Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Vegas 5: Tuesday, Wed and out.

Tuesday, Feb. 10, Wed. Feb. 11 and out

  I get up at my usual 7ish (I always seem to get up early when I travel), and, on an empty stomach, make my way back to Paris to breakfast at Mon Ami Gabi. Not just the magnificent grapefruit but the friendliness of  the older, plump waitress from Boston. Kept calling me “my love.”  Great service, food and ambiance- a fine place. A young Ricki Lee Jones look-alike across from me, with Ricki’s signature hat.
  Great heirloom beet salad at DB Bistro for lunch. Very disappointed that the menu didn’t include what was on the web menu. It briefly featured swordfish, but it rapidly swam away from the menu. So Coq au Vin was on the menu, I’d love to try Daniel Boulud's take on the French classic. Nope, it had also disappeared. Probably knew I was coming. So I ordered WILD MUSHROOMS with some sort of pasta. Instead I got PASTA PASTA PASTA with a Lilliputian portion of mushrooms. I never order pasta in a restaurant, though I eat tons at home. I also never order bread, no matter how good it may be. I see no reason to overwhelm my microscopic appetite with starch and then Pay for it. If money is to leave my pocket, it is for wondrous protein, exquisite vegetables and perhaps some perfect fruit. I’ve dined at Danny boy’s flagship restaurant in NYC as well as excellent meals in his two Vancouver restaurants so I had high expectations coming to his new place in Vegas. It’s not that the pasta dish was bad, it’s just irrelevant to me. But the heirloom beet salad- Ah! That’s why one goes to restaurants and pays for suitable cheffery.
  When I turn on the TV at Excalibur (no doubt true in the rest of the hotels owned by MGM) I find myself on the M channel. Complemented by M Life magazine in every room, I’m given ideas for the best cocktails in town. I cut out the magazine pages with the cocktails and began to search for those I thought I’d like. First off, the original Mai Tai, created in 1944 by Trader Vic Bergeron, now at Rhumbar in the Mirage. I had had an unpleasant experience there a few years ago when I entered the bar having been given a two for one coupon outside, only to be told the good cocktails were only one for one. Maybe just well drinks (the cheapest possible booze) were on sale. I’d call that dishonest, but not evil. This time was a long step down. The bar was empty at 12:30. I showed the M Life cocktail pages to the bartender. “We don’t make that,” she said, anxious for me to quickly leave her alone. “But this is the new issue of M Life, surely you haven’t stopped making the 1944 Mai Tai yet!” With vast reluctance, she agreed to make me the drink. It was a bit too potent for the hour, but very tasty. I’ve long loved Tiki drinks and this was “a nod to the original,” featuring Appleton reserve rum, lime, orange curacao,rock candy syrup, French orgeat (subtle, almost almond flavour) shaken with crushed ice. An aftertaste of those little red cinnamon candies I enjoyed as a kid. Reminded me of the zombies I’d had the day before at Margaritaville with the Ivys, but more subtle. I SHOULD have really been enjoying the Mai Tai. Unfortunately, the bartender was determined to cancel any enjoyment I might find there. Not only did she wish I wasn’t there and act accordingly, two young couples came in, and upon encountering her, quickly exited Rhumbar, fleeing her evil glare Funny, I thought you had to be social to be a bartender. Maybe she’s just having a bad day. Whatever enjoyment the Mai Tai would have provided was utterly destroyed by her. Bad service destroys the best of tastes, just as great service can make a mediocre meal or drink soar. I did not know it was possible to have bad service in Vegas- I thought I had to be in Canada for that.
