Vegas 2016 Still in Vegas
The Eiffel Tower baked vegetarian crepes (who wants to eat baked vegetarians?) are still tasty. I’ve had them every visit to Vegas, the only thing I’ve consumed all 6 trips, though this time they taste a bit grainy, like risotto, a dish my body rejects. The crepes remain edible and thankfully, very light as I have another small meal planned for later this afternoon. Once again, the crepes are covered with spinach leaves. Who do they think I am, Popeye? I don’t even like yams. At least the crepes are my favourite portion size: small. If only all my meals were equally light. I order tea and am delivered a bottle of unsweetened ginger peach black tea, from the Republic of Tea. It comes in a very pretty bottle, but it is in a bottle, not freshly steeped and hot in my cup. It’s an Ice Tea, not what I wanted at all. Most of it remains in the bottle as I finish my crepes and bid the Eiffel Tower adieu. I had dreaded sitting in the sun by the window, thinking I’d be too hot, but I was never not cold. Am I getting sick, or at least sick of Vegas? My 5th day in Vegas, I am feeling homesick. I wasn’t homesick until day 6 of my 7-day stay here last year.
I enter the Mirage. Find the center bar. Order the Typhoon, their new Tiki Drink. “Thirty-five bucks” the bar tender pronounces, certain to scare me away. He succeeds. “It comes with a mug you can take home,” he half-sells. “No drink is worth thirty-five bucks,” I tell him, and leave. Incredulously to me, there are people who like souvenirs. I can remember quite well without such objects of future clutter. I walk by Rhumbar and recall its excellent 1944 Mai Tai I had last Vegas trip. I contemplate getting one, but the bar’s not open. Even though the service I received at Rhumbar was the worst of any establishment in Vegas, a rival to the sinister experience my wife and I had at Harry’s Bar mentioned above, I’d still go back for that classic cocktail. Great taste beats horrendous service, while great service NEVER beats bad taste. Are you listening, Le Cirque?
Back to Joe’s Stone Crabs for the grilled tomatoes. Well worth the $8.00, if only as a cooking lesson I’ll apply as soon as I get home. I had remembered creamed spinach, which isn’t a bad idea, but it’s just spinach on a tomato half topped with cheddar. I can make that.
Before I went into Joe’s Stone, I wandered through the Peter Lik gallery at Caesar’s Shops. Pete also has galleries in other hotels, or “properties” as they say in Vegas, impoverishing this rich noun. Before Pete, the photography of Art Wolf, mostly black and white images with some coloured as well. A lot of stylized people, but a large haunting “shot” of an elephant in the front window. These wondrous animals are on the verge of being wiped out in my lifetime, to feed Asian greed for “souvenirs.” I’m reminded of the 50s movie The Roots of Heaven (Slightly less depressing than the Roman Gary novel on which it’s based). I’m easily depressed today and seeing that elephant photo doesn’t help at all. The grilled tomatoes help a little. I think my spirits are sagging is that I can’t recharge myself on this trip with visits to Fleur, as I had on all previous Vegas visits. It they don’t want my friend to work there anymore, they’ll have to do without my patronage.
Although there are groups of women and groups of men, the streets of the strip are predominantly full of couples, which only magnifies my loneliness. Also reading a book as critical of Vegas as Strip Cultures efficiently strips away much of my usual enjoyment of this place. On the other hand, reading a good book always banishes depression.
A large neon sign on the strip yells SAGE. “You talkin’ to me?” I summon my best De Niro imitation. Maybe it’s the sage cocktail at the Chandelier bar. Recommended by a friend, I’d ordered it once on a visit a few years ago, only to be told they were all out of sage that day. Maybe Warren Buffet, “the sage of Omaha,” was in town to rescue MGM from its mountains of debt? No, it’s only another restaurant. Whether it’s any good or not no longer of any relevance to me.
I’m at Guy Savoy as soon as it opens. Always the same amuse bouches which hopefully they’ll never change. The micro waffle with tomato compote on one square, a drop of olive paste on the other. Perfection. The 2 tiny squares hit me as hard aesthetically as my whole meal on my first visit here 5 years ago. This Guy can really cook. My surprise, the usual 2nd amuse has the same meaty aftertaste as the fois dish at Le Cirque my first meal of this trip. Kind of a bracket as this is my last. OK, it’s NOT as meaty as the Le Cirque’s bit of goose doom. More vegetable involved. Turns out it’s not fois after all, but a pate that Ilona (alas, no longer here, she’s moved upstairs) had served me in the fireplace room on a cold December day in 2013, along with lobster in cold steam that was so vastly superior to the rubbery lobster salad I had here last Feb. The third amuse, as always, is the French burger, a Lilliputian delicacy of the best beef I’ve had outside of Japan. Finally, my demi portion of the sea bass with delicate spices. First, out of habit, I remove the skin. Then I recall, this is the Singular Dish on the Planet (that I’ve experienced) where That Isn’t Necessary. I gobble it up. I tell my server it’s the only fish skin I’ve ever been able to tolerate. She tells me she feels the same way about fish skin- only Guy’s is actually edible. I soak up the sauce with some of the bread provided. The whole dish is the size of 2 pieces of sushi, about as expensive as the most expensive two pieces of sushi in Tokyo, and infinitely better. Worth coming to Vegas for.
