I was pleased to be included in a story about video strategy for restaurant brands in restaurant-hospitality.com, talking about our campaign for the Emeril’s Las Vegas restaurants.
I was pleased to be included in a story about video strategy for restaurant brands in restaurant-hospitality.com, talking about our campaign for the Emeril’s Las Vegas restaurants.
Zeke Quezada has been the GoVegas Editor for About.com pretty much as long as anyone can remember. As such, he’s essentially the single most-read voice on Las Vegas anywhere on the interwebs (in other words, Anywhere, Period), and is remarkably humble about it. Well, humble relative to many other writers whose readerships are considerably less significant.
Every so often, though, I will experience something that my good friend and colleague hasn’t (it’s rare, I admit) and so, he’ll ask me to guest-blog for About.com. Here are some of my contributions there:
While many Downtown Las Vegas Casino Hotels have been slowly updating themselves, the El Cortez–one of the oldest, in continual operation since the ’40s–has done a particularly good job of reclaiming past glories while inserting bits of hip modernism. Here’s my most recent report, as a guest blogger on About.com, as well as some extra pics….
Some things in Las Vegas have a way of hiding in plain sight. Aureole Wine Lounge is a fine example of this. Late last year, the Charlie Palmer restaurant in Mandalay Bay decided to update it’s rather austere entrance, opening up a huge window to their famous wine tower and dining room; it was a great idea, and arguably overdue, the first real change to the restaurant since it opened in the late ‘90s. At the same time, they also thought to gather some energy from the casino floor by creating a small “wine lounge” in front of the window, with a few select wines by the glass, and some small bites to accompany them.
It was just a modest idea. The only thing is, the team at Aureole (including Exec Chef Vincent Pouessel, Wine Director William Sherer and Pastry Chef Megan Romano) don’t do anything modestly. They do it as well as it can be done, or they don’t do it–and they let the results speak for themselves. Which is perhaps why so few local media have talked about Aureole Wine Lounge.
The lack of attention is perhaps understandable: If you don’t jump up and down and scream your lungs out on the Vegas Strip, you’ll get drowned out by every business that does. Aureole’s style has always been much more low key, quietly maintaining one of the best dining rooms and wine programs in the city without over-promoting it (take a look at their wall of awards, positioned inside the restaurant). Such exceeding expectations matched with quiet humility is the exact opposite of how things are usually done here. And while I myself have always had Aureole on a short list of reliable top recommendations, I too neglected to sit down and experience the wine lounge.
Once I did, I realized it was my loss. Because Aureole’s own standards are so high, doing an “impromptu” lounge for tourists and conventioneers means creating a place that far exceeds other much more “serious” stops at the same price point. And surprisingly, it’s not only better quality, but even better value, no matter what your budget.
In addition to a broad selection of almost 20 wines by the glass and several fine cheeses (all competitively priced–with the wines half off during happy hour), AWL also offers a menu of “small bites” in the $10 range that are easily some of your best food values on the Strip. Check out what I got to sample, all of which were great, and some out of this world:
There is a certain irony in the fact that the first official “tribute” to organized crime in Las Vegas is in the casino hotel which was discovered to be skimmed by the mob more than any other, the Tropicana. Of course, the resort has long since changed ownership several times, and this “Mob Experience” –not to be confused with the Mob Museum in the works for downtown Las Vegas–is one aspect of a major property overhaul which has done wonders with the old dame.
The first indication that this is more irreverent “edutainment” than a serious exhibit is your entrance through the gift shop, selling shirts like these:
We are talking about people who murdered and maimed in cold blood, stole millions of dollars, and did all kind of other illegal, nasty, destructive things, right? Okay, I’ll lighten up.
The Experience begins as you are given a badge with an “alias” which will be your identity throughout (I was “Two Hands”). You walk through a replica landing dock, reading background on how organized crime started in the US: The Black Hand, New York gang leaders like Monk Eastman (Jewish) and Paul Kelly (Italian) and so on. Then you’re directed to take a “Visa” photo at “Ellis Island,” and suddenly face a hologram of Tony Sirico (you know, from The Sopranos) explaining prohibition. The holograms–there are more to come–are one of the most impressive elements of the Mob Experience. The other element is the role playing actors, like the guy running the hidden liquor warehouse you find yourself in next, who gives you an envelope to deliver to “Big Leo” at a sidewalk cafe, then the police sergeant who interrogates you, and the enforcer in Las Vegas who enlists you to help take care of business.
Several more recreated tableaus–speakeasies, casino floors, eye in the sky hideouts–try to bring you into the story, as does the hologram of Steve Schirripa (also The Sopranos, and a Vegas guy himself) explaining the “skim,” but it’s all a bit “Hollywood” until you enter the center of the experience, a series of galleries displaying actual property of the famous mob bosses, from Charles “Lucky” Luciano’s Studebaker (gorgeous) to Sam Giancana’s living room furniture (tacky) to Ben “Bugsy” Siegel’s home movies (mesmerizing) to Meyer Lansky’s diaries, bow ties and Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Mickey Cohen’s boxing gloves and monogrammed pajamas.
Then you’re back into the role-playing, blowing up a casino from inside a library (not sure I got that) before stepping into a warehouse to find out your fate from the Mob Boss hologram of James Caan (The Godfather I and II).
Far be it from me to give this a deep analysis as a historical cultural experience: but as an alternative to Madame Tussaud’s or the CSI Experience, LVME is a little bit fun, a little bit serious, a little silly, and a little real. Play at your own risk.
Tropicana Las Vegas
(702) 739-2662 (-2MOB)
Have you checked out Rocket Fizz? While the Burbank store hardly originated the idea of selling every retro candy and soda pop available–shout outs to Galco’s Soda Pop Stop in Highland Park and Powell’s Sweet Shop in Belmont Shores (and 17 other locations)–I’ve been so overdue to check it out that, while I slept they’ve expanded to branches in:
There might be no greater leap of faith in the culinary world then going from the cosseted confines of a Vegas Strip Casino dining room to an off-Strip independent restaurant. On the Strip, a chef can enjoy some of the best kitchen operations in the country, efficient supply channels (with economies of scale), expensively-designed dining spaces, mighty-muscled PR and Marketing teams, and almost certainly a steady stream of customers.
Off-Strip, in a community that is bizarrely more attracted to national chains than local stars, and continually seduced by dining deals, you can get more attention being an ignominious flop than actually making good food.
So it certainly took some guts for Carlos Buscaglia, formerly one of the best Italian chefs on the Strip at the MGM Grand’s Fiamma Trattoria, to take that leap and open up a pizza place on Summerlin’s Town Center Drive, particularly in the middle of a severe economic downturn. Thus far, Due Forni Pizza & Wine seems to be doing fine… but if it fails, don’t blame the food.
The concept here is a play on duality: Due Forni has “due forni,” i.e. two ovens in Italian, specifically two Italian-designed pizza ovens which constantly rotate to cook evenly. They are electronic, not wood-burning, which is somewhat heretical to traditionalists who feel that a pizza needs to be unevenly cooked and half-charred to be “authentic.” Apparently the actual Italians who make these ovens disagree.
The concept is further spun to offer the two dominant types of pizza in Italy, Napoletana—which we all know—and Romana, which is thinner and more crispy. One is cooked in each oven, the former for 90 seconds at 900 degrees, the latter 500 degrees for three minutes. Both are offered as a margherita and six other intriguing varieties (though likely Carlos will put any variation you want on your pie–he is not one of those “no substitutions” pricks) for $13 up to $21 for the fanciest, a black truffle and egg Tartufo so rich there’s no way you could finish it.
For wine, they offer 38 labels, dominantly red, dominantly Italian, but with a few Californians, one or two French and New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay SB. Every single one is available by the glass–20 of them, as the menu points out, under $15 (and nine of those under $10, as are all ten beers). Of course, there’s also California cult The Puzzle and Super Tuscan Tignanello if some Summerlinian wants to splurge.
Like any pizza place, they offer some starters too, though here, Buscaglia clearly goes past the expected, delivering fine-dining level salume, assagnini and salads. You’ll notice one glaring omission: pastas (as Carlos explains to me afterward, those two ovens are actually the only heating elements in the entire operation, and at least by my visit he hadn’t figured out a good way to make pastas with them. That may change, but in some respects I like the idea of an authentically Italian restaurant bucking expectations).
My visit was a proper tasting, which means Carlos knew I was coming, but didn’t know what I’d be ordering, and for those who assume that only anonymous reviewing is valid, I’ll just point out two obvious facts: no one in the restaurant appeared to be getting any less attention than my family, nor did their food look any different than mine (it’s not like a chef can replace their normal ingredients with some ‘special’ better stuff, and it doesn’t guarantee everything comes out perfect). As it happens, the chef sent out a lot of samplings which allowed me to have a far greater idea of the menu than any normal person could in one visit.
We started with two of the “Cold Apps” and all three“Hot Apps:” tuna crudo, beef carpaccio, scampi prawns, turkey polpette, and semolina gnocchi. On the cold side, I loved the carpaccio: prime beef, wraped around arugula and pignoli like cut sushi, and topped with shaved parmesan and black truffle vinaigrette. The ahi tuna crudo, mixed with Fresno pepper, capers, olives and lemon-infused truffle oil seemed to have a slightly grainy texture and was dominated by the lemon essence.
Of the hot apps, I absolutely loved the semolina gnocchi, shaped like pencil points and served in a sort of carbonara with black truffle crema, smoked nueske bacon and peas, a hearty portion which could easily work as a second entrée with a pizza. The black tiger prawn scampi came with fregola, a kind of Sardinian cous cous, and had a lovely fragrance, but something about the garlic and white wine in the recipe left a bitter aftertaste. The ground turkey polpette came in a wonderfully bright, fresh san marzano tomato sauce, but the meatballs themselves were a bit bland, despite nice texture. More seasoning or just adding in pork or veal would help.
Normally the mozzarella bar here is offered as one of three Campagnia mozzarella choices and a side such as roasted red peppers, Sicilian anchovies, marinated roman artichokes, prosciutto San Daniele or three others. Lucky for me, I got to sample all three cheeses with some plain pizza dough on the side. The stracciatella was by far my favorite, soft creamy and light; the classica was fine but nothing special, and the smoked mozza was smoked with the wrong wood, methinks. It just tasted like it’d been left in a house that burned down.
Then. Came. Pizza.
Three of them.
We sampled Neapolitan versions of the house signature Due Forni, an adaptation of the margherita with san marzano tomato sauce, campagnia bufala mozzarella, house made crumbled sausage, nueske bacon and pequillo peppers. This was just a pure, perhaps slightly Americanized pie, with juicy savory sausage and peppers. While these ovens avoid the charring that wood ovens give you, as the pics show, you still get hot spots on the dough, which was that classic chewy/crisp crust that you want in a Napoli pie.
The second Neapolitan was a fancy Tartufo, layered with sliced black truffle, roasted cremini mushrooms, parmesan crema and fontina, with an egg barely cooked on top, then spread over it at the table. This thing was as rich as you could imagine, incredibly earthy , creamy, actually heady. If there’s such a thing as “orgasmic” pizza, this is it.
Speaking of table service, one thing Due Forni does that I like a lot: they deliver the pizza uncut, Italian style. And then at the table, they give it two quick slicings, almost like stamping its passport. Nice.
