Vegas 2016: The Ivys
The Ivys! Also, things to eat and drink.
Up early to take advantage of my Deuce $8.00 24-hour pass and the heavy coat I’ve brought from Vancouver for the ride to Bouchon. For some reason, the driver ignores my request to get off at The Venetian so I have to walk back from the Wynn but it’s not far. The grapefruit is so gone from Bouchon’s menu there’s probably nobody alive there who remembers it. Even the berry bowl I’ve had before is gone. Instead, a bowl of apple slices, strawberry slices and slices of blood orange. It is fabulous. I’ll be making this at home soon. Much as I love apples, I find them too filling for breakfast, but with the blood orange and the strawberries and the well-paired pot of tea, I can handle them. Then instead of the spinach quiche I always have, I order the soup of the day, which I’m told is chicken bouillon poured over cherry tomatoes, gnocchi, and lettuce. I expect bad service at Bouchon and I get it. A server tries to serve me the soup while I’m slowly eating the fruit. I have to send him off until I’m eventually ready for it.
I savour the orange cranberry tea from Rare Cargo- Bouchon always has good tea. It tastes almost perfumed. The woman beside me, who looks about the age Bit would be now, asks what my soup is. I tell her to get it, the best thing Keller has ever done. She says she’ll ask her husband to take her to Bouchon in LA, where her accent identifies her as being from. She is reading the NY Times and assumes, correctly, that I’ve read its recent attack on Keller’s flag ship, Per Se, where I had the most overpriced and underwhelming meal in my life in 2010. I have not however seen his reply to the attack, which she describes as very humble. Not a word I associate with Keller.
The chicken dumpling soup I’d had the previous day from Schlotsky’s turns out to be great prep for the divine bouillon with the perfect gnocchi at Bouchon. Breakfast has never before been a fine dining experience for me. My palate takes hours to awaken. That’s why this is so strange. I hadn’t know it was possible to enjoy food this intensely so early in my day.
A month before the financially and physically painful Per Se meal, I’d read an article in the New Yorker called The Truffle Kid, about the owner of my lunch destination, Artisanal Foods Café. That was August, 2010, before I ever imagined going to Vegas.
I was alerted to the existence of the café from a Facebook post by Vegas food critic Al Mancini. I made a lunch reservation, though it turned out only one other family showed up to dine while I was there. It’s a store, and most of the people who walked in the door were there to pick up or deliver stock. The first thing I noticed on sale was Bella Vitano Merlot cheese, my favourite. And a large package for $10.00, a fraction of what I pay for it in Vancouver. I asked if the man behind the desk was Otto? “There’s no one named Otto here,” he told me. “The owner’s name is Brad and he’s in Fresno today.”
“Why did I think there was an Otto here?” I wondered. “Brad’s last name is Ottolenghi,” That would explain it. As I had no idea how far the café would be from my hotel, I budgeted plenty of time and then had to wait for 15 minutes for lunch to begin. The counterman looked a lot like Kato Kaelin. Maybe it really is Kato? I had just begun watching The People vs. OJ Simpson, being serialized on TV. I did not pay attention to the trial at the time. Now, for the first time I’m discovering why these Kardashian women have become famous. A bit of American pop culture I had been blissfully ignorant about until now. When I was a student at USC in 1968, I saw OJ around campus. Once, he was standing in front of me in the student bookstore. I thought he looked a lot like my cousin Howard Procyshyn, although of a different skin tone. Considering how white OJ thought of himself to be, I’m sure OJ would see the resemblance as well.
I was going to order something else from the small menu, but went with the brick chicken and mushroom bread pudding. Normally I avoid dark meat chicken, but this was astonishing. Good thing I paid attention to the Yelp raves. Not the chicken itself, but the combination with the pudding. Maybe the best chicken dish I’ve ever had in a restaurant (where I rarely order chicken. We get such great chicken at a local butcher shop that I can cook chicken at home as good as any restaurant could make. I use the rare restaurant order as ideas for home cooking (like the Chicken Picata recently eaten at a restaurant in LA with my cousin- very easy to make.). Making the mushroom bread pudding I suspect is beyond my current culinary skills.
I’d only had lionfish once before. Also in Vegas, it was at Michael Mina’s American Fish restaurant at the Aria. The highlight of my 2013 culinary expedition here. The restaurant vanished, and I’ve never seen lion fish on the menu anywhere since. Until now. Indeed, seeing lionfish ceviche on the Artisanal Foods Café menu on their website is what prompted the expensive taxi rides to an obscure part of the city, distant from the strip.
The lionfish ceviche turns out to be refreshing but I fail to taste any fish. I think it’s full of carrots but when I tell the chef that, he informs me they’re actually sweet potatoes. I loathe sweet potatoes, but not the way Johnny Church does them. On the wall of the store there is a little paragraph about how destructive lionfish are, so we should eat lots and lots of them, not the tiny amount in the ceviche. I’d just heard a radio programme about them and send it to the chef as soon as I return. The government teamed up with the church in Colombia to inspire Colombians to come up with recipes and then pig out on lionfish, to save the rest of their indigenous fish. Eating one lionfish saves 34,000 other fish, 6,000 crustaceans and 3,500 other species that wish would otherwise have consumed.
