Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Vegas 2016: The superbowl strikes out

Several days before my flight to Vegas, I was filled with happiness, just knowing I’d soon be in Vegas. Eating great food at Le Cirque. Having amazing cocktails at Vesper and that great pear-jasmine mocktail at the Mandarin Tea Room. Meeting friends. The day before my flight, I begin to fill with dread about the imminent trip. What was I sensing?
  For the first time ever, I had to take a cab from my house to the sea bus, then the skytrain to the airport. Then, my flight wasn’t down to Vegas, but over to Victoria, where I caught another flight. Apparently there was some football thing happening in Frisco. Now, Frisco is a long way from Vegas.  My flight was supposed to arrive in Vegas at 6:15, but it was near 7 by the time we actually touched down at McCarran. The military had restricted flight over northern Nevada because of the game. Maybe all the UFOs at area 51 were betting on it. So it was getting on and I had a 9:30 reservation at Le Cirque. I’ve always taken the shuttle, this time, in a hurry, I took a cab. $22.00 one way instead of $13.00 round trip. I dreaded how long check-in would take, but thanks to the football game, most people were in the hotel bars watching it, not at the desk. I got into my room, changed into my formal clothes, and made it to the Bellagio in time. In plenty of time. Maybe the game had slowed time itself. I had time to stop by the Petrossian Bar. I had been here last year for the Bellagio cocktail, a tasty drink made from passion fruit puree, Alize red and Rotari sparkling wine.
Although it was as good as last year’s, the infusion wasn’t. Last year’s infusion was the best drink I had in Vegas, outside of the usual wonders at Vesper. I talked to the bartender about it, telling him how I’d been trying to make this infusion at home. He told me to use frozen blueberries (we have some in the freezer) and fresh strawberries, not raspberries. OK, but maybe as I like raspberries A LOT more than I like strawberries, this one wasn’t as good.

 Anyway, he talked about his pal Tony Abou-Ganim who started the bar with him 20 years and created these two drinks. When I told him about the upcoming cocktail event, he said he would be one of the judges and would see me there. The Ivys rightly praised the nuts offered at the Petrossian Bar. I had brought half a dozen baby bells and half a zip-lock bag full of trail mix with dried apricots and cranberries with me. I’d had a ham and cheese croissant at the airport this morning, so I was Hungry (as much as that term ever really applies to me.)
 I made it to Le Cirque in time for my reservation. A young woman greets me and tells me she’s new and wants to meet the Le Cirque regulars. My 4th time and I’m a regular? They have always made me feel at home here, a great way to begin this trip. The woman seems too young to be in an establishment that serves alcohol, but I’m soon brought a tasty drink. The Le Cirque Passion Fruit cocktail, much stronger than next door at the Petrossian Bar. The power is in the peach flavour. This comes in handy when the fois gras course comes around. First however, a fine blue crab appetizer. I don’t remember anything about it, except that it was good. Next up, the fois with apples and Calvados. I’m planning a trip to Calvados-land so this should be good prep. Well…. Apples are a favourite fruit, but there is a Strong aftertaste and it ain’t apple. Here the power of the PEACHpassionfruit drink is really appreciated.I've only had good fois gras dishes twice, both in Vancouver by competing French chefs Daniel Beloud (candied fruit in a fois mousse at Lumiere when Daniel was briefly its owner) and Jean George Vongerichten (candied cherries overwhelming the fois at his Market restaurant, where the menu never changes). This dish was not in that league.
Kind of a disappointing feast at Le Cirque. Although vast quantities of food was served,  the fish that so delighted me last time was kind of pedestrian this time, although, with the basil leaf embedded, just like the leaf embedded in the langoustine fritters at L’Atelier (but without its marvelous flavour), and then the pairing with a white burgundy (I said I wanted a white with the fish, instead of the reds they had relentlessly poured for me with my previous fish orders here) the sommelier of the day had provided- suddenly it sorta worked. It went from pedestrian to okay, particularly with the crispiness of the papered sea bass. I called the photo Sea Bad.

 My expectations of this dish were so high, I left Le Cirque disappointed. Did I get what I came for, what I paid for? Not really. I considerably overtip.
As I’m leaving (it’s almost 11), the “I can’t believe you’re not a minor” woman chases after me, with a little box of sweets to take home. “You’re very good at what you do,” I tell her. She is as stunned as if I’d told her she’d just won the billion dollar lottery. Well, we have to encourage the young if we want them to become the decent old, and live in a decent world.  

Vegas 2016: Get on the bus!

