Monday, February 10, 2014

Good Fish

An article in the luxurious-to-the touch paper version of our local entertainment paper whetted my appetite. There was good fish in Vancouver..  There have been waves of good fish flooding where humans live here, and nourishing the trees for longer than any humans. A lot of good things have grown here. Ideas too. Is that what makes the sustainable seafood meme thrive here? Maybe Chef Robert Clark would know. I'd enjoyed his seafood at C in 2005, maybe the best scallop I've ever eaten. Far more impressive to me has been his advocacy for sustainable seafood, and one of our local delicacies, the spot prawn. A decade ago this wasn't a high profile issue that I noticed, but with the local tentacles of Green organizations, several of which I've been associated with, there is a consciousness on oceanic issues that may go back to Jacques Coustean and Flipper on TV, if not our first nations' relationships to their protein source. Not just my local fish stores but local chain or even American stores like Safeway brag about their sustainable seafood, and ask you to visit their websites. My local frozen meat store chain M&M even advertises sustainable seafood in its freezers. There is obviously a market here.
Why not elsewhere? If Japan changed its seafood consumption, the downward spiral of fish species could stop. Look at what Yao Ming has done to the consumption of shark's fin soup in China. It can be done and needs to be done before there is no more seafood to eat for anybody. . I suggested the San Francisco Bay area, Japan and Quebec with world cuisine altering credentials and he mentioned that he was from Gaspe. A much deeper food culture than trendy Vancouver. Food needed a Quebec connection to succeed there, he suggested. I certainly felt that in my visits to its stores and Cideries on recent visits But all places do. If you live in a place, you treasure what you can enjoy there. Let's keep those. In his book Fat Chance, Dr. Robert Lustig states: "Life's too short to eat bad food, even if it's cheap... It's one of the true enjoyments of life. Yet familiarity breeds greater cravings. Ask Philadelphians about their cheese-steaks, New Orleans denizens about their Po-Boys and beignets or Memphians about their barbecue." Why can't Quebecois be equally passionate about their traditional fish dishes along with maple syrup and poutine? If the Japanese tradition of seafood cuisine brings about the nonexistence of seafood, so much for that tradition. To whom is that not obvious?
After talking to the chef on the phone, I went to the Fish Counter with my friend the following day. The same friend who dragged me off to a Greenpeace meeting when the organization was just in Vancouver, in 1973.The clam chowder was interesting. Not really Boston. Far from Manhattan. Different. We also ordered the halibut fish and chips. The best halibut I've had in Vancouver. We have excellent fish stores in North Vancouver. I remember how proudly the owner of our closest fish store was when she got the Ocean Wise certification. Her customers must have been just as delighted. And the fish store at Lonsdale Quay is major league. Yet from neither store have I ever had halibut this good. Is because of the great homemade tartar sauce? Not exactly. It's because it's the best halibut the chef could find, this piece from Haida Gwai (also known as The Queen Charlotte Islands). Perfectly cooked. Chef Clark told me he got into the sustainable seafood thing because the sustainable fish he was acquiring just tasted better. We all follow our taste buds.
  Sustainable seafood and organic food are not just relics of the Hippies. They are increasingly economic engines. I would imagine the owners of Las Vegas casinos where some of the world's best chefs offer up their creations, want their hotel guests to be depressed about their gambling losses more than about the destruction of fish species their dinner choices are bringing about. Perhaps that's just my imagination, but the sustainable seafood meme is thriving in Vancouver and it can in other places as well. To quote John Maynard Keynes, "the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared to the gradual encroachment of ideas."

Thursday, January 30, 2014

My Friend Manny: R.I.P.

I arrived in the the Japanese city of Hamamatsu to teach English in the middle of August, 1971. Or I thought I was there to teach English. I was in a school. I had multitudes of students. But they were not there to learn English. The men were there to meet the women, and vice versa. Both sexes were there to hang out and have fun. No one had more fun that my student turned friend, Manny. His real name was Hisato Ota but I gave everyone a nickname in lieu of learning to pronounce their Japanese names. I named Manny after a favourite Dodger, Manny Mota because Ota was close to Mota. As soon as classes were over every night, it was off to a bar. On weekends there were excursions and/or parties. Manny organized most of these, including this one: 
Japan was vastly more fun that it would have been in those early days of my life there if Manny hadn't been involved. I was transferred up north to the city of Yamagata on Halloween but kept in touch with Manny ever since.
  After marrying Fumiyo Ishikawa in Vancouver in Sept. 1975, we went to Japan together in March 76. We hitch hiked south from her hometown Kamagaya, near Tokyo and visited Manny, who had moved to Nagoya and also gotten married. Here is Manny with his wife Mineko in April, 1976. Still having fun.
After our daughter was born in Vancouver in October, 1978, we moved to Kamagaya and lived there for the next decade, seeing Manny and his family often. We moved permanently to Vancouver in 1988. I've only been back in Japan twice, in 2003 and the last time in August, 2007. It's ridiculously hot in Japan in the summer. Here is Manny having fun even in that hideous weather:
This was the last time I saw Manny. His daughter told us he died at the end of 2013. He had a good life.
He was born in Manchuria when it was a Japanese colony in the 30s. As an adult, he was in the Japanese Self Defence Force for a while. Later he was a pig farmer in, oddly, Kamagaya when it was rural instead of a suburb of Tokyo, as it is now. Then he worked digging tunnels for the Tokyo subways, including one under my school in the Kudanshita neighbourhood of Tokyo. I don't know what he was doing in Hamamatsu, but in Nagoya he worked for a company that made textile machines. But whatever he did wasn't important..
  In one of Peter Bergman's first radio shows, maybe 67 or 68, shortly after he formed the Firesign Theatre, Peter responded to a question on the air about jobs. "There is no such thing as a mailman," Peter said, "just a guy who spends a few hours a day delivering mail." After Peter died in 2012, I met Peter's daughter Lily, and she told me he raised her that way, that jobs were not important: Life was important. Having a good time was important.
  Manny's life is perfectly captured in Charles Dickens' ending to A Christmas Carol, speaking of Scrooge:
  "It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, in any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us." I hope Manny's son and daughter and their children take after Manny in his sheer mastery of having fun. May that be truly said of the rest of us too.