Johnny tells me to come back and he’ll make the dish for me with more lion fish in it, free. I would expect it at Milos, and Rick Moonen’s 2 places- both restaurants serious about fish. I’ll have to ask Rob Clark and Ned Bell in Vancouver, our local sustainable seafood champions. We should join the Colombians in their quest to eat this delicious fish and save their native species which the lionfish is endangering. I tell Johnny I’m from Van where Sustainable Seafood is a big thing. He tells me he knows Vancouver’s Chef Pino from the Chefs to the Max meal at Rick’s a couple of years back. Pino’s daughter was just in Vegas and Johnny was escorting her around. The café was kinda hard for the first cabbie to find and the ride cost me $22. No trouble getting back to the Excalibur, which is visible from the nearby big street. Only $20 on the way back.
Back at Vesper: Colorado 12 year rum, lemon grass syrup, lemon juice, lime juice, muddled cucumber, muddled raspberries and blueberries, egg white and ginger beer. I asked why the cuke and he said they were out of the passion fruit liqueur. The cuke does seem to come in from another angle. As always from Vesper, a very complex drink. I can taste the rum, but the number of tastes involved in this drink is vast. Previously, I had no idea cucumber could be a positive addition to a cocktail, fond as I am of cukes in salads.
I had made a reservation at Alain Ducasse’s replacement for Mix, the new restaurant Rivea which John Curtas has violently panned in his recent Eating Las Vegas Review. I’m planning to eat at Ducasse’s Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower my next trip to France. I’ll have to check out Ducasse in Vegas on my next trip here. Whatever the food’s quality, it’s more important to me to hang out with Alicia and David Ivy. We meet at Excalibur’s Lobby Bar. They order gin tonics with their favourite brand of gin and I do too. It’s every bit as good as Jose’s, without the pretty plants in it, or the large price. This is only the 2nd time I’ve met them, and each time, there are bars involved. Not surprising, for a couple who used to have a TV show called Pub Crawl. Utterly delightful people. Meeting them is finding oneself in a vortex of conviviality. I give them CDs of collages I’ve been compiling over the past year, music mixed with comedy from the great LA comedy group (celebrating their 50th anniversary this year) The Firesign Theatre. Turns out the Ivys had never heard of them. The young these days have their own comedians, of whom I’m equally unaware. Will people oblivious to Firesign comedy get any enjoyment out of these collages? The Ivys have a similar sense of humour to the Firesigns. After I described my beef meal at Bazaar Meats the previous night, they tell me how much like love Jose’s other restaurant at the SLS, Ku Noodle, which the Ivys pronounce “Canoodle.” Reminds me of their “Natcho people” line from the TV show. Very Firesignian kind of wordplay. I’m reminded of the Firesign’s comical pronunciation of Big ta JUNGA Canyon and the San Fernandino Valley from their Nick Danger piece and Phil Proctor calling Canada’s new prime minister “Truffaut” on a recent meeting. Brains and tongues at play.
In the absence of Ducasse food, I do need Something to eat so they decide we should go to RX Boiler Room over at Mandalay Bay. Although they’ve lived in Vegas for years and got married at the Excalibur, they had never taken its tram to Mandalay Bay, something I used to do several times a day when I was staying at the Excalibur over the years. In the same way, visitors to Vancouver turn me on to places in this city I had never visited, despite three decades in the city. The Ivys wisely order a cheese plate. As Rick Moonen is the city’s Mr. Seafood, I should have perhaps ordered the day’s sustainable special Skate. Instead, I order the only seafood option on the menu (!) shrimp stuffed with crab. Surely, that’ll be good and I’m hungry. From the cocktail menu, I order a drink with guava in it. The best drink I’ve had so far this year (or in quite a while) was a mocktail I had the week before at Vancouver’s great Keefer bar in Chinatown. That liquid wonder was guava juice, kaffir lime syrup, club soda with a serious rosemary twig. That was unbelievably good. Moonen’s cocktail tasted like medicine. If you like Scotch (I should have noticed it as an ingredient, but I was blinded by my new love of guava!) this may be drinkable. If I had a serious disease and this was the medicine I needed to take to fight it, OK. Neither a Scotch liker nor a person in need of life-saving medicine, I’m at best able to drink only half the cocktail. The prawns and crab turn out to be quite fishy! This is not what I expected at a restaurant so dedicated to preaching the joys of sustainable seafood. I should have ordered a glass of white wine, which always mitigates fishiness for me. I always keep a bottle of white wine in the fridge in case the seafood I’ve bought turns out to be fishy. The dish is easier to swallow than the cocktail, perhaps because I was hungry. But I’m not there for the taste experiences. Just as at the two bars we’d gone to when I first met them last year, the Ivys rapidly befriend the bartender. From never having met them before, he’s telling them the best things to order at his former restaurant, a high-end steak house, and then insisting he come with them to ensure they get the best.
After a delightful evening despite my menu failures, we take the tram back to Excalibur and the Ivys depart. One of the last things they say to me is that they consider me a sage. Does that man I’m to be sprinkled on bread crumbs and stuffed inside a turkey? I hope not. I’m not fond of turkey.