Vegas; everyone is here for some kind of show.
Appetizers arrive just as (SPOILER ALERT!) the pirate ship is sunk and a small battle’s worth of gunpowder is unleashed. We nibble on the baked clams, with their slightly undercooked bellies and hit or miss selection of Mediterranean dips. We enjoy the artichoke dip and stay away from the hummus (with beautiful jewels of pomegranate) and the Baba Ghanoush. We savor the multi-fish crudo finished with sea salts and elegant olive oils from Italy, Spain and Morocco. The fish is delicate, flavorful and perfectly complimented with the herbaceous oils.
A crisp glass of French Chabils arrives at the table just as Ludo Lefebvre–the tall, handsome chef that resembles a French Johnny Depp in a chef’s coat–joins us on the patio. Though I had seen pictures of Lefebvre, I always assumed that he was a pretty boy with lots of attitude. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Lefebvre is charming, sweet, and—thanks to his new life in Las Vegas—incredibly humble. He greets me, a perfect stranger with a friendly smile. I feel a twang of jealousy as he plants a heart-melting kiss on the cheek for his long time friend, Balla.
” ‘ello Lesleeeeeee! Ca va?”
Lefebvre kneels as he catches up with Balla, giving her important information about the restaurant. Already, Lavo has seen thousands of people since its early September opening. “We do 800 cover a night, Lesleee,” he rolls his eyes and blows a quintessentially French puff of air from his lips. “Before, two or three hundred was tough…But now…”
He rolls his eyes when I ask him what is the most popular item on the menu. He rolls his eyes when he tells me it is the hamburger slider. “I would be happy if I didn’t see one more slider in my life.”
Sitting across from Balla is a powerful place to be, especially when the prettiest chef in Vegas wants to talk about business. Lefebvre sits next to me at the table as he regails Balla with stories about his new life in Vegas. He lives in a house outside of town while his wife continues to live in LA and visits when she can. He works day and night in the kitchen staff big enough to crew the neighboring pirate ship.
Beyond Lefebvre’s good looks, I wonder how a chef of his caliber would feel about helming such a behemouth entertainment machine. He explains that thanks to the pressures of serving almost one thousand covers a night, he works better and faster than ever. “It’s amazing Lesleeeee.” He smiles. “Chefs, we are self-absorbed. But with this…I’ve learned so much. It’s such a great opportunity. I never thought I could do something like this.”
The entrees we sample are good examples of what serving too many people at once can do to a perfectly planned out meal. The red snapper with mashed potato and red sauce is a strange combination that results in a jumble of awkward flavors. The meat course, a combination of foie gras and filet mignon, lacks balanced flavor and elegance. We discover a thin skin on the brown sauce topping the dish–perhaps a result of its travels from the far away kitchen.
Some dishes are successful, however, like the simply elegant (and surprisingly rich) cacio et pepe—perfectly cooked al dente spaghetti, seasoned only with butter, cheese, and pepper. Or the smoky grilled octopus with red onion. The grilled octopus is perfectly cooked and delicately seasoned, making this dish my favorite of the evening.
Later, Chef Lefebrve gives us a tour of his kitchen. It’s located two floors up from the dining room, making delivering hot food to the tables that much more of a challenge.
Why a microphone, I ask. “Because we have to. You wouldn’t believe how crazy it gets.”
Lefebvre walks us to the door and gives us both a warm goodbye. He gives us a flash of his perfect white teeth as we depart for the next part of our adventure at the Michelin Guide awards dinner. With Lefebrve out of site, both Balla and I lose a little bit of our professional decorum and swoon for the first time all night.
Though the meal wasn’t perfect, our host was. With just a few weeks under his belt, Lefebvre is still working out the kinks in the kitchen. But with the passion and positivity that he brings to the job, there’s no limit to what the young chef can do.
That Ludo is such a lady killer.
The FINAL CHAPTER, tomorrow…