Saturday, January 04, 2014

A Visit to Vij's

At a 2011 book launch event for the Las Vegas dining guide Eating Las Vegas I attended as part of Vegas Uncork'd, a foody event the city has every May, a person in the tiny audience asked the 3 authors where's the best Indian food in Vegas. "In Vancouver," said one of food critics. He was referring to Vij's. He could have suggested a taxi to the Vegas airport, a trip to the Vancouver airport, and then a cab ride to Vij's for the quickest you could get great Indian food from starting in Vegas. I'm not a fan of Indian food. But here I am at Vij's.
Some Fijian-Indian friends of ours pummel my wife with Indian food on a regular basis and she submits. She had been to Vij's twice before, once with our huge dog Icy, Vij's offering him a dish of water while Fumiyo bathed in its spicy entrees, and I had read Vij's contributions to The Flavour Bible, a book I'd discovered in the local North Van library. Food affinities are important to me, and perhaps everyone with a tongue.
Waiting for dinner, I tried their personalized Mimosa. It was strategically subtle. As I told the ubiquitous Vij, it was a great introduction to his food, full of subtle spices and fruit and he told me how he wanted to have a few very good cocktails, not a lot of minor league drinks. I tasted allspice and star anise, and I'm not sure I know what star anise tastes like. My palate dances. Fumiyo has ordered the Jack fruit. I have a bite. It tastes like generic Indian food. Imagine going to a store and buying a can called Indian Food. That's what this tasted like. No fruit flavour involved. Then the lamb popsicles arrive.
I know this as his signature dish. The dish he served the luminaries in New York when Daniel Boulud brought Vancouver's top chefs to his flagship city to show how the Vancouver palate was sophisticated enough to appreciate Daniel's perfection attempts. Our companion kept saying, "this guy's a multimillionaire and yet he keeps hanging out with his customers." He thought that weird, but also reverent. He likes hanging out, I figure. I like eating not hot spiced food. I'm not enjoying the popsicles. When my friends made them, assuring me they were identical to Vij's, they probably toned down the heat knowing how I disliked it. Vij knew not of that. Whoever decides what's on the drinks menu saves the day. My favourite local cidre, Red Roof, is on the menu, though I keep having to request a glass of ice cubes to keep it at its optimum level of temperature sensitive exquisiteness. A finely chilled apple cidre mis-directs the heat seeking missiles of the fenugreeked; lamb and I survive the meal. How did you like the meal, asked Vij? The lighting is really good here. Your staff is extraordinary. The cocktails were as you promised. We discuss the excellence of the cocktails of my cousin's bar around the corner. And the food? If I liked Indian food, I'd probably like this a lot. Follow your tongue, eh? What Vij prooves with his cocktails is that he can intrigue and please me with his flavours. His food? I await pleasure. I have never met any restauranteur in this city who was so committed to the experience of his customers., He deserves Michelin stars for that. Food? Ask someone who likes Indian food.
We go around the corner to West and eventually get seats at the bar where my cousin David's is dazzling every lucky tongue with his spontaneous creations. I suggest he do me a passion fruit spectacular, never dreaming of what he was about to unleash. He'd created subtle passion fruit cocktails over the past few years as I discovered this taste seemed to bring me the most pleasure, when appropriately invoked. The sudden (see previous blog post- I was in Vegas before this) disappearance of the Passion Fruit Sour from Pierre Gagnaire's Las Vegas restaurant Twist, made me wonder if its signature drink, still listed on its website, could be recreated. Well, no. David's passion fruit cocktail hit my palate like Mohammed Ali in his prime, using my palate for a punching bag. Ouch. I didn't know it was possible to have too much passion fruit. But the reason we have taste buds is to learn how to use them to our advantage.
What I need to do here is to pay attention. What tastes good? Why? Can I recreate it, or add to it? That's what I've been thinking about since returning from Vegas food trip a few weeks ago. Food enjoyment is a ladder. We can keep going up.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Vegas 2013: last 2 days