Schlotsky’s tomato soup in the 2nd floor food court has been excellent on previous trips. I order it hungrily. The woman takes my order. A few minutes later, I’m called back and told they’re out of it. At 7:30 in the morning? She offers Chicken and Dumpling soup instead so I go with that. It’s full of carrots, dumplings and a bit of chicken. I really don’t want to fill up on starch in the morning, or at any other time of day, but dumpling overload aside, it’s a decent breakfast. I get a fruit cup and some tea from the sundries store. These fruit cups are always 80% melon, one of my least favourite fruit, but there are a few tasty bits of pineapple and the odd grape. Tea is tea. I do my morning Tai Chi and watch a bit of TV. A primary election looms. I wonder how Trump’s “deport all the Mexicans” rhetoric will play in a state with a large Mexican population, like Nevada. I wonder how many Mexicans work in his hotel here? It’s much more enjoyable to read the book I’ve brought along, Strip Cultures: Finding America in Las Vegas by four female academics calling themselves The Project on Vegas. Turns out to be by far the best book I’ve brought for any of my trips here.
Milos has changed the lunch fish. Has lavraki gone extinct? Instead, it’s sea bream dorade. I’ve had nothing but bad luck with sea bream in the past. They rave about it, and they’re a fish restaurant.Their raves were right. It looks and tastes exactly like the sea bass (lavraki).
The chamomile tea isn’t so good until they bring the honey I’d requested. It is extraordinarily good, wonderfully floral, and of course, elevates the tea. Turns out it’s their own home-made thyme honey. After my waitress told me that, I could taste the thyme. Lucky me! 

I take The Deuce over to the Downtown Cocktail Room. Strip Cultures also begins with one of its authors riding this bus that goes up and down the Strip. I get off at the wrong place, then can’t find Las Vegas Blvd. until I ask a cop, so I show up at DCR half an hour after I’d planned to. They have brought back the arrack drink I had last year and I can discover its name: ”Dread Pirate Roberts: Batavia Arrack, mint, cranberry, lime. $10 Is it as good as last year’s? Not sure, but it’s quite good. Lee, the woman behind the bar may well be the inspiration for the Groucho Marx song Lydia the Tattooed Lady. After the pirate drink, I see a warm grappa drink. I’d had some superb lemon grappa at a long gone Italian joint at the Venetian on my 2nd trip to Vegas; though the grappa I had in Italy was undrinkable. I try my luck with the Snuggie Surprise: warm grappa, clove, sherry, orange. I tell Lee it reminds me of oatmeal, which I haven’t had in at least 50 years. Thanks to the clove, it is tasty. I’m the only customer in the bar when I enter at 4:30, and still am when I leave at 5:30 to catch the Deuce down to the SLS for some Bazaar beef. 4 drinks for slightly more than the single gin and tonic at Bazaar Meat. It’s a very good gin tonic with juniper berries, marigold leaves, kafir lime leaves, Fever Tree tonic and a good pour of a gin I don’t recognize, but still!  I’m supposed to call the Ivys at this time. As I’m one of the few humans without a cell phone, David has assured me I’d be able to find a public phone in the new hotel. Au contraire. I might as well have asked for a unicorn. They do let me use the desk phone and the Ivys agree to meet me the following day at 7:00 at the Excalibur lobby bar. Only after the phone call, I remember I’d made a reservation for Rivea for Tuesday. Later, from my hotel, I call them to cancel. But back at the Bazaar: The 5 beef sticks are still daunting. What’s with all the bread in restaurants? I relentlessly avoid it in most restaurants, but for this dish, well, it’s most of the dish. 5 towering sticks wrapped with thin strips of beef, dipped in a tangy cheese sauce. 
“We’re one of only 5 restaurants in the US that can get this grade of Japanese beef,” the chatty chef tells me. If I hadn’t lived in Japan for a long time, I might possibly be impressed.  1 Beef Grissini, $26.00 Jose Gin Tonic $20.00, the tax and tip and I’ve just spent a lot of money for an appy and a drink. And it’s not even a Vesper drink. Thankfully  the $8.00 I spent earlier this afternoon buys me a lot of travel on the Deuce.
At Vesper, my bartender, hearing I like fruity, Tiki-type cocktails, uses the following: orange, Passoa passion fruit liqueur. caramelized pineapple. Pineapple fusion Bacardi, Peychaud’s bitters and lemon. A wonderful collection of ingredients. I’m getting thoughts of Tang (which I loved as a kid), thoughts of orange creamsicle though the prevalent flavour isn’t orange. Layers and layers of flavour. It isn’t one thing. I can have a sip and then the next sip tastes different. A second or two after I’ve swallowed it, there’s a different flavour in my mouth. I discover Jeff Smith made this cocktail, but each of the 3 drinks I have at Vesper over 5 days, though made by different bar tenders, are all excellent. As the cocktails are all $17 (indeed, everywhere on the strip, though none as worthy of the price as here) and change and I round up to $20 as a tip, I drink them Very Slowly. I take an hour to savour the whole small drink. A Very Good hour.
At Bar Masa, it turns out I’m here on the night that Susan is celebrating her birthday so she’s not here. When I was here before, I recall only one Hitachino Nest beer but there are now 3: the original, a ginger one and what I order, an IPA made with the Japanese orange called “mikan.” I fail to find any mikan flavour. After that extraordinary fruity cocktail at Vesper- maybe my palate has been so overwhelmed with citrus that the subtle mikan flavour here is too delicate for me to perceive. Maybe my tongue is saying, “there’s orange in this? Are you kidding?”
The non-Susan, a tall young man, knows a lot about the Vegas food scene. He explains my lack of good luck with Le Cirque’s Sea Bad as the owner family is going through some turbulence now and their food is hit and miss, though the service excellence remains. Great union jobs keep the men there forever, though the sommelier and my very young greeter girl are obviously not old-timers. When I tell him my favourite lunch is the lavraki at Milos, he says or course, the best lunch in town. Really seems like someone to know. The bar check id’s him as Thomas L. The tiny dish of truffled fungus (David Ivy would identify it as “decadent”) is $42.00 and it is the best thing I eat the whole trip, though, to reiterate, TINY. Thankfully I was still full from the beef-wrapped bread sticks. Susan had turned me on to the beer pairing, but the beer is $15.00 for a Little Bottle. Next time, I’ll skip the beer. OK, it does go well with the fungi, but so would ice water, hopefully cheaper. I wonder if I can make this in Vancouver? Yes. truffles are pricey there, but maitaki are dirt cheap and one truffle, thinly sliced should produce several of these meals. I’ll look into it when I get home. Well, I’m in Vegas now and the Bar Masa in NYC is the most expensive restaurant in that expensive city. I didn’t have this dish last trip but the two times I’ve had it previously, it tasted exactly the same, just as stunning. As you’ll notice from the blog posts of the whole trip, Nothing Else in Vegas Except This Fungi Dish is exactly as fantastic as previously encountered. Le Cirque’s fish dish is just sad. I greatly amuse myself shooting Vegas night lights reflected on the strip and go back to my hotel. The next day, I discover the camera had been shifted into Nightshot mode. I had no idea such a thing existed, a switch on the side of the camera that had never been employed the 10 years I’ve had my Sony Full HD 1080 Handycam. I try and fix it from the menu but that doesn’t work. After overexposed shots the following morning, I abandon photography for the rest of the trip. Alas!