The last pizza was a Bianca al proscuitto cotto, Roman style, which as the name indicates, was simply white pizza with cooked ham, fontina cheese, caramelized onions, fresh oregano and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. That too was rich, the crispy Roman dough more like a delivery system for the meat and cheese than a strong flavor component itself.
I had a glass of Sella & Mosca Cannanou Riserva ’09, which went particularly well with the Due Forni pizza, but didn’t clash with anything.
They insisted on bringing me some dessert as well, but I’ll be darned if I could remember it. I was absolutely food-coma’ed by then.
Mille Grazie, Carlos!
I’ve attended Aureole’s Wine Weekend for the past two years, and I remain convinced that this small, rather under-publicized affair, is among the best annual food and wine events in the country. The first year, 2009, I documented on this website, here. The second, 2010, on EscapeHatchDallas.com, here.
But I wanted to wait until this year’s schedule was announced to publish my full album of photographs from last year, so that everyone could see just what an impressive event this is. You can now see the full album here, on flickr. The number of pics was too many to post here!
I can’t recommend this event highly enough, especially since this year will not only feature three days of events hosted by William Sherer, MS, Chef Vincent Pouessel and Patissier Megan Romano, but also CEC Charlie Palmer himself, and a member of the Mondavi wine family. Yes, this price tag is not small, but when you break down what you get for the cost (including the hotel room) it’s a steal.
I rarely feel compelled to promote corporate brands, but I recently enjoyed tastings at two restaurants in Las Vegas, both of which happen to be somewhat “under the radar;” happen to offer price points slightly below their quality might call for; and happen to be operated by the Los Angeles-based MCC Hospitality Group. It can’t be a coincidence.
Off the hotel lobby in a Strip-side corner, Morel’s bistro has tended to be overlooked for the Palazzo’s more splashy Celeb-chef eateries (CUT, Table 10, Dos Caminos), clubby Lavo and funky SushiSamba…among other worthy options. The fact that it has such an understated entrance (in contrast to an inviting interior) probably doesn’t help. I’ve frequently praised them in the past, but mainly for their unique cheese program (over 60 selections available—possibly the biggest and best in any US restaurant) and strong enomatic/by-the-glass wine program (also around sixty offerings and growing). With Alexandre Brard (ex-Joel Robuchon) now overseeing beverages, expect this department to improve even more, emphasizing worldwide discoveries and values over the showy labels you might expect from a French-trained sommelier.
There are no illusions here that your experience will be like mine—Brard insisted on pairing every single dish I sampled, even each of three cheeses, for example. Still it’s worth sharing not just for bragging rights, but also to emphasize that not a single dish I tried was off key. Which means you’re unlikely to have a mediocre experience here.
We started with an amuse of tuna tartare atop a delicate potato gaufrette (the world’s fanciest chip, basically), nicely balanced in textures and flavors, paired with a delicate cava.
Then we had a course of three classic cheeses—aged hook cheddar, stilton, and triple cream, paired respectively with Sanctuary cab 08, Warre’s 10 yr old Tawny Port Optima, and fortified Pommeau de Normandie (of which Brard was most proud).
A pleasantly simple salad of small iceberg wedges with blue cheese and lardons followed.
Then came a mild, creamy piece of seared Scottish salmon over lentils in a balsamic reduction, savory but not overly strong. With this, Alexandre paired a wine that particularly impressed: Giardino Le fole 2007 Aglianico, with a grassy nose, smoke and white pepper on the palate
The meat course was dry aged rib eye, sliced tableside and served with bordelaise sauce, mushrooms and sautéed artichoke. It was perfectly cooked, crusty, chewy and juicy inside. I hate to tell you how rare it is that beef is served so correctly—and if you go here and get some and it isn’t done as well, please send it back. I insist.
Oh, Brard poured us a nice soft tempranillo/cab with it. Note that barely any French wine was poured, and yet every pairing was interesting and successful.
For the sweet, the waiter brought a presentation of daily housemade macarons, which he filled with different flavored jams: coffee, pistachio, raspberry, pumpkin. I’m not a macaron fan, but it was a fun finish.
A couple weeks earlier, Exec Chef Jose Navarro at Morel’s sister property d.vino in the Monte Carlo also did a (slightly less formal) tasting for me. Like Morel’s, d.vino isn’t slavishly traditional cuisine, but it isn’t obnoxiously dumbed down. In the past 18 months or so, all of the Monte Carlo’s food venues have been revamped, and d.vino is no exception. Like many casino Italian restaurants, the space is separated into a more casual front area and a slightly more formal rear room. In the front you’ll find wines by the glass in an Enomatic machine, as well as a raw bar that’s one of the few on the Strip (and I believe, fractionally cheaper than others like Comme Ça, Bouchon, RM Seafood, PJ Clarkes).
The rear dining room is far more pleasant for a meal, however, and hardly stuffy.
I’m tempted to digress about how small touches like bread service can make all the difference in setting the tone of a meal, but I’ll spare you and just point out that the first thing on the table was a wood block with cubed fresh foccacia (three kinds), fresh basil in evoo, and a roasted head of garlic. Simple, but very classy.
Chef Navarro started me off with what might have been my favorite of his dishes (not to be anti-climactic): a stuffed zucchini antipasti (the normal portion is bigger than pictured here) that fills thick rings of Italian squash with bright, fresh tomato sauce, mozzerella, and a heap of herbed breadcrumb. So simple but so good.
Their relationship with Morel’s means that d.vino too can serve a selection of cheeses—mostly Italian and Spanish, all European—that is abbreviated from Morel’s menu, but at 14 choices is still far more than you see most places. And $21 for seven selections means you could just order that and a couple glasses of wine and have an elegant snack. I sampled Italian Grana Padano, French Valençay Pyramide, and Belgian Chimay Grand Cru along with some San Daniele proscuitto, La Quercia ham and a little Salame Toscano.
Of the solid pasta and risotto selections (including a vegetable risotto), I tried some buttery soft gnocchi in a simple bright tomato sauce; a rigatoni with Italian sausage ragout, roasted peppers and onions, with the hearty sausage spices dominating; and soft, savory mushroom ravioli in Bolognese sauce. These pastas measure up to some of the best I’ve had in Las Vegas.
For mains, Jose offered a taste of his osso bucco, made from slow cooked Amish veal, properly tender but toothy, and rich with flavor over simple saffron risotto. I also sampled a nice Scottish salmon, creamy and mild beneath flavorful crispy skin, in caper butter with garlic spinach and potato–close to the one at Morel’s, though not quite as elegantly accompanied.
Desserts were a tiramisu mousse and crème brulee with raspberry glaze.
Morel’s and d.vino may not get lots of attention relative to other Strip restaurants, but they both deliver solidly at reasonable prices, and when you’re on vacation, there’s a lot to be said for that.
It’s an odd thing to stake a claim as something of an expert when it comes to Las Vegas buffets…especially when you weigh in at under 200 lbs…but why hide it? I’m probably one of the few people on the planet to have dined at virtually all of the casino-resort buffets, typically in the course of research (see my Orbitz.com Top Ten Buffets, most of which I believe still holds accurate, with the exception of Mirage’s Cravings, about which I’ve heard too many complaints) but occasionally just in the pursuit of a quick, effortless meal. Which is largely the point of these casino smorgasbords, at least historically, as I noted in another piece I wrote on the topic for the Las Vegas Weekly.
Though many critics and gourmands tend to dismiss them—and certainly with valid reasoning—buffets obviously continue to be popular with visitors, otherwise newer resorts like Aria and the Cosmopolitan wouldn’t invest in them (in fact, it’s almost more intriguing to note which Strip resorts don’t have buffets: New York New York, Mandarin Oriental, Vdara, Bally’s, Venetian/Palazzo, Stratosphere; Tropicana now only offers a limited buffet for breakfast). And the Cosmopolitan in particular has certainly invested in the Wicked Spoon, a quite elegant entry into buffet land, marked by modern design and polished wood tables that wouldn’t look out of place in any fine dining scenario.
Their main aesthetic distinction—to offer many selections in small-portion china and cute metal pans-is also a serious investment, not just in hardware but also in labor cost in serving and cleaning (as well as making sure people aren’t swiping those cute little sauciers). One might presume the point would be to limit how much you can eat, but I suspect it has more to do with curtailing the typical buffet behavior of piling your plate high with food, and then not finishing, letting it go to waste. That’s as much an ecological issue as it an economic one, and in that aspect, I applaud the Cosmopolitan for the gesture.
But enough musing: It’s interesting to note that of all the places I eat and tweet about, none has aroused more curiosity than Wicked Spoon, so I’m sorry it took over a week to post a full blog.
Typically, I’ve reviewed buffets during weekday dinner service, since it’s their most full array of offerings, without anything special added. But for Wicked Spoon, I went during Sunday brunch, assuming I’d get a bit of what’s available during breakfast, lunch and dinner. I think that held true.
Overall, most of what Wicked Spoon offers doesn’t stray far from the basic buffet formula: standard American breakfast offerings, cold salads, an ample carving station, Mexican, Italian and Asian items, some fish, and lots of decadent desserts. It’s the product quality, overall, and the execution, that sets this apart.
Breakfast items include oversize coffee mugs, an omelet station with a greater-than-usual number of fillings, eggs benedict, chicken-apple link sausage, and perfect applewood smoked bacon.
One could argue two cold u-16/20 shrimp in cocktail sauce is not really “shrimp cocktail,” but they are fresh and properly cooked. The salad station also features a couple of gazpachos, some ceviches and cold fish, several fine cheeses, fresh-sliced salumi, gorgeous heirloom tomatoes (likely seasonal) and most impressively, fresh burrata with watercress that any restaurant would be proud to serve—one of a handful of dishes here that’s worth the price of admission alone (as long as you eat as much of it as you can!).
The carving station is even more well-achieved: Virginia ham, prime rib, Andouille sausage, turkey, and yes, slab bacon (that’s a first) are all good, juicy and fresh. And beside them, served two pieces to a pan, is “Wicked” fried chicken. Even most buffet boosters will admit fried chicken is rarely a go-to, but these spice coated pieces were moist, crispy and flavorful, really pretty great. Get two. At least.
In the Italian section, standouts include creamy/earthy mascarpone polenta with mushrooms (it’s not Scott Conant’s, but it ain’t bad), cavatelli with short rib, and some creative thin crust pizzas—short ribs (again) abd pulled pork among the toppings. The latter was more interesting than inspiring, but really, who goes to a buffet for pizza (and if you’re going to the Cosmo and eating pizza anywhere but D.O.C.G. or the nameless joint, you should be spanked)?
Asian offerings include some of the best char siu pork I’ve ever had—bright red, but uncommonly tender; red curry vegetables with tofu that were light on the vegetables but flavorful regardless; General’s chicken that was crispy, lightly breaded and altogether better than it should be, as well as decent pork belly fried rice and some Korean short ribs that looked good, but also involve more work than I wanted to invest.
A few other nice discoveries were lemongrass cod with asparagus (cooked fish is usually the weakest link in any buffet), crispy sweet potato fries, ratatouille, and a succotash that was perfect, really.
And then there’s dessert: several fudges and barks (that’s another first), dipped strawberries and marshmallows, all kinds of pretty parfaits and pastries, so tiny you can sample, crumbles and chocolate bread pudding in pans, and16 gelato flavors served in mini-cones. I showed restraint but enjoyed a scoop of creamy, dense, fresh-tasting pistachio gelato.