The next day I waste  $62 on Joe's Tasteless Crabs. They use another adjective, but it implies how intoxicated one would
have to be to hallucinate flavour for these crabs. Squeezing a lemon wedge on them saved them from nothingness. They came with a mustard sauce which obliterated the crab's lack of taste. Unlike this taste violation, their baked tomatoes with spinach puree and cheddar is a wonder to behold, and worth the long walk. The violence of this crab's sauce and RMs murderous ailoli for its tasteless crab atrocity combined to make me wonder if anyone here cared about food any more? The trip goes up and down like an earth quake. First its flat, then it flutters

The Tea Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel has to be one of the mellowest spaces in Vegas. I'm there for an exotic tea cocktail called a Maple Tree Bird. Thankfully lacking in maple flavour, instead it is steeped in tea goodness and assorted good spirits. Described in the menu as a complex sidecar with allspice and brown sugared rim. Hennessy Black, Daron 5-yr. Calvados, Quantro apple juice, maple black tea syrup, Peychaud's bitters, garnished with star anise. The magically disappearing crab thing of the hour before is washed away by intellectually challenging and palate delighting liquid.
  I'd heard great things about Lobster Thermidore and Andre's brags about theirs. Must be good, eh? A cocktail called a Willly Nilly:Vanilla infused vodka, cranberry juice and peach liquor pulls the lobster into something resembling taste, as well as mighty efforts by sauced asparagus and mashed potatoes, but the meal seems an insult to the noble lobster. 

Next, it's off to Twist. I am no longer remembered here, or is it just a new staff? When I order my favourite drink in the world, Twist's passion fruit sour, it has vanished from their consciousness (But not from their website cocktail menu, where you can still see the ingredients: Stolichnaya, green Chartreuse, passion fruit puree, fresh basil simple syrup, fresh lime, slash egg whites).  They attempt something and it's not poisonous although too heavy on the pineapple.
The absence of the Passion Fruit Sour reminds me a scene from Hemingway's novel The Torrents of Spring. Apparently based on a real episode, a young woman and her mother check into a Paris hotel during the World's Fair (the one that gave Paris the Eiffel Tower and maybe better crepes) The next morning, the young woman awakens to find her mother gone. She goes downstairs to ask about her and is told she had checked in alone, there was no mother. Only much later, we learn that the mother had gotten up in the middle of the night feeling ill, was found to have a highly contagious disease, and promptly disappeared to keep people from avoiding the world's fair. That seems to be what happened to my passion fruit drink, probably the main reason I came to Vegas- the possibility of that level of palate pleasure. Now not only gone, but divorced from memory.
 It's sea bass with veggies. The fish being a transportation vehicle for the zucchini. The green thing is a Parmesan crumble that takes the fish into a comfort food zone. You can probably cook this yourself, It's really good compared to the "lobster" at  Andre's, but then, what isn't?

I begin the next day with a cab ride to Bouchon. It's spinach quiche is as melty as before, but its' formidable grapefruit has vanished down the same memory hole as the passion fruit drink at Twist. 

My server seems to think I'd ordered a grapefruit juice. Horrors! Should have gone to Mon Ami Gabi, far more reliable about grapefruit, but it's too late now. For drinks it's back to Vesper.
Ever since checking into my hotel, the default channel on the TV relentlessly features Carrot Top previewing cocktails named after acts in town, his and others, including The One for the Michael Jackson show of the same name, which seems to be available only at the bar of his theatre and then only during the show. The M Magazine in my hotel room also promotes it and gives its ingredients as Funkin Passion Fruit puree, Grey Goose L'Orange vodka, Grand Marnier and orange juice. My bartender TJ makes me a similar drink, without the Funkin but with passion fruit liqueur instead. It tastes light and healthy and makes me want to go back to my hotel exercise room and lift weights, which I do later. I try and order a pear cocktail from the menu, but TJ insists on making me something new, which contains Zirbenz pine liqueur, Chandon ginger liqueur, Hangar 1 spiced pear with Thai chili syrup, lemon juice topped with ginger beer and garnished with a basil leaf and a ginger candy. Wow! Best drink I've had on this trip.

 Ginger has been a taste theme this trip.

Then, back to the Tea Lounge for their Royal Tea cocktail: more refreshing tea at the Tea Lounge. Absolut Mandarin, homemade simple syrup, chilled Osmanthus Oolong tea, splash of fresh lemon juice. The server asks how I like it and I tell her it's refreshing, better for the weather which is a few degrees warmer today.

After lifting weights back at the Excalibur,  I'm off to Le Cirque. It was pretty good the last time I visited, 2 years ago, but it is vastly better now.  I sip a fine rasberry cocktail and peruse a book about the restaurant called A Table at Le Cirque. From the introduction by Alain Ducasse,  " other words, he (Le Cirque founder Sirio Maccioni) introduced the very important notion that dining is all about experiencing a moment of happiness."
 Things I would normally refuse to eat, such as liquid eggs, actually become edible with the addition of salmon and caviar. Never before have I been able to eat soft eggery. Grant Achatz once served me  an oyster dish that didn't make me puke. Takes a wizard to do that.

An orange widow remarries. A truffle and a scallop enjoy each others company.

 And prosciutto, not a favourite ham form, wraps itself around a monkfish and the result is better than the monkfish I'd eaten at Le Bernardin 3 years ago. Better fish than Le B? Can it be? A wondrous final meal in food town.