  I scurry over to the Vesper bar in the Cosmopolitan hotel, where I had encountered marvelous mixology on my last trip to Vegas. Luckily, I encounter a great bartender named Emmett. As different as life and death from the Rhumbar vibe. We immediately start talking cocktail ideas. I tell him I like fruity drinks, like Sangria. He decides on smoky mescal for a base, aloe, orange bitters, muddled blueberries and raspberries (which I can really taste) and soda. The glass is rimmed with orange. The whole cocktail tastes like Oolong tea, with welcoming fruit. More to the point, Emmett is delightful, a companion in the search for flavour instead of an adversary. He tells me he’ll be at the Chandelier bar in the same hotel tomorrow. I had gone to the Chandelier bar in search of its famous Sage 75 a few years ago, only to be told they were out of sage that day. Maybe this trip I’ll have better luck. Emmett wants me to try a drink with an edible flower in it, called The Verbena. I promise to look him up the following day.
  I spend some quality time at Fleur for the rest of the afternoon, then make my way over the Bellagio. Reservation at Le Cirque for 6:00 (I always dine early in Vegas, so I can then dine later somewhere else.) Close to Le Cirque is the Petrossian Bar which is also featured in the M Life mag/TV show as the home of the Bellagio cocktail, an invention of the original modern mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim whom I only knew from Al Mancini’s TV show. Will it be a masterly drink? It’s full of passion fruit, probably my favourite cocktail fruit, the main ingredient in my favourite cocktail at Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental. The absence of that cocktail so disturbed me in my last trip to Vegas, I sent an email to the restaurant complaining of its absence (it was still on their website menu) and was assured that this trip, they’d recreate that cocktail to perfection for me. OK, let’s see what Tony AG can do. A very pretty cocktail. Like a lot of great cocktails, it improves the more I delve into it. It is never as good as Pierre’s passion fruit perfection, but it’s not bad at all. I’d order it my next trip here. But more more intriguing, Daniel the bartender offered me some of the Petrossian’s famous infusion: blueberries, strawberries, pineapple and a vanilla bean infused in Skye vodka for 5 days. It is the best drink I have in Vegas the whole trip. Thank you, M Life, for bringing me to the Petrossian. I’d walked by the place many times but thought they only served caviar (as the menu seems to indicate.). Like my favourite meal, the Budo salad at Yonaka, this inspires me to try and make for myself. Yes, it’s a high aspiration, but why aim low and easy? The pleasure is up top.
I scuttle over to Le Cirque for my 6:00 and am greeted by Ivo and the staff. It’s one thing to dine at one of the world’s best restaurants, and quite another experience to be welcomed as if I belonged there. I have a hard time deciding between the Dover Sole and the Loup de Mer. While I’m thinking about that, I am presented first with an amuse bouchery of caviar (and other stuff), followed by some luxurious gnocchi with shaved black truffles. The signature Le Cirque cocktail works well as a lubricant. Instead of having to choose, I'm brought both fish dishes. The Loup de Mer 
is almost as good as Yonaka's  Budo salad. The meal ends with a raspberry souffle. Later, it's back to Twist to see if they can recreate the passion fruit cocktail they promised me. Well, not quite, but at least they make the effort. With the wondrous view from the windows at Twist, I have nothing to complain about.