There are some weak spots, of course. The tacos al pastor were virtually flavorless, as was ceviche. The pastas in pans were nice, but pesto separates when it’s kept warm (as it did on the gnocchi) and the mac’n’cheese was lukewarm. Sushi rolls here look nice but are also ridiculously bland. There’s an attempt at Asian noodle soups (ramen/pho, whatever) but it’s kind of a joke. And what was labeled as a Caesar salad definitely wasn’t (unless bacon is a part of the recipe I’ve been missing all these years), though I enjoyed it anyway.
The end result is that Wicked Spoon is definitely in the “upper echelon” of Vegas Buffets—and if you’re wondering what company I’m referring to, it’s Bellagio, Wynn and M Resort. Period (there are other certainly acceptable buffets, but none that really aspire to the level of quality and quantity of these folks). Just to make some comparisons, overall Bellagio has by far the best sushi and salads; Wynn—which also does some small-portioning—has great soups, ceviches, and a gut-busting patisserie; M’s Studio B just has a massive array of everything, all very good, along with free beer/wine—and by far the lowest price points among this company. Wicked Spoon fits in well here, and is the most elegant and relatively intimate experience of them all. And I hasten to add, it had the best looking buffet crowd I’ve ever seen. I’m talking model-quality. Shocking, I admit (who knew they even ate, much less “all you can” ate?).
The bottom line with any buffet is that yes, obviously you are making a trade off of quality when you’re eating pre-made food vs. cooked to order. My biggest beef with buffets—and all of the best share this problem, including Wicked Spoon—is when you have to wait on a lengthy line to sit down. I’ve never understood the point of this (it always seems intentional on the part of the management to seat people slower than they could). To me the biggest attraction to a buffet, and it’s initial raison d’etre way back at the El Rancho in the 1940s, was that one could sit down and eat a meal more quickly than with normal service, in order to get back to the gaming tables, or whatever else you had planned. I have to be honest, if I had to wait more than 10 minutes in order to sit down at a buffet, even any of these great buffets, I wouldn’t do it.
Especially when you can grab a great slice of pizza right down the hall in a minute and a half.
Last Friday, USA Today devoted the better part of a two-page spread on The Best of Las Vegas Nightlife, a pictorial written by Kitty Bean Yancey with the input of Vegas “panelists” Norm Clarke (Las Vegas Review-Journal gossip columnist), Anthony Curtis (LasVegasAdvisor.com), Sarah Feldberg (Las Vegas Weekly), Oscar Goodman (outgoing Mayor of downtown Las Vegas), Dan Hippler (Vegas.com), Jack Houston (Las Vegas Magazine), John Katsilometes (Las Vegas Sun), and Abby Tegnalia (VEGAS magazine).
I have to tell you, I was pretty dumbstruck by it. I had to check the date of the paper—and wonder how much input my colleagues actually had. Because without exception, every single one of the choices—most of which wouldn’t generally be considered ‘nightlife’ specifically—could have been made two years ago. If not longer. YAWN.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t disagree that all of the winners are deserving. But if you’re delivering a new article in a daily newspaper which has the word TODAY in its name, shouldn’t you be giving some information that is, well, new? Just for one example, shouldn’t you find a way to at least mention, even name-drop, the Cosmopolitan, the new resort which no one could deny has become an instant game-changer for the Strip? As a destination, Vegas is changing literally every week. If you want to be serious about covering it, you can’t give people information that’s six months old, or even six weeks.
So for those of you that saw it, and are visiting Las Vegas soon, let me offer some alternative Bests:
Best Attraction: USA Today’s winner, The fountains of Bellagio
First of all the category says Best Attraction, not Best Free Attraction. While there’s no denying that the fountains are a Must-See (if you can tolerate all the costumed freaks and protesters that now congregate in front of it), there are an awful lot of other interesting and fun diversions, including other water features at City Center and the Mirage volcano (both also by Bellagio fountain designers WET), the world-class art installations of City Center, Bellagio’s Conservatory, Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef, Tropicana’s Mob Experience, Imperial Palace’s massive Auto Collections, the list really does go on.
Best fine-dining restaurant: USA Today’s winner, Joel Robuchon
Well of course, the French legend’s only North American fine dining spot (he has another L’Atelier in New York) is de rigeur, as it has been for the last six or so years. But what about all the new and notable restaurants in Aria and the Cosmopolitan, including Sage, American Fish, Scarpetta, Blue Ribbon, Jaleo, Estiatorio Milos and more? Then there’s Guy Savoy, Twist, Michael Mina, RM Seafood, Bartolotta, Le Cirque, B&B… Vegas has so many truly great restaurants that choosing one “best” when there are so many close seconds is almost unfair.
Best Bar: USA Today’s winner, The Fremont East District Downtown
First of all, that’s not one bar, but a city block full of several cool spots including Beauty Bar, Don’t Tell Mama, The Griffin, Downtown Cocktail Room, The Vanguard, Insert Coins, and Emergency Arts. Which are all fun, but most of them aren’t much different than what you’d find in any typical small city (also, it’s the equivalent to declaring a food court “best restaurant”). If you had to pick one single bar?? I’d send you to Vesper or Chandelier at Cosmopolitan. But that’s just me. Oh wait, that’s not just me, actually. Locals and tourists alike are flocking to both.
Best nightclub: USA Today’s winner, TAO
TAO??? Sorry, but the TAO Group’s own new Marquee club in the Cosmopolitan leaves their original Vegas landmark in the dust, for DJs, ambiance, drinks, everything. Not even a contest.
Best locals’ value dining: USA Today’s winner, Firefly on Paradise
Sure, Firefly presents passable tapas in a comfortable environment but seriously there are so many happy hour specials around town, you rarely hear anyone talk about hitting Firefly except as a standby. The real exciting scene in locals’ dining is on Spring Mountain, where all kinds of amazing Asian eateries flourish, including—in particular—Raku, Monta, Ichiza, and many Pho spots, none of which you have to make excuses for. Then there’s the unique Bachi Burger (no Angelenos, it is not the Umami Burger ripoff you think it is). If you had to pick one value spot that locals swear by? It’s Pho Kim Long. Duh.
Best show: USA Today’s winner, The Beatles LOVE
Sure, LOVE—celebrating its 5th anniversary–is an amazing show, if you love Beatles music (and by the way, Yancey mentioned Paul and Ringo but neglected to note George Harrison’s integral involvment in making the show happen). But new show Absinthe, while not on the same scale, and much more adult, is also an impressive only-in-Vegas attraction. Then there’s Cirque du Soleil’s O, Jersey Boys, Human Nature, Garth, Celine… what am I forgetting? A lot, actually.
Best strip club: USA Today’s winner, Spearmint Rhino
Since I don’t frequent strip clubs, I can’t really comment on this. But every time someone recommends “the Rhino,” which yes, is most popular with locals by far, I ask them “how many other strip clubs have you checked out, and how exactly are you judging them?” Crickets.
Food is everything right now. It’s the new rock’n’roll. It’s the new sex. It’s the new black. It seems ridiculous to point out that it hasn’t always been such a big deal—after all, humans have always eaten, haven’t we?—but for you newbies, food has not always been such a constant hot topic (which means, it also won’t be this way forever). By the same token, food festivals are everywhere, loaded down with whatever star chef talent is available (pity their traveling schedules these days), at least in the overweight-but-obsessed-with-dieting US.
Boy am I digressing. Focus, dude.
Here’s the thing: though coastal city snobs can continue to sneer, few if any cities can come near to rivaling the chef star power that is available in Las Vegas, where over the past 15 years, a fine food scene of remarkable breadth, depth and sheer volume has been gathered at the major resorts—and increasingly off-Strip, too. And the best representation of that scene, the best assemblage and celebration, remains Vegas Uncork’d by bon appetit.
I want to hold my thoughts for a minute just to list the array of world-renowned and locally respected culinary talent who participated this year (Nationally recognized talents in ALL CAPS): TONY ABOU-GANIM, Zack Allen (B&B), Akira Back (Yellowtail), PAUL BARTOLOTTA, Steve Benjamin (L’Atelier du Joel Robuchon), James Benson, ERIC & BRUCE BROMBERG, Kim Canteenwalla (Society), Stephane Chevet (Shibuya), TOM COLLICCHIO, SCOTT CONANT, ALAIN DUCASSE, SUSAN FENIGER, Jennifer Fournier, OSAMU FUJITA, PIERRE GAGNAIRE, Carlos Guia (Country Club at Wynn), Martin Heierling (Sensi), Scott Irestone (Wolfgang Puck B&G), Masa Ishizawa (Okada), JEAN JOHO, Michael Jordan (Rosemary’s), HUBERT KELLER, Eric Klein (Spago), Gary LaMorte (Andre’s) Claude Le-Tohic (Joel Robuchon), Rene Lenger (Switch), Joesph Liebowitz (Stratta), SCOTT LINQUIST, Phillip Lo (Jasmine), MARK LoRUSSO, STEVE MARTORANO, NOBU MATSUHISA, JEAN-PHILIPPE MAURY, SHAWN McCLAIN, Sven Mede (American Fish), MARY SUE MILLIKEN, MICHAEL MINA, RICK MOONEN, Robert Moore (Jean-Georges), DAVID MYERS, BRADLEY OGDEN, STEVE OLSON, CHARLIE PALMER, FRANÇOIS PAYARD, LUCIANO PELLEGRINI, Eddie Perales (Caesars mixologist), MICHEL RICHARD, PATRICIA RICHARDS, JOEL ROBUCHON, TAL RONNEN, Megan Romano (Aureole), RICHARD SANDOVAL, GUY SAVOY, Ralph Scamardella (TAO Group), Matt Seeber (Craftsteak), JULIAN SERRANO, Theo Schonegger (Sinatra), JASON SMITH MS, David Spero, ALEX STRATTA, MASA TAKAYAMA, Drew Terp, Jet Tila (Wazuzu), JACQUES TORRES, David Walzog (SW Steak/Lakeside Grill), and Edmund Wong (Bellagio Executive Chef). GORDON RAMSAY, currently negotiating a new restaurant with Caesars, also made an appearance, I’m told.
I mean, wow. Between them, enough James Beard Foundation awards, Michelin stars, Mobil/Forbes stars and AAA diamonds to fill a nebuchadnezzar. Really.
Now in its fifth year, Uncork’d seems to remain an underregarded festival on the national scene. Politics may play some part in that (A lot of media tend to sneer at giving attention to an event so heavily sponsored by another media brand) but this year, it must be said, the festival hardly defended itself.
Why? What was so different about 2011? Well, on one hand, not much—and that’s the problem. Masters series dinners pretty much followed the same pattern they have every year (I won’t single out names, you can see the schedule on the official website), with the notable exception of Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, that has always been the most popular of these dinners… I guess Chef Flay wasn’t available for the event this year.
Other events included luncheons with Joel Robuchon, Julian Serrano and Michael Mina, and brunches with Guy Savoy and Susan Feniger/Mary Sue Milliken, all of which I’m sure were wonderful. A Mandalay Beach “BBQ” with Charlie Palmer and Alain Ducasse, that was a clever twist last year, was repeated with the addition of Rick Moonen, and I’m confident that was also fun. A multi-chef $395.00/plate tribute dinner to Paul Bocuse was regrettably cancelled a few days prior.