The whole trip would have ended splendidly if had ended there. 
I'm as happy as Scrooge on Christmas morning. Instead, I go back RX Boiler Room to see if the pear cocktail is still as good as a few days ago. This time, in the absence of local food critics, the drink tastes like a bag of dirty laundry smells. I complain and the bar tender tries again. Another failure. I'm appalled. Thankfully, I spend my last minutes of the last night of the trip at Fleur. It's great server Marisol even gives me a Christmas present and the bartender makes me a cocktail strong enough to remove the dirty laundry taste.
  Last cup of tea at the Excalibur before departure, the woman in the store asks how long I've been in Vegas. Seven days. "Oh, that's a long time," she tells me. I don't disagree.
  A very tasty tomato, ham and olive bruschetta at the airport and I'm on my way back to Vancouver. Two tomato dishes I can make myself and Schlotsky's great tomato soup make me call it The Tomato Tour. Despite the  wounding loss of Twist's Passion Fruit Sour, I had more tasty beverages this trip than any other. Would have been more successful if the weather wasn't freezing most of the trip. Ice belongs in a glass, not on my glasses.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Vegas 2013 Day 5

  Some sort of canned peaches in the wrong century and a cup of tea keeps me from starving when I awake. I've heard Wicked Spoon is good for buffets. I've never had a Vegas buffet. Once in a hotel in Sapporo some years ago but never the city that claims to invent the food spread. Maybe I just took the wrong entrance, but it is exhausting just to find the place. $28.00 and it's only 10 AM. Can I eat that much to justify such an expense while it's too cold outside to do much of anything other than get inside soonest? I'm dubious. Also hungry.
  There are stations one would have to be hungrier than I to explore. Omelet's always a good idea, and the salmon that died for my pleasure here is greatly appreciated. Mushrooms, Swiss cheese as useful as their currency, and more lox with a few adventurous capers. Grilled tomatoes, artichoke thanks itself for becoming a salad, an ambassador from the bacon republic, but the star of the meal is the tomato covered with parsley,  thyme, a tiny quantity of rosemary, and garlicky breadcrumbs spread on a tomato slice, doused with olive oil, and baked until the ingredients are passionate about each other. . Hey, I can make this. I eat well and learn something profound. What a vast reversal from yesterday's bummers.

 Too much salt here, so I went for some fresh fruit. Helped alot, and taught me the great lesson that pineapple can suck the saltiness out of an omelet just enough for them both to have fun. 
  At the Grand Tasting at the Vegas Uncork'd foody event in 2011, I sampled many fine tidbits from many of this city's finest chefs, but nothing was better than a taste of salmon from American Fish. From BC, I've had more great salmon than anyone should, but down in the salmon-less desert, such wonders could occur, a puzzle but a good one. When I had the chicken Jidori at Micheal Mina's selfy restaurant 2 years ago, I did not leave the restaurant with the idea that Mike could cook at all. Stunned by his inability to blend ingredients. I have to spend money to learn that?
 The lionfish dish at American Fish intrigued me. Just the idea. They've intrigued my eyes at the city's aquarium, so can I eat them? Indeed. I ask their flavour and am told they taste smoky. Do you mean they are smoked, I ask. No, they just taste smoky, amplified by a chowder. Yes indeed, sounds good. The LV locals had raved about the cocktail Dark and Stormy, and it sounded like just the right pairing for this novel fish's fierceness. Into the lionfish's den went I. To emerge with a revelation. The best piece of fish I've had in this city, and that's saying a lot.  The ferociously helpful ginger of the stormy darkness brought forth light in my palate previously undreamt of. There were mussels in the chowder. They stayed there. The potatoes, on the other hand, leaped into my mouth to help the lionfish retain its palate enriching crown. I guess Mike can cook after all.

  If I were to die while typing this, the lionfish taste would be at the pinnacle of dieing memory. It kind of makes your palate say, OK, that's why I exist, and if longer life occurs, this is the direction these molecules of enjoyment need to go, eh? While I'm eating, the Gil Scot Heron song Living in a bottle, one of my favourite tunes, explodes on the stereo. What, is there something better than this?
  Actually, yes. I showed up at L'Attelier the previous night at 9, hoping to get in. Come back in an hour, I was told. Was asleep by then. This time, no waiting. I'm ushered into the back and order one of the wonders of my previous Vegas trips, the langostine fritter with basil leaf. A kind of tempura of the mind.  To go with it, keeping with the cocktail pairing exuberance of American Dark and Story Lion Fish, I order another basil infused gem, heavy on the ginger but not tipping over into stormy darklions. Taken together, I am stunned by the vastness of their goodness.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Vegas 2013: Days 3 & 4

  They were predicting snow on the TV news last night with snowplows at the ready. Actually it's a pretty nice, though very cold day. The view from my hotel window does not include snow:

