I was pretty much full for four days straight in Las Vegas; I hit an In-n-Out on the way to the hotel, ended up hungry that afternoon because I had an early lunch and a late dinner, and wasn’t hungry again until I landed at Newark on Friday morning. I’d say that’s a successful trip. I’ll start with breakfast.
I would say that if you don’t mind dropping a little coin and getting a little fat at breakfast, you must hit Café Bouchon in the Venetian. Granted, Jeff Erickson of Rotowire and I were in the mood to try everything, so we might have ordered too much, but everything looked so damn good. The key was the $12 plate of four pastries of your choice; we went with the two pastries of the day, the baked apple croissant and the chocolate-almond croissant, and two off the menu, the lemon-currant scone and the sticky pecan roll. This came first, and I had a sugar high going before the rest of the food came, mostly because once I started eating the pastries I couldn’t stop. The apple croissant had been split the long way, topped with crumbs, and baked until the crumbs browned. The chocolate almond croissant was messy, as good chocolate desserts usually are, with dark chocolate and sliced almonds that were falling out of and off the pastry. Those were the two best pastries of the four, although the scone and sticky bun were good. The scone had a perfect balance of sweetness and lemon flavor, but the sticky bun … well, I’m not sure how you complain about a sticky bun being sticky, but there you go. For the meal, I ordered a bowl of yogurt with honey and strawberries, which was huge but otherwise unremarkable (I’m just a big yogurt eater), and the “French toast” which was more like a bread pudding, served as a ring-molded tower with sliced apples and the maple syrup already incorporated. The toast was soggy – not moist but firm, like in a bread pudding, but just plain soggy. I left most of it and went back to the pastries. Jeff ordered the sourdough waffles with bananas, about which he raved; I hate sourdough waffles and pancakes, so there was no point in filching a bite off his plate. Besides, I’d rather do that to Sheehan because he gets more annoyed it about it.
Update, 2012: I revisited Bouchon in April and had their version of chicken and waffles, roasted chicken with hunter’s sauce and a savory, ultra-crisp waffle, that, while not traditional, was probably the best chicken and waffles dish I’ve ever had.
I went to breakfast at Payard Bistro over at Caesar’s twice. The first time, I inadvertently stopped at the café outside the restaurant, thinking that was all there was; the chocolate croissant was fine, but probably made the day before, and the yogurt/granola parfait featured fresh berries but the “granola” was obviously a bar that had been broken up into pieces. The second time I actually found the restaurant, which is just a single room cordoned off from the main restaurant, and it wins huge points for the setup: It’s a circle with the cooking station in the center, so no matter where you sit, you can see something that the chef is doing. Their menu wasn’t that well tailored to me, with a lot of dishes that included cheese and/or ham (I hate American ham), so I went with the three eggs and potatoes. The eggs, scrambled, were light and fluffy, cooked just to the point of “done” and then stopped on a dime, so they weren’t runny but weren’t dry; they could have used some more seasoning, and they weren’t the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever had, but they were done perfectly, if that makes any sense. The potatoes were ridiculous: fingerlings, halved, cooked in butter until brown, with salt and some herbs. They’re called “pommes rissolet,” a typo for “rissolé,” which means browned in butter (or another animal fat) until browned, and for potatoes can also imply that they were blanched before browning. Of course, all of this wasn’t cheap – about $22, including an expensive pot of tea, before tax and tip. For the same price, you could go to Bouchon, have the four-pastry selection, yogurt, and tea, and be much more satisfied.
The one meal for which I didn’t leave the hotel was lunch, since I didn’t think I could sacrifice that much time in the middle of the day. I went to the Bellagio’s buffet twice, having heard from several people that it was the best buffet on the Strip, and it was actually quite good. The oak-roasted salmon is addictive – perfectly cooked, with a strong, almost smoky flavor of oak. The soy-chili marinated flank steak, duck legs in peanut sauce, and large pastry selection were other highlights; the vegetables were mostly mediocre, the St. Louis ribs were a little boring, and the stir-fried bok choy was very bitter. I stayed away from the sushi bar – no way it’s good, even if it’s fresh – and took the bartender’s (good) recommendations for dessert: chocolate-raspberry mousse and the chocolate-chocolate chip cookies.