Vegas 2016: The Ivys

The Ivys! Also, things to eat and drink.

Up early to take advantage of my Deuce $8.00 24-hour pass and the heavy coat I’ve brought from Vancouver for the ride to Bouchon. For some reason, the driver ignores my request to get off at The Venetian so I have to walk back from the Wynn but it’s not far. The grapefruit is so gone from Bouchon’s menu there’s probably nobody alive there who remembers it. Even the berry bowl I’ve had before is gone. Instead, a bowl of apple slices, strawberry slices and slices of blood orange. It is fabulous. I’ll be making this at home soon. Much as I love apples, I find them too filling for breakfast, but with the blood orange and the strawberries and the well-paired pot of tea, I can handle them. Then instead of the spinach quiche I always have, I order the soup of the day, which I’m told is  chicken bouillon poured over cherry tomatoes, gnocchi, and lettuce. I expect bad service at Bouchon and I get it. A server tries to serve me the soup while I’m slowly eating the fruit. I have to send him off until I’m eventually ready for it.

I savour the orange cranberry tea from Rare Cargo- Bouchon always has good tea. It tastes almost perfumed. The woman beside me, who looks about the age Bit would be now, asks what my soup is. I tell her to get it, the best thing Keller has ever done. She says she’ll ask her husband to take her to Bouchon in LA, where her accent identifies her as being from. She is reading the NY Times and assumes, correctly, that I’ve read its recent attack on Keller’s flag ship, Per Se, where I had the most overpriced and underwhelming meal in my life in 2010. I have not however seen his reply to the attack, which she describes as very humble. Not a word I associate with Keller.
 The chicken dumpling soup I’d had the previous day from Schlotsky’s turns out to be great prep for the divine bouillon with the perfect gnocchi at Bouchon. Breakfast has never before been a fine dining experience for me. My palate takes hours to awaken. That’s why this is so strange. I hadn’t know it was possible to enjoy food this intensely so early in my day.
A month before the financially and physically painful Per Se meal, I’d read an article in the New Yorker called The Truffle Kid, about the owner of my lunch destination,  Artisanal Foods Café. That was August, 2010, before I ever imagined going to Vegas.
I was alerted to the existence of the café from a Facebook post by Vegas food critic Al Mancini. I made a lunch reservation, though it turned out only one other family showed up to dine while I was there. It’s a store, and most of the people who walked in the door were there to pick up or deliver stock. The first thing I noticed on sale was Bella Vitano Merlot cheese, my favourite. And a large package for $10.00, a fraction of what I pay for it in Vancouver. I asked if the man behind the desk was Otto? “There’s no one named Otto here,” he told me. “The owner’s name is Brad and he’s in Fresno today.”
“Why did I think there was an Otto here?” I wondered. “Brad’s last name is Ottolenghi,” That would explain it. As I had no idea how far the café would be from my hotel, I budgeted plenty of time and then had to wait for 15 minutes for lunch to begin. The counterman looked a lot like Kato Kaelin. Maybe it really is Kato? I had just begun watching The People vs. OJ Simpson, being serialized on TV. I did not pay attention to the trial at the time. Now, for the first time I’m discovering why these Kardashian women have become famous. A bit of American pop culture I had been blissfully ignorant about until now. When I was a student at USC in 1968, I saw OJ around campus. Once, he was standing in front of me in the student bookstore. I thought he looked a lot like my cousin Howard Procyshyn, although of a different skin tone. Considering how white OJ thought of himself to be, I’m sure OJ would see the resemblance as well.