  After fruit and tea in my room, and the fantastic tomato soup at Schlotsky's, I walk over to Paris where I've made a lunch reservation at Eiffel Tower. One of my favourite things in Vegas is the baked vegetarian crepes there. This will be the 4th time I've had them. Chef Joho has never let me down. So far. I had a glass of wine with my crepes when I had them late in the evening on my 2 trips here in 2011 and a great cup of peach ginger tea when I lunched on them in Feb. 2012, but as I've been hearing about the great cocktails here, I order an Autumn in Paris from their list, thinking pears would go well with the walnutty intensity of the crepes.
  It really luxuriates in its pearness but adds nothing to the crepes, which don't taste nearly as good as they did the previous 3 times I've eaten them.
  The pear drink gets better as it warms but still of no use to the rather insipid crepes. Has Chef Joho lost his touch here? I am in a hurry to return to the Excalibur by 1:00 so I decide to take the monorail. Bad decision. Moving through the departing army of conventioneers at Ballys, waiting for the train, then the long long walk from the back of the MGM to my hotel takes longer than just walking from Paris. And wastes $5. I've never had mononucleosis, but could it be worse than the Vegas monorail? The people I was supposed to meet at the Excalibur lobby bar never showed up. Afraid of the promised snow? Whatever, I've got better apple cidre at the Excalibur than I can find for the same price in Vancouver and lots of Thoreau to read. From the introduction, Henry David is described as "refusing all alcoholic drinks because, so he said, they might destroy his taste for water." What a strange idea! Water is the ultimate palate cleanser, but as any European knows, a good drink adds as much to the enjoyability of good food as does salt, pepper, or appropriate herbs. The spinach pictured overwhelming the crepes in the above picture did nothing to help them: the anti-Popeye on a plate.
  Dinner reservations made a month in advance at Tetsu, the teppanyaki restaurant within a restaurant at Bar Masa where I'd had exquisite maitaki and black truffles on my previous visit to Vegas. Tetsu is highly recommended by local food critics, who may or may not know what the good stuff tastes like in Japan. The first meal I ever ate in Japan, when I moved there for work in August, 1971, was teppanyaki, comped by my hotel which was anxious to discover what my Caucasian palate thought of their signature dish. I told them I did not know food could taste that good. 4 more times I've sampled this wonder between 1971-2007 in trips to and extended living in Japan, and once at Kobe restaurant  in Vancouver. The secret is the sauce. It even cancels out less than stellar beef. But if the sauce isn't top of the line, you might as well order a hamburger.
  Things went poorly from the start. The reason I'm here is the menu promises Ohmi beef. I've actually had Ohmi beef teppanyaki in Ohmi,which is near Kyoto. As good as beef gets. The website says $25 an ounce. The menu says $34 an ounce. Sound fair. Gimme 2. Then I'm told I can only order 9 oz, or more, not less. Sorry, Masa, NOTHING IN THE WORLD is worth $300 an entree. I order the Australian Wagyu Filet Mignon for a sane price, along with a scallop, some asparagus, a shiitake, some maitaki in truffled butter (raved about online and I'm in love with the truffled maitaki a few feet away in Bar Masa,) and some eggplant with miso. The shrimp and spinach things I wanted must have heard I was coming so they ran away and hid. Actually a small quantity of food. Here it is.

  The scallop was OK. The asparagus actually went well with one of the sauces. The beef, the reason for the existence of teppanyaki, was edible at best with no sauce to help it out. The less said about the mushroom dishes, the better. Eggplant with miso is bar food in Japan. Cheap bar food. Actually what was a pretty dismal meal was improved by this cocktail, full of shiso, one of the best plants you can put into your mouth.
  The sauces, alas, were intended for folks who think sauces come out of bottles or cans. The shiso drink worked well with the veggies and scallop so I ordered a glass of the rather esoteric Japanese beer Hitachino Nest Classic, which Bar Masa bartender Susan had turned me on to with the maitaki and black truffles 2 years ago. Did it work with the beef? Irrelevant. If the sauces don't work, neither does the meal. That one sauce worked with the asparagus makes it 1 for 4 and you can't even get out of the minor leagues hitting .250. I still had more than half a glass of beer left after the "meal" so I walked the few yards over to the bar and met Susan. I told her my Tetsu meal, for 3 times the price wasn't 1/10th as good as the maitaki she'd served me in the past. She had no idea who I was. I gave her my card. "Oh, that's YOU" she exclaimed, telling me she'd just discovered my card in her collection 2 days before and wondered who I was. I sure don't look like someone named Ishikawa. I had forgotten how good her voice was so I reminded her. She agreed, and said she'd tried to get commercial voice work, but couldn't do other voices. I think my ear is more attuned to voices after my new radio show went on the air in November. I've been on and off radio since 1965. Fun to be on again. She tells me I was in luck coming that day, as the restaurant would be closed for the next 5 days. Luck wouldn't be the word I'd use. It's great to see and hear her again, but I think Masa should just forget about the teppanyaki thing entirely.     
                                                                    Bad Masa.

