Monday, February 21, 2011

Vegas 12: Reflectomania

This is one of the first shots I took on a bitterly cold morning near my hotel, the Palace of Imps.

These two were taken around the Bellagio, a much more pleasant experience.

From here on, I think all of these are of reflections of Citycenter. Wish it were that interesting on the inside.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Vegas 11: The Fremont Street Experience

Vegas 10: Vegan Wynn and The Eiffel Tower

I'd read on Egullet that Steve Wynn had some vegan options available at his self-named hotel. After breakfast at Bouchon on Thursday, I walked over to the Wynn to investigate and saw Steve Wynn himself walking down one of the aisles. He didn't look particularly healthy or happy. Guess that Vegan cuisine isn't working for him. I would have asked him if he's tried Charlie Trotter's vegan dishes but I didn't want to bother him. The following day, to celebrate the news from Egypt, this time I took a bus up to the Wynn and prepared to try its vegie dish pictured above. I love inari skins and these are filled with water chestnuts and other goodies. My server tells me the sauce makes the dish and he's right. Very peanuty. The cilantro is very good with the sauce. It's a lot of food by my standards for breakfast. I'm told it's actually on the lunch menu but they make it for me anyway at 10 AM.
After this brunch, I take another bus way out to the old downtown. Pix in next post. Back to my hotel to wait for the limo from Robuchon. When I walked past the Eiffel Tower replica, I noticed the menus of both their outdoor reason Mon Ami Gabi and the indoor place up in the tower. The indoor place, called The Eiffel Tower Restaurant featured, in the Vegetarian section, Baked Herbed Crepe, Artichokes, Walnuts, Slow Roasted Tomato Coulis and Basil Pistou for $29. Considering the overall ambiance of the place, I really wanted to try that Crepe, not alas, Mon Ami Gabi's food though my Robuchon guide raved about it.
A few hours after I'd let my Robuchon feast digest, I put on my winter coat again (getting a surprising amount of work here in Vegas) and walked over to the Paris hotel to try the crepe. It wasn't the view of Mix from Monday but it was certainly a good view of Vegas. I'm inundated with Amuse Bouches even though I really only want the crepes. Finally the crepes are served and they are worthy of Robuchon, or any of the other great chefs I've been enjoying. Chef J Joho has mastered French cuisine as well as any of his contemporaries here in Vegas. I discover that The Eiffel Tower Restaurant is part of the Lettuce Entertainment Group from Chicago. I tell my greeter that I'd dined at Lettuce's great Chicago fish house L20 3 years ago at the beginning of this quest to find the best possible food. Here I am at another Lettuce place as my last restaurant in Vegas. Fitting.
While waiting for my flight back to Vancouver on Saturday afternoon, I pick up a bio of Wynn that he probably wouldn't want to see me reading in his hotel. It's a good thing his last name isn't Lose.
I wonder if all these great chefs ever compete? Not that I have much tolerance for competition but just as one tapas bar in Barcelona depends on its neighbours having equally delicious tapas to keep up its quality, I think Chef Andres in particular would benefit from having small plate restaurants around his 2 places here that would steal his customers if he served less than stellar food. Hubert Keller's gnocchi or braised hamachi would empty out Andres's places if people had the chance to compare them nearby. And most of the great meals I've had on this trip have been quite small, though sometimes quite expensive. You get what you pay for.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Vegas 9: Robuchon

And finally, the founder of the quest.

