Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Viva Las Vegas - Could You Point Me Towards the Vomitorium

A business trip brought me to Las Vegas for the first time the other week. I was skeptical of course, how would grown-up Disneyland seem to a jaded New Yorker with a distaste for crowds? I decided to follow in Le Bourdain's footsteps and make sure I ate a number of nice meals in an attempt to make sure I would have something good to say about the town when I returned.

I needn't have worried. I saw the lobby of my hotel and the inside of the office building where I was working and little else. However, each evening I had a reservation and a table for one awaited me if I could only navigate beyond the glittering lights and tinkling machines.

I dined with clients on the first evening at Craftsteak. This was my first meeting with the clients and I feared their response to something overly precious or complicated and figured that everyone, save vegetarians, can get in the mood for steak so steak it was. Regrettably, I didn't take pictures as I thought that might undermine my professionalism.

I can say, though, that I had an entirely serviceable meal. The meat was very well done, the sides full of butter and cream, and the wine a terrific accompaniment. Except well, the wine...was...RIDICULOUSLY EXPENSIVE. I'm not one to balk at the 250% premium I pay on a regular basis when I drink wine at a restaurant, but Las Vegas's markups were bordering on the ridiculous: $25 bottles were being poured by the glass at $18. Howvere moderately inflated I might have found the prices of the food relative to Manhattan, the wine prices were just a joke.

Something brought into sharp relief the next night at Bouchon.

Granted, I got to walk past the fake canals of Venice through the heavily ornate interior of the Venetian hotel on my way to the restaurant and was able to spend a truly terrific 15 minutes prior to arriving by the Venetian's pool, reading a book, smoking a cigarette or two, and delighting in the balmy evening temperatures that hovered around 70 degrees.

I had a string pulled to get me an earlier reservation: 9:00pm vs. 10:30pm, but I wondered if I needed bother. The restaurant was nowhere near full when I arrived (which makes me a little dissatisfied with my table without a view (but I do acknowledge that a single diner gets the short end of the table selection stick). My food, though, was nothing short of perfect.

I'll admit my stomach was rebelling over the amount of 15% alcohol California zin I had objected it to the night before and did not at all agree with my choice of appetizer and main course, but we settled the dispute between ourselves when I opted for two half glasses of wine from the "Sommelier's Selection-" a way to charge me $17 for a half glass of wine while making me feel good about it. I rationalized this by not ordering the $50 plate of foie gras.

I started with the duck confit over braised mustard greens garnished with blood orange. The highest compliment I can pay to Bouchon is that decorum only prevented me from sucking the tiny bits of meat off the bone. It was a perfect duck confit, marred only by my stomach saying to me at one point, "are you kidding me, lady?" The skin was crispy, the meat was dripping in fat and pulled delightfully away from the aforementioned bone. I ate the tiniest ladylike bites I could muster simply to prolong the eating experience, and to prevent myself from ordering seconds.

Without a second thought to my gastrointestinal distress, I followed it up with the braised beef cheeks with French lentils.

Not the most diverse-hued of a dish, but boy did it make up for it by displaying a range of unctuousness I thought was reserved for things like straight melted goose fat.

My stomach and I skipped dessert, rationalizing this deprivation by the selection of probably wonderful but traditional bistro desserts on offer - the signature chocolate bouchons having been lovingly consumed on many other occasions at the bakery outpost in the Time Warner Center.

But if these forays were the appetizers in our Roman orgy of food, the main course was something we couldn't have expected and, sorry to say, can't be super forthcoming about.

Wednesday night in Vegas I dined at a restaurant whose name I am not at liberty to reveal because I don't want my review to seem biased and a close relative works for the restaurant group. Let it be said, though, that if you ever have a chance to be considered a VIP guest at any restaurant, you should take it and take it quickly before they realize you're a nobody who happens to be related to somebody and whisk you away to a table in the kitchen where they feed you potato peels.

I was warmly welcomed and ushered to the best seat in the house - outdoors where I was blissfully permitted to smoke. My waiter appeared with a wine list and mentioned to me that there was no menu because the chef wanted to cook for me (if that isn't music to my ears). He politely inquired if I had any food preferences to which I responded no (as I firmly believe one should unless one is deathly allergic to something. There are foods I never thought I would like or consent to eat that I have delighted in because I left myself in a chef's hands).