I was going to order something else from the small menu, but went with the brick chicken and mushroom bread pudding. Normally I avoid dark meat chicken, but this was  astonishing. Good thing I paid attention to the Yelp raves. Not the chicken itself, but the combination with the pudding. Maybe the best chicken dish I’ve ever had in a restaurant (where I rarely order chicken. We get such great chicken at a local butcher shop that I can cook chicken at home as good as any restaurant could make. I use the rare restaurant order as ideas for home cooking (like the Chicken Picata recently eaten at a restaurant in LA with my cousin- very easy to make.). Making the mushroom bread pudding I suspect is beyond my current culinary skills.
I’d only had lionfish once before. Also in Vegas, it was at Michael Mina’s American Fish restaurant at the Aria. The highlight of my 2013 culinary expedition here. The restaurant vanished, and I’ve never seen lion fish on the menu anywhere since. Until now. Indeed, seeing lionfish ceviche on the Artisanal Foods Café menu on their website is what prompted the expensive taxi rides to an obscure part of the city, distant from the strip.
The lionfish ceviche turns out to be refreshing but I fail to taste any fish. I think it’s full of carrots but when I tell the chef that, he informs me they’re actually sweet potatoes. I loathe sweet potatoes, but not the way Johnny Church does them. On the wall of the store there is a little paragraph about how destructive lionfish are, so we should eat lots and lots of them, not the tiny amount in the ceviche. I’d just heard a radio programme about them and send it to the chef as soon as I return. The government teamed up with the church in Colombia to inspire Colombians to come up with recipes and then pig out on lionfish, to save the rest of their indigenous fish. Eating one lionfish saves 34,000 other fish, 6,000 crustaceans and 3,500 other species that wish would otherwise have consumed.  

 Johnny tells me to come back and he’ll make the dish for me with more lion fish in it, free. I would expect it at Milos, and Rick Moonen’s 2 places- both restaurants serious about fish. I’ll have to ask Rob Clark and Ned Bell in Vancouver, our local sustainable seafood champions. We should join the Colombians in their quest to eat this delicious fish and save their native species which the lionfish is endangering. I tell Johnny I’m from Van where Sustainable Seafood is a big thing. He tells me he knows Vancouver’s Chef Pino from the Chefs to the Max meal at Rick’s a couple of years back. Pino’s daughter was just in Vegas and Johnny was escorting her around. The café was kinda hard for the first cabbie to find and the ride cost me $22. No trouble getting back to the Excalibur, which is visible from the nearby big street. Only $20 on the way back.

 Back at Vesper: Colorado 12 year rum, lemon grass syrup, lemon juice, lime juice, muddled cucumber, muddled raspberries and blueberries, egg white and ginger beer. I asked why the cuke and he said they were out of the passion fruit liqueur. The cuke does seem to come in from another angle. As always from Vesper, a very complex drink. I can taste the rum, but the number of tastes involved in this drink is vast. Previously, I had no idea cucumber could be a positive addition to a cocktail, fond as I am of cukes in salads.
  I had made a reservation at Alain Ducasse’s replacement for Mix, the new restaurant Rivea which John Curtas has violently panned in his recent Eating Las Vegas Review. I’m planning to eat at Ducasse’s Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower my next trip to France. I’ll have to check out Ducasse in Vegas on my next trip here. Whatever the food’s quality, it’s more important to me to hang out with Alicia and David Ivy. We meet at Excalibur’s Lobby Bar. They order gin tonics with their favourite brand of gin and I do too. It’s every bit as good as Jose’s, without the pretty plants in it, or the large price. This is only the 2nd time I’ve met them, and each time, there are bars involved. Not surprising, for a couple who used to have a TV show called Pub Crawl. Utterly delightful people. Meeting them is finding oneself in a vortex of conviviality. I give them CDs of collages I’ve been compiling over the past year, music mixed with comedy from the great LA comedy group (celebrating their 50th anniversary this year) The Firesign Theatre. Turns out the Ivys had never heard of them. The young these days have their own comedians, of whom I’m equally unaware. Will people oblivious to Firesign comedy get any enjoyment out of these collages?  The Ivys have a similar sense of humour to the Firesigns. After I described my beef meal at Bazaar Meats the previous night, they tell me how much like love Jose’s other restaurant at the SLS, Ku Noodle, which the Ivys pronounce “Canoodle.” Reminds me of their “Natcho people” line from the TV show. Very Firesignian kind of wordplay. I’m reminded of the Firesign’s comical pronunciation of Big ta JUNGA  Canyon and the San Fernandino Valley from their Nick Danger piece and Phil Proctor calling Canada’s new prime minister “Truffaut” on a recent meeting. Brains and tongues at play.
 In the absence of Ducasse food, I do need Something to eat so they decide we should go to RX Boiler Room over at Mandalay Bay. Although they’ve lived in Vegas for years and got married at the Excalibur, they had never taken its tram to Mandalay Bay, something I used to do several times a day when I was staying at the Excalibur over the years. In the same way, visitors to Vancouver turn me on to places in this city I had never visited, despite three decades in the city. The Ivys wisely order a cheese plate. As Rick Moonen is the city’s Mr. Seafood, I should have perhaps ordered the day’s sustainable special Skate. Instead, I order the only seafood option on the menu (!) shrimp stuffed with crab. Surely, that’ll be good and I’m hungry. From the cocktail menu, I order a drink with guava in it. The best drink I’ve had so far this year (or in quite a while) was a mocktail I had the week before at Vancouver’s great Keefer bar in Chinatown. That liquid wonder was guava juice, kaffir lime syrup, club soda with a serious rosemary twig. That was unbelievably good. Moonen’s cocktail tasted like medicine. If you like Scotch (I should have noticed it as an ingredient, but I was blinded by my new love of guava!) this may be drinkable. If I had a serious disease and this was the medicine I needed to take to fight it, OK. Neither a Scotch liker nor a person in need of life-saving medicine, I’m at best able to drink only half the cocktail. The prawns and crab turn out to be quite fishy! This is not what I expected at a restaurant so dedicated to preaching the joys of sustainable seafood. I should have ordered a glass of white wine, which always mitigates fishiness for me. I always keep a bottle of white wine in the fridge in case the seafood I’ve bought turns out to be fishy. The dish is easier to swallow than the cocktail, perhaps because I was hungry. But I’m not there for the taste experiences. Just as at the two bars we’d gone to when I first met them last year, the Ivys rapidly befriend the bartender. From never having met them before, he’s telling them the best things to order at his former restaurant, a high-end steak house, and then insisting he come with them to ensure they get the best.
After a delightful evening despite my menu failures, we take the tram back to Excalibur and the Ivys depart. One of the last things they say to me is that they consider me a sage. Does that man I’m to be sprinkled on bread crumbs and stuffed inside a turkey? I hope not. I’m not fond of turkey.