It was an article in The Vancouver Sun about Robuchon that got me interested in pursuing these kinds of restaurants in 2006. The chef of the century? What does that mean? I wanted to find out.
Before dining at the Robuchon mansion, I had to survive the day. I was awakened with chest pains at 3 AM the previous night, after premonitions of death leaving Picasso, only the 6th best restaurant I'd dined at in the previous 4 days. Maybe I actually was dying of too much good food. Maybe that deep fried cod at Bouchon at 10 PM? Or a heart attack? I read for awhile as the pain subsided. When I later awoke at 9, the Egyptians had gotten rid of Mubarak. Watching the struggles in Egypt had been my main activity in Vegas when not dining. I've identified with Egypt since reading about it in 3rd grade (when I discovered they worshiped cats, they had my interest for life) and though it's only a tourist's interest, I wanted to go there at some point and want the best for its people, however long ago their cat-worship was. I too felt oddly liberated. From heart attack, Keller's cooking oil or whatever, it was great to be alive. Using my 3-day bus pass, I went over to the Wynn up the strip to sample it's fabled (on Egullet) Vegan cuisine for breakfast but that will be in the next post. I then spent a less than intriguing hour in the old downtown, a long bus ride from the Strip and only occasionally photogenic. See 2 blog posts from this.
Back in my Imperial Palace room, I'm told I'll be picked up by a gold limo with MGM Grand written on the side. I see no such car. Finally one of the hotel workers who is involved with traffic inquires who I'm waiting for, and when I describe my missing limo, I'm directed to a black SUV with no writing on it. Finally I'm headed to Robuchon land.
After a pleasant sunset ride, I'm let in through large gates. I'm deposited at a very impressive building. Was Louis XVI expecting me? I'm told to wait for my server and my check says her name was Jennifer appears. Like my own private guide. We discuss what I've eaten on my trip. She suggests I try L'Atelier which I will do on my next visit. Also recommends Mon Ami Gabi at the Eiffel Tower. I don't tell her I'm planning to eat crepes in the upstairs restaurant later this evening. I had looked at the Gabi menu and nothing on it intrigued me, unlike the vegetarian crepe on the Eiffel Tower menu. But I'm still at Robuchon. I don't think I have ever been in a more luxurious room than the one in which I finally dine. I get a pretty good fruity cocktail to start with as my amuse bouche is a tin of caviar and the drink goes along way to make these buttery fish eggs on crab meat highly edible. I don't remember ever eating caviar or wanting to, but it goes deliciously with the insistently paired bread.
The langoustine ravioli reminds me of the soup at Guy Savoy. Good, but I was expecting more intricacy. It is satisfying. The cabbage pairs well with it. But I wouldn't rank it with the best food I've had in Vegas.
The Sea Bass, called Le Bar, hits it out of the park. I've ordered a Lemon Drop to keep with the cocktail theme and avoiding wine completely. The lemony drink marries the bass which is already married to the tomatoes and this marriage is made in 70s sitcom heaven. I know you're as tired of reading it as I am of typing it, but it's the best piece of fish I've ever eaten. This Robuchon dude can cook. The artichoke is fantastic, and still an artichoke. Who knew? And the asparagus? Jose should eat these, to taste what asparagus spears are supposed to taste like. The octopus is also exquisite, along with its helpful foam. Actually my first bite is of cauliflower. Joel knows what to do with vegies. I'm served his famous mashed potatoes. It's basically potato-flavoured butter. At the conclusion to this rather small meal, I'm very satisfied and very full. I avoid desert and have a cup of tea which comes with the meal. The lemon drop had cut the butter overpresence in the langoustines and the potatoes. A mildly spiced citrus tea ends my meal perfectly. I know I'll be eating crepes in the Eiffel Tower in 3 hours but I savour every minute at Robuchon. They actually summon the gold limo to return me to my anti-hotel. Sure is fun, not being dead.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Vegas 8: Picasso

I had originally planned to dine at Charlie Trotter's but it disappeared. Then I had a reservation for Alex but it too disappeared. So Picasso sounded good. Not one of my top thousand painters but his paintings would not hurt my enjoyment of the food, I thought. I was right.
Amuse Bouche: too hot to comfortably do it as a shot. The quail egg overwhelmed the salmon, a bad idea. Long egg aftertaste I was unhappy about. It then took a while for the soup to kick in. I mistake mushroom for marshmallow. Both are good. Not great. The Campari in the cocktail balances the sweetness and really makes the soup. My server suggests a new pairing has been born. Back to the soup. I close my eyes to savour the duxelles and they are profoundly savoured. The purpose of taste A is to combine with taste B and create taste C. This works. The Campari cancels the marshmallows.
The shrimp are amazingly bland, with all those vegetables. They lack the intensity of the shrimp from Mix, but what doesn't? Cutting tomato and combining with the shrimp helps. The third shrimp is the best, covered with mushrooms. Exquisite mushroom aftertaste. When I opened my eyes I was astonished I was still here. I thought I'd gone to food heaven. What I thought were mushrooms were instead intricately prepared artichokes. I do love this vegetable. Later artichokes that taste just like potatoes. Wow.
With the turbot, the asparagus works. Not as soft as I'd prefer, but hot, with the hollandaise sauce and the jus, it's quite successful. The turbot and the asparagus create a tasty synthesis. Am I eating fish, vegetable or some creature Picasso has created with a fish head and an asparagus body? But much more enjoyable than one of his creations. I try the turbot without the asparagus and my tongue complains, "hey, where's the asparagus?" Last bite of fish soaked with hollandaise, profoundly buttery. I'm starting to get full on a rather small quantity of food. Must be all that butter. I feel I have to stop before I turn into the spirit of pleasure and float away. Desert items loom before me like giant Macy's balloons. The greatest reaction I had to anything here wasn't the ambiance which is delightful or any of the fine food, it was in the little book they gave me about the art on the walls. Picasso's son designed the room's carpet to match the colours from his dad's paintings, which were selected by his mom. The sheer inventiveness of Picasso and his whole family. Like Gagnaire's approach to the langoustine. Endlessly inventive, undeterred by constant failure. My server had promised me a little fruit plate and the key word little I took too seriously. Only the sabayon was good and light, made from grapefruit, lemon lime and egg whites. As I was leaving the restaurant, I told my server that it was my first time to eat turbot and he said it was in the same family as John Dory. I told him I had John prepared by Gagnaire on Tuesday night and he said Gagnaire was the best chef in Europe. I wonder what all those Spaniards think about that? Walking back to my hotel, I wondered if I was starting to OD on good food, and I still had Keller's cod to eat later that evening.