But, not to sound overly jaded, these are just fancy meals with very well known and established chefs. What has made Vegas Uncork’d so essential in the past has been its very unique presentations: Jean-Phillippe Maury creating a multi-course dessert before our eyes; Rick Moonen, Susan Feniger and Hubert Keller demonstrating together; Wolfgang Puck having a frank and uncensorsed conversation with Barbara Fairchild; all the chefs of Wynn cooking a multi-course menu with you [Yes, I made squab with Daniel Boulud two years ago—and he ate mine!], just to offer four strong memories. This kind of stuff does not happen every day, to say the least. No other festival that I know of has done these as creatively or as plentifully as Uncork’d has.
Those were notably pared down this year. There was a “Chef Showdown” between Akira Back and Martin Heierling, and I was happy to see three wine-related events on the schedule…though why every one featured Bellagio Wine Director Jason Smith is a head scratcher (he is an eminently qualified MS, and head of the biggest wine program anywhere…but there also happen to be a dozen other Master Sommeliers in town, and many more qualified professionals available). The only significant new event along these lines was Viva Las Vegan, a demonstrational buffet lunch at Wynn where Steve Wynn himself, Tal Ronnen, and the property’s estimable restaurant chefs explained their very groundbreaking vegetarian/vegan food program. I’m writing on for TheGourmetBachelor.com site.
There was a wine dinner at Theo Schonegger’s Sinatra in Wynn with Tina Sinatra pouring her family’s wines–that I imagine was also special…but I haven’t heard a word about nor seen a single photo from. Seems like more journalists attended the Chef Black Jack tournament, for some reason (Note to self: remember to cover the big BBQ during the World Series of Poker coming up…).
Speaking of journalists, instead of Wolfgang Puck or Pierre Gagnaire, this year we had a culinary conversation with local food critic/reviewers John Curtas, Max Jacobson and Al Mancini [hyperlinks to their summaries of the event]. Now, with apologies to my colleagues and friends (I’m sure they’ll agree), while I know they have valuable insights–and thanks for mentioning me, Al—we had Nobu Matsuhisa himself here… rising TV star Scott Conant… the uber-hot Bromberg brothers…and instead we get a dialogue with three local critics?
Other than the veggie luncheon, I was not able to attend any of the above, owing to my own schedule and the rather steep a la carte costs of each*. In case you’ve ever wondered, this is not a cheap ticket, friends, which is why I feel justified arguing that it should be as unique and unforgettable an experience as possible. The Grand Tasting alone was $200 a person—five dollars more than a similar and certainly as lavish event at Pebble Beach the week prior.
And yet, the Grand Tasting was, of course, as always, a remarkable feast of fantasy. Of the dozens upon dozens of bites offered, my favorites included Masa’s carpaccio, Guy Savoy’s soup, and others from Comme Ça, Sage, Wazuzu, the Country Club, Social House, and notably generous portions from Society and Mesa Grill. Wine selections were also notably improved this year with names like Chateau Montelena, Duckhorn, Ferrari Carano, Frei Brothers, J. Lohr, Paul Hobbs, Silver Oak, Ste. Michelle—to have these labels poured freely is definitely something.
Unfortunately, the Caesars “Garden of the Gods” pool area, while quite pretty in normal circumstances, continues to be a very imperfect venue for this event, making the flow confusing, and meaning many booths are given unfortunate positions. Navigation is not easy, and signage year after year remains bizarrely lacking (how they think anyone is going to study a pamphlet map with food in one hand and a glass in the other is beyond me). One of the most special aspects this year was a fantastic mixology lounge hosted by Tony Abou-Ganim and Steve Olson, and featuring the talents of Patricia Richards and Eddie Perales, that should’ve been mobbed. But judging by the numbers there, and reactions from many people I talked with afterward, very few people even knew it was there.
Now, look again at the list of participants above and ask yourself, what did most of this talent actually do during the event? Well, as far as I can tell… they took a lot of pictures together. And they stood at their booths while their chef de cuisines handed out amuses. Is that really the best way for these truly great chefs to represent themselves and what they bring to Las Vegas?
When it comes to the planning and orchestration of this festival, there are so many “cooks in the kitchen” it’s hard to say where the fault or credit lies for its strengths and weaknesses, though that in itself might be a big part of the problem. A food festival needs to be run by people who truly love food, who understand the strengths of the available participants, and who want patrons to have a fantastic food experience, period. Other considerations that come with it, while valuable to the festival’s economic health, need to be treated secondarily. I personally feel it’s a huge misstep to have such an important event in town, and yet have virtually no publicly viewable elements to it, for a number of reasons.
There’s nothing wrong with Uncork’d (as the saying goes) that what’s right with Uncork’d can’t fix. This could and should be the greatest food festival in the world, an annual event in Las Vegas important enough that perhaps it even rivals the porn star convention!
After all, food is the new sex, right?
Some other coverage of Uncork’d 2011:
*Uncork’d’s public relations team was gracious enough to credential me to a few things, but only the Grand Tasting was of genuine interest. Wynn PR invited me to the Vegan event as well. My thanks to them both.
Seems like all you hear about in Las Vegas anymore is the Cosmopolitan. That’s probably partially my fault (see what I mean?). Here’s yet another piece I wrote on the resort, for Dallas/Ft. Worth’s 360 West:
Among the myriad fine dining grouped on the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas’ third level, Blue Ribbon appears as something of a sleeper. Unlike the flashy, hostess-heavy Jaleo and STK, the uber-fancy Milos, or classically modern Scarpetta and Comme Ça, Blue Ribbon is in a darker corner and somewhat hidden behind a patterned screen wall. But perhaps its enigma adds to the mystique, since it apparently hasn’t been suffering from attention since it opened at the beginning of the year.
Unfortunately, a plumbing mishap forced its closure for a few weeks, so I held this post until its reopening this week.
A spin-off of the hot New York spot founded by brothers Bruce and David Bromberg, Blue Ribbon offers both more authenticity as well as innovation than the typical Strip Japanese spot.
There are three experiences here: a small sushi counter at the very front, a woody, sexy lounge with small two-tops, and a much larger sushi counter, tables and tatami rooms in rear, all filled with a funky jazz soundtrack to keep things energetic but sensual. The menu is similarly diverse.
Sushi and sashimi are offered in extensive varieties, divided into Atlantic and Pacific ocean sourcing (expect to see sourcing as a growing trend, coming out of the Japanese nuclear disaster—though Blue Ribbon were doing this much already). Popular fish are all hear, but you may also find Spanish Mackerel (Sawara), barracuda (Kamasu) and jellyfish (Kurage) for example. There are plenty of ingredient-driven maki rolls (no Philly roll or any of that nonsense), Osaka-style box sushi, and ten different vegetable rolls.
Rather than the typical series of platings, Oma Kase here is offered as a platter ($100 p.p.—there are also a $35 veggie sushi platter, a $140 two pound lobster sashimi platter and even a $200 “Blue Ribbon Special” platter, which I can only imagine must be life-changing. Well, it’d better be.)
Of course, not everything here is so pricey—small plates start well under $10, and this is where you’ll begin to see an appealing blend of Eastern and Western influences, such as beef marrow with shaved bonito and teriyaki or a salad of cranberries, pear, cucumber and mizuna with poppyseed dressing. There are two menus here—one sushi bar, one dining room, with different offerings. You’ll want to see both, and spend some time with them to discover specialties. Among the tempura is fried chicken with wasabi and honey; there’s also a full grill menu, another listing of wagyu beef offerings, extensive sunomono, and more under various listings (“Kitchen Specials,” “Sushi Bar Specials,” etc.)
Choosing almost randomly from too many intriguing offerings, I ordered a carafe of Yuuki no Basho sake (because it goes with almost everything—though the selective sake and wine listing goes as deep as an ’82 Bordeaux for $20k) and started with the tofu and seaweed starter with lemon, ginger and soy and the smoked pork belly kushi yaki with pickled onions and baby watercress. A nice study in contrasts, the tofu was light, creamy and refreshing, accented by the tart, chewy seaweed; the pork belly more-than-fork-tender, and dripping with woody, earthy delight.
From my seat at the front Sushi bar (where the chefs work in tandem in a way that bears comparison to both acrobatics and ballet), Oma Kase seemed the way to go. Wondering what you get for $100? Generous portions of no less than 13 different fishes. I had horse mackerel, grilled eel, cornet fish, sea trout, fatty tuna, amberjack, salmon, yellowtail, some ruby red tuna, striped bass, fluke, seared salmon, and a sea urchin roll with foie gras. Advised by the chef to eat them in that order (going from mildest to strongest), I admittedly enjoyed some more than others—particularly the horse mackerel, cornet, amberjack, yellowtail and rich salmon.
After the finish, they took away the display fish, a ribboned amberjack (I believe), flash fry it, and brought it back to eat like crunchy chips!
Though I wanted to go deeper into the menu, that was more than a meal already. I was advised not to miss dessert (which I often do), so I chose the most unusual offering, a ginger bread pudding that literally arrived as a shiny golden brick (more than enough to share), spicy, sweet, eggy and mouth-filling tender.
I took half of it back to my hotel room and finished it for breakfast. And I don’t regret a single bite.
I’m not one to be starstruck–often–but there’s always something cool about meeting the namesake of a wine, and Hailey Trefethen can claim that twice. Not only is she a daughter of the well-known Trefethen wine family (the scions of the Oak Knoll A.V.A.) but their single vineyard reserve HaLo was named after Hailey and brother Loren.
So sharing a tasting of Trefethen’s new releases with Hailey last week was even more fun than it would’ve been already: it also happened to be at Julian Serrano, one of my favorite restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip (in Aria, City Center), and with two of my favorite sommeliers, Desmond Ecchavarrie, A.S. (currently at Julian Serrano) and his mentor, Robert Smith, M.S. (of Serrano’s fine dining establishment, Picasso in Bellagio).
Proudly but without arrogance, Hailey reminded us that Trefethen has always used only the grapes they grown themselves, from vineyards that are all Certified Napa Green, and using 100% sustainable farming practices, such as a host of cover crops, and owl and bat boxes for natural pest control.
The wines were pared–loosely–with a selection of Serrano’s signature modern tapas (only some of which I photographed–it was a feast). Here are some quick tasting notes:
09 Oak Knoll Estate Dry Riesling: green apple, guava, peach, ripe grapefruit, lime and a little slate. Moderate acid. Bright but not blaring.
08 Estate Chard celebrates the 35th bottling of the wine which triumphed in the ’79 World Wine Olympics. Eight months in French oak (18% new), no malo. Harvest and tropical fruits, great mouth feel.
07 Estate Merlot: Notes of plum, grape tomato, black cherry, with a little toasted anise and chocolate in the finale. 95% merlot, 2% cab, 2% malbec, 1% petit verdot. Smooth and balanced.
07 Estate Cab: Plum, blackberry and pepper. Not complex, but pleasing. 94% cab, 2% Cab franc, 2% malbec, 1% merlot, 1% petit verdot
2005 HaLo: Blackberry dominates, with chocolate, black cherry and ripe plum, a little bay leaf and pepper spice, finishing with dying embers, earth and a wisp of tobacco. Balanced, complex, and rewarding. Firm but not overbearing. The winery’s 508-case premier bottling, 94% Cab with 4% petit verdot and 2% malbec, all grown in the Trefethen’s Hillspring vineyard, rocky volcanic foothills where Hailey and Loren played as kids. Aged 29 months in French Oak, then bottled for two years prior to release.