Vegas 2016 For the love of the cocktail (singular)

I walk over to Mon Ami Gabi for its splendid grapefruit with mint leaves and candied ginger and a pot of mint tea. Somehow, the grapefruit isn’t as good as it was in my previous visits. It’s still very good. This is the first time I’ve had it with mint tea- my previous tea choices have vanished. The mint pairs with the mint leaves on the fruit to good effect. Mon Ami expects me to order more food but the grapefruit was filling enough for me.
After looking at their menu online,  I was really looking forward to lunch at Julian Serrano’s new restaurant Lago. Julian can cook, and I look forward to see him do outside of Spain what he does so well with Spanish themes. Mediterranean cuisine escaped me at Rivea, though replaced by unpleasant tastes and by, sort of, ambassadors from a universe where Bit was still alive.
I’m the first person in the restaurant. Beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower outside. Very pleasant, airy restaurant. Reading the last few sentences of chapter 6 of Strip Cultures. The chapter is called The Whole World on a Plate. I’d just ordered the seafood salad and the long-awaited Branzino Livornese but the waitress keeps hustling me to order their ham thing. What is this, Spain? I stay with the seafood only. The seafood salad enchants my eyes. I wish I had a functioning camera to shoot it. Said to come with a grapefruit dressing, and featuring a fat chunk of grapefruit atop a palette of vegies and seafood. The salad is very fresh, without actually being tasty. When I’m able to cram other things in my mouth along with the grapefruit slice, it’s pretty good. I’ll use this information at home. However, minus that singular chunk of citrus, the salad slides back into tastelessness. I’m eating a menu.
    “While the language learner might strive for cultural immersion,” p. 195, reminds me of the robot in Ex Machina who wanted to stand in the busiest crossroads in large cities. “How do we make sense of our surroundings when the eye is so bewildered or absorbed in pretense?” kind of sums up my salad. Gorgeous, but largely tasteless. At least better than Moonen’s crab assassination last night.
The branzino sounded great on the website menu. Smells wonderful in front of me. Looks fabulous, but so did the tasteless salad. Lots of Japanese food looks beautiful and tastes terrible. This however, tastes as good as it looks. The waitress asks how I like the fish and I tell her it’s outstanding. I must learn how to make this myself. I can’t say that I’ve thought of black olives with fish before, assuming the olives would overwhelm a mild fish like this. But combined with the cherry tomatoes and the capers (how Mediterranean can you get?) the fish seems to sing. The asparagus is unnecessary. Pretty, though.
  I ask what the desert was and am told it’ll be a surprise. I should have warned the waitress I don’t eat chocolate. Too late, she proudly offers a plate full of chocolate. Some surprise, like a serious disease. I send it back. She returns with lemony and thus edible things.
  After using one of the best restrooms in the planet at the Mandarin Oriental, I settle in the wondrously comfortable Tea Lounge and await my Jasmine Tea-Off that had so enchanted me here last year. Had some difficulty getting it. I thought it was on the tea menu, but when I ask for it, although there are 3 jasmine teas, none meet my specifications. “Must be discontinued” my waitress tells me. I tell her about the pear, and recall the name Jasmine Tea Off. “Oh, that’s on our mocktail menu!”  “One of the best things I’ve had in Vegas,” I inform her. Along with the overwhelmingly Zen experience of being in this wonderful place. People speak so softly here, it’s extraordinary after the relentless noise of the Strip. As I begin sipping the mocktail, I’m hit by the strong jasmine flavour. More so as it enters my nose. Yet the flavour is surprisingly bland. I remain in search of pear. It should be paired perfectly with the jasmine for this drink to work. I have yet to encounter it. Must be hiding somewhere in this jasmine forest. Call the florist. The drink continues, still pearless. It reminds me of what Gertrude Stein said of Oakland: There’s no there, there. Here, there’s no pear. There may be some anonymous fruit involved, to keep the drink from being just jasmine water. The flaw of Zen: you can’t live on nothing. Unlike Vegas, with its relentless there-ness. The anonymous fruit is like a very thick canvas pretending to be a painting.  Pears could be out of season, but that never stops the unending fruit delivery here. Gotta keep the gamblers happy. Maybe the recipe for this drink has become so obscure, they’ve forgotten what goes into it, like their neighbours at Twist with its total forgetting of the recipe for their Passion Fruit Sour Martini, their signature cocktail a few years ago. Jasmine permeates this drink as I read in Strip Cultures about how smoke permeates Vegas. A ubiquitous waste product. Jasmine saturates this drink, yet does not remind me of jasmine tea, which I drink often at home. It kind of symbolizes the whole trip so far: things aren’t as good as they were in my memory (sea bass at Le Cirque, grapefruit at Gabi, several teas). Things are hit and miss, as Non-Susan the Bar Masa Bartender told me about Le Cirque. Have I become so saturated with Vegas that there’s no room for new impressions? That certainly wasn’t the case at Artisanal Foods or Lago’s Fish Livornese. The young woman at Le Cirque spoke so slowly. The young should speak slowly. They have all the time in the world to compose their sentences. They needn’t fill every second with chatter (the young women next to me machine-gun each other with chatter). For oldsters like me, it would make more sense to speak quickly, to get as much out as possible before death shuts us up permanently. The pear-lessness reminds me of a scene in the John Barth novel The End of the Road. The main character is trying to find out the day’s weather prediction. It isn’t in the paper, or the TV news, oddly. He calls the weather station and is told that today there is no weather.