Vegas 7: Bouchon. Tom Keller returns from the dead.

I never expected to eat Thomas Keller's cooking again after the debacle in Per Se a few months ago. However, in prepping for this trip, I watched the No Reservations episode from Vegas where Tony was raving about the Beignets de Brandade de Morue. I asked if I could get an item from the dinner menu for breakfast. No, I'd have to come back in the evening. I made a reservation as late as I could, surprised how easy it was. Consider how difficult it is to get in to The French Laundry or Per Se. And now on Thursday morning here at 8:30 I was expecting multitudes, but there are just a few of us here. I order the grapefruit seen above. I had been addicted to frozen pink grapefruit from 1985-2000. On some profound chemical level, I appreciate this fruit. This is the best grapefruit I've ever eaten. Hunter Thompson couldn't hallucinate a tastier grapefruit. And the chamomile tea, called Rare Cargo Organic Chamomile and Fruit, is the best tasting chamomile I've ever tasted and chamomile is my favourite tea.

And Keller doesn't stop. The quiche is also the best in its class. I've been making quiches since my friend King Kong (no not that one, this one's a podiatrist in Encino) and I got into French food in the 60s. In this quiche, the eggs hadn't completed decided which state they wanted to be in. There was a precarious aesthetic. a mystery tension for the taste buds: how good can this be? The vinaigrette has a delightful aroma. The quiche also has a wondrous smelling pastry.

After dining at Picasso, see next post, I went back at 930 PM to Bouchon for the cod. It really didn't compare to the other fish I've eaten in Vegas, either the cod at Mix or anything else. It was edible. The servers were astonished I'd just come for that dish, though they kept saying it was a good choice. I'm shown a copy of the Keller cookbook with this dish in it and told to take a pic with my phone. I don't have a cell phone, but I do shoot this vid. One server came by and inspected my plate to see if I were eating the dish with tomatoes, a key ingredient. The more I eat, the more I become annoyed at the fried outer texture which isn't agreeing with me at all. The inner cod still tastes good and the tomato helps. It's not as good as the perfect breakfast nor even as good the the turbot I had a few hours earlier at Picasso. But it's better than the vegetarian garbage I was served at Per Se. So Tom Keller can cook. A quiche. At least. Maybe my expectations of Andres were too high, my expectations of this Keller too low.

Vegas 6: Say It Ain't So, Jose

I was really looking forward to eating at Jaleo. Although one for 3, the scallop lime thing, isnt much of an average for China Polano, that was new territory. Jaleo is where Andres comes from. I remembered his red pepper stuffed with cheese and further back, I remembered feasting on tapas in Spain in November 2002. Coming out of Caesar's Palace after the great meal at Guy Savoy earlier on Wednesday evening, I thought I saw what looked like Chef Andres entering the hotel with a bunch of other men. I was going to say hello, and if I had a second of his time, I'd ask if he has sampled the Basque tapas I discovered in Milford Connecticut recently. I'm also interested in eating at Bazaar, Andres's newish place in LA, a city I've had a lot of good food in over the years. When I finally get to Jaleo about 3 hours after leaving Guy Savoy, I find it large and full of apparently happy people. I'm delighted the place is so successful. When Fumiyo and I were on a bus from Avignon to Barcelona, as soon as we had crossed into Spain, the bus stopped for us all to eat and we discovered cooked white asparagus in the truck stop menu. Our bodies were craving vegetables we couldn't get enough of while traveling through Italy and France. Wonderfully soft and tasty. So when I saw asparagus on Jaleo's menu, I was sure this was the same dish I had on the road in Spain. And it was served in a tin can, like the great canned sea food from Espinaler. I was so looking forward to that first melting soft bite of asparagus and good Spanish cheese. But the asparagus spears were as hard as the penises of aroused robots.

The main item on the menu that brought me to Jaleo was the deep fried dates wrapped in bacon. After the fantastic bacon ice cream with figs at Le Bernardin recently, I had an idea what this would taste like. Just like I had that memory from the Spanish truckstop, not a useful preparation for Chef's Andres' asparagus mistake. I had first had dates in Mexico in 1953. I liked them. I first had bacon in 1963, I liked it too. They should go together. At least in this restaurant, they did not. It was like eating sad sand.