And the cavalcade commenced.

I started with a sadly unphotographed amuse of potato pancake with horseradish and cranberry relish.

A trio of appetizers followed.

Porcini quiche with parmesan tuile, merguez sausage and falafel, and parsley cream stuffed chicken wing. I'm a sucker for merguez so I'm going to annoint that two bite wonder the winner. As soon as I finished the plates I realized with alarm that I ought not to have eaten the whole thing - there was bound to be more to come.

Next up was deconstructed Nicoise salad

I used to be frightened of raw fish - deeply deeply frightened. And I'll admit, though it does lower me in the estimation of many, that I'm still not sold enough to make an entire meal out of it, but I've come to really enjoy raw fish as part of a larger meal. For my Passover seder I traded gefilte for tuna tartare. This salad in two parts was one part tuna tartare with duck egg (and I think I've mentioned before what a big fan I am of egg yolk as dressing) and one part Nicoise salad vegetables. I was struck by how the deconstruction wasn't gimmick-ey but necessary for the enjoyment of the dish: had the tuna been part of the salad with an egg topping it, the whole thing wouldn't have been nearly as good. It was far more satisfying to take, chew, and digest a bite from one side and follow it with a bite from the other.

Next up was torchon de foie gras. I'd love to show you how beautiful this presentation was: stark white plate, cylindrical marvel of foie gras, tiny diced and compoted apples, beautiful dollop of mustard chantilly. But I can't. Because as soon as I saw the foie, I pounced. I didn't even realize I was doing it. In fact, it wasn't until the plate looked like this:

did I realize that I hadn't taken a picture. So I give you what it looks like when I meet torchon. It isn't pretty.

Having settled the first part of the meal, I was now in for it. I mean, obviously I ate the entire bit of foie gras - it would have been absolute sin not to. But I was now uncomfortably full and we hadn't even reached main courses.

This is an example of something I wouldn't have ordered on my own, but which was amazing. This is Hawaiian marlin in a meyer lemon gastrique and it was, hands down, the best dish of the night (ok, well, excepting the foie, but it is my opinion that nothing compares...) The shoestring potatoes provided a nice crunch, but the star was the fish itself which was both like cooked tuna but nothing like it. It paired with the lemon in a way that didn't express necessity, the way lemon and some fish feels; instead, the lemon cut the fattiness of the fish and smoothed it out brilliantly. I was taken aback by this dish.

But by this time, the evening had taken a turn for the worse. It was at this moment that I entertained serious thoughts about hitting the bathroom to remove some of the offending material from my stomach so that it could absorb further gustatory delights. I'm not proud of this, nor did I do it, but I feared the future. I was sure that I was in for at least one more savory course and then the desserts, both dreaded and anticipated.

This poor trio of pork, lovingly prepared and barely touched was a testament to my fullness. I had a nibble here of loin, and a morsel of homemade sausage, and, well, ok, all of the pork belly. I know it was delicious, I just can't say I enjoyed it so much.

At this point I begged my waiter for a reprieve before dessert. I wanted to smoke a little, mind over matter my bloated carcass a little, and overall enjoy the warm evening. The couple sitting across from me asked me the "why are you so special?" question and I tried to tell them it was both blessing and curse.

When dessert arrived it was as though god and the chef had heard and answered my prayers:

look, ma, bite-size! A selection of the wonderful desserts in a portion I could feel fine about. A nibble of each would do me fine. Chocolate mousse with dacquoise - wonderful! Apple mousse over shortbread - mmm, appley. Trio of tropical sorbets - palate-cleanserrific. And pistachio mousse tart with raspberries - a perennial favorite. I didn't feel guilty by not wolfing everything down, I even saved the last available bit of space for an espresso and a bite of the two dessert amuses.

It was an amazing meal, and I enjoyed it utterly alone. Though, in hindsight, having a partner to eat with me might have meant more would have gotten eaten.

So that was my trip to Las Vegas. On the last night, I cried mercy and went to bed without supper, but three nights in a row of gluttony might be as many as I can stand.

I was pleasantly surprised that the three restaurants I ate at did not feel contrived or second-rate. I would merely state that, for me, the over the top-ness of Las Vegas and by extension its restaurants, doesn't necessarily create the atmosphere for dining I most enjoy. Still, if you would rather spend money on food than Cirque du Soleil, you could do worse.

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