I hadn’t read Eater Vegas for a long time. For some reason I decided to check it out before my upcoming trip. An expensive mistake.
For the Love of the Cocktail was a charity event I bought a ticket to, expecting to have a wide variety of cocktails with 4 of the world’s best mixologists. I did chat at some length with the drink maestros, but alas, only a single cocktail from each of them was to be had.
I first learned of the existence of Tony Abou-Ganim from an interview on Al Mancini’s Vegas Video Network TV show Top of the Food Chain a few years ago. Sounded like a serious cocktail creator and a jovial guy. The M Life magazine that appears in every hotel room in the MGM chain of hotels had alerted me to the Bellagio cocktail when I was in Vegas last year. I went to the Petrossian Bar and tried one. Not bad. Then the bartender turned me on to another of Tony’s inventions, Skye Vodka infused with fresh pineapple, blueberries, raspberries and vanilla bean. See my blog for Sunday. So I had something to talk to Abou about.
Google informed me that Francesco LaFranconi first became famous for concocting a drink called The Gambler for an Italian competition: fresh white peach, pineapple puree, sparkling wine and lemon rum. I wondered how he could keep the peach from being overwhelmed by the pineapple.
Cuban mixologist Julio Cabrera had won the same award, World’s Most Innovative Bartender, as my cousin. I had something to talk to him about.
The event was taking place in The Brand Bar and the maestro of the bar and thus, host of the event was Salvatore Calabrese, creator of the world’s most expensive cocktail and the world’s foremost authority on cognac. I’ve enjoyed a tasty snifter of cognac or two in my time. I had something to talk to Salvatore about. So, lots of good talk and good drinks, right?
The World’s 4 Best Mixologists (yeah, like that isn’t subjective) were introduced with great fanfare. They each entered the bar heralded by young women carrying bottles of their sponsoring spirits. They each spoke about their histories and motivations. They each created their solitary signature cocktail of the evening behind the bar while phones merrily recorded
 Salvatore bragged a lot. “I’m celebrating my 50th year as a bartender next year,” he proclaimed, and people actually clapped. Why? Doing something for a long time doesn’t mean you’re any good at it. I celebrated the 50th anniversary of my first DJ appearance on radio last November. Does that make me a good DJ? Not at all. You’re a good bartender if you make a drink that I like. Period. I’m a good DJ if you like what I play. Period. Length of time has nothing to do with it.
Upon moving to Vegas, “the city that never sleeps,” Salvatore decided to create a cocktail to fight sleepiness. Coffee, made with champagne instead of water. I never tried it. Preparing for the event, I looked him up on YouTube, and unlike Francesco’s Gambler fame, Salvatore has many, many YouTube videos of his many cocktail creations. One of them must appeal to me. I told him I liked fruity, Tiki-type cocktails and asked what he’d suggest. Instead of pleasantly answering, he thrust a menu in my face. I studied it. A woman standing next to me at the bar was drinking one of his cocktails called the Spicy 51 and recommended it. I should have been wary, I have no tolerance for spicy anything. Not only was the cocktail undrinkable, they actually charged me for it. The price of admission to the event was steep, and now they’re ripping me off for this palate violation? Weren’t all the cocktails included? Not this one, apparently. Things began to go downhill when I discovered there were to be only single cocktails from each of the mixologists. I had been led to believe there was to be a competition. New drinks created in front of me. I even met one of judges. But judges of what? After they created their signature drinks for the cell phones, the mixologists created no more. The event was deceptively promoted. Was I the only one who cared?
I talked to Francesco about The Gambler. “But that was So Long Ago,” he complains. Never does answer my question about how to keep the pineapple from overwhelming the peach. He says the drink was a gamble whether it would work or not. He tells me of his unpleasant experience working at Harry’s Bar in Venice. I tell him of when Fumiyo and I escaped a deluge by ducking into that bar when we were in Venice. “We’d like some wine,” we told the bartender. We’d been drinking almost nothing but the great Italian sparkling wine Prosecco since we came to Italy, and expected to continue. “We only serve cocktails here,” sniffed the bartender contemptuously. We looked around and noticed everyone in the bar seemed to be drinking Prosecco. I asked what everyone was drinking. “Prosecco,” said the asshole in a tie. We had some of that. It was delightful to hear Francesco disparage that wretched excuse for a bar.