This is the red peppers stuffed with crab. I make a version of this at home. I melt some cream Havarti cheese and add an equal amount of crab. I put a few green olives at the bottom of a red pepper (orange is even better) pour in the crab/cheese, then top the pepper with a big tomato wedge and bake till the the pepper skin is soft. Cheese stuffed pepper is pretty standard Mexican food. I'd had Jose's cheese filled peppers at his DC Jaleo so I decided to try the crabby peppers here. Compared to the previous two tapas, it was highly edible. Of course, by this time I was quite hungry. Before I could "enjoy" these peppers, a plate was dropped a couple of meters from me. Glass went flying. As it was being swept up, I found a large piece near my stool. "You have good eyesight,"I was told. If only. I took my shoe off to see if it had any glass in it. My thumb and fingers were invaded by broken glass just picking up my shoe. My server Michelle thankfully didn't charge me for the two tapas I didn't like, and offered me another order. The sangria was really good. I was offered a book in which to write my comments to the chef, but glass-injured fingers were not easy to use. I wonder if Andres, and Spain in general is still that appealing. I was planning to go to Spain, particularly the Basque region and Barcelona again, as my next culinary destination, but maybe not.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Vegas 5: Fleur x 2

Think this is a bad pciture? The food was worse. Hubert Keller's famous "In the Shower," which is mac and cheese with lobster. Theoretically. There may have been a few lobster chunks but it hardly looks like the dish displayed in the Vegas magazine. As I arrived at the airport on Monday afternoon, there was Hubert advertising Fleur. on the baggage claim area wall. I had made a lunch reservation here as soon as Fleur opened a few weeks previous. This was supposed to be really good. The Gruyere cheese smelled enticing. But basically it's just macaroni.

My server Faryal, surprised I didn't savour the Shower as much as other diners, made some recommendations including this gnocchi. I was initially interested in Hubert's cooking when I saw on the website for his San Francisco restaurant, "Vegetarians will be pleased to know that Chef Keller is more inspired than ever regarding his non-meat dishes." Thus far my favourite part of Fleur was the really comfortable lounge chair my feet delighted in after the long walk from my hotel. Then I have a gnocchi. It's dreamingly good. As good as my seafood courses at the other restaurants, which were as good as food can be. So this Keller really CAN cook! I'm elated. And it's so simple. Reminds me of what Jean-George Vongerichten said to David Chang on sampling Chang's Heirloom tomato/Tofu/Shiso dish: Why didn't I think of this!

In continued chat with my server who observes I'm not yet full, we discuss other vegetarian options and she suggests the onion soup with truffle oil. I'm encountering so many truffles in this eatathon I fear a sort of Stendahl Syndrome of the taste buds. Doesn't mean I'm going to turn them down however. There seems to be a process involved, pouring from the pitcher into the little cup. "Not your traditional onion soup<" says the server, quite accurately. It's wonderful. The Mandalay Bay Hotel, where Fleur is located, also has an aquarium. I plan to return tomorrow and see it as well as trying the Flight of Fruity Cocktails on the menu and see if the gnocchi is as good as it tastes today.

The aquarium is interesting but it's not really a good idea to visit an aquarium before going to eat some fish. While contemplating my trio of tasty cocktails, I order the gnocchi again and a fish dish with shitake and soy ginger foam. Should be an interesting pairing, but I'm on a roll (as they'd say in Vegas) with great cocktails after the wondrous drinks at Mix and Twist did their magic with the sublime food.
The green drink is called Sumo. As someone who used to follow the sport when I lived in Japan in the 80s, I tell my server, a different woman this time named Mariso, that Sumo is usually associated with beer drinking in Japan. Maybe things have changed since then. This Sumo is wonderfully floral (in a restaurant called Fleur, that's a good idea). I have to search around on my palate to find the yuzu, but There It Is, Yes, as an aftertaste. Moriso tells me it's the newest cocktail. It goes superbly with the gnocchi, as does a glass of ice water. The gnocchi is just as good as it was yesterday. My second tiny cocktail reeks of peach. And I love fresh peaches. I love peach flavoured tea and when I used to eat pies, peach was my favourite. But a good peach cocktail is a revelation to me. I try it with a gnocchi as well as my mushroom foamed fish and both are exquisite. The braised hamachi joins the gnocchi as well as the fish feasts at Mix, Twist and Guy Savoy at the peak of culinary possibility. I then try a sip of the Fleurtini with the hamachi. Nope. The fleurtini strives for but doesn't achieve symbiosis with the fish. I think its sweetness, which isn't at all overpowering, clashes too much with pickeled shitake and soy ginger foam. I was expecting more sour apple in the drink. My first meal in Vegas, on Monday afternoon was that vast salad with the delightful granny smith slices so I was looking forward to more sour apple goodness. That meal also included a superb mimosa made with their home made lemonade, an ade so tasty it gave home a good name. So I knew there were good drinks to be had in this city. And the food quality just doesn't stop. Back to the Fleurtini: the pomegranate just doesn't come through as much as the peach or yuzu in the other two drinks. My tiny cocktails are now completed so I order a large passion fruit drink. I want to compare it with the Tuesday night's perfect passion fruit drink at Twist. About the only thing they have in common: they both contain alcohol. This drink, the Passion Pisco, just tastes like booze. If Hunter Thompson were here, I'd offer it to him. Mariso suggests the Caesar Salad which I'm sure is just as deconstructed as the onion soup but I have a big dinner coming up in 3 hours. Instead, I opt for coffee as theatre. An Affogatto, usually just for dinner guests but Moriso offers to make one for me. Fun with liquid nitrogen. Best show in Vegas.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Vegas 4: Guy Savoy

