We travel to have enlightening experiences, to meet
inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow.
Rick Steves, Travel
as a Political Act.
Last words of
Friday and Saturday. Feb. 6 and 7
For my 5th
trip to Vegas, there were enough things I wanted to do in Downtown Las Vegas to
warrant a stay at a downtown hotel. I made a reservation at the Downtown Grand.
Nothing wrong with the hotel per se, it’s just that downtown hotels (drinks,
food, whatever) tend be considerably cheaper than their Strip counterparts. The
DG charged me $118 for a night. Excalibur, my Strip hotel of choice, is $25 a
night. Outside the DG, it’s fun time for homeless people and hipsters. Perhaps
homeless hipsters. Arlo Guthrie on the Group W Bench, with mother rapers,
father stabbers, father rapers sitting right next to me…. Outside Excalibur,
the exuberant beauty of the Strip. So what am I doing here? Well, I’m reading
Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great
American Cities and sadly noting its relevance here. I’m also having some
food at Carson Kitchen (raved and raved about by critics and Yelpers, and
apparently Kerry Simon does cauliflower well!), a couple of (two for one
cocktails at Happy Hour? I am obviously hallucinating) well crafted cocktails
at the Downtown Cocktail Room, art at First Friday and breakfast at chef
Natalie’s place Eat (unidentified on Tony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode set
in Vegas with Tony breakfasting at Anonymous eatery). Is all that worth $118
for a bed amidst all this prettified desolation? We’ll see.
I have to ask at
several establishments before I finally find Carson Kitchen. Small and
friendly. Ah, they have pear cidre. Things are looking up. I’ve been up since 5:30 to catch my plane here and haven’t eaten
more than a Baby Bell all day. I’m hungry (although this term probably means
something different to my stomach than yours.) Kerry Simon is called the Rock
Star of chefs. OK, let’s see him Midnight Ramble over my palate.
The Bacon Jam has
been praised to the skies. I order it. Careful, it’s hot, says the helpful
bartender. “Ouch” say my fingers as I try and scoop some jam onto the little
crackers that come with it. Yes, quite tasty. Then a bowl Full of spiced
cauliflower. Enough food to feed an army of orcs. It isn’t identified as
“spiced” cauliflower, which is misleading. We are talking of a nuclear armed
vegetable here. I tentatively attempt a bit. “Mix it in the bacon jam,” the
helpful bartender advises. Like Gollum helping Frodo to Mt.
Doom. With the mixture, one
inedible dish becomes two. “Ouch, Ouch,” scream my taste buds, under assault
from the ring-melting foodity. I solace them the best I can with cold pear
cidre, then it’s off to the Downtown Cocktail Room. Serious bartenders I met on
my previous Vegas trip insisted I visit this place for this town’s most serious
mixology. I’m stoked. Also, REALLY thirsty. Great drinks, not so great food
would become a theme this trip
Well, being really hungry didn’t help me at Carson.
I enter a dim space with some
difficulty. Door does not have handle. Do I have to cast a spell? Chairs seem
to have gone out of style. We’re back with Plato and Nero lounging on couches.
I order an arrack-based Pirate drink while traveling into pretend time though
the local entertainment rag Day 7 about counter-factual Vegas. Howard Hughes
walks by and offers me a nuclear cocktail. Harold Hedd follows him with less
liquid delights. The intricacy of the drink continues to prod my brain into
newer and more interesting realms.
Apple of My Eye: Apple Jack, Holiday
Spice, Maple, A.C.V.
Dearest Tipple: Your loving caress of apple and holiday
spice thaw my frozen heart; your sweet caramel lingers on my lips, long after
your kiss. I am yours forever. Apple Jack.”
Much as I love
apples, this cocktail didn’t work. Was it the sticky glass it was served in? It’s
not that the room was busy. There were perhaps 4 other people there. But the
act of drinking was such an unpleasant experience, I had to go to the men’s
room to wash my hands and bring back a wet paper towel to clean the glass
before I could even consider the flavours being offered. There was subtlety
involved. In a place like this, that is expected. There was however, more
sweetness than necessary. Considering the orchards of apple cidre I’ve consumer
over the years, The Apple of my Glaucoma offered no revelations. In the course
of my week in Vegas, I began consuming Angry Orchards apple cidre from the
cheap liquor stores on the strip, upon discovering my favourite apple tipple
Mike’s Smashed Apple Cidre, my drink of choice from last visit, had ceased to
exist. Angry Orchards is now available in my North
Vancouver liquor stores. It’s not bad. Same can’t be
said of this cocktail. I escape its tentacles and wander into the night.
