Friday, December 20, 2013

Vegas 2013: The Tomato Tour, Days One and Two

  I had purchased Thoreau: Walden and Other Writings when I lived in Ottawa in 1969. I have lived many places since then but not read this book. Figure it would go well with a week in Vegas. I finished Civil Disobedience on the plane, and when I checked into my hotel and turned on the TV, Nelson Mandela had just died. A direct descendent of Thoreau's essay. Just as dead, just as inspiring.
  To my painful surprise, Vegas was as cold as Vancouver. This did not bode well as I usually do a lot of walking on my culinary trips to give me sufficient appetite to enjoy the restaurants' bounty.  First up, I tried a small bowl of broccoli cheese soup at Schlotsky's in the food court. Quite hungry after my flight and I wanted to find out if the new food court addition had a soup good enough to eat for breakfast. If so, this wasn't it. It tasted like someone had whispered the word broccoli a few times over some goo, never truly evoking that tasty vegetable.
  I wanted to see if my favourite servers were still serving sangria at Fleur. That's a tram ride of a couple of minutes from my hotel, The Excalibur, but with this weather I'll be taking the tunnel linking the hotels this trip. Rebecca, the bar tender who had befriended me on Facebook, had no idea who I was when I told her that, but still whipped up a superb sangria, which I told her tasted more like a cocktail. She said she was constantly tweeking it. I knew my great server Jill had moved back to Miami- she informed me of her intentions when I last visited in Feb, 2012. Rebecca mentioned that Jill had briefly visited recently and was going to get her realtor's license in Florida. Faryell, my first server on my first trip to Fleur in Feb, 2011, had vanished from the restaurant. Jill had told me Faryell was going into management. I guess not. Marisol still worked at Fleur but wouldn't be in for a few days. Something to look forward to..
 A brisk walk up to Caesar's Palace brought me to Payard's when it opened at 5. Payard's Parmesan souffle and Rao's Uncle Vincent's Lemon Chicken were two things I missed eating on the previous trips and were at the top of my list to eat this time. I guess a lot of folks eat earlier in Vegas so they can go to shows in the later evenings. I eat early so I can EAT more later in the evening.
  The souffle was just as good as I expected it to be. Delicate. Subtle. Not really tasting the Parmesan but it's exquisitely cheesy and goes well with the cheap sparking wine I ordered as an accompaniment.  Overall, it tastes like the greatest omelet I've ever tasted, and I do love a good omelet. That's why Payard  is a famous pastry chef. Here he takes savoury pastry to a new level of excellence. My minor league sparking wine worsened precipitously as it warmed, and when the souffle  is consumed, there's nothing for the wine to do so it trudges off into unpleasantness and soon paid check. 
  I have time before my 6:30 reservation at Rao so I go upstairs to Guy Savoy to see if I can get a reservation for the following night. The great maitre d, Ilona recognizes me and tells me the little room with the fireplace where she had served me wondrous small plates 2 years ago was no longer available. She looks unhealthier than 2 years ago, or perhaps just overworked. I make a reservation for 8:00 Friday and then go down to Rao.
  Lemon goes with everything. Squeeze a slice of lemon on another slice of lemon and it would still work. Lemon with meat is a given. I make a tasty chicken dish (recipe from my mother) using tomato sauce, Gouda cheese, green pepper, dill and Plenty of lemon so my expectations are high. This is a restaurant virtually  impossible to get into in their hundred year old New York City location but I consider myself lucky to be able to eat Uncle Vincent's lemon chicken here. No idea who said uncle is, but his chicken is intense. The lemon and chicken intertwine and invigorate each other. Only the 2nd time I'd had chicken in Vegas. The first was last trip, I'd ordered the Jidori chicken at Michael Mina's but it was overrun by vegetable imperialism: cabbage washed away whatever goodness Mina's chicken might possess. Can Mina even cook? This chicken is so intimately involved with the lemon you would tell them to get a room. A glass of Riesling serves more as a palate cleanser and does not deteriorate as it warms, like Payard's cheap bubbly. Both of these meals are things I really wanted to eat this trip and things are looking up.

  I'd heard that the Vesper bar in the Cosmopolitan was THE mixology bar on the strip and I am here for Fine Drinking as well as fine dining, my expectations having been raised by the many great cocktails I've had in Vancouver since last Vegas trip. I'm surprised how empty the bar is. Vegas is full of cowboys, for some sort of rodeo final. I did not know there were that many cowboy hats in the world. I thought all the bars would be packed. Thankfully not Vesper. Later I'll get the mixologists to perform their magic just for me, but I begin, as I usually do in bars, by ordering from the menu: see what they serve the masses first before  calling upon their more idiosyncratic concoctions. I order the William of Orange which lives up to its name and is as strong as a victorious army. I should be able to sleep Very Well tonight, I imagine.