  Wednesday I start exactly the same way as Tuesday, hiking over to Mon Ami Gabi with an empty stomach only to have it filled most perfectly with a magnificent grapefruit, combined with ginger and mint leaves, and a great cup of tea. For lunch, I check out the creperie in Paris shops. Not up to the crepes in Mon Ami and Eiffel Tower, but those are sit-down restaurants, this is just fast food, which Mina had warned me Paris was now full of. Later, I go back to the Mandarin Tea Room for the Royal Tea, the cocktail that so entranced me 14 months ago. This time, not so much. But their mocktail is the hit of the trip. 2nd would be the fruit infused vodka at Petrossian, then maybe the first cocktail at DCR. After that,  I find Emmett at the Chandelier bar where he has promised me a drink with an edible, but mouth numbing flower. Called the Verbena, it does alter my taste buds. The tequila sour with ginger come into and out of alteration. Great to have an adventuresome bartender
   I'd been in touch with Bazaar Meat  before arriving. I emphasized my desire for tapas sized portions. I begin with Jose’s gin tonic. I had it at Jaleo before. It comes in a large glass, with an ice cube the size and shape of a baseball in it. It is served with a selection of olives, both real stuffed olives and Ferran Adria's molecular take on olives. Far too many of both.The tomato tartare arrives. I had so looked forward to from John Curtas’s review. It comes with romaine lettuce leaves to use as spoons for it. Called Beefsteak Tomato tartare, it actually tastes meatier than the beef I get later. I was hoping for something as good as Payard’s tartine de tomate I had for my first meal on the strip. Nope. I had to not finish that because I was too full. This one I could only eat half of because it wasn’t very good. The beef wrapped bread sticks with a cheese dipping sauce was delicious, but I could only eat 2 of the five sticks- my stomach had been filled with the tomato disaster and even more wretched brussel sprout dish. That reminded me of Jose talking to Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes about how boring meat is, because it loses its flavour the more you chew, which then becomes a tedious act. It didn’t remind me at all of what Jose told Anthony Bourdain about his love for tomatoes. About the bread sticks: bread itself is filling, which is why I studiously avoid it in restaurants ( but eat lots of bread at home.)  The server then brings me Jose’s gazpacho, which isn’t bad but I no longer have anything resembling an appetite. The brussel sprout things isn’t bad at first, but then becomes way too chewy and there’s 10 times more than I could eat, even if I wanted to. Perhaps an elephant can eat this, I tell my server. The gazpacho is full of vegies and stuff but it leaves a bad aftertaste. Best thing in the restaurant for me is the gin tonic, which was also the case at Jaleo/e.

  When I arrived at Bazaar Meat,  my server had read my emails and complimented me for caring about Jose’s philanthropic endeavors instead of just his food. In the same email, I had told the restaurant that I had an amazingly small appetite and was looking forward to tapas size meals. Instead, I was pummeled with massive portions. I would come back here for the beefy breadsticks and the gin tonic, but nothing else. In 10 years of eating at Jose's, now five restaurants, I may have had 5 dishes I'd order again. In baseball, that wouldn't even get you Into the minors. But Jose's such a Great Guy, eh?
  Later, I have a reservation at L’Attelier for 9:00. I get there and have some difficulty finding the same cocktail I had in 2013, but the yuzu drink goes splendidly with the langoustine fritter. When I order the fritter, I’m told I can only get 3 fritters now, not one. The menu is now offering a langoustine in green curry. Not for me, please. No curry at all is too much curry for me. But the chef relents and serves me only one langoustine. It doesn’t effect me the way it did the first 2 times I had it, in my 2 previous visits here, but it’s still damn good and Just The Right Size. Finally someone takes the sheer tininess of my appetite seriously. Thanks, Joel Robuchon. Every other restaurant in Vegas: Pay Attention.
 At the airport the following morning, I get a lettuce wrap, some sort of chicken with lettuce to wrap it in. This tastes as good as I'd hoped Jose's Tomato Tartare would have, with the refreshing lettuce. Great to end the trip with a good meal, even if it's only lettuce.

Vegas 5: Sunday and Monday

Sunday, Feb 8 and Monday, Feb. 9

  I begin my 3rd day in Vegas with some fruit and a cup of English Breakfast tea from the sundries store near the elevator at Excalibur and then a cup of excellent tomato soup from Schlotsky’s in the food court. Now it’s time for serious food.
  This will be the 5th time I’ve ordered the baked vegetarian crepes at Eiffel Tower. The last time, Dec. 2013, the crepes kind of let me down. Maybe because I had a pear cocktail with them? The cocktails of Eiffel Tower have been raved about, but maybe they go with something else other than crepes? This time I just get some tea. The crepes return to their excellence. I leave highly contented and walk back to Excalibur.
