Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Vegas 2016 For the love of the cocktail (singular)



I walk over to Mon Ami Gabi for its splendid grapefruit with mint leaves and candied ginger and a pot of mint tea. Somehow, the grapefruit isn’t as good as it was in my previous visits. It’s still very good. This is the first time I’ve had it with mint tea- my previous tea choices have vanished. The mint pairs with the mint leaves on the fruit to good effect. Mon Ami expects me to order more food but the grapefruit was filling enough for me.
After looking at their menu online,  I was really looking forward to lunch at Julian Serrano’s new restaurant Lago. Julian can cook, and I look forward to see him do outside of Spain what he does so well with Spanish themes. Mediterranean cuisine escaped me at Rivea, though replaced by unpleasant tastes and by, sort of, ambassadors from a universe where Bit was still alive.
I’m the first person in the restaurant. Beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower outside. Very pleasant, airy restaurant. Reading the last few sentences of chapter 6 of Strip Cultures. The chapter is called The Whole World on a Plate. I’d just ordered the seafood salad and the long-awaited Branzino Livornese but the waitress keeps hustling me to order their ham thing. What is this, Spain? I stay with the seafood only. The seafood salad enchants my eyes. I wish I had a functioning camera to shoot it. Said to come with a grapefruit dressing, and featuring a fat chunk of grapefruit atop a palette of vegies and seafood. The salad is very fresh, without actually being tasty. When I’m able to cram other things in my mouth along with the grapefruit slice, it’s pretty good. I’ll use this information at home. However, minus that singular chunk of citrus, the salad slides back into tastelessness. I’m eating a menu.
    “While the language learner might strive for cultural immersion,” p. 195, reminds me of the robot in Ex Machina who wanted to stand in the busiest crossroads in large cities. “How do we make sense of our surroundings when the eye is so bewildered or absorbed in pretense?” kind of sums up my salad. Gorgeous, but largely tasteless. At least better than Moonen’s crab assassination last night.
The branzino sounded great on the website menu. Smells wonderful in front of me. Looks fabulous, but so did the tasteless salad. Lots of Japanese food looks beautiful and tastes terrible. This however, tastes as good as it looks. The waitress asks how I like the fish and I tell her it’s outstanding. I must learn how to make this myself. I can’t say that I’ve thought of black olives with fish before, assuming the olives would overwhelm a mild fish like this. But combined with the cherry tomatoes and the capers (how Mediterranean can you get?) the fish seems to sing. The asparagus is unnecessary. Pretty, though.
  I ask what the desert was and am told it’ll be a surprise. I should have warned the waitress I don’t eat chocolate. Too late, she proudly offers a plate full of chocolate. Some surprise, like a serious disease. I send it back. She returns with lemony and thus edible things.
  After using one of the best restrooms in the planet at the Mandarin Oriental, I settle in the wondrously comfortable Tea Lounge and await my Jasmine Tea-Off that had so enchanted me here last year. Had some difficulty getting it. I thought it was on the tea menu, but when I ask for it, although there are 3 jasmine teas, none meet my specifications. “Must be discontinued” my waitress tells me. I tell her about the pear, and recall the name Jasmine Tea Off. “Oh, that’s on our mocktail menu!”  “One of the best things I’ve had in Vegas,” I inform her. Along with the overwhelmingly Zen experience of being in this wonderful place. People speak so softly here, it’s extraordinary after the relentless noise of the Strip. As I begin sipping the mocktail, I’m hit by the strong jasmine flavour. More so as it enters my nose. Yet the flavour is surprisingly bland. I remain in search of pear. It should be paired perfectly with the jasmine for this drink to work. I have yet to encounter it. Must be hiding somewhere in this jasmine forest. Call the florist. The drink continues, still pearless. It reminds me of what Gertrude Stein said of Oakland: There’s no there, there. Here, there’s no pear. There may be some anonymous fruit involved, to keep the drink from being just jasmine water. The flaw of Zen: you can’t live on nothing. Unlike Vegas, with its relentless there-ness. The anonymous fruit is like a very thick canvas pretending to be a painting.  Pears could be out of season, but that never stops the unending fruit delivery here. Gotta keep the gamblers happy. Maybe the recipe for this drink has become so obscure, they’ve forgotten what goes into it, like their neighbours at Twist with its total forgetting of the recipe for their Passion Fruit Sour Martini, their signature cocktail a few years ago. Jasmine permeates this drink as I read in Strip Cultures about how smoke permeates Vegas. A ubiquitous waste product. Jasmine saturates this drink, yet does not remind me of jasmine tea, which I drink often at home. It kind of symbolizes the whole trip so far: things aren’t as good as they were in my memory (sea bass at Le Cirque, grapefruit at Gabi, several teas). Things are hit and miss, as Non-Susan the Bar Masa Bartender told me about Le Cirque. Have I become so saturated with Vegas that there’s no room for new impressions? That certainly wasn’t the case at Artisanal Foods or Lago’s Fish Livornese. The young woman at Le Cirque spoke so slowly. The young should speak slowly. They have all the time in the world to compose their sentences. They needn’t fill every second with chatter (the young women next to me machine-gun each other with chatter). For oldsters like me, it would make more sense to speak quickly, to get as much out as possible before death shuts us up permanently. The pear-lessness reminds me of a scene in the John Barth novel The End of the Road. The main character is trying to find out the day’s weather prediction. It isn’t in the paper, or the TV news, oddly. He calls the weather station and is told that today there is no weather.

