I drove by it dozens of times, looking at the playful pink sign and never really giving it a second thought. It just seemed weird. But learning how Georges La Forge opened Pamplemousse east of the Las Vegas Strip way back in 1976—and having classical French kitchen training myself—I knew I would eventually give in to the temptation to check it out.
Pamplemousse, French for “grapefruit,” is a quaint classic. The lighting, ceiling fans and French music—piano and saxophone instrumentals—is perfect and charming. The East Sahara location takes you away from the chaos and back to old Las Vegas, feeling even more like the ’60s than the ’70s.
The building was originally a house and has suffered roof issues through the years. You can tell, but get over it. This is such a cool, old-school experience that you’ll quickly forget trivial stuff. Party of four, please!
I assumed the waiters, who have been there forever, would speak French—I mean, they’re practically in tuxedos—but nope, not a word. They are goofy, quirky and accommodating, however, adding fun and taking away stuffiness. Did we order à la carte? Oui!
The wine list is short and simple. I wanted to order a good bottle of red for the table, but they were out of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape I had my eye on. They suggested a decent alternative. A complimentary vegetable crudité came out right away, a bountiful farmer’s basket of freshness that seemed just harvested. Crisp and freshly cut ... what a treat. A few sips of wine and out come the apps.
I ordered the bouchée de fruits de mer, a rich stew of shrimp, scallops and mushrooms in a lobster sauce nestled in a crisp, fancy puff pastry cup. My wife Roni ordered the snails. Now, we all know the reason anyone orders this is to get a ton of garlic butter. I mean, nobody really wants to eat snails, but these were earthy, huge and tender. You get the real escargots experience at Pamplemousse. (I still wanted more garlic ... just sayin’.) Our guests ordered French onion soup—rich broth, really hot, salty, gooey and delicious—and the torchon of foie gras, which had really creamy texture and was seasoned properly. So many times this preparation suffers from lack of salt, but they nailed it.
Entrée time! I got the osso bucco, because I make a pretty awesome version. This was tender and well-seasoned, served over noodles and olives. I loved it. Roni got the duck two ways. The breast was pink and juicy, and the leg confit was delicious. I stole her skin. My friends ordered rack of lamb, cooked perfectly and served with French fries, and it was wild boar for my huge South African buddy. It was served medium rare with fingerlings, carrots and asparagus. I remember when we did dishes like this in the ’90’s, so cool then.
On to dessert: I pre-ordered the chocolate lava cake, because I’m a sucker for kitschy stuff. It was on the mark, with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. It didn’t last long with four spoons battling for each bite.
As I looked down at my pink tablecloth and back up at the red walls, I was transported to an auberge in the Berkshire Mountains where I apprenticed many years ago, a vision that only made me appreciate this experience more. My only complaint? Lack of customers. The value you get at Pamplemousse is incredible. You would pay four times as much somewhere else for this food, without the unique atmosphere.
Pamplemousse 400 E. Sahara Ave., 702-733-2066. Tuesday-Sunday, 5-10 p.m.
When he’s not dining at classic Vegas restaurants, Rick Moonen is chef and owner at RM Seafood and Rx Boiler Room at the Shoppes at Mandalay Place.