  I'd been up since 6:00 to catch my plane this morning and was now profoundly tired. But I couldn't sleep. From somewhere nearby came the relentless sound of a large machine, whirring away. Not intermittent but  constant..I try covering my ears with another pillow and then turning on the fan to cancel the painful machine sound but to no avail. Finally I get up, repack and take suitcases down to the front desk and tell them I need another room. It's impossible to sleep in the room they gave me. When I checked in, I was told to notify them if I wanted to change rooms, so I did. This time I'm promised a room far from annoying machinery. Actually, not so far as the air conditioner/heater machine kept going on and off but I was tired enough to sleep, finally. The next morning, I complain about the on-ing and offing of the heater and am told I can regulate it with the thermostat. The problem never reoccurs. Compliments to the Excalibur for fixing problems quickly.
  For breakfast, I take the tunnel over the Luxor in order to try their orange creamsicle French toast. Although it's before 8 AM, I have to stand in line. When I finally get a table and order, my server tells me the orange creamsicle french toast is the best thing on the menu. Well, maybe for someone who likes sweets. I don't, but I loved orange creamsicles as a kid. Of course, that was long ago.
  The French toast appears and it's massive. Far more than I can eat, I tell my server, who recommends I avoid the crusts.
The little balls you see are actually orange juice in a slightly solid form. I'd had a gin tonic, a sangria and an olive ball at Jose Andres e restaurant on my last trip, not surprising as the process for making them was invented by Andres' old mentor Ferran Adria at El Bulli. It's great to see that kind of molecular gastronomy leaving high end restaurants and tantalizing the palates of breakfasting peasants. I finish the balls and the orange slices but leave most of the toast as it's far too sweet for me, though it does go splendidly after the serious orange cocktail the previous night.  The so-called Chamomile tea you see in the top left corner also was too minty.
  One of my favourite lunches in Vegas is the $20.13 lunch set at the Greek place Milos. I had it twice on my last trip, always the same: The Greek version of sea bass called  lavraki, Greek salad and a fruit plate. Two years ago, my server Anna told me to try a desert from from the gum of a special tree that grows only on one Greek island, but it, like Anna, had vanished from Milos.
  I'd been warned that the lavraki was now hit and miss and mine was a miss, mostly because of its fishiness. I can handle the bones but expect a better fish dish. It desperately requires a glass of wine, Biblia Assyrt that doubles the price of what should have been a cheap lunch, but is necessary. Salad is as good as I remember it and the fruit plate is smaller and better.
  When I was planning this trip, I planned to go to the Downtown Cocktail Room when it opens at four and then walk over to First Friday to check out what local artists were up to and then walk through the Fremont Street Experience to check out its ceiling full of lights. With the freezing weather, I abandoned those plans, and instead arranged to meet up with food critic John Curtas and food girl Alexandra at RX Boiler Room to try its cocktails before dining at cocktail-less Guy Savoy in the evening. I have a copy of the book John wrote with fellow critics Al Mancini and Max Jacobson, and have been inspired to seek out some fine Vegas meals through John's food blog, Eating Las Vegas. The Boiler room had replaced what had been THE sustainable seafood spot in town (though I'm sure the fish on menu are still sustainable, they are no longer preached as such) with what appears more of a cocktail lounge with food than an actual restaurant. And a small cocktail list at that. I found something I thought I'd like, a Poire Drakkar (Hennessy Black, Pims #1 liqueur, curry-pear shrub, honey syrup, lemon juice, baked apple bitters, black walnut bitters, black pepper)
and enjoyed it thoroughly while discussing the food scene with John and Alexandra. I was pleased to be informed of the coming web version of their book, which should delight food loving tourists for years in the future. Curtas asked me if I am constantly comparing dishes with previous versions (we were talking crab cakes, and RM downstairs had the best crab cake I'd ever eaten) or searching for the new. I told him a combination of both.
  After our beverages, they thankfully gave me a ride over to Caesar's Palace in time for my meal at Guy Savoy, skipping the side order of frost bite. My last 2 trips to Vegas (including this one,) at Vancouver airport going through customs, when I tell the officer my reason for going to Vegas to for its restaurants, I'm asked my fave and I say "Guy Savoy." The guy can cook! Last time I'd ordered the chestnut dish, recommended by an ELV column, but was told it was the wrong season. This time it was the right season. I thought it might be my first taste of chestnuts, but my wife told me I'd had them in Japan, in a popular winter rice dish, in the distant past when I was still able to eat rice. So now I'm ready. Here's the dish:
Porcini mushroom, croutons possibly made from chestnuts, rather too sharp celery intrusion and a splendid foam. So now I've had the chestnut dish. My waitress says she remembers me from my last visit, 2 years ago. That's quite a memory.
 To amuse my bouche, I'm given Guy's sensational French hamburger, a micro-burger that is just as good as when I'd first been served it almost 3 years ago. By far the best beef I've had in North America. A perfect antidote to the rodeo fever that grips this town. The cow's revenge. Hey, I can taste better than you can imagine, but only a few of you will pay attention.
  I'm also amused by the hide and seek course. Last time the surprise was a bit of lobster. This time, I'm asked if I want to be surprised or informed. I go for the surprise. I'm guessing fois gras and am not totally wrong: a tiny bite of fine fois combined with duck leg confit; Formidable! 

My main reason for coming back here was to see what Guy Savoy could to with turbot. I'd had this fish only twice, both in Vegas, first at Picasso, in Feb, 2011, and then an even more theatrical version at Le Cirque in Feb. 2012. How would this compare? If I'm gonna call this my favourite Vegas restaurant, it better be great. And it is.
Turbot a la Plancha, cauliflower variations, green curry emulsion. There's a hint of pineapple as well, which really makes the turbot. The cauliflower, well, I think that vegetable is overused in fine dining in Vegas. It is one of my favourite vegies- I make cauliflower in cheese sauce for breakfast whenever I find good cauliflower, but I easily OD on it in this kind of cuisine. The foam is exquisite, and I'm NO FAN of curry anything.  The pineapple subtlety evokes the cuisine of  Pierre Gagnaire, not a comparison I'd usually make with Guy's food. Cocktails being absent, I order the champagne Guy Savoy and it doesn't go with the dishes as well as it did with the little meals Ilona finally appears, offering me a little gift for to breakfast on the following day. She looks much healthier than she did the day before.
  I leave Guy Savoy feeling happy, healthy and superbly fed. The short cab ride back to The Excalibur gives me a short but exquisite view of the night lights of the strip reflected in the back windows of the hotels. For the first time in my trips here, I actually feel love for Las Vegas. The lights? The food? Whatever. One doesn't question love, one just goes with it.


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