  A phone call puts me in touch with the Ivys and I’m back to the same area I’d just left, only this time by cab. I had long enjoyed their TV show Pub Crawl on the Vegas Video Network, and frequently contributed to the show via Internet Chat while it was on air. Could people who seem so delightful on TV actually be that way in real life? Actually, no. They were far more delightful in person. It’s great to see such Joie de Vivre percolating through the young. They reminded me of my late friend Manny  who squeezed every drop of pleasure out of his 76 years. What I thought would be a brief visit at Margaritaville turned into a whole afternoon of tasty beverages (next at O’Sheas, where I am asked to wear some green beads, perhaps for Mardi Gras?) and wonderful company. I barely make it to my 6:00 reservation at Guy Savoy, across the street at Caesar’s Palace. It will be my 3rd visit to CP this trip, the first for the excellent tomato tart at Payard, then for Nobu’s sad excuse for cuisine however well mitigated with a basily cocktail, and now Guy Savoy, which has been my favourite restaurant in Vegas since I started coming here in 2011.
  Well, maybe no longer my fave. Not one of my more successful meals there, particularly for the price ($10 water didn’t help). It wasn’t bad. Should find out what the amuse bouche was this time (crab? lobster?) and the micro hamburger was as delicious as always. I had the lobster salad with beets for $75, cheapest thing on the menu and indeed a small meal, very pretty, though the lobster was far more chewy than the lobster with cold steam I’d had at this restaurant before.  Had just been discussing beets with the Ivys and to discover they go so well with lobster is quite educational. A revelation. I had no idea those 2 things could go together, and thanks to the magic of GS, they did very well. I thanked Ilona for the education. Asked if she was from Europe (slight accent) and she said she was from Russia, somewhat apologetically. I told her my grandpa (1855-1925) was from St. Petersburg. My Russian uncles, all born in the 19th century, told me stories of riding a troika through the snowy streets of that city, like a scene from Anna Karenina.
  After dinner, I go back to Fleur and this time Marisol introduces me to the general manager, a tall man named Aaron, and the manager, a talkative woman from Paris named Mina. As Paris is my favourite city and I’m planning to go there again in a year or so, I looked forward to her advice, but she advised against going there at all, the mom and pop restaurants are all being replaced by Starbucks and Subways as only they can afford the sky high rents. Alas. The main lesson I’ve learned from my trips to Vegas (and to a lesser extant, trips to great French restaurants in New York and Chicago) has been the enjoyability of French food, something I rarely encountered in France. I simply didn’t know where to dine, and what to dine on, besides quiches. Now I know.
  I begin Monday with the same sundry fruit, tea and excellent tomato soup at Excalibur, then make my way over to Milos at the Cosmopolitan. My 5th visit to the great Greek fish restaurant, always have the lavraki (a fish from the Greek islands), the Greek salad and the fruit plate for lunch. The last time I was in Vegas, the lavraki tasted rather fishy. Thankfully I’d ordered a glass of Greek white wine. It’s always good insurance to order white wine with fish Just In Case the fish is too fishy. But surely that was a singular occasion. This time, although the restaurant is more crowded that I’ve ever seen it before, I get in without a reservation and am soon regaled with the most delicious piece of fish I have ever eaten here. Not just better than last trip’s fishiness, this is the kind of fish worship I expect at Guy Savoy or Le Cirque, not a Greek lunch place. As I’m finishing, the chef comes over to talk to me. “Are you in a hurry?” he asks. I guess most lunchers are, but not me. I am slowly savouring the wondrous food. “I’ve seen you here before,” he informs me. “This is my 5th time here.” “No, it must be your 10th!” he assures me. Perhaps he can see into the future. Both Eiffel Tower (crepes) and Milos (the whole great lunch, anchored by the lavraki) have returned to form, after the Dec. 2013 miscues. Perhaps because it was so cold then, I had a different reaction to the meals? Whatever, it’s good to have reliable lunch spots. Didn’t need the glass of wine at all, but it didn’t hurt.
  Next up, way upstairs at the Mandarin Oriental: the Mandarin Tea Lounge where I had the best cocktails of my previous trip. Instead of just diving into the alcohol, I order a mocktail because its ingredients suggest the finest drink I’ve ever tasted: a mocktail at Jose Andre’s tiny “e” restaurant, made from pear puree, green tea and jasmine air. This drink substitutes white tea for green tea, always an improvement and some sort of jasmine delivery device that isn’t air. Called the Jasmine Tea Off, it turns out to be the best drink I’ll have the whole 6 day trip of dogged pursuit of the best beverages in Vegas. Slight cinnamon aftertaste.