We finished with the 07 Estate Late Harvest Riesling, which was a nice, light, pleasantly sweet wine but not cloying.
Dropped by for a quick visit with Chef Gary FX LaMorte at Andre’s Monte Carlo this evening, and the chef waylaid me with an unexpected menu tasting! I would complain, but every dish was remarkably creative and well-executed. While Andre Rochat, one of Las Vegas’ longest-established haute cuisine chefs, is very classically-minded, LaMorte has taken his namesake restaurant in exciting new directions (ask about the foie gras martini!) for which he’s relatively under-appreciated. This food is quite seriously up there with the finest in the city–and served formally in a gorgeous, cheerfully romantic, intimate dining room. Incidently, LaMorte told me it was the first time he’d actually sat down in his own dining room to experience the service, but I bet he tells all his dates that
It may not quite be a SCOOP, but it seems to have not been reported yet that Brian Howard has taken over the day-to-day reins as Executive Chef at Comme ça in the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas resort. Howard is known as one of the more ambitious chefs in the local dining scene, most recently executing a very molecular/fusion menu at Nu Sanctuary in Town Square that should be remembered as one of the most adventurous culinary experiences in Las Vegas dining (particularly off-Strip–and joining Carlos Guia at Louis Osteen in the Town Square too good/too soon club).
Howard, who executed a very French-leaning classic menu at the under-regarded CatHouse under Kerry Simon, is just what Comme ça needs. While top toque David Myers (of Sona/LA Comme ça fame) is devoting more of his time to the Vegas outlet than many other out-of-town chef/restaurateurs, Howard understands the competitive nature of Strip dining. In particular, Vegas has more serious French cuisine–both classic and modern–than perhaps any other American city at the moment. Just on the Strip, there’s the justifiably well-regarded Mon Ami Gabi, unjustly maligned Andre’s (and sister Alize at Palms), Aureole, Bouchon, Eiffel Tower Restaurant, Fleur (if that still counts), Le Cirque, Morel’s, Payard, Picasso, Pinot Brasserie… not to mention the world-class Mansion and L’Atelier of Joel Robuchon, Restaurant Guy Savoy, Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, and mIX by Alain Ducasse (no wonder Restaurant Alex couldn’t do enough numbers to combat its closure–btw, it’s closing week was allegedly one of its best ever.) Even off-Strip there are the well-regarded Marche Bacchus, Rosemary’s, the enduring Pamplemousse, and certainly more I’m overlooking. That’s a very big field, in which it’s easy to become regarded as an also-ran, even if you do a respectable job–and even having an impressive raw bar with a strong selection of oysters is, well, not that uncommon. CC also walks a tightrope between being a casual brasserie (which it is in name) and a more elegant dining room (which it is in some pricing).
Howard definitely does not want to be an “also-ran” kind of chef, and is in the process of revamping everything, along with a new Summer menu. Already, he’s tweaked Myers’ already-great burger and buzzed-about bone marrow and oxtail starter, and put together an impressive charcuterie (even Batali’s salumi master Zach Allen should check it out) and is promising more in the next couple weeks.
In the meantime, there’s already something else very exciting there for late night diners: from 10 p.m. to closing (typically 1 am, but they will stay if busy) Comme ça’s entire “Hourglass” Menu is priced 50% off. That includes, among other things, that great burger (certainly the best you’ll get for $9 bucks), and even their Grand Plateau of raw bar/cold seafood (an insane deal at $65).
They also have an excellent classic cocktails menu that, even in a property filled with fantastic libations, is a worthy contender for top tippling.
Well, maybe not so much song. But the Universal Whisky Experience, which gathered together dozens of distilled malt beverages from around the world at the Wynn resort in Las Vegas March 19-20 2010, was both educational and entertaining. Covering for The Tasting Panel, I took some candid snaps. Here’s the album:
And here’s my Tasting Panel Magazine story:
Sometimes you have to take a stand. Sometimes you have to accept a difficult task. The kind of task that just can’t be left to amateurs. Sometimes, you have to judge a hot salsa contest. And that sometime, for me, came on February 15.
To answer the first FAQ, no this was not a salsa dancing contest. Although I may have my opinions about hot salsa dancing, and certainly hot salsa dancers, I am by no means an expert. This was salsa, as in Mexican food, and in that world, yes, I think I have some experience. So it was that on the day after Valentine’s Day, Hussong’s Cantina-Taqueria in Mandalay Place on the Las Vegas Strip invited me to join restaurateurs, a hot sauce entrepreneur and a dedicated Hussong’s regular in judging the Burn a Hole in My Heart salsa-off between Executive Chef Noe Alcala and chefs Tino Guzman and Michael Vargas (one of whom is his former and the other his current sous chef, I think).
I tried to be pure about the process, but before I knew what was happening, Noe was plying all of us with shots of silver Patron, and I couldn’t turn it down. At least we’d all be on a level field. I suspected a fix when I saw Noe got to use the robocoupe and the other chefs were given bar blenders but honestly, I don’t think that affected the outcome too much. Beyond the obvious ingredients–tomato, onion, cilantro, jalapeno, lime–each took a different approach. All were far superior, by the way, to what you get at the original Hussong’s in Ensenada, where the chips are topped with a very plain, relatively dry pico de gallo of tomato, onion, cilantro and jalapeno.
The first of the three we judged used more fresh peppers and was the most traditional–a little heat, a lot of vegetable flavor. The second used a lot of smoked chilis, making it extremely hot on the back end, with a thick, almost mole-like texture. It almost won. But ultimately Alcala’s recipe prevailed with a “kitchen sink” mentality, using a wide variety of fresh peppers, two hot sauces, almost a dozen dried spices, for an all-encompassing flavor with a lot of heat from beginning to end, that stayed with you (it took me holding a gulp of margarita in my mouth for 30 seconds to calm it down). It wasn’t just the heat that made it a winner though, but the variety of “heats” and flavor complexity–also the wet but thick consistency, which helped it stick well to tortilla chips.
Photos courtesy Bryan Steffy/Magnetic PR
It’s not often I get to announce big food world news, but a right place-right time conversation with Scott Conant this morning about his wine program brought this bombshell. Master Sommelier Paolo Barbieri, late of the recently shuttered Restaurant Alex in the Wynn resort, has joined Conant’s team as Wine Director of both Scarpetta and D.O.C.G. in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.
This is not just a coup for Conant and the Cosmo (Barbieri is one of the most respected Somms in the entire US) and Las Vegas (ibid) but in a way for Barbieri as well, since it means he doesn’t have to move, and gets to shift focus from selling big French and California labels to Italian wines, of which the native Roman is undoubtedly well versed.
Well, I expect it’s a coup for him… I’ll look to get a quote from Paolo as soon as the p.r. people get over being upset with me for breaking the news (apparently) early.
UPDATE: Look for my interview with Paolo in the May 2010 issue of THE TASTING PANEL.
BTW, Barbieri is also a winemaker, so no doubt we can expect his California Syrahs to be among the few domestics on Scarpetta’s list.
Conant informs me that Scarpetta and D.O.C.G.’s wine programs, already quite serious, will be expanding even further.
Steven Siegel is Las Vegas Businessman of the Year–at least, if you ask me. I can’t think of any other entrepreneur who has made more dynamic, adventurous, and smart business moves in a challenging economy than the owner of the ever-expanding Siegel Suites as well as the Artisan, Rumor, Lodge at Mount Charleston, Gold Spike and other hotels.
My interview with him for DAVID magazine revealed even more than I expected, too–from his unpredictable youth to his current community involvement. CLICK HERE to download the full article!
With all the talk of the new cuisine in Cosmopolitan, a few other smaller restaurant openings on the Las Vegas Strip this season have been largely overlooked. One is so hidden, you can hardly blame anyone for missing it: SEA Thai, in Bally’s–a resort that’s long suffered without any significant food updates.
Nestled next to the Steakhouse, “SEA – The Thai Experience” (as it’s rather ostentatiously called, officially) is an outpost of an expansive chain around Metropolitan New York (including the peep, spice and Eat= restaurants), and befitting that background, the compact rectangular space combines modern and traditional décor to create an intimate but casual metropolitan-style environment. Beyond some funky-retro bubble chairs in the front, there are simple bare wood booths surrounding a pool reflecting a large Buddha statue, with a few more secluded booths to one side and a private dining room to the other. In a typical city this would be pleasant enough, but on a Strip full of huge spaces it’s uncommonly appealing (the Steakhouse’s intimate size is also one of its enduring strengths). I can’t imagine a more atractive spot for a casual but potentially romantic date.
Of course, the irony is that most of SEA’s spaces in NYC are very large and Vegas-flashy. Thankfully, the chain understands counter-programming. By the same token, SEA’s concept from the beginning has been to make no secret of their American-friendly twists on Thai cuisine. One can poke them for “inauthenticity” all you want, but then again, any US Thai restaurant is likely just as inauthentic when you consider that we don’t generally have the same fish available in America that they do in Thailand (it’s likely our land animals taste different as well), and that any cuisine is going to adapt to a different culture whether it’s trying or not. But that’s a whole ‘nother essay.
The shortcut on this subject is to say that I didn’t find SEA Thai’s dishes to be particularly “fusiony” or “dumbed down,” just prepared with a slightly stronger eye toward pretty presentation.
The menu, which actually offers Thai and Vietnamese dishes (on separate sides), covers the expected classic noodle dishes, salads and curries as well as house specialties—enough variety, but not so much as to be overwhelming, or exhaustively inclusive, as many Thai kitchens can be. Just the fact that they offer four kinds of rice–jasmine, brown, sticky and coconut—makes an impression.
From the Thai menu, I started with duck lettuce wraps, which were not Chinese-style lettuce wraps (as I expected) but spicy tender duck breast wrapped with steamed lettuce inside a spongy wrap bread (rice-based, I believe), and covered in two sauces—sweet, savory comfort food. Then I tried two Thai standards: a papaya salad, and an order of drunken noodles with shrimp and tofu.
The papaya salad, I have to tell you, was everything it should’ve been: crispy, crunchy sweet and spicy, with all the ingredients finely juilenned, so the flavors mixed better than they typically do from a coarser chop. The drunken noodles had solid rad na and firm, flavorful tofu, and to be honest, I found myself returning to it as I sampled the following dishes—which is one of the most meaningful compliments a food reviewer can offer.
From the Viet side, I also stuck to a couple of standbys: spring rolls, which were typical, but delicately crisp and not too greasy, and a bowl of classic pho. The latter came to table not only generously portioned (which is typical) but with a large array of sauces and spices to season. That much again, made an impression. But the soup itself was just okay, nothing terribly special, the noodles just a bit overdone. There’s a lot of pho in Vegas–even a judicious amount on the Strip–so that’s a busy road to travel.
I’m not saying SEA Thai threatens Lotus of Siam or Archii’s to take Vegas’ local Thai crown (Nor does it supercede Wazuzu or Lemongrass on the Strip). But it certainly sidestepped the predictability I’ve felt in most American Thai restaurants for at least the past five years. Prices are not Spring Mountain cheap, but they’re not unreasonable. And staying open until 2 AM certainly makes it a preferable choice to the standard casino cafe.
The restaurant also offers some creative cocktails, but as I was visiting at lunchtime, I abstained. That’s enough of an excuse to make me plan a return, and try some of the kitchen’s more creative dishes.