First Friday is my
main reason for being downtown in the first place. Local artists show their
latest. As someone vaguely artistic who is very inspired by the beauty of Vegas
(the lights! The lights!), I’m anxious to see what artists who live here are
being inspired to create. I’d come to
Vegas on a Friday in December, 2013 hoping to visit this event but it was too
cold. Colder than Vancouver. Today
was pleasantly warm. Now, where was First Friday? I ask at the hotel desk. I
ask people I meet on the street. I find a pleasant container park, but that
isn’t it. Go here! Go there? You can’t get there from here! Apparently, not
walking distance. After the fiery food, only one out of two good drinks and all
this walking, I’m way tired. I buy a massive slice of vegie pizza from a pizza
place across the street from my hotel. It’s oily and pungent- no thermonuclear
cauliflower in attendance. I’m supposed to meet people somewhere, but instead I
return to my hotel and go to sleep.
Up 7ish on Saturday, it’s a long walk over to Eat.
Chef Natalie used to cook at Eiffel Tower,
whose vegie crepes are one my favourite dishes in Vegas. She must really know
how to cook. I order the truffled eggs. They come with enough potatoes to bury Prince
Edward Island. I’d ordered a side of fresh fruit and
it is the first really wonderful thing I’ve had on this trip. Maybe truffles
aren’t really what my stomach wants to eat at 8
AM. I make a small indentation into the breakfast such as a mouse
would make on a cheese wheel. Chef Natalie is holding court in the middle of
the restaurant. Do I go up to her and thank her for her exquisite fruit? Nah. I
go back to the Downtown Not So Grand, collect my luggage, pay about 4 times
what the room is actually worth (see above) and waddle over to the Deuce, the
slow bus to the Strip. As Downtown recedes in the bus’s rear window, my spirit
The last time I
stayed at Excalibur, they noted that it was my 3rd time there and
offered me free upgrades and general good will. Today they demand $20 to check
in early. Still cheap though. I shed the dust of Downtown and set off for
Payard. Still enough time left on my $6.00 2-hour bus ticket. My last Vegas
adventure began with a parmesan soufflé at Payard, buried in the bowels of
Caesar’s Palace. One of the world’s best pastry chefs will restore my belief in
And the Frenchman
comes through. Exquisite pastry in the tartine de tomate is expected, so the
novelty is in the way the tomato interacts with those well conceived pastry
molecules. A forest of spinach and three vast prawns loom over the more
delicate yet lustier marriage of tomato and tart like visiting aliens from some
large, uninteresting planet.
After this awesome
lunch, I walk back to the Mandalay Bay
to visit Hubert Keller’s restaurant Fleur. When I walked into Fleur, Rebecca
the bartender/Facebook friend noticed me and told me that Marisol
here that afternoon. I looked around without seeing her. Finally she ran over
to me and I discovered she now had blond hair. That wasn’t the only change: she
was now a grandma, and lovingly showed me a picture of her new grandson. The
chairs thankfully, hadn’t changed, and were still the most comfortable
restaurant chairs in the city (to the best of my knowledge). I felt, in the
words of the Steely Dan song, Home at Last. At least for the afternoon.
I had a reservation
in Chinatown for 6:00.
I’d heard there had been an explosion of great Japanese food in Vegas since my
last visit. It is the type of cuisine I know best, so I have very high
standards here. Could Raku live up to the hype?
restaurant was supposed to open at 6:00,
it was ten after that the door opened and the milling throngs were allowed in.
I get a seat at the counter. Thankfully the counter is lit from below, allowing
me to easily read the Jane Jacobs book I’ve brought for my 6 days in Vegas; that’s
600 pages for 6 days. Sounds about right. I’m deeply enjoying the book as my
sake appears. Cold (as it always is these days, the hot sake I drank
exclusively in Japan has gone out of fashion) and in a regular mug instead of
the preferred square cup made out of sugi, the Japanese cedar relative that
dominates bars in that country and pours pleasure on your olfactory.
I began with one
tiny skewer of tomatoes which had a delightful yet subtle taste of charcoal.