And I thought the chef's name was Savoy, as in Savoy Cabbage (makes the best cabbage rolls). Nah, it's French: salve wa. Good thing I knew that when I went in. Entering a temple of food, one must not be inappropriate.
Caesar's Palace was a short walk among furiously smoking people from my dump, the Imperial Palace. I don't think the hotel has any interesting evocations of one's last visit to Rome, certainly not compared to The Venetian or NYNY which is at least sly. But it is grand. I was surrounded by well lit sculpture and enough gold to choke a tax collector. Didn't mind waiting in the lobby a few minutes for Guy Savoy to open. Adjust dinner jacket, now fouled with smoke. A costume of coughing.

I am served by two men, one tall and one short. Reminded me of a book I used to read my daughter at night, about a tall man who was always given a short bed in a hotel, while his short friend always received a bed too long. I was offered a cart of champagne. Which would I choose? After inquiring about the amuse bouches, I dismissed the roses, perhaps prematurely. What I really wanted to say was "which is cheapest?" but it seems a ludicrous question in this restaurant. I went with a dry one. Dry is good for me generally. Upon getting my bill later, I discovered the glass cost more than my fish course. But all things chemically considered, it was worth it.

First up, some sort of bread thing with fois gras and truffle. I didn't taste either of them individually, just the bread but it sort of swam in them, beautifully augmented by the champagne. I don't recognize this as a bread, just some sort of sodden softness.
The French burger once again alters reality. Just as Tommy Keller's artichoke coronet at Per Se a few months ago sent me back to an Italian restaurant in Van Nuys in 1956, this burger transported me to the very first good hamburger I ever ate. Also Van Nuys, late 1962. We weren't killed by Russian missiles. We could eat beef! My parents first fumbles in that direction were disastrous, but we started going out for hamburgers and Van Nuys in 1962 had some great burgers. This was that experience. And the burger was the size of a postage stamp.
I had to re inhabit my 2011 body. The dislocation, the sudden transport to that distant time was so intense. And exhausting. Particularly when I have to suddenly come back and talk. Yes, it was very good. I explain that I'd just traveled to a distant era, and was told, yes, that's what the food's supposed to do. It isn't just Tommy Keller. A successful taste transports you to where you need to be but could not otherwise get to. An unsuccessful taste merely mires you in where you are.
The champagne hasn't been on the table long enough to change flavours but it does, perhaps because of the food. It seems crisper. I needed it with the theatrical amuse. The crab reveal at the end had only a crab aftertaste, nothing within the moment to savour. This is becoming a theme.
And finally the black truffle soup. I'd read such extravagant praise of this soup, I thought it was the best thing I'd eat here. It was OK. There was something addictive about it. I kept spooning it into my mouth yet I wasn't actually enjoying it all that much. Sometimes an artichoke would make its appearance. Maybe I should have had a wine pairing with this, as the dish clearly needs more of an assist than I'm getting from my ice water. The gnocchi I had at Fleur this afternoon not only blew this away, even Hubert Keller's deconstructed onion soup was a far more interesting soup. Maybe because the French burger altered reality so severely a few minutes ago, this soup just couldn't keep up. But it was warm. An antidote to all known winters. Maybe the soup exists in a different dimension than flavour? You gotta give the chef some slack, when you're paying this much for a bowl of soup. The brioche accompaniment was an interesting texture. But there were already too many textures and not enough interesting flavours.
Enough bread on that bread cart to save Ukraine from starvation under Stalin. My relatives starved to death, while I contemplate bread as architecture.
I finally selected a juniper berry bread. I like berries in general, and their juniperocity in this chunk o'bread might well recall the citrusy gin that so inflated my enjoyment of the meal at Mix on Monday. I used to live on fruit bread sandwiches with sharp cheddar when I first came to live in Vancouver in the early 70s. Fruit and bread, or fruit and anything is usually a very good idea.
I enjoyed the juniper bread, though it made me wish for another one of those great gin tonics from Mix two nights before. When it was insisted that I have some lemon bread with my sea bass, I am usually on the side of citrus-influenced anything.
The multi-level dudes were right. The bread goes wonderfully with the sea bass sauce. The crispy sea bass features skin that I could actually eat. This has never happened before. This is a miracle. It is called sea bass "with delicate spices" which turn out to be the peppers so precisely targeted to your tastes you could invent mathematics from their trajectory. The pepper was an immense part of the meal, its lingering aftertaste from one dish influencing how I'd react to the next. Not an unusual experience in this level of foodery, but done most exquisitely here.
Chef Savoy's use of the term "delicate" for the pepper here reminds me of Phil Austin's use of the word "kindness" in his story The House of Little Men and the Firesign Theatre play A Shadow Falls Upon A Land." It is a concept upon which civilization depends, for our species as much as the parliaments of ourselves. Being delicate, like being kind can only be beneficent.
When I left the restaurant, something very strange happened. Thankfully I was holding on to the railing at the top of the stairs when a tsunami overtook me. As the light we see from the sun is from 8 minutes ago, I seem to have been hit from an overload of my senses brought on by Guy's food 8 minutes after my last bite. If it had happened after I'd taken a step down the stairs, I would probably have lost my grip and died. Memo to Guy Savoy: Killing your guests with pleasure is not a sustainable business plan. Even in Vegas.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Vegas 3; Let's Twist Again