That there Al Mancini has been goading me for a week now on Facebook. He’s understandably proud of the project he spearheaded—Eating Las Vegas, The 50 Essential Restaurants—a unique collaboration between him and fellow leading food critics John Curtas (from whose blog the name comes) and Max Jacobson (can’t believe Heidi Knapp-Rinella didn’t want to participate!). Because I am nearly as active a food writer in Vegas as they are, Al has been teasing me about the “secrecy” of the list, to be released Wed Nov 17 at a special event at Joel Robuchon (Guess he made the list. Well, duh).
What I’ve been trying to say to Al, without becoming “that guy,” is that I really don’t need to see the list. I know what it is. That’s not to say I’m uninterested in seeing how they ranked the restaurants, and who loved/hated what. But the Top 50 spots in Vegas? Since I’ve had the really fortunate opportunity to experience almost as much as they have, I pretty much know what they picked—partially because I know which places are the best, and partially because I know which places the guys all have soft spots for (and also, hard spots).
I know myself well enough to know I’ll be dying to respond to their list, and I’ve been wrestling with that because I have no desire to start some bitchfest. We all have different palates, and amen to that. So I realized the only way to prevent myself would be to blog about the book before I even see it.
Thus,the list. Well, it’s A list, anyway. I have to admit I have a bit of an issue with the word Essential. Personally, I don’t feel there are really 50 essential—as in life changing, unique, incomparable—food experiences in Vegas. Don’t get me wrong, there are many many solid, worthwhile, even excellent restaurants in town. At least 100 by my count. Which is an incredible amount for any city. But essential? I’m sure New York has 50 essential restaurants. San Francisco might. I doubt Chicago does. I know Los Angeles does not.
I was undecided about whether to make this My list or what I think Their list will be. I decided to split the difference, so first I’ve listed what I expect we can all agree upon. Then there are a few that I can predict they will include but that I wouldn’t necessarily. The next bunch are ones I think are essential but I expect they’ve left off. They’re numbered, but I haven’t obsessively ordered them (in other words, #12 isn’t lesser than #9, okay?). And after that, a “slush pile” of other restaurants in Vegas which I think are excellent but not necessarily altogether life-changing.
Did I forget something? Probably. I know, I suck.
1. Guy Savoy
2. The Mansion
8. Michael Mina
12. RM Upstairs
15. NOVE Italiano
17. RM Seafood
18. Bradley Ogden
19. American Fish
20. Los Antojos
23. Jean-Georges Steakhouse
24. Lotus of Siam
26. Border Grill
27. The Country Club
On their list but not mine:
Most of the following are absolutely exceptional restaurants, they just don’t necessarily fit my own conception of “Essential,” as above.
29. Bar Masa
30. Bosa 1
33. China Mama
35. Fleur de Lys
36. Honey Pig
37. Julian Serrano
38. Le Cirque
39. Marche Bacchus
41. Origin India
43. Sen of Japan
47. Todd’s Unique Dining
Mine but probably not theirs:
29a. Luv Its (okay, it’s not a restaurant, but it is one of the landmark eateries of the city. You can’t get it anywhere else)
31a. Max Brenner (not only kills a category but seals it in concrete)
32a. Morel’s (As an overall experience, Morel’s is meh. But with over 60 cheeses to choose from and as many wines by the glass, that in particular is a very unique opportunity. Dig in.)
33a. Serendipity 3 (not just whimsical, but actually good quality and clever flavor combinations. Don’t over-order)
34a. Strip House (good food in a fantastic atmosphere)
35a. Studio B Buffet (a buffet? Yes, this buffet)
36a. SushiSamba: (Japanese/South American fusion, excellently executed, in a unique atmosphere)
37a. Tender (Not sure why this doesn’t get more notice—they have a category-killing game menu).
38a. Verandah (for breakfast)
[and let me add, of the restaurants coming to Cosmopolitan, I expect Scarpetta/DOC, Jaleo, ChinaPoblano, that Greek fish place, and Comme Ca to be worthy of essentiality]
Very very good, but just shy of life-changing
Beijing Noodle No. 9
BOA (Yes, I’ve called this the best steakhouse in Vegas, in the balance. But I don’t think that makes it essential, just enjoyable. Other steakhouses have bigger imperfections,but also more unique strengths)
Eiffel Tower Restaurant
Joe’s Stone Crab
Mon Ami Gabi
Simon for Brunch
Tea Lounge, Mandarin Oriental
Top of the World
Okay. Go eat.
I’ve been inside some of the most impressive high-roller suites in Las Vegas–almost too many to name (Oh alright, I’ll name them: The Paiza level at Palazzo, Villas at Mirage, MGM Sky Villas, several at Caesars Palace–though not the Presidential–Bellagio, Vdara, Aria, Mandarin Oriental, Tropicana–new and old–Imperial Palace, Harrah’s, and Metro at Flamingo, all the kooky ones at Palms and Hard Rock and a few at Wynn/Encore, though not the Wynn Villas).
But very few compare to the 15,000 square foot Verona Sky Villa at the Las Vegas Hilton. I got a chance to check out the Sky Villa last week as part of an overall property review, and wanted to share these pics that reassert how Vegas–past, present, and surely future–can do some things in ways no one else can. Fifteen thousand square feet. Think about that. A typical hotel room is 500.
One of three huge penthouses atop the Hilton, it was originally created in the late ’80s, when the top floor was redivided from what was originally a nightclub and Elvis’ legendary suite (you know, the place where he shot Robert Goulet on the TV). It is “continually updated” according to LV Hilton Sales Manager Joy Burns (my tour guide). The copious marble is really Italian, and the gold fixtures are really gold (well, at least gold plated–solid gold would be too soft).
It would exhaust me to list all amenities, but highlights of the three bedroom suites and common areas include several multi-person spa tubs, an outdoor pool and lawn, automatic curtain and lighting controls, grand piano, full bar and hidden butler pantry (what, you’re going to cook? yeahright.) The Venetian-style Rennaissance decoration is lavish and excessive but somehow manages to avoid being garish, mostly just by well done.
While there are likely accommodations in the MGM Mansions or Wynn Villas that equal or top this (even if they lack the citywide views), this is almost certainly the most lavish suite in the city, if not these entire United States, that anyone can book. That’s right, $15,000 rack rate a night (“very negotiable” Joy Burns allows) and this place is yours. If you can’t seal the deal here, give up.
I’ve had the pleasure of writing about the astounding WET company (the forces behind the Bellagio fountain and so much more) three times now. I hope to do it again.
Click above for my Las Vegas Weekly on WET and the creation of the City Center features.
Click above to download my story about the WET feature at Wynn Macau
From cover stories, to small breaking news items, I’ve done a wide variety of work for the Las Vegas Weekly–one of the stronger Weekly newspapers in the country, with an award-winning website. Some links are below…
COVER STORY: At Home With Burlesque Queen Dita Von Teese
A few weeks ago, I published a short Q&A with surviving Vegas mob member-turned-informant Frank Cullotta, on the occasion of his appearance for a discussion in Vegas. But since my colleague John Katsilometes reported today about Mayor Oscar Goodman‘s tour of the forthcoming Mob Museum site, I thought it would be a worthwhile to publish the entire unedited interview with Mr. Cullotta, including his interesting remarks about the Mob museum, and Mr. Goodman. Enjoy…
UPDATE 2011: HERE’S ANOTHER EXCERPT THAT RAN IN NEVADA MAGAZINE
Frank, this isn’t the first time you’ve made an appearance like this since coming out of the Witness Protection Program. What do you you get out of doing this?
“Do I get anything personally out of doing…? Satisfaction of putting people on the right track, let people know what it’s really about. They’re hearing it first hand from a guy that’s been there, instead of seeing it in movies and all that baloney, ‘Cause half of that stuff is so much exaggerated too. So they’re gonna hear it first hand from me, and it makes me feel good that I’m passing the message on, just like I do when I do it in front of these different organizations, law enforcement and stuff like that.
I imagine that for a lot of the people you speak to, they see the glamour in the world you lived in, and I wonder if that makes it harder to set the record straight.
“Well, even setting the record straight, I’ve had these speeches before, and people still like what they hear, and it’s not glamorized, I just tell it like it is, you know, I mean, I don’t exaggerate anything, but it’s still got enough kick that they enjoy hearing it. So I guess my message gets across pretty good without any exaggeration, So they come away with a lot of questions for me. They like to talk to me one-on-one afterward.
What do people ask you about the most?
“Well, the strangest thing people ask me is how it felt to kill somebody. I think that’s sort of a weird question. And how did you have to do these things, are you ordered to do these things, and what happens if you don’t do these things, the consequences that would take place, and uh, ah, basic stuff, that’s about it really.
“I dunno, they seem like they’re all a little weird to me, the questions, but two things I get asked, what would you do if you had it to do over again? What I tell people, I am what I am today because of yesterday, so I have nothing to change about it. And that’s just the way I feel about it. [gets quieter] I am how I am today because of the way I was.
And from what I know about your past, you were really born into the life.
“Well I was, I was. I grew up in that neighborhood where everybody was either a cop, a fireman, or a gangster. I come from that background, I had no other way to go. I don’t think I had any other choice, cause I thought tough choices were the ones I had to make, and there weren’t any other choices left. There was no such thing as college, nobody even talked about college, you had to be a millionaire to go to college, that’s the way we looked at it. And what good would an education do you back then, if you had street sense? With street sense, you could make money, and you’d see these guys that you looked up to and they always had big wads of money on them, nice cars, stuff like that.
You wrote your book 3 years ago–how did you feel about the reception, and reactions?
“I felt good I got good reactions, good review on the book, I felt great about it. I would’ve loved to put more in there, but there’s only so much you can put in, more about my life. But I guess we got the point across. Seemed like I got a lot of people enjoyed it. And I got people I knew who said ‘you shoulda said this, you shoulda said that,’ well, that’s life, you just can’t please anybody.
Beyond pleasing anyone else, do you feel there’s more you want to talk about, more you want to say?
“See, writing a book and doing a speech are two different things. I couldn’t basically go up there and talk to these people about my whole life, because I don’t have enough time. As far as anything else I want to say, I wouldn’t say it unless I went and did a book again, And I would have to go back through my whole life and pull things out. And it’s a pretty hard process, let me tell ya.
I bet—I was reading something about the number of incidents you’ve been involved in, and the thing that struck me is how do you even remember doing that many?
“I understand what you’re saying and I get that question to me a lot of times. And I just sit back alone and I talk into the recorder and things start coming back to me. You know, every robbery you go on, 90% of them are exciting, they’re a challenge, so they stay with you. Some are more exciting than others. So you go from one to the other, and try to remember what other one you forgot, and that comes up, it might be a dud. I still couldn’t put half of them things in the book it would be totally impossible I’d be talking for a year! Cause I did a lot of robberies. Some of them were exciting and there were some duds. But the majority were exciting.
Is that part of the appeal of that life?
“No, the glamor. People sort of look up to you. Money is the root of all evil, let’s say it like it is. You got money, you got friends, you got no money, you got no friends. You got money, you got people following you all around the place. If you’re a bum, nobody wants to be around you. You can see that with street people, nobody wants to be around them. You got a guy who’s a CEO, everybody wants to be around him. So it’s a lot of glamor. It’s power. You get off on it. Everybody does.
Speaking of glamor, let’s talk about Vegas in the old days—any favorite memories?