I wander into the Zenish cloud that is the Mandarin Oriental and upstairs to Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist, this time with recipe in hand. The last two times I was here, they had forgotten how to make what was not so long ago, their signature cocktail, the Passion Fruit Sour Martini. They seat me at the bar, though 90% of the restaurant is empty. I show the bartender the recipe. He scuttles off in search of basil leaves. He asks where I got the recipe and I tell him from the Twist website. 7:50 on a Thursday evening: the magical cocktail comes back from the dead. Is it the same, he asks? I think so. My taste memory for such intricacy is unreliable. But it’s Close Enough for me. He explains that several bar tenders have been behind the bar since this drink was their star, along with numerous cocktails that have come and gone. That a restaurant with Pierre Gagnaire’s name on it (not just one of the best, but most influential chefs in the world) should descend to such excuses seems tawdry.
Back to Vesper for my final Vegas drink, this time a mocktail. Raspberry syrup, coconut cream and pineapple juice with a toothpick full of raspberries on top. A third the price of a cocktail and just as tasty. More important, I can make this myself at home. Ah, home. What a fine word! Funny thing, when I talked to the cocktail lovers at the event last night, none of them seemed to know Vesper. Never heard of it. What kind of cocktail lover can you be in this town (they were all Las Vegas locals) without being a regular at this temple of spontaneous mixological genius? The drink is heavy on the raspberries- I’d balance the 3 fruit more but such a difference from the sadly failed Jasmine Tea-Off mocktail at the Tea Lounge. I can count on Vesper. The 2 best, most intricate, aesthetically and intellectually satisfying cocktails on the trip, along with the best mocktail. Although drinks and meals aren’t exactly the same things, these 3 beverages are better than any of the full meals I’ve had here. Only Guy Savoy’s delicately spiced fish, Bar Masa’s truffled maitaki (essentially appetizers) and Bouchon’s bouillon breakfast are in this league, and they aren’t spontaneous creations but part of their famous chef’s long established menus. When I get the check for my mocktail, I discover it’s labeled a virgin. Hadn’t heard that term refer to a drink since my daughter’s story of ordering a Virgin Caesar with her friend and expecting a drink, only to be given a salad instead.
The Vesper bar is just downstairs from Milos where I’d planned to have my final Vegas meal. I was looking forward to their Big Eyed Tuna for my first non-lunch there. Alas, I had no room for more food. But I wanted to find out about the disappearing Lavraki. Is it endangered? On the contrary, it was now ubiquitous in other Vegas restaurants. Milos had to offer something different. My next visit to Vegas, I’ll make dinner at Milos a priority.
To flush the toilet in my hotel room was as much a matter of chance as any game on the casino floor. I never knew when or if it would actually flush. “So, you refuse to gamble?” sneers the Excalibur at me. “We’ll see about that. At the slot machine or the flusher, you’re only lucky some of the time.”
Vegas Cultures is plural by definition. It reminds me of one of my favourite books, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. In it, Marco Polo is summoned to the court of Kublai Kahn to tell the Kahn about the cities he has visited. The book is the stories of these varied, fantastic cities. At the end of the book, we discover Marco has only been describing his home town, Venice, in its various masks and from different perspectives.
On this trip, I’ve had loup de mer, branzino, sea bass and ordered the lavraki. They are all the same fish, just different names.
The Fabulous Las Vegas says the city’s famous sign, I saw for the first time on the taxi ride back from Artisanal Foods to my hotel on the south Strip. What, are there other Vegas’s? Is there also The Mundane Las Vegas? The Tedious Las Vegas? The Tiring Las Vegas? To those who live there, there probably are. But they choose to live in this city. I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t delighted to be there, who had any plans to go back to where they came from.Around 50 years ago, my high school friend Cliff was wondering about a career path in medicine, like his father. But maybe he couldn’t get into medical school? Or maybe, once in, he discovered he really didn’t want to be a doctor. What was plan B? Well, Cliff loved to play the cello. Could you make a living at it, I wondered? I’d never heard of cello player making a living anywhere except in a symphony orchestra, and it would be as hard to break into that as any medical school. “I can make a living playing the cello in Vegas,” he informed me. I’d never thought of Vegas as anything but a gambling den, beloved by my uncle, who’d return and give me silver dollars, but oblivious to any other interpretation for me before Cliff made that pronouncement. The 2 million people who live out in the desert must include a lot of Cliffs: people who’ve hit the jack pot just by being there. Living off the losses of the gamblers. Despite the city’s increasingly imperiled water supply, their toilets probably flush more reliably than mine at the Excalibur.