I told Tony about my experience with the Bellagio cocktail and the infusion he created. I told him I had remembered raspberries from last year’s infusion and that was what I’d used when I sought to recreate it at home. Now the Petrossian bar tender told me to use strawberries. OK, though the raspberry infusion actually tasted better. Tony said it didn’t matter, whichever was in season. Thanks, Tony.
After Julio acknowledged the genius of my cousin, his fellow World’s Most Imaginative human, I wanted to talk to him about Cuban native fruit. Were there fruit you could only get in Cuba? I told him there were in Japan. He mentioned yuzu. A very common ingredient in high-end western cooking these days. I told him about sudachi, a Japanese fruit we've never seen in Vancouver. Does Cuba have such fruit? Yes. Still, Cuba is a lot closer to Miami, where Julio makes drinks, than Japan is to, well, anywhere.
It was interesting to me that Julio went to Cuban bartending school, a 2-year course, from which one graduates as a “cantinero.” Does everyone who becomes a cantinero become an imaginative bartender? Able to create great new cocktails spontaneously, on demand like everyone at Vesper does everyday? I was a teacher for a long time but I never taught creativity, nor can I imagine how it’s done.  Always looking for new flavours is a start, new combinations. Curiosity is your friend.
The ticket included dinner at Giada, a newish upscale Italian place with lots of primo vino. Wish the cocktails had as much variety. The crowd was split into various tables, so I ended up with half a dozen tablemates. All of them seemed to live in Vegas. I expect that at the bars and restaurants I visit, but I had expected more out-of-towners at this event. Maybe they’re at other tables. Everyone I have met who lives here, tonight and throughout my 6 visits to Vegas, is REALLY HAPPY to be living in Vegas. Maybe because it’s warmer than where they left? Maybe because there’s so much money sloshing around from all those losing gamblers. I haven’t talked to any of the many homeless who haunt the walkways. Perhaps they’re happier pan handling here than in some cold city.
We start out with a vast plate of antipasto. Each is delicious. I’m ordered to eat the bacon stuffed with cheese. It is indeed as tasty as the cheese-stuffed peppers and they pair perfectly with the vino onslaught. We hear many lectures about the making and selling of the various wines. I’m no oenophile. Wine to me is part of a meal and of no particular interest by itself, particularly red wine. I use red wine to make sangria at home, and drink it without food only when visiting friends who insist. Its subtle charms are lost on me. I always keep a bottle of white wine in the fridge because my default protein is fish and sometimes it’s too fishy to eat without wine. Nonetheless, I drink so little that the bottle always goes flat before I can finish it.
Speaking of fish, and not surprising for an Italian restaurant, our fish course is branzino again. Not nearly as good as Julian Serrano’s take on this fish at Lago for lunch, but no complaints. The beef dish however is far too meaty for my tastes. Even the copious red wine pairings just barely make it edible, momentarily mooed back to life. I turn down the desert, without even asking if it contains chocolate. I end up eating beef three times on this trip, which is about as often as I eat beef in the average year. David Ivy had told me he refuses to pay a lot of money for Italian food- it’s just not Fine Dining by his definition. True, pizza is not, even if it’s my favourite food. Pasta should never be expensive. He’s appalled that a restaurant would charge $60 for lasagna On the other hand, Cioppino’s food in Vancouver is very expensive and worth every penny. Perhaps David will change his mind once he dines there. The young are so easy to impress, perhaps because they have yet to be pierced by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (If you don’t know the Hamlet reference, you need to read more).
Just crossed the bridge from the Cromwell to Caesars Palace. It’s so 3-dimensional. It IS 3D. Why does it look even more so to me now? Was there some psychedelic substance slipped into my wine, like the Greeks used to employ in their rituals? The tram from the Bellagio is easily used.