I hadn’t read Eater Vegas for a long time. For some reason I decided to check it out before my upcoming trip. An expensive mistake.
For the Love of the Cocktail was a charity event I bought a ticket to, expecting to have a wide variety of cocktails with 4 of the world’s best mixologists. I did chat at some length with the drink maestros, but alas, only a single cocktail from each of them was to be had.
I first learned of the existence of Tony Abou-Ganim from an interview on Al Mancini’s Vegas Video Network TV show Top of the Food Chain a few years ago. Sounded like a serious cocktail creator and a jovial guy. The M Life magazine that appears in every hotel room in the MGM chain of hotels had alerted me to the Bellagio cocktail when I was in Vegas last year. I went to the Petrossian Bar and tried one. Not bad. Then the bartender turned me on to another of Tony’s inventions, Skye Vodka infused with fresh pineapple, blueberries, raspberries and vanilla bean. See my blog for Sunday. So I had something to talk to Abou about.
Google informed me that Francesco LaFranconi first became famous for concocting a drink called The Gambler for an Italian competition: fresh white peach, pineapple puree, sparkling wine and lemon rum. I wondered how he could keep the peach from being overwhelmed by the pineapple.
Cuban mixologist Julio Cabrera had won the same award, World’s Most Innovative Bartender, as my cousin. I had something to talk to him about.
The event was taking place in The Brand Bar and the maestro of the bar and thus, host of the event was Salvatore Calabrese, creator of the world’s most expensive cocktail and the world’s foremost authority on cognac. I’ve enjoyed a tasty snifter of cognac or two in my time. I had something to talk to Salvatore about. So, lots of good talk and good drinks, right?
Well…..
The World’s 4 Best Mixologists (yeah, like that isn’t subjective) were introduced with great fanfare. They each entered the bar heralded by young women carrying bottles of their sponsoring spirits. They each spoke about their histories and motivations. They each created their solitary signature cocktail of the evening behind the bar while phones merrily recorded
 Salvatore bragged a lot. “I’m celebrating my 50th year as a bartender next year,” he proclaimed, and people actually clapped. Why? Doing something for a long time doesn’t mean you’re any good at it. I celebrated the 50th anniversary of my first DJ appearance on radio last November. Does that make me a good DJ? Not at all. You’re a good bartender if you make a drink that I like. Period. I’m a good DJ if you like what I play. Period. Length of time has nothing to do with it.
Upon moving to Vegas, “the city that never sleeps,” Salvatore decided to create a cocktail to fight sleepiness. Coffee, made with champagne instead of water. I never tried it. Preparing for the event, I looked him up on YouTube, and unlike Francesco’s Gambler fame, Salvatore has many, many YouTube videos of his many cocktail creations. One of them must appeal to me. I told him I liked fruity, Tiki-type cocktails and asked what he’d suggest. Instead of pleasantly answering, he thrust a menu in my face. I studied it. A woman standing next to me at the bar was drinking one of his cocktails called the Spicy 51 and recommended it. I should have been wary, I have no tolerance for spicy anything. Not only was the cocktail undrinkable, they actually charged me for it. The price of admission to the event was steep, and now they’re ripping me off for this palate violation? Weren’t all the cocktails included? Not this one, apparently. Things began to go downhill when I discovered there were to be only single cocktails from each of the mixologists. I had been led to believe there was to be a competition. New drinks created in front of me. I even met one of judges. But judges of what? After they created their signature drinks for the cell phones, the mixologists created no more. The event was deceptively promoted. Was I the only one who cared?