  Back at the Vesper bar for some seriously needed flavour, I request a cocktail filled with passion fruit. My bartender Roger Gillespie spends a lot of time creating something with a bit of my fave drink fruit and a whole bunch of other things. The glass is encrusted with ice and served with a crown carved out of orange peel. Apparently it has tequila in it (I tell him I prefer clear spirits, and heavy on the fruit). Maybe he'll tell me everything else in the drink at some point as he does give me his email address.  It is a masterpiece the useless Masa could never duplicate. It does not surprise me that he's been in several of the same international cocktail competitions as my cousin. He tells me of the difficulty he has transporting ingredients and tools through airports where they must arouse suspicion. The life of a mixologist must be a hard one, but he is so committed, he tells me after work he'll spend the night boiling down ingredients for tomorrows cocktails. I tell him I'm new to serious mixology. Well, not that new. Roger is younger than some of my clothes. It's a real treat  to be served by an alchemist who knows how to make gold out of gold threads.
  As I'm filming my drink, the couple next to me takes notice. Suddenly I'm acknowledged by a tall, talkative man I had mistaken for a cowboy, which so clog the streets, hotels and bars of this city at this moment in frozen Vegas time. Actually he works for a medical supply company that makes an item Kobe Bryant uses. That's good ad copy. He turns to me and says, "Wow. You're filming your drink. I've never seen anyone do that." It would have made more sense to film Roger making the drink, but it's better than not filming at all.

People of his generation all have cell phones to capture images so the idea of a camera is somewhat obscure to them. His female companion, who hadn't uttered an audible word before, chimes in, "Wow. That's so interesting. You're filming your drink." So I don't forget it, I inform her. "That's so interesting," she repeats. The young are so easily entertained. I finish my fine beverage, and as I'm leaving, the couple turns to me and says, "Good night, sir."  I love being old.

  Sunday morning I awake at a quarter to eight to see my phone blinking. Is someone actually calling me? No, its the hotel asking me to go to its spa and spend lots of money. That will never happen. More great Schlotsky tomato soup, then a short tunnel to Mandalay Bay Place for Rick Moonen's jumbo lump crab cake I'd been raving about with John Curtas on Friday. Is it still as good? Lunch has been a continuing disappointment thus far, with Joho's crepes and the lavraki at Milos both being far below what I was expecting. But surely Mr Sustainable Seafood, Rick Moonen would come through, right? I'm still full from the great soup, but to call this Jumbo, you'd have to be a Lilliputian.


 Unfortunately, you can't eat memories. The crab cake was oddly neither crabby nor cakey. The luxuriousness of a well made cake and the proud sea taste of a good crab were nowhere to be found here. Instead, a blitzkrieg of chipotle aioli pounded my palate and was thereafter scrupulously avoided. What to do with this uh, "crab"  "cake?" I had had a fine, very subtle and stimulating cocktail when I'd first had this crab cake 2 years before. Quickly, I summoned Superdrink to the rescue. Called The Caribbean Dream, surely it would save the day. Yes, a fine beverage indeed. The boring crabcake is brought a few degrees closer to taste and I'm pleased to see it gone. A few nights before, I had a delicious cocktail called a Poire Drakkar at RX Boiler Room, the more cocktail oriented joint upstairs. My learned local companions told me Rick was doing well. That's 3 for 3 with the cocktails, but only one for three on entrees. His catfish Sloppy Joe was curiously devoid of fish. Was it Rick's lesson for his guests about vanishing fish stocks? The crab cake home run of 2 years ago is replaced by a crab cake devoid of virtue, jumbo only in clumsy irony, and finally, just a lump. Mighty Ricky has struck out.
  Things did not improve when I went to Top of the World. Rather quick by bus and walked the last couple of blocks against the fierce wind to give me a good appetite. I'd been advised to go to the lounge first to view the sunset from 107 floors up and enjoy 2 for one drinks and half price appys. Yeah, well the word "enjoy" shouldn't be in the same sentence. The pork belly should really have stayed on the pig. Even half price, it squealed meatily as I attempted to eat it. The 2-for-1 sangrias were perhaps Mexico's revenge on Spain. The sun slowly set. I went downstairs to eat. 
  The restaurant revolves. This is a good thing. I could not say that about the branzino. It was oddly oblivious to the concept of taste. It did not REQUIRE a wine intervention to bring it into the realms of edibility, as did its cousin the lavraki at Milos, but it never coalesced into actual flavour. Instead, I bathe in the beauty of revolving city lights. Maybe I'll post a vid. Maybe not.
  Cab back to the hotel was surprisingly cheap, a much better value than the "food." Back in my room in time to watch The Simpsons. Hi-light of the day.
  Three more days to go. This is turning into a LONG trip.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Vegas 2013: The Tomato Tour, Days One and Two