  One sadness of t his trip is that Mike’s Smashed Apple cidre is gone, replaced with an apple cinnamon cidre that might be good hot, but is undrinkable cold. Yet the same spice works well in this cold mocktail. Intricate, wonderful aftertaste and very refreshing. I need that after walking around in this summery heat.
  Walking the Strip and even inside Excalibur, my natural reticence is magnified and reinforced by constantly being accosted by people relentlessly trying to get me to sign up for something or buy someone or something. Really annoying, and it makes me even more hermetic, but the opposite has occurred with the Ivys. Do they just have more sociable genes, or is it learned behaviour? They thrive here and they are endlessly social.
  An $18 cab ride (the driver didn’t seem to know where he was going) delivers me to Yonaka Modern Japanese cuisine for the Budo Salad" : sautéed grapes, mushrooms, candied walnuts, kale, feta, mint, chives. One of the best things I’ve ever eaten, and for only $8.00. Also had asparagus with grapefruit vierge and the pork belly dish which was too meaty and inedible (they didn’t charge me for it.) My waitress hustled me to buy a glass of sake when I came in. I assumed it would go well with the food and was delighted to be served sake in the appropriate wooden cup, called a masu, in Japanese, which really gives you the flavour of the wood to embellish the beverage. However, once I got into the grapes, I noticed the budo cocktail on the menu and ordered that in time to share with the last of the salad. In future, order it only, forget the sake. Waitress tried to hustle me to order the lobster, making one of its rare appearance on the menu, but I’d had enough lobster at GS last night. With the grape cocktail, my already phenomenal dish is kicked up to another level. I’m astonished how good the two of them are. It’s worth returning to Vegas just for this salad. Next time I’ll order the sake (in this case, it means salmon in Japanese, not the rice wine) orenji. Always on the lookout for ways of combining citrus, or fruit in general with fish dishes. The best dishes I’ve had in my 5 trips to Vegas have been: Prawns at Alain Ducasse’s Mix restaurant, John Dory at Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist, Sea Bass with Delicate Spices at Guy Savoy, Monkfish with prosciutto at Le Cirque, Lion fish at the late lamented American Fish and now this grape salad. It actually inspires me to try and make it at home, and I’m no chef. I can spell both “Michelin” and “star” but no sane person would ever give me one. When I first entered Yonaka, I’m asked if I know anything about sake (the wine, not the fish.). Yes, I admitted, I lived in Japan, although long ago now, and drank lots of the national tipple. “Which sake did you drink?” the waitress asked. It took me a few minutes, but then I remembered, “Kembishi.” Well, that was the brand I could buy at any liquor store. I’ve had really extraordinary private label sakes that can only be consumed at a specific bar (such as one near the school I taught at, apparently favoured by the Prime Minister) as well as the special sake bestowed on people deserving of honour by the Sony corporation (they were a sake brewery before discovering electronics), in this case Fumiyo’s friend’s husband who handled the Sony account at his ad agency and must have made them a lot of money one year. My cab back to Excalibur is only $12. I give the more honest cabbie a good tip.

Vegas 5: Friday and Saturday

We travel to have enlightening experiences, to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow.
  Rick Steves, Travel as a Political Act.

More light!