The asparagus, having a stronger taste, was less influenced by the charcoal.
The eringi mushrooms (my waitress called them meaty when I asked about them)
are identified as king oyster mushrooms when served. I’ve cooked them before at
home. These are a bit too chewy for my tastes and could also have benefited
with more intense charring. Raku’s signature dish, the agedashi tofu, swimming
in a broth full of nameko mushrooms (my favourite ingredient of miso shiru) is
every bit as good as it has been reviewed as being. Best of all is a singular
buttered scallop. The best scallop I’ve ever eaten, and I love scallops. The
whole “meal” reminded me of all the bars I spent time in during my long years
in Japan. I
really came to love charcoal grilled food in Japan
in those bars, while sushi never appealed to me. It’s great to see my kinda
Japanese food has made it to Vegas. Next on my itinerary, food with Japan’s
most famous chef and Robert de Niro pal, Nobu, at Caesar’s Palace. I can see
towering hotels on the strip from outside Raku. I asked the one server who
spoke real English if Spring Mountain Road
ran into Las Vegas Blvd.
Yes it did. Do they intersect, I asked again. Yes they do. But he assumed I
asked that as someone with a car. Fumiyo is about to embark on an 800 km. hike
across Spain in
a couple of months. I can surely walk a few miles, right? I had to strengthen
my leg muscles for all the walking I’d be doing on the strip for the next 4
days. I had to walk off my small meal to make room for Nobu’s creations. I
began to walk.
Time passed. I
encounter very few people on the sidewalk. It is night in an inappropriate area
in Vegas for foot traffic. I walked a lot of dark streets in Japanese nights in
just such a quest for charcoaled goodies and sake, lit by red lanterns of
reliable warmth. Foolishly, I had left my hat back at the hotel when I began to
feel rain drops on my bald head. I had been told to take a cab- now I was
beginning to regret the spontaneous trek. And then the sidewalk stopped
altogether, just as the road went under the freeway in a tunnel. No, I’m not
going to enter a tunnel without a sidewalk. I walk back up to Polaris, which seems
like a serious street, and keep following it until it gets to the Rio.
I’d never been to this hotel before, which seems to exist only to promote Penn
and Teller. Now at this point, a more intelligent person would have grabbed a
cab at that substantial hotel. But I could see Caesar’s Palace tantalizingly
close, if I can indeed get there. I head for the strip but my street does not.
I find myself winding my way through the bushes on a narrow sidewalk
surrounding the acres and acres of CP parking garages. Finally I see some men
near a doorway. I ask them how to get to CP and they say enter the nearby door
to the Forum Shops. I thought the Shops were quite far from the hotel, but no,
as I ascend the escalator, I’m suddenly at the door of the CP casino. I find my
way over to Nobu.
“How are you,” asks
“Tiring day at
work?” she asked.
“No, I just walked
here from Raku.” She’d never heard of it. “On Spring
Mountain Road,” I inform her. She seems dubious as
to its location. But at least I’m quickly offered a seat, and shortly
thereafter, a delicious cocktail. Well, I’ve certainly worked up an appetite
now. My feet were sore, but I could definitely eat something. Unfortunately,
not the tempura crab I ordered.
Peruvian cuisine is
hot these days. I’ve had it at least twice, once with friends on Lake
Geneva in 2002, and with other friends in Montreal
in 2010. Bourdain’s Parts Unknown paints a culinary picture of the country as
the new frontier of food, as Spain
was in the previous decade. Nobu became Japan’s
most famous chef after he went to Peru
and soaked up its culinary influences for his Japanese cuisine. The tempura is
served in a sauce distilled from his Peruvian experience. It should be good,
right? Well, yes, it Should. But as the dish cools, what had been only vaguely
pleasant becomes downright inedible. Only the cocktail works. Cracked basil,
Nobu’s Soju, Grand Marnier, Thai basil, fresh strawberries, yuzu juice, egg
white, fresh cracked pink pepper. $16 and worth every penny. 4 small morsels of
tempura crab for $40. Portion size: way too much bad food. $40? Nobu should pay
you to eat it.
With the excellent
cocktail, taxes and tip, it came to $70, the worst food quality to price ratio
of the trip so far. When I walked back to my hotel from Nobu, I felt the same
way I did after leaving Per Se in 2010: the whole concept of food had become
utterly alien to me. Seeing food ads on TV almost made me puke.