Pierre Gagnaire sits atop French cuisine like a gargoyle giggling at the ant-like humans below. I'd been wanting to sample his food since first learning about its existence when an article in a local newspaper (about Robuchon) made me google World's Best Restaurants. Aha. That was always a goal of my parents, to eat the best food they could find wherever they went. I've just been dining on whatever for many decades. Maybe it was time to go back to the family tradition.
Quintessence, a sort of mystery novel-cookbook by Gagnaire and This, includes a recipe for John Dory. My friend Frank consumed a John Dory at one of our favourite local restaurants, Bonetta a couple of years ago- all I knew of its existence until reading that recipe. So On Tuesday, Feb. 8th I went to Pierre's Vegas den looking forward to John, Pierre's much praised Langostine, and the kind of ambiance one would expect with food of this caliber. Would it's beverages be up to last night's Mix? A serious competition. Could Johnny the Door live up to the Perfect Cod and the prawn entrance to superior realities?
The Passion Fruit beverage was really good. No, I mean really. The wine pairing thing just doesn't work for me more often than not, but the fruity intricacies of the appropriate cocktail has taken my appreciative palate where wine takes the real connoisseurs. Perhaps. Through amuses amusing and not so, through the 5 kinds of langoustine preparations and finally King John Dory himself, the passion fruit (one drink, and not a large one-it was Just That Good) perfectly complemented it all. I was even provided with a couple of magazines to peruse while waiting for the food. It was beyond human hospitality. I was in the land of elves. John Simon tinkling the ivories in the background.
Onward to Bouche amusement. You can see them on the vid. 3 bread sticks dipped in some kind of oil Something with wasabi and sake, which sounds Japanese, like hara kiri. Some sort of goat cheese (where is John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy when you need him?), a Jack Daniels square, and the last, a palate cleansing apple sore bit. I take my first sip of the passion fruit cocktail and it is SPECTACULAR. The amuses do not. The wasabi thing is just weird. Goat cheese surprisingly good after a couple of abject failures. The only real winner though is the frozen applesauce, or whatever it is. My love of apples is Edenic, and Pierre escaped the otherwise precipitous fall into the pit of unfriendly food by doing apples right. Now let's see what he does with the Langoustine.
First dish. Fantastic. Sour and complex, like great food should be. As good as anything I will eat in this trip of unrelenting perfection. The 2nd course is baconesque and must be the greatest BBQ flavour I've ever experienced. The cracker dissolving in my mouth makes me cough. I survive. Even if I didn't, it would be worth it. The mousouline is neither great nor terrible. The gelee tastes Japanese, like Unit 731. The raw langoustine is so vile it makes me want to exit this reality as soon as possible. 2 and a half out of 5. Good average in baseball. Way bad in one of the world's best restaurants. It's a matter of personal taste.
My first piece of John Dory is exquisite. The best piece of fish I've ever tasted. How often have I said that before? Expectations were high. How often can one say "best" without diminishing that superlative? I think on some chemical level my palate knew that. Like the heirloom tomato dish at Charlie Trotters that didn't overload my aesthetics as much as turned the top of a mountain into the propulsion for a rocket ship with the morel dish to come. When comparing one great thing with another, you're always talking about things at the same level; great things. And I've only had one piece of the John Dory. It is different from every other piece of fish I've eaten. And better.
The artichoke cream doesn't really taste like artichokes (a recurring theme in this trip), but combined with the other ingredients, it's a wonderful adventure. Only the fois gras, though not particularly meaty, is just not that appealing. I know, separating a French Chef from his fois is about as easy as separating Popeye from his spinach. Back to King John. As I had my third piece of this fish, the song Crimson and Clover, done by a female singer, not the original 1968 single, came on the music system. It was never a favourite song of mine, even in the era when music meant the most to me, but it was a good song. This version particularly good. But the quality of the song wasn't the point. Nor was the quality of the fish. For some reason, they came together upon me and I dissolved. It was as intense an experience as the previous night's prawn alteration of reality.