“Every day over there was a nice day. Even the days I got followed by the cops. Small town. I was never bored there. That’s a town you could get bored in, if you live there. You could get bored very easily over there, and wind up gambling. Even if you’re not a gambler. I enjoyed every day over there, it was nice.
You didn’t gamble?
“I did gamble but I had other things to do. I didn’t have that much idle time where I could gamble every day. But I did gamble. I’m like everybody else, I went out there and I gambled. And I won a lot. Yeah,oh yeah. And I had a lot of fun. Cause I played craps.
Did you know what casinos were better to play in than others?
“No, I would try to stay away from the casinos that we were connected to, the outfit, you know, that we had our hands in, for the simple reason that we didn’t want to take money away from our own people, so I tried to go to other ones, and didn’t put no heat on them. Cause the first thing they see, they see a guy like me in the Stardust winning money? Oh, he’s go that set up with the casino, you automatically put heat on your people’s casinos. So I went to other ones.
Speaking of the Stardust, did you have any reaction when Frank Rosenthal passed?
“Ah, he lived a good life, I had no bad feelings against the guy. He had a great life. Frank lived his life the way he wanted to, he was a very clever man. He was used very well, he made a lot of money for the organization that I was involved in. He had a lot on the ball when it came to gambling. It was a job to him, he made it his business to make sure he knew everything about who was sick, who had a broken toe, who had a cold, these althletes. He was a smart operator in that and we used him–the Organization. Frank wasn’t really somebody that you would sit down and talk about every robbery you did with, he was on a different level, you would say.
“Yeah, it was called the Upper Crust. It was on Flamingo and Maryland Parkway. Me and Leo Gardino, my partner, we made about 4-5 scores and we put the restaurant up with the money from the robberies. We were going to manage it, cook, be hands on. We started out doing good, and then as soon as the cops found out we were in this business they started harassing people going in there, like casino bosses who were scared they’d lose their gaming permits if they came in my place. We had some movie stars that used to come in there—Wayne Newton was in there 3-4 times. From my understanding, they pulled him over in the parking lot one time and said ‘Do you know the kind of restaurant you’re going in to?’ And he said ‘Yeah, a good Italian restaurant.’ I know he was in there, we set up the whole restaurant for him, closed the place for him a couple times. Robert Conrad, Skip Minetti [sic], the guy who was Stallone’s brother in Rocky, a lot of beautiful showgirls from the Stardust and places. But they started putting a lot of heat on [customers].
Pizza is a hotly debated issue in Vegas these days—how was your pie?
“We had great pizza. It’s all about the dough, the water, how you get that stuff to rise. We had a good recipe, where the crust didn’t droop over when you pulled out a slice. I didn’t invent it, but, I knew they had a stuffed pizza in Chicago, and I introduced stuffed pizza to Vegas, and it went over good! But when the cops started putting the heat on everybody, I had to start going back on the road [doing robberies]. I had to pay everybody!
Do you miss having a restaurant?
“I couldn’t get in that business now, it’s a lot of headaches. You end up being a prostitute to your place, you’ve got to be there. You end up working every shift for everybody, you have to be a waiter, a delivery man, a pizza maker. But I do miss it, You never get that out of your system.
How did your involvement affect the movie about those times, Casino?
“The [Spilotro] murder. For one thing, I told Martin Scorsese ‘this is not the way it was done. I know they wouldn’t do it in the cornfield, they’re not going to walk somebody in to a cornfield because they’re going to have a meeting there. They’re not stupid. They’re going to do it in somebody’s basement, probably use ball bats on them. If they found no skin or leather from gloves, they probably used some kind of weapon. And it would have to be several guys. His brother was a karate guy. They did use the ball bat in one scene. But that was Marty, it had to be theatrical. But I said when they put him in the grave, they dug the grave square like it was a in a cemetery. I said, they don’t have the equipment to do that! They just dig a hole and throw him in there. So they had to do it all over again.
So what’s the story with Harry Reid? I’ve heard that Reid was in bed with you guys, and also that you had a contract out on him. What’s the truth?
“Nah, he wasn’t involved with us [laughs]. As far as us trying to plant a bomb on his car, because he said he fought the syndicate, that’s bullshit. It wouldn’t have been on the car his family drove, it would have been his personal car. We’re not out to kill wives and kids, we do our homework. I know he wasn’t involved with us.
And what about Oscar Goodman, have you guys settled your differences?
“Ah, we don’t get along. Goodman was my attorney, an adviser on my case. He liked Tony [Spilotoro] a real lot, and I hurt a lot of people when I rolled [turned ‘State’s Evidence'], a lot of people that liked me and thought a lot about me. Goodman, I guess he’s a great mayor, he does a lot for the city. As a lawyer, I don’t have too much confidence in him.
So where does that put you in regard to his pet project, the Mob museum?
“I have no problem with that, he’s got his hands out of that. I’m going to have a big part in that museum.
What kind of experience do you want people to get out of the museum?
“It’s just like any other mob museum, you see Bonnie and Clyde, all of that stuff. I’m not the curator of the museum, but they were quite interested in my story and Tony’s story, Because I’m a part of the history of Las Vegas. I’m actually the only guy left. So they needed that, and I gave them all I could. There’s no money in it—99% of the stuff I do here, there’s no money in it. But what’s the difference? I’m making money, I got a good life.
What else do you do with your time?
“I’m a busy guy. I’m a businessman. I can’t really get into what I do with you. That’s my personal life.
So you still lead a somewhat protected life?
“I’m always going to lead a protective life. I was doing that when I was crooked. So this is the life I know how to live, I know how to watch my back.
How do you balance that with doing these public appearances?
“I just keep my eyes open, I look around. I look at it like this, if somebody comes after me, and they get me, that was my time to go. Surely if I see somebody make a move towards me, I’m gonna be on them, or I have people around me. I have people watching my back on these deals.
Do you have any reflection on why you’re the last one standing? Is it just luck, or the choices you’ve made?
“We all have a purpose in life. A lot of us don’t know what it is. We sit there and try to figure out what the purpose is… I actually believe this is my purpose. I get so many calls…I get in front of businessmen and talk. So this must be my purpose.
Do you think of this as redeeming your past in some way?
“I don’t know, I guess you could say it’s redeeming. I would just look at it as, this is my purpose.
Are you a religious man? A spiritual man?
“Ah, I believe in God. I don’t go to church, I don’t believe in going into a building and praying with a bunch of people. I don’t believe in confession to a priest, I believe you should have confession with yourself.
A lot of people say Vegas was better back in the old days when the Organization was running things. You’ve spent some time in Vegas recently, how do you feel?
“I think it was a warmer place back then, more social. It wasn’t a meatpacking place that only wanted your money. Or kids all over the place. Now it’s starting to come back, they’re getting rid of that Disneyland effect. It’s a nice place now, I wouldn’t talk anyone out of going there, I go there, I like it there. But I don’t think it’s ever going back to the way it used to be, and I think the way it used to be was nicer.
Back to food, you have any favorite restaurants in Vegas now?
“Believe it or not, I still go to the Peppermill. I love that place, I used to hang in the back all the time. Because I liked that place, I told Scorsese and he shot there with Sharon Stone. They got good food there! They got good food in a lot of restaurants in Vegas.
Write me up good, don’t talk bad about me. I’ll see it personally! I’m just messing with you…
Here’s the version on the Las Vegas Sun website…
In honor of Dita Von Teese’s return to the Crazy Horse of Paris show at MGM Grand, Las Vegas, I thought I would post this interview I did with her last time around, talking about her PETA campaign, and how she would do her own Vegas show if she had a chance. Take a look… (click PETA ad to download PDF)
It’s a rite of nearly every publication to do both “Best of”s and Readers’ Polls, but few seem as equally anticipated and dreaded as the Review-Journal’s “Best of Las Vegas,” a readers/staff/celebrities selection, that never fails to engage yet enervate the community. Of course, as long as it’s talked about, it’s a success for the R-J (let me pause to note that I consider several staffers there friends and colleagues), which is probably why the two-decades-plus old poll’s enduring flaws are never cured, and possibly get worse.
No portion of the poll seems to get heads scratching so much as the “Food & Drink” section—restaurants, basically—whose categories are as random as the choices made. The R-J seems to choose genres as they suit them (or perhaps advertisers?), neither reflecting accurately the full breadth of eateries in the valley (and virtually ignoring the “drink” in “Eat & Drink”) nor bothering about how many overlaps there are in the ones they chose (both “Best New Restaurants” choices this year belong in other categories). Why the R-J staff and readers both tend to shun the Strip like a quarantine zone baffles me. It’s the center of the city. Nine out of ten times, casino resorts offer the best eating in town. And no, it is not all priced to gouge tourists.
I “get” that the readers of the R-J are not the same as restaurant critics, and I also get that there’s a great deal of food in the affordable range worthy of praise. What I don’t get is why R-J readers—and staff members, who are presumably more informed—continue to make uninspired or even embarrassing choices at least 50% of the time. I don’t buy the “what ordinary folks like” theory: go on yelp.com and you’ll see all kinds of intelligent, informed reviews by “normal” people about all kinds of eateries in town. (Let me add an extra thumbs-down to the design of the Best Of Eat & Drink page, which makes you click and click back on every category. Is the R-J trying to snub the Sun’s award winning design by being the worst designed website possible?)
Every year, those in the know groan over the choices but rarely put any reactions in print. This year, I decided enough was enough. I’m posting on my personal site so as to be clear that this is my position, and mine only. Feel free to RT, share, Digg, etc..
I can’t fault the choice of Freed’s, a Vegas stalwart responsible for great whimsical creations, but when it comes to savory breads, both Wynn’s general baker, and the baker for Guy Savoy’s Trolley du Pain make many remarkable creations (unfortunately neither available at retail).
I confess I haven’t sampled the myriad chicken wing creations of many Vegas Pubs, so I might have to beg off this one. But the happy hour menu at Society in Wynn holds many pleasant surprises, and the seared tuna burger at Brasserie Puck in Crystals, City Center is also remarkable for the price, with perfect fries. That’s right, I used the word “perfect.”
I have been warned away from more delis in Vegas than I’ve tried, but Earl of Sandwich in Planet Hollywood makes fine toasted sandwiches—and Enoteca San Marco makes their own deli meats on premises, so how much better can it get than that?
The choice of Cheesecake Factory here just makes me realize how little most Las Vegans get to sample what their city has to offer. There are several award-winning pastry chefs making miracles on the Strip. Those at Sage, Guy Savoy, American Fish and Aureole are just a few that come to mind right now. M Resort’s buffet desserts are also fantastic, to a one. And again, the dessert trolley at Guy Savoy? It isn’t better in heaven, I’m sure of it.
Dunkin Donuts? Winchell’s?? WTF? The category isn’t “biggest” donuts. At least please pick Ronald’s, a Vegas legend that still holds its own with creative (and vegan) choices. Though really the best donuts in town are the the fresh-made nutella-filled ones at Stratta in the Wynn. Go try them and tell me I’m wrong.
This is a tricky category—not all restaurants ideal for families necessarily bill themselves as such, Having said that, R-J’s staff pick Red Robin is actually a solid choice, but in reality, any of the Station casino’s buffets, Seasons at Silverton Lodge or the buffet at Main Street Station are better family pleasers (especially if they let the under-six kids in free)
I was scared to even peek at the choices here. There are no shortage of restaurants attemping fine French food in Vegas, though few are inspired. It’s been a while since I’ve been to Marche Bacchus, and I’m happy for them getting the attention, but really, in a town where Guy Savoy, Joel Robuchon, and Pierre Gagnaire are plying their trades, be serious. On a more traditional level, Mon Ami Gabi and Bouchon both deliver solidly
Far too vague a category. I abstain.