Vegas 2016 Still in Vegas

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

Vegas Cultures is plural by definition. It reminds me of one of my favourite books, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. In it, Marco Polo is summoned to the court of Kublai Kahn to tell the Kahn about the cities he has visited. The book is the stories of these varied, fantastic cities. At the end of the book, we discover Marco has only been describing his home town, Venice, in its various masks and from different perspectives.
On this trip, I’ve had loup de mer, branzino, sea bass and ordered the lavraki. They are all the same fish, just different names.

The Fabulous Las Vegas says the city’s famous sign, I saw for the first time on the taxi ride back from Artisanal Foods to my hotel on the south Strip. What, are there other Vegas’s?  Is there also The Mundane Las Vegas? The Tedious Las Vegas? The Tiring Las Vegas? To those who live there, there probably are. But they choose to live in this city. I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t delighted to be there, who had any plans to go back to where they came from.
Around 50 years ago, my high school friend Cliff was wondering about a career path in medicine, like his father. But maybe he couldn’t get into medical school? Or maybe, once in, he discovered he really didn’t want to be a doctor. What was plan B? Well, Cliff loved to play the cello. Could you make a living at it, I wondered? I’d never heard of cello player making a living anywhere except in a symphony orchestra, and it would be as hard to break into that as any medical school. “I can make a living playing the cello in Vegas,” he informed me. I’d never thought of Vegas as anything but a gambling den, beloved by my uncle, who’d return and give me silver dollars, but oblivious to any other interpretation for me before Cliff made that pronouncement. The 2 million people who live out in the desert must include a lot of Cliffs: people who’ve hit the jack pot just by being there. Living off the losses of the gamblers. Despite the city’s increasingly imperiled water supply, their toilets probably flush more reliably than mine at the Excalibur.

Vegas 2016: Home

I’d Rather be Home, Sick than Homesick

Home At Last
Not just my favourite song on Aja. Exactly how I felt when I got back to Vancouver. “Where did you go?” asks the customs woman. “Vegas,” I informed her.
“What for?” “The food.” “What food?” “The food at the best restaurants in Vegas.” “Such as…?” “Le Cirque,” I said by rote, though it’s no longer true. 
”Guy Savoy.” Still true. “Bazaar Meats, Lago, Giada, Artisanal Foods Café, Eiffel Tower, Milos…” “Is it your job?” “Just a blog.” “OK, you can go.” I must have been making her hungry.
She seemed dubious that I didn’t buy anything, but that’s not to say I didn’t bring anything back. Probably from the flight, I got a cold, which struck 2 days later when I was working on these notes. Soon, my skin was as hot as the pavement on a Vegas summer day; my nose as leaky as the Vancouver sky. Instead of transformational and educational meals, I needed nutrition.
Fumiyo came through with soup. It wasn’t as much a revelation as the bouillon at Bouchon. It was what I needed. The more I ate, the healthier I got.
The soup is made from carrots, potatoes, burdock, and daikon sautéed with butter. Water is added. When the soup bubbles, the bubbles and grease are removed. Torigawa (chicken stock) powder is added. So is sake and salt. The soup is simmered. You eat the soup. Your sickness goes away.

The dread I felt as the trip actually started. Was it justified? If so, by what? That the fish at Le Cirque was far, far below what I expected? No, it’s only the 3rd worst fish dish I’ve had there. The main fish dish I had last year was relentlessly worse. A langoustine dish I had on my first visit was so vile I had to send it back. This was at least edible, particularly with the addition of $29.00 worth of wine (a small glass of P. Montrachet). Was it the failed Jasmine Tea Off? That was disappointing, not depressing. Not seeing friends I’d hoped to see was more disappointing. Not being able to film was a drag, but the same thing happened last trip. So, no, the dread wasn’t justified, but perhaps defensive. How bad can things be when I expect them to be bad. Or maybe the cold that overwhelmed me 2 days after coming home was just starting the day before I left Vegas. Whatever, health has returned.
Food as medicine is basically the reason for food. We eat it and stay alive. Food aesthetics also has an evolutionary basis. Animals are attracted to colours of ripe and thus, most nutritious fruit. We find things delicious because we need their nutrients. But first we need to stay alive.
As for delicious things, I recreated the Branzino Livornese last night, even better than at Lago. I often eat High Liner brand Flame Savours Flame-Seared Seafood, Tilapia Tuscan Herb: Italian herbs, roasted red bell peppers and garlic. Baked at 400 degrees in parchment paper for 23 min. This time I added a dieing green pepper from the fridge, cut into thin strips; a dozen cherry tomatoes and a dozen Kalamata olives, cut in half, a tablespoon of capers and baked everything in parchment for 25 minutes. I could not believe how good it was. I’d always just eaten this fish by itself  but now I know better. Not only better than Lago’s Livornese, better than anything I ate in Vegas and about $4.00 for everything (and Nothing is cheap in Canada.). I was going to add a veggie side, but the veggies on the fish made it a whole meal. The trip was worth it just to learn that. I was as stunned at how good it was as the maiden at Le Cirque was by my compliment. Just bought some premium chicken stock from the soup store and some gnocchi at Puccini’s Italian deli so will try to equal Bouchon’s great soup tomorrow.  Guzzling a tall glass of pineapple juice mixed 5:1 with The Great Jamaican Old Tyme Ginger Beer ($1.50 for a  250 ml. bottle) which is almost as good as something from Vesper. Will make some sangria to drink while watching The Simpsons tonight (too sick to watch last week’s episode, I’ll probably watch it tonight as well.). Home at last!