Vegas 2: China Poblano

Upon discovering that Jose Andres had just opened two places in Vegas, I was thrilled to add them to my already impressive list of places to dine. I had discovered Andres' original Jaleo when I was in DC in 2005. That tapas place provided the best food I ate on my 10 day visit to the US East Coast, a trip full of restaurants and talented chefs. I'm sure I liked Jaleo so much because it reminded me of the great tapas my wife and I grazed on during our several weeks in Spain in 2002. Bringing tapas to North America was akin to Prometheus delivering fire to humans in the Greek myth. Tapas are by their nature inventive and Jose's mixing of Mexican and Chinese foods sounded like something done by an inventive chef.
I prepared for this meal, my first lunch reservation, by doing some Tai Chi exercises in my hotel. Not just for the exercise, which my legs needed after prodigious amount of walking they had withstood the previous evening- chi was also a pronunciation note for Andres' restaurant. It's Chi (as in Tai Chi) Na, not our usual English pronunciation of the country where Chi rhymes with Rye. Unfortunately it didn't take as long to walk to the Cosmopolitan building from my hotel as I expected. After reading the great New Yorker article about he new CityCenter complex just opened in Vegas (oddly I read the article last October when I was still feasting in NY). I just assumed the glassy billion dollar buildings would be endlessly photogenic. Well, not endlessly. There'll be a blogpost devoted to reflections later in this series. Now it's about the food.
As you can see, China Poblano deceptively advertises itself as Open long before it actually is. It's only the take-out windows that are open early. I had to wait til noon to get in
I'm the first customer in the restaurant. I've studied the menu since it went online a few weeks ago and figured the scallop ceviche and the shrimp mojo would make a good lunch. I ordered ice water, which I needed after all that walking and photographing. The waiter asked if I'd like anything else to drink. I noticed a pitcher of red liquid and inquired what it was. Called Agua Fresca, made from prickly pear, water and sugar, I was offered a sample. It was interesting. In the same way as being in a car accident could be called "interesting." Things were not starting off well.
That abruptly changed when the tiny scallops and limes arrived on my table. The servers seemed to be divided into Mexican and ?Chinese? One of the Mexican men said he was very dubious about this dish when he first saw it. But it was surprisingly good. I was instructed to insert the scallops in my mouth and then squeeze the limes into my mouth at the same time to mix the flavours, like a shooter. Intense. Wondrous. Reminded me of Grant Achatz's attempts at invention at Alinea, which is now ranked #1 in the Americas. But Achatz needed a whole kitchen chemistry lab to come up with his creations- this was simplicity, with stones. Not the aesthetically overwhelming view from Mix, but at least something is happening visually. In the episode of No Reservations Tony Bourdain shot in the Basque country, one of the restaurants featured stones combined with food made to look like stones, to bemuse the diner. Here at least I knew which were the scallop/limes and which were inedible stones. Unfortunately, that wasn't always the case in Andres-land, as you'll discover when you get to my review of Jaleo later in the blog trip.
Shrimp mojo: shrimp, sweet black garlic, roasted poblano peppers. The peppers were the highlight of the meal. OK, not exactly a highlight. Think low hill you wouldn't mind walking up if you had arthritis. The best part of this tapas was squeezing the leftover key limes over the shrimp. And I'm still hungry.
There are some special plates celebrating Chinese New Year. This was on that list, which does not appear on the website menu. My bill lists it as Plentiful Year Jiaozi. It may or may not be the Vegetable Jiaozi from that menu, perhaps someone reading this will know. It brought me closer to being full and further from being hungry but little in the way of culinary entertainment I had come to this city for.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Vegas 1: Mix