This category drives me crazy. I spent more time than I’d want to admit last year trying burgers around Vegas. I know what I’m talking about. There are at least a dozen burgers served in town that are far, far, far better than In N Out at its very best (see my Top Ten Burgers here), but I will spare the snootiness. Just go get a fresh-ground five dollar burger at the snack bar in Binion’s. Eat it next to an In N Out. What are you afraid of?
Well there’s nothing wrong with a Costco hot dog, especially for the price, and toppings aside, I haven’t found anything in town that necessarily beats them. Although really, considering this consistent winner just makes food to feed its shoppers, is this category necessary?
Do we have to reserve choices to only ice cream, by technical definition, or are we allowed to include fro-yo, gelato, custard, and other frozen options in town? Because frankly, I couldn’t begin to list the things that beat Cold Stone.
Haven’t sampled enough Indian in Vegas to comment, but I have had a very fine lamb shank curry with all the proper sides at MOZen in Mandarin Oriental.
An even bigger category in Vegas than French—and one with a significant tradition. So that’s why folks chose Olive Garden? Sigh. I could get angry, but really, what I feel is closer to pity. Please—PLEASE—go to the Palms, get on an elevator, and eat at Nove Italiano. It’s really not that expensive. If not there, the Grill at Valentino, Fiamma at MGM, Lupo in Mandalay Bay or Stratta in the Wynn. Olive Garden doesn’t love you. Olive Garden doesn’t need you. They do. (see my Top Ten Italian)
Another massive category, especially when you include sushi, robata, and everything else. But certainly neither R-J’s staff pick Raku or celebrity pick Ichiza can be slighted. In a more Americanized vein, I’ve also had a very good meal at Sushi Roku recently.
Considering the tradition of amazing Graveyard Specials in Vegas, one would have to choose one of those, right? Oops, guess that would require some thinking. The Flamingo’s Burger Joint gives you a burger and fries for ONE DOLLAR after midnight. It’s not the best burger in town (even at midnight) but guess what: It’s just as good as In N Out! Buy ten of them for your friends, big spender.
So… we’re supposed to distinguish this from taqueria, I imagine (see below)? Unfortunately, that’s difficult in Vegas, but Dos Caminos and Diego are solid choices—and Hussong’s delivers on many levels. Get the elote. (also see my Notes on eating Mexican)
Not a lot of choices here, but along with the R-J staff, I’ve been impressed with the quality of several brews by Chicago Brewing Company. Color me shocked that I’m agreeing with them in more than one category.
I’ve yet to try an Middle Eastern in Vegas that’s worth remarking upon. Not saying there isn’t any that’s good, just saying I haven’t found anything. I’ll defer to my favorite Greek, John Curtas.
Another category I confess might deserve more of my attention (there’s a few funky places on my to-do list), but for the moment, I’ve never been disappointed by Memphis Champs. And the pulled pork sandwich at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill is one of the best I’ve ever had—even in Memphis proper.
I don’t really know where to go with this category… how does someone compare Cuban to Cajun or whatever “Ethnic” is supposed to include or exclude? So I’m going to go with the Hawaiian specialties at the Californian Hotel café. Just Because.
A pyrrhic victory at best—I’m sorry to tell everyone, as a East Coaster, that even the best Vegas pizza is only passable by serious standards. But those best pizzas are found at the obvious choices—Settebello, Grimaldi’s, Anthony’s (R-J’s staff pick) all have their strengths—as well as Stratta at Wynn and Grotto at Golden Nugget. Particularly memorable: the Paul & Young Ron at Anthony’s, the Bosco at Stratta.
By my definition, a Power Lunch spot is a place where atmosphere and service dominate over food itself, which shouldn’t be too distracting. With that in mind, I can’t think of any place better than Country Club at Wynn, Verandah at Four Seasons or Olives at Bellagio. Unless it’s a catered meal by Wolfgang Puck in Steve Wynn’s villa (unlikely, I know).
Maybe I should’ve saved that last snarky answer for this one… the best breakfast I’ve had in Vegas was at Tableau in Wynn when Mark LoRusso was still running it. Nowadays? It’s probably Verandah.
The restaurant is very specific—all Italian pesci–but how can you compete with the one-of-a-kind Bartolotta in this regard? Or all-sustainable RM Seafood? Or so many places in Chinatown? I guess you do that by putting coupons in the newspaper, right Red Lobster?
The Archi’s vs. Lotus death match must soldier on, but without slighting either, I personally don’t get the obsession with heat over ingredient quality in this cuisine… Lemongrass in Aria certainly does some nice dishes.
No strong opinion here—I think really excellent coffee is more and more rare actually—but I have had very fine coffee at Verandah in Four Seasons, and have a soft spot for Coffee Bean on Maryland Parkway.
My only reaction to Outback winning the Reader’s pick this year is to breathe a sigh of relief that the serviceable but uninspiring Circus Circus did not win a 21st year. For a chain, I’ll admit Outback is edible, if only. I also researched this category extensively within the last year (see my Top Ten!)—there are many fine choices, to which I would add most recently Jean-Georges in Aria. On a more reasonable level, you’ll get a solid slab at Binion’s Ranch, the Carmel Room at Rampart, or The Flame in El Cortez.
I don’t even want to see what was chosen, but the most authentic, savory and satisfying tacos I have had recently in town are actually at Hussong’s in Mandalay Place. Really. Los Antojos obviously has some satisfying options as well (particularly the chicken mole).
Best Asian Restaurant
Would this be best Asian, except for Chinese, Thai and Japanese? Nice categorization, editors. Anyway, can’t argue much with Wazuzu, the R-J staff choice, since it’s literally an “Asian” i.e. fiercely pan-Asian restaurant, with a strong chef at the helm.
Speaking of categories, why this gets one and Wine Bar, or Tapas, or many other growing categories do not, is beyond explanation.
…that you didn’t vote for in the “Asian” category, that is. I doubt even the owner of P.F. Chang’s would say he serves the best Chinese food in Las Vegas. But he’ll take your money.
Since we’ve already been asked to vote on best breakfast, best burger, best meal under $10, best coffee…what role does this category serve? I don’t know many places in Vegas that would even classify in my concept of a traditional Diner/Coffee Shop (besides the fact that there’s a decent one in every single casino, but so what?). So I’m going to be “that guy” and pick the Vegas-adjacent Peggy Sue’s in Yermo, CA. Hey, they’ve got a bobble head of Oscar Goodman over the pie case. And some damfine fried chicken.
This would have been a different choice before Top of the World significantly remade their menu in December, but they are now the obvious pick weighing the view and food equally. Mix, Voodoo Steak, Sushi Roku, Eiffel Tower, Veloce Cibo, Binion’s Ranch Steakhouse and Panevino are also all solid food-and-view selections.
Best New Restaurant (Opened in 2009)
It’s Sage. Period. No, you’re wrong. It’s Sage (opened December 16, 2009)
Those who might question the musical chops of Pussycat Dolls’ lead singer Nicole Scherzinger would be silenced if they saw her performance last night (Oct 2) during a Mirage resort anniversary party hosted by guitarist Slash. Perhaps the most unexpected guest of the rock-legend heavy roster, Scherzinger joined Slash and friends onstage first for a metal version of PCD’s “When I Grow Up,” and then recalled both Heart’s Nancy Wilson and Tina Turner in an undeniably ripping version of “Whole Lotta Love.” Did she kill it? More like she tore it into shreds and hurled it from a freeway overpass.
The next guest, Courtney Love (making a rare stage appearance in recent times) promptly got on the mic and said “I just got my ass handed to me–I can’t follow that!”
Afterward, Nicole was overheard backstage saying “I just learned that Led Zeppelin song yesterday.” Other performers on the show–filmed for the US A&E channel–included Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Guns’N'Roses alums Matt Sorum and Duff McKagan [thx MA], Chris Daughtry, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen and Cypress Hill rapper Sen-Dog. Nicole and Courtney returned to the stage together along with all performers for an encore of G’n'R’s “Paradise City.”
Elsewhere in town that night, Paris Hilton and her thinspo friends held an invite-only bikini evening fashion show at the Hard Rock Hotel pool to introduce Hilton’s sunglasses line– Apparently declaring it hip again to wear ‘sunglasses at night.’
From 2006 to 2009, as Contributing Editor, I wrote 13 celebrity cover profiles for luxury title VEGAS Magazine. Click on the cover images below for excerpts…
ELIZABETH BANKS (40 Year Old Virgin, Spiderman)
OLIVIA WILDE (Turistas, House)
VANESSA MARCIL (NBC’s Las Vegas)
JAMIE-LYNN SIGLER (The Sopranos)
BRITTANY SNOW (Hairspray)
SAFFRON BURROWS (Boston Legal)
GABRIELLE UNION (Bring It On, Meet Dave)
KRISTIN BELL (Heroes, Forgetting Sarah Marshall)
JAIME PRESSLY (My Name Is Earl)
WHITNEY PORT (The Hills)
EMMY ROSSUM (Phantom)
Here are my answers to your burning questions about Las Vegas:
My Best of Vegas 2010 for Away.com
And more from the Orbitz Vegas files…
Rarely does an evening in Vegas go by when I don’t run into someone famous… With some coaxing, I decided to give up some secrets on How To Spot Celebs in Sin City.
By all means, do it with Holly Madison and Playboy model Dana DiCillo. We had fun at Hard Rock’s legendary Rehab party… but these were the real winners.
Don’t let the breezy tone of this Orbitz blog fool you: Rating the very best spas in Las Vegas (a city which may have more spas per-capita than anywhere in the world) was no easy feat! I had to pay attention while being pampered…
In Vegas it’s always hard to separate the hope and the hype. Here are links to my Orbitz Vegas blogs discussing many of the hotels I’ve stayed in on (and off) the Strip: Top Ten Standard Stays … my favorite Hot Habitats and Sumptuous Suites… Where The Celebs Stay… Top Ten Off-Strip Stays…surprising Family-friendly casino-resorts… The new Hard Rock Hotel towers … Concierge Level at the Palazzo… impressive Casino-Free Destination Resorts … the wonder-filled Wynn Encore… Monte Carlo Mk II… How Flamingo Created The Coolest Rooms in Vegas… and a preview of the long awaited City Center!
Nightclubbing in Las Vegas is more than serious sport–it’s an industry. Talking to movers and shakers like designer Thomas Schoos and master mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim, you realize how much hard work and creativity goes into each experience.
Wayne Newton, the one and only Mr. Las Vegas, just announced his return to a regular gig on the Strip, which reminded me of this feature I did visiting his illustrious home Casa De Shenandoah. I have seen many estates, but this was certainly one of the most reflective of its owner’s personality. Where else could you see a Rembrandt, a letter from Sinatra and Bill Harrah’s Rolls Royce? Great pics by Francis George as well…
Proud to pay tribute to Louis Prima’s career-long sax player and arranger Sam Butera, who died in his adopted home town, Las Vegas, in 2009…Saw Louis Prima Jr. at the Hilton more recently–he does his father proud, and then some!