  I had purchased Thoreau: Walden and Other Writings when I lived in Ottawa in 1969. I have lived many places since then but not read this book. Figure it would go well with a week in Vegas. I finished Civil Disobedience on the plane, and when I checked into my hotel and turned on the TV, Nelson Mandela had just died. A direct descendent of Thoreau's essay. Just as dead, just as inspiring.
  To my painful surprise, Vegas was as cold as Vancouver. This did not bode well as I usually do a lot of walking on my culinary trips to give me sufficient appetite to enjoy the restaurants' bounty.  First up, I tried a small bowl of broccoli cheese soup at Schlotsky's in the food court. Quite hungry after my flight and I wanted to find out if the new food court addition had a soup good enough to eat for breakfast. If so, this wasn't it. It tasted like someone had whispered the word broccoli a few times over some goo, never truly evoking that tasty vegetable.
  I wanted to see if my favourite servers were still serving sangria at Fleur. That's a tram ride of a couple of minutes from my hotel, The Excalibur, but with this weather I'll be taking the tunnel linking the hotels this trip. Rebecca, the bar tender who had befriended me on Facebook, had no idea who I was when I told her that, but still whipped up a superb sangria, which I told her tasted more like a cocktail. She said she was constantly tweeking it. I knew my great server Jill had moved back to Miami- she informed me of her intentions when I last visited in Feb, 2012. Rebecca mentioned that Jill had briefly visited recently and was going to get her realtor's license in Florida. Faryell, my first server on my first trip to Fleur in Feb, 2011, had vanished from the restaurant. Jill had told me Faryell was going into management. I guess not. Marisol still worked at Fleur but wouldn't be in for a few days. Something to look forward to..
 A brisk walk up to Caesar's Palace brought me to Payard's when it opened at 5. Payard's Parmesan souffle and Rao's Uncle Vincent's Lemon Chicken were two things I missed eating on the previous trips and were at the top of my list to eat this time. I guess a lot of folks eat earlier in Vegas so they can go to shows in the later evenings. I eat early so I can EAT more later in the evening.
  The souffle was just as good as I expected it to be. Delicate. Subtle. Not really tasting the Parmesan but it's exquisitely cheesy and goes well with the cheap sparking wine I ordered as an accompaniment.  Overall, it tastes like the greatest omelet I've ever tasted, and I do love a good omelet. That's why Payard  is a famous pastry chef. Here he takes savoury pastry to a new level of excellence. My minor league sparking wine worsened precipitously as it warmed, and when the souffle  is consumed, there's nothing for the wine to do so it trudges off into unpleasantness and soon paid check. 
  I have time before my 6:30 reservation at Rao so I go upstairs to Guy Savoy to see if I can get a reservation for the following night. The great maitre d, Ilona recognizes me and tells me the little room with the fireplace where she had served me wondrous small plates 2 years ago was no longer available. She looks unhealthier than 2 years ago, or perhaps just overworked. I make a reservation for 8:00 Friday and then go down to Rao.
  Lemon goes with everything. Squeeze a slice of lemon on another slice of lemon and it would still work. Lemon with meat is a given. I make a tasty chicken dish (recipe from my mother) using tomato sauce, Gouda cheese, green pepper, dill and Plenty of lemon so my expectations are high. This is a restaurant virtually  impossible to get into in their hundred year old New York City location but I consider myself lucky to be able to eat Uncle Vincent's lemon chicken here. No idea who said uncle is, but his chicken is intense. The lemon and chicken intertwine and invigorate each other. Only the 2nd time I'd had chicken in Vegas. The first was last trip, I'd ordered the Jidori chicken at Michael Mina's but it was overrun by vegetable imperialism: cabbage washed away whatever goodness Mina's chicken might possess. Can Mina even cook? This chicken is so intimately involved with the lemon you would tell them to get a room. A glass of Riesling serves more as a palate cleanser and does not deteriorate as it warms, like Payard's cheap bubbly. Both of these meals are things I really wanted to eat this trip and things are looking up.

  I'd heard that the Vesper bar in the Cosmopolitan was THE mixology bar on the strip and I am here for Fine Drinking as well as fine dining, my expectations having been raised by the many great cocktails I've had in Vancouver since last Vegas trip. I'm surprised how empty the bar is. Vegas is full of cowboys, for some sort of rodeo final. I did not know there were that many cowboy hats in the world. I thought all the bars would be packed. Thankfully not Vesper. Later I'll get the mixologists to perform their magic just for me, but I begin, as I usually do in bars, by ordering from the menu: see what they serve the masses first before  calling upon their more idiosyncratic concoctions. I order the William of Orange which lives up to its name and is as strong as a victorious army. I should be able to sleep Very Well tonight, I imagine.