My quest for the best possible food, which began in Chicago in 08 and continued in New York City last year, finally brought me to Vegas on Feb. 7th. The first restaurant on my list of places to try was Alain Ducasse's Mix restaurant, high atop THE Hotel at the bottom of the Strip.
Actually I'd had lunch 3 hours before. I was unfortunately staying at The Imperial Palace Hotel because it was the cheapest room I could find, and its ambiance reflected its price. Lunch in one of its dining spots, called oddly enough Hash House A Go Go: Twisted Farm Food, I hadn't eaten since some delightfully msg-free chicken noodle soup in the Vancouver airport around 10 AM and by afternoon I needed to eat something. I figured a salad wouldn't be too filling. Unfortunately I had failed to read the restaurant blurb on the sign downstairs advertising the place: Hash House A Go Go is home to the biggest helping in the western world, quoth Best of Las Vegas. My salad was the size of a large pizza! Tasty with granny smith apples, some nuts and cheese and sagey fried chicken. But I had a serious restaurant awaiting me at 6:00. I decided to walk off the salad (I ate maybe 1/5th) by walking to THE Hotel. Although all my dinner reservation restaurants say that men are supposed to wear jackets, I seemed to be the only male in a dinner jacket on the 2 mile walk. I felt ridiculously overdressed and was viewed with some strangeness by the other people in the street. Made me feel like a gaijin (foreigner) in Japan.
I'd read that Mix has a great view (better than its food) but I didn't realize how great until I got in the elevator. As it climbed up to the 65th floor, the lights of the strip hotels combined with the lights of the city and were mirrored in the reflective surface of the nearby Mandalay Bay Hotel. It was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. The images above are from later in the evening. I had a cocktail in the lounge waiting for the restaurant to open. The Stockholm Imperial proved too sweet. I was debating a more sour beverage at the lounge when it turned 6:00 and the restaurant was ready for me. I'm led into a delightful restaurant space by my server, Scott, who would provide excellent service for the rest of my visit. We carried on the topic of drinks, and he suggested a citrus gin tonic. That sounded refreshing. It turned out to be Extremely Refreshing and the perfect accompaniment for the food.
I had studied the online menu before even making a reservation at Mix the previous month. As I was ordering, eying the Sea Bass, Scott told me it was Real Sea Bass, not the pretend sea bass from Chile that was actually a different fish. From the list of Ducasse Classics, I picked the Sauteed King Prawns with crunchy marinated vegetables in coral vinaigrette as an appetizer. Before I could even mention the appealing Cod dish, Scott raved about it. I vaguely recall having fish in brown butter in France about 9 years ago, and recalled it being very tasty. The style of cooking is called Grenobloise.
My amuse bouche was identified as curried cauliflower. I see cauliflower a lot in fine dining these days. For some reason, it tasted to my palate like asparagus. An intentional deception or just my taste buds playing tricks on me?
No trick involved with the King Prawns in their vegetable ceviche. I was worried that one of the green things might be avocado, which I find poisonous. No, it's zucchini. I'm relieved. I dive in.
And find myself in another universe.
Exactly how I chemically interacted with the prawn would made a great novel. A blog can no more do it justice than my images above show just how beautiful the lights were. That's 2 life-altering experiences (the view from the elevator at sunset, the prawns) in less than an hour.
He could see how much I was enjoying the food, so Scott the Server inquired how I was enjoying the gin. "It's nice to see someone enjoy gin in this vodka-soaked world," he tells me, and then confides, "Vodka is gin without the flavour." Well said. Great service makes great food even greater. When I asked about the various flavours in the prawns and ceviche, Scott told me the sauce was made from the prawns themselves, lobster and verjus. "Ducasse uses his sauces in layers," I'm told.
The best cod I've ever tasted starts with the fried parsley on top. I usually fry up some parsley when I fry up a tuna steak marinated for a few days in oil, soy sauce and pineapple juice but what I do and what Ducasse does shouldn't be part of the same sentence. As I dug down into the meat of the cod, the brown butter sauce continued to blow me away. I had to titrate my chewing to enjoy all the subtle ways the cod played with my palate. Chew. Savour. Chew. Savour some more. I feel like I've just invented philosophy, a new way of thinking about food. The croutons in particular are the best use of this crunchy divinity since Chef Pino's gold medal winning mushroom soup I had at the food Olympics 3 years ago. And that's competition!.
The problem with slow eating is that the food becomes cold before I finish it. A glass of California Chardonnay has accompanied the dish and I try and mix it with with cod portions but feel like a failed alchemist. A skill I have yet to learn. When the wine was being discussed, its buttery nature seemed like a plus, combined with the brown buttered cod. This became less the case as the cod cooled. I asked Scot if he could bring me some fresh parsley and a couple of lemon wedges. He wasn't sure if Mix had any fresh parsley. The search was successful, and a plate of the non-fried greenery and nature's best palate-cleanser appeared. Would the two parsley's combine productively? Not really. Too much butter. Or maybe I'm just overwhelmed with the whole experience, both visual and culinary.
After the meal, Scot brings me yet another cocktail, this one on the house. He mentions vanilla bean and I can smell that. I'm in search of citrus, and it finally sneaks in when I get through all the foam on top of the drink. I feel like a pirate in reverse, uncovering instead of burying treasure. A lifetime of enjoying citrus is resurrected. Overwhelming aftertaste of passion fruit, fitting for the end of a passionate meal. Did the great image on the elevator prepare my senses to be expanded as much as this meal demanded? I'll have to compare it to the following meals during the week, all of which will be eaten without the greatest possible view. Will they be as good?