   Last words of Goethe

Friday and Saturday. Feb. 6 and 7

  For my 5th trip to Vegas, there were enough things I wanted to do in Downtown Las Vegas to warrant a stay at a downtown hotel. I made a reservation at the Downtown Grand. Nothing wrong with the hotel per se, it’s just that downtown hotels (drinks, food, whatever) tend be considerably cheaper than their Strip counterparts. The DG charged me $118 for a night. Excalibur, my Strip hotel of choice, is $25 a night. Outside the DG, it’s fun time for homeless people and hipsters. Perhaps homeless hipsters. Arlo Guthrie on the Group W Bench, with mother rapers, father stabbers, father rapers sitting right next to me…. Outside Excalibur, the exuberant beauty of the Strip. So what am I doing here? Well, I’m reading Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities and sadly noting its relevance here. I’m also having some food at Carson Kitchen (raved and raved about by critics and Yelpers, and apparently Kerry Simon does cauliflower well!), a couple of (two for one cocktails at Happy Hour? I am obviously hallucinating) well crafted cocktails at the Downtown Cocktail Room, art at First Friday and breakfast at chef Natalie’s place Eat (unidentified on Tony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode set in Vegas with Tony breakfasting at Anonymous eatery). Is all that worth $118 for a bed amidst all this prettified desolation? We’ll see.
  I have to ask at several establishments before I finally find Carson Kitchen. Small and friendly. Ah, they have pear cidre. Things are looking up. I’ve been up since 5:30 to catch my plane here and haven’t eaten more than a Baby Bell all day. I’m hungry (although this term probably means something different to my stomach than yours.) Kerry Simon is called the Rock Star of chefs. OK, let’s see him Midnight Ramble over my palate.
 The Bacon Jam has been praised to the skies. I order it. Careful, it’s hot, says the helpful bartender. “Ouch” say my fingers as I try and scoop some jam onto the little crackers that come with it. Yes, quite tasty. Then a bowl Full of spiced cauliflower. Enough food to feed an army of orcs. It isn’t identified as “spiced” cauliflower, which is misleading. We are talking of a nuclear armed vegetable here. I tentatively attempt a bit. “Mix it in the bacon jam,” the helpful bartender advises. Like Gollum helping Frodo to Mt. Doom. With the mixture, one inedible dish becomes two. “Ouch, Ouch,” scream my taste buds, under assault from the ring-melting foodity. I solace them the best I can with cold pear cidre, then it’s off to the Downtown Cocktail Room. Serious bartenders I met on my previous Vegas trip insisted I visit this place for this town’s most serious mixology. I’m stoked. Also, REALLY thirsty. Great drinks, not so great food would become a theme this trip
Well, being really hungry didn’t help me at Carson. 
  I enter a dim space with some difficulty. Door does not have handle. Do I have to cast a spell? Chairs seem to have gone out of style. We’re back with Plato and Nero lounging on couches. I order an arrack-based Pirate drink while traveling into pretend time though the local entertainment rag Day 7 about counter-factual Vegas. Howard Hughes walks by and offers me a nuclear cocktail. Harold Hedd follows him with less liquid delights. The intricacy of the drink continues to prod my brain into newer and more interesting realms.
Apple of My Eye: Apple Jack, Holiday Spice, Maple, A.C.V.
Dearest Tipple: Your loving caress of apple and holiday spice thaw my frozen heart; your sweet caramel lingers on my lips, long after your kiss. I am yours forever. Apple Jack.”
Uh, no.
  Much as I love apples, this cocktail didn’t work. Was it the sticky glass it was served in? It’s not that the room was busy. There were perhaps 4 other people there. But the act of drinking was such an unpleasant experience, I had to go to the men’s room to wash my hands and bring back a wet paper towel to clean the glass before I could even consider the flavours being offered. There was subtlety involved. In a place like this, that is expected. There was however, more sweetness than necessary. Considering the orchards of apple cidre I’ve consumer over the years, The Apple of my Glaucoma offered no revelations. In the course of my week in Vegas, I began consuming Angry Orchards apple cidre from the cheap liquor stores on the strip, upon discovering my favourite apple tipple Mike’s Smashed Apple Cidre, my drink of choice from last visit, had ceased to exist. Angry Orchards is now available in my North Vancouver liquor stores. It’s not bad. Same can’t be said of this cocktail. I escape its tentacles and wander into the night.