  I'd been up since 6:00 to catch my plane this morning and was now profoundly tired. But I couldn't sleep. From somewhere nearby came the relentless sound of a large machine, whirring away. Not intermittent but  constant..I try covering my ears with another pillow and then turning on the fan to cancel the painful machine sound but to no avail. Finally I get up, repack and take suitcases down to the front desk and tell them I need another room. It's impossible to sleep in the room they gave me. When I checked in, I was told to notify them if I wanted to change rooms, so I did. This time I'm promised a room far from annoying machinery. Actually, not so far as the air conditioner/heater machine kept going on and off but I was tired enough to sleep, finally. The next morning, I complain about the on-ing and offing of the heater and am told I can regulate it with the thermostat. The problem never reoccurs. Compliments to the Excalibur for fixing problems quickly.
  For breakfast, I take the tunnel over the Luxor in order to try their orange creamsicle French toast. Although it's before 8 AM, I have to stand in line. When I finally get a table and order, my server tells me the orange creamsicle french toast is the best thing on the menu. Well, maybe for someone who likes sweets. I don't, but I loved orange creamsicles as a kid. Of course, that was long ago.
  The French toast appears and it's massive. Far more than I can eat, I tell my server, who recommends I avoid the crusts.
The little balls you see are actually orange juice in a slightly solid form. I'd had a gin tonic, a sangria and an olive ball at Jose Andres e restaurant on my last trip, not surprising as the process for making them was invented by Andres' old mentor Ferran Adria at El Bulli. It's great to see that kind of molecular gastronomy leaving high end restaurants and tantalizing the palates of breakfasting peasants. I finish the balls and the orange slices but leave most of the toast as it's far too sweet for me, though it does go splendidly after the serious orange cocktail the previous night.  The so-called Chamomile tea you see in the top left corner also was too minty.
  One of my favourite lunches in Vegas is the $20.13 lunch set at the Greek place Milos. I had it twice on my last trip, always the same: The Greek version of sea bass called  lavraki, Greek salad and a fruit plate. Two years ago, my server Anna told me to try a desert from from the gum of a special tree that grows only on one Greek island, but it, like Anna, had vanished from Milos.
  I'd been warned that the lavraki was now hit and miss and mine was a miss, mostly because of its fishiness. I can handle the bones but expect a better fish dish. It desperately requires a glass of wine, Biblia Assyrt that doubles the price of what should have been a cheap lunch, but is necessary. Salad is as good as I remember it and the fruit plate is smaller and better.
  When I was planning this trip, I planned to go to the Downtown Cocktail Room when it opens at four and then walk over to First Friday to check out what local artists were up to and then walk through the Fremont Street Experience to check out its ceiling full of lights. With the freezing weather, I abandoned those plans, and instead arranged to meet up with food critic John Curtas and food girl Alexandra at RX Boiler Room to try its cocktails before dining at cocktail-less Guy Savoy in the evening. I have a copy of the book John wrote with fellow critics Al Mancini and Max Jacobson, and have been inspired to seek out some fine Vegas meals through John's food blog, Eating Las Vegas. The Boiler room had replaced what had been THE sustainable seafood spot in town (though I'm sure the fish on menu are still sustainable, they are no longer preached as such) with what appears more of a cocktail lounge with food than an actual restaurant. And a small cocktail list at that. I found something I thought I'd like, a Poire Drakkar (Hennessy Black, Pims #1 liqueur, curry-pear shrub, honey syrup, lemon juice, baked apple bitters, black walnut bitters, black pepper)
and enjoyed it thoroughly while discussing the food scene with John and Alexandra. I was pleased to be informed of the coming web version of their book, which should delight food loving tourists for years in the future. Curtas asked me if I am constantly comparing dishes with previous versions (we were talking crab cakes, and RM downstairs had the best crab cake I'd ever eaten) or searching for the new. I told him a combination of both.
  After our beverages, they thankfully gave me a ride over to Caesar's Palace in time for my meal at Guy Savoy, skipping the side order of frost bite. My last 2 trips to Vegas (including this one,) at Vancouver airport going through customs, when I tell the officer my reason for going to Vegas to for its restaurants, I'm asked my fave and I say "Guy Savoy." The guy can cook! Last time I'd ordered the chestnut dish, recommended by an ELV column, but was told it was the wrong season. This time it was the right season. I thought it might be my first taste of chestnuts, but my wife told me I'd had them in Japan, in a popular winter rice dish, in the distant past when I was still able to eat rice. So now I'm ready. Here's the dish:
Porcini mushroom, croutons possibly made from chestnuts, rather too sharp celery intrusion and a splendid foam. So now I've had the chestnut dish. My waitress says she remembers me from my last visit, 2 years ago. That's quite a memory.
 To amuse my bouche, I'm given Guy's sensational French hamburger, a micro-burger that is just as good as when I'd first been served it almost 3 years ago. By far the best beef I've had in North America. A perfect antidote to the rodeo fever that grips this town. The cow's revenge. Hey, I can taste better than you can imagine, but only a few of you will pay attention.
  I'm also amused by the hide and seek course. Last time the surprise was a bit of lobster. This time, I'm asked if I want to be surprised or informed. I go for the surprise. I'm guessing fois gras and am not totally wrong: a tiny bite of fine fois combined with duck leg confit; Formidable! 

My main reason for coming back here was to see what Guy Savoy could to with turbot. I'd had this fish only twice, both in Vegas, first at Picasso, in Feb, 2011, and then an even more theatrical version at Le Cirque in Feb. 2012. How would this compare? If I'm gonna call this my favourite Vegas restaurant, it better be great. And it is.
Turbot a la Plancha, cauliflower variations, green curry emulsion. There's a hint of pineapple as well, which really makes the turbot. The cauliflower, well, I think that vegetable is overused in fine dining in Vegas. It is one of my favourite vegies- I make cauliflower in cheese sauce for breakfast whenever I find good cauliflower, but I easily OD on it in this kind of cuisine. The foam is exquisite, and I'm NO FAN of curry anything.  The pineapple subtlety evokes the cuisine of  Pierre Gagnaire, not a comparison I'd usually make with Guy's food. Cocktails being absent, I order the champagne Guy Savoy and it doesn't go with the dishes as well as it did with the little meals Ilona finally appears, offering me a little gift for to breakfast on the following day. She looks much healthier than she did the day before.
  I leave Guy Savoy feeling happy, healthy and superbly fed. The short cab ride back to The Excalibur gives me a short but exquisite view of the night lights of the strip reflected in the back windows of the hotels. For the first time in my trips here, I actually feel love for Las Vegas. The lights? The food? Whatever. One doesn't question love, one just goes with it.