I talked to Francesco about The Gambler. “But that was So Long Ago,” he complains. Never does answer my question about how to keep the pineapple from overwhelming the peach. He says the drink was a gamble whether it would work or not. He tells me of his unpleasant experience working at Harry’s Bar in Venice. I tell him of when Fumiyo and I escaped a deluge by ducking into that bar when we were in Venice. “We’d like some wine,” we told the bartender. We’d been drinking almost nothing but the great Italian sparkling wine Prosecco since we came to Italy, and expected to continue. “We only serve cocktails here,” sniffed the bartender contemptuously. We looked around and noticed everyone in the bar seemed to be drinking Prosecco. I asked what everyone was drinking. “Prosecco,” said the asshole in a tie. We had some of that. It was delightful to hear Francesco disparage that wretched excuse for a bar.
I told Tony about my experience with the Bellagio cocktail and the infusion he created. I told him I had remembered raspberries from last year’s infusion and that was what I’d used when I sought to recreate it at home. Now the Petrossian bar tender told me to use strawberries. OK, though the raspberry infusion actually tasted better. Tony said it didn’t matter, whichever was in season. Thanks, Tony.
After Julio acknowledged the genius of my cousin, his fellow World’s Most Imaginative human, I wanted to talk to him about Cuban native fruit. Were there fruit you could only get in Cuba? I told him there were in Japan. He mentioned yuzu. A very common ingredient in high-end western cooking these days. I told him about sudachi, a Japanese fruit we've never seen in Vancouver. Does Cuba have such fruit? Yes. Still, Cuba is a lot closer to Miami, where Julio makes drinks, than Japan is to, well, anywhere.
It was interesting to me that Julio went to Cuban bartending school, a 2-year course, from which one graduates as a “cantinero.” Does everyone who becomes a cantinero become an imaginative bartender? Able to create great new cocktails spontaneously, on demand like everyone at Vesper does everyday? I was a teacher for a long time but I never taught creativity, nor can I imagine how it’s done.  Always looking for new flavours is a start, new combinations. Curiosity is your friend.
The ticket included dinner at Giada, a newish upscale Italian place with lots of primo vino. Wish the cocktails had as much variety. The crowd was split into various tables, so I ended up with half a dozen tablemates. All of them seemed to live in Vegas. I expect that at the bars and restaurants I visit, but I had expected more out-of-towners at this event. Maybe they’re at other tables. Everyone I have met who lives here, tonight and throughout my 6 visits to Vegas, is REALLY HAPPY to be living in Vegas. Maybe because it’s warmer than where they left? Maybe because there’s so much money sloshing around from all those losing gamblers. I haven’t talked to any of the many homeless who haunt the walkways. Perhaps they’re happier pan handling here than in some cold city.
We start out with a vast plate of antipasto. Each is delicious. I’m ordered to eat the bacon stuffed with cheese. It is indeed as tasty as the cheese-stuffed peppers and they pair perfectly with the vino onslaught. We hear many lectures about the making and selling of the various wines. I’m no oenophile. Wine to me is part of a meal and of no particular interest by itself, particularly red wine. I use red wine to make sangria at home, and drink it without food only when visiting friends who insist. Its subtle charms are lost on me. I always keep a bottle of white wine in the fridge because my default protein is fish and sometimes it’s too fishy to eat without wine. Nonetheless, I drink so little that the bottle always goes flat before I can finish it.
Speaking of fish, and not surprising for an Italian restaurant, our fish course is branzino again. Not nearly as good as Julian Serrano’s take on this fish at Lago for lunch, but no complaints. The beef dish however is far too meaty for my tastes. Even the copious red wine pairings just barely make it edible, momentarily mooed back to life. I turn down the desert, without even asking if it contains chocolate. I end up eating beef three times on this trip, which is about as often as I eat beef in the average year. David Ivy had told me he refuses to pay a lot of money for Italian food- it’s just not Fine Dining by his definition. True, pizza is not, even if it’s my favourite food. Pasta should never be expensive. He’s appalled that a restaurant would charge $60 for lasagna On the other hand, Cioppino’s food in Vancouver is very expensive and worth every penny. Perhaps David will change his mind once he dines there. The young are so easy to impress, perhaps because they have yet to be pierced by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (If you don’t know the Hamlet reference, you need to read more).
Just crossed the bridge from the Cromwell to Caesars Palace. It’s so 3-dimensional. It IS 3D. Why does it look even more so to me now? Was there some psychedelic substance slipped into my wine, like the Greeks used to employ in their rituals? The tram from the Bellagio is easily used.

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