  First Friday is my main reason for being downtown in the first place. Local artists show their latest. As someone vaguely artistic who is very inspired by the beauty of Vegas (the lights! The lights!), I’m anxious to see what artists who live here are being inspired to create. I’d come to Vegas on a Friday in December, 2013 hoping to visit this event but it was too cold. Colder than Vancouver. Today was pleasantly warm. Now, where was First Friday? I ask at the hotel desk. I ask people I meet on the street. I find a pleasant container park, but that isn’t it. Go here! Go there? You can’t get there from here! Apparently, not walking distance. After the fiery food, only one out of two good drinks and all this walking, I’m way tired. I buy a massive slice of vegie pizza from a pizza place across the street from my hotel. It’s oily and pungent- no thermonuclear cauliflower in attendance. I’m supposed to meet people somewhere, but instead I return to my hotel and go to sleep.
  Up 7ish on Saturday, it’s a long walk over to Eat. Chef Natalie used to cook at Eiffel Tower, whose vegie crepes are one my favourite dishes in Vegas. She must really know how to cook. I order the truffled eggs. They come with enough potatoes to bury Prince Edward Island. I’d ordered a side of fresh fruit and it is the first really wonderful thing I’ve had on this trip. Maybe truffles aren’t really what my stomach wants to eat at 8 AM. I make a small indentation into the breakfast such as a mouse would make on a cheese wheel. Chef Natalie is holding court in the middle of the restaurant. Do I go up to her and thank her for her exquisite fruit? Nah. I go back to the Downtown Not So Grand, collect my luggage, pay about 4 times what the room is actually worth (see above) and waddle over to the Deuce, the slow bus to the Strip. As Downtown recedes in the bus’s rear window, my spirit soars.
  The last time I stayed at Excalibur, they noted that it was my 3rd time there and offered me free upgrades and general good will. Today they demand $20 to check in early. Still cheap though. I shed the dust of Downtown and set off for Payard. Still enough time left on my $6.00 2-hour bus ticket. My last Vegas adventure began with a parmesan soufflé at Payard, buried in the bowels of Caesar’s Palace. One of the world’s best pastry chefs will restore my belief in Vegas possibilities.
  And the Frenchman comes through. Exquisite pastry in the tartine de tomate is expected, so the novelty is in the way the tomato interacts with those well conceived pastry molecules. A forest of spinach and three vast prawns loom over the more delicate yet lustier marriage of tomato and tart like visiting aliens from some large, uninteresting planet.
  After this awesome lunch, I walk back to the Mandalay Bay to visit Hubert Keller’s restaurant Fleur. When I walked into Fleur, Rebecca the bartender/Facebook friend noticed me and told me that Marisol was working here that afternoon. I looked around without seeing her. Finally she ran over to me and I discovered she now had blond hair. That wasn’t the only change: she was now a grandma, and lovingly showed me a picture of her new grandson. The chairs thankfully, hadn’t changed, and were still the most comfortable restaurant chairs in the city (to the best of my knowledge). I felt, in the words of the Steely Dan song, Home at Last. At least for the afternoon.
  I had a reservation at Raku in Chinatown for 6:00. I’d heard there had been an explosion of great Japanese food in Vegas since my last visit. It is the type of cuisine I know best, so I have very high standards here. Could Raku live up to the hype?
  Although the restaurant was supposed to open at 6:00, it was ten after that the door opened and the milling throngs were allowed in. I get a seat at the counter. Thankfully the counter is lit from below, allowing me to easily read the Jane Jacobs book I’ve brought for my 6 days in Vegas; that’s 600 pages for 6 days. Sounds about right. I’m deeply enjoying the book as my sake appears. Cold (as it always is these days, the hot sake I drank exclusively in Japan has gone out of fashion) and in a regular mug instead of the preferred square cup made out of sugi, the Japanese cedar relative that dominates bars in that country and pours pleasure on your olfactory.
  I began with one tiny skewer of tomatoes which had a delightful yet subtle taste of charcoal. The asparagus, having a stronger taste, was less influenced by the charcoal. The eringi mushrooms (my waitress called them meaty when I asked about them) are identified as king oyster mushrooms when served. I’ve cooked them before at home. These are a bit too chewy for my tastes and could also have benefited with more intense charring. Raku’s signature dish, the agedashi tofu, swimming in a broth full of nameko mushrooms (my favourite ingredient of miso shiru) is every bit as good as it has been reviewed as being. Best of all is a singular buttered scallop. The best scallop I’ve ever eaten, and I love scallops. The whole “meal” reminded me of all the bars I spent time in during my long years in Japan. I really came to love charcoal grilled food in Japan in those bars, while sushi never appealed to me. It’s great to see my kinda Japanese food has made it to Vegas. Next on my itinerary, food with Japan’s most famous chef and Robert de Niro pal, Nobu, at Caesar’s Palace. I can see towering hotels on the strip from outside Raku. I asked the one server who spoke real English if Spring Mountain Road ran into Las Vegas Blvd. Yes it did. Do they intersect, I asked again. Yes they do. But he assumed I asked that as someone with a car. Fumiyo is about to embark on an 800 km. hike across Spain in a couple of months. I can surely walk a few miles, right? I had to strengthen my leg muscles for all the walking I’d be doing on the strip for the next 4 days. I had to walk off my small meal to make room for Nobu’s creations. I began to walk.
  Time passed. I encounter very few people on the sidewalk. It is night in an inappropriate area in Vegas for foot traffic. I walked a lot of dark streets in Japanese nights in just such a quest for charcoaled goodies and sake, lit by red lanterns of reliable warmth. Foolishly, I had left my hat back at the hotel when I began to feel rain drops on my bald head. I had been told to take a cab- now I was beginning to regret the spontaneous trek. And then the sidewalk stopped altogether, just as the road went under the freeway in a tunnel. No, I’m not going to enter a tunnel without a sidewalk. I walk back up to Polaris, which seems like a serious street, and keep following it until it gets to the Rio. I’d never been to this hotel before, which seems to exist only to promote Penn and Teller. Now at this point, a more intelligent person would have grabbed a cab at that substantial hotel. But I could see Caesar’s Palace tantalizingly close, if I can indeed get there. I head for the strip but my street does not. I find myself winding my way through the bushes on a narrow sidewalk surrounding the acres and acres of CP parking garages. Finally I see some men near a doorway. I ask them how to get to CP and they say enter the nearby door to the Forum Shops. I thought the Shops were quite far from the hotel, but no, as I ascend the escalator, I’m suddenly at the door of the CP casino. I find my way over to Nobu.
  “How are you,” asks my server.
  “Exhausted,” I informed her.
   “Tiring day at work?” she asked.
   “No, I just walked here from Raku.” She’d never heard of it. “On Spring Mountain Road,” I inform her. She seems dubious as to its location. But at least I’m quickly offered a seat, and shortly thereafter, a delicious cocktail. Well, I’ve certainly worked up an appetite now. My feet were sore, but I could definitely eat something. Unfortunately, not the tempura crab I ordered.
  Peruvian cuisine is hot these days. I’ve had it at least twice, once with friends on Lake Geneva in 2002, and with other friends in Montreal in 2010. Bourdain’s Parts Unknown paints a culinary picture of the country as the new frontier of food, as Spain was in the previous decade. Nobu became Japan’s most famous chef after he went to Peru and soaked up its culinary influences for his Japanese cuisine. The tempura is served in a sauce distilled from his Peruvian experience. It should be good, right? Well, yes, it Should. But as the dish cools, what had been only vaguely pleasant becomes downright inedible. Only the cocktail works. Cracked basil, Nobu’s Soju, Grand Marnier, Thai basil, fresh strawberries, yuzu juice, egg white, fresh cracked pink pepper. $16 and worth every penny. 4 small morsels of tempura crab for $40. Portion size: way too much bad food. $40? Nobu should pay you to eat it.
   With the excellent cocktail, taxes and tip, it came to $70, the worst food quality to price ratio of the trip so far. When I walked back to my hotel from Nobu, I felt the same way I did after leaving Per Se in 2010: the whole concept of food had become utterly alien to me. Seeing food ads on TV almost made me puke.