I was dying to hit Firefly, a tapas bar on Paradise just off the Strip, after hearing about it on Food Network a few years ago, and liked it enough to go twice. (For research purposes, of course.) The first trip was with Alex Speier of WEEI.com, probably a more adventurous eater than I am, which makes him a good dining partner for (wait for it) research purposes. Anyway, despite some below-average dishes, the food was, on the whole, incredible. If you go there knowing what to order, you should do extremely well, and the prices are very reasonable for the strip. I can’t think of a better way to do this than with bullet points:
- Bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with almonds: The one dish I ordered twice. The perfect marriage of sweet, salty, smoky, and tart (from the red wine reduction). They’re like candy. Only bacon-ier.
- Boquerones: Spanish white anchovies, served as canapés on long pieces of toast with roasted red pepper and yellow peppers. They’re nothing like the anchovies you might find on a pizza or in a tin at the supermarket; they’re fresh and soft and just a little bit salty, and since they’re fish, you can pretend that the dish constitutes health food.
- Artichoke toasts: Same idea, but with a piece of artichoke heart sitting on a toast on a thin layer of “aïoli” (which has become a fancypants synonym for “mayonnaise”), sliced roasted red pepper, and chiffonade of basil. Again, completely fresh, and easy to inhale.
- Crispy duck rolls with cherry hoisin: I didn’t care for these, but Alex did. The roll’s exterior was greasy, and the hoisin was too sweet/tangy and overwhelmed the flavor of the duck.
- Pork empanada: Fried, rather than baked, which was a disappointment, because in a tapas bar I expect things to lean more towards the Spanish style. The inside was mushy, the outside was greasy, and the empanada was doused in “aïoli.” I didn’t even eat half of it.
- Patatas bravas: Now this was a good use of aioli, both in application and in the light hand used to apply it. Small red potatoes roasted in olive oil and tossed with rosemary, finished with a little bit of a spicy mayonnaise.
- Chicken and chorizo stuffed mushrooms: Nothing special – small creminis stuffed with a tiny amount of chorizo – if there was chicken in there, it was hidden by the sausage – and served with some sort of cheese melted to the bottom of the dish. I’m not sure what the point of the cheese was.
- Chocolate tres leches cake: An afterthought order that was the star of the show. It’s not a traditional tres leches cake, with a cream or custard filling or some sort of frosting; instead, you get two wedges of a strong cocoa-flavored cake, doused in a mixture of what I assume is three milks (condensed, evaporated, and milk or cream), although the sauce was thinner than I expected, and I doubt it was soaked for the full three hours given the firmness of the cake. It was amazing, with the vanilla/nutmeg flavor of the sauce doing just enough to cut the potential harshness of the cocoa, everything working together to give this chocolate-eggnog flavor that defies prose description. I had to stop eating it only because I was fit to burst.
Alex and I also ventured out to Lotus of Siam, considered one of the best Thai restaurants in the country, a little further off the Strip on Sahara. Neither of us felt qualified to comment on whether it really is one of the best, but it was very good and the service was outstanding. At the server’s suggestion, we started with a Yum Nuah salad, with sliced flank steak and vegetables over mixed greens with a spicy lime-chili dressing. This was about the limit of my spice tolerance, although it was delicious, and I’m pretty sure Alex was mocking me under his breath. I ordered Khao Soi, a northern Thai dish of egg noodles, beef, red onion, and picked vegetables, served – or, more accurately, drowned – in a faintly sweet curry and coconut cream sauce. The flavors mixed well, with the intense tartness of the pickled vegetables helping to offset the sweetness of the sauce, but I could have done with a little less liquid at the bottom of the bowl. I have no idea what Alex ordered – something else I found too hot that he found a little mild. Like Firefly, Lotus was affordable, more evidence that the key to surviving Vegas financially is to eat off the Strip when you can.
I did have one bad meal, at an apparently once-renowned restaurant called Pamplemousse. The interior screamed “faded glamour” – a stupid art-school idea – and the impression was only cemented by the waiter’s comment that a certain menu item was “Mr. Sinatra’s favorite.” (I pointed out that if I were as young as I look, that comment would have meant nothing to me.) A reader had pointed me to the restaurant, raving about the duck, so I ordered it, a roast duck breast with duck confit and roasted potatoes. The owner took my order, since the waiter was nowhere to be found in the empty dining room, and we chatted about where’s from (Aix-en-Provence). Because two large parties had cancelled, the owner left the restaurant shortly after taking my order, and about ten minutes later, the waiter comes to me and asks if I had heard the specials. I said yes, but I had ordered the duck, at which point he informed me that they were out of the duck – making it clear that he knew all along that I had ordered the duck, but was playing some sort of waiter game. This started a downhill spiral; I ordered the fish special, a pan-seared escolar that had no taste and was almost certainly frozen at some point, served with a small dome of white rice that tasted like it came right out of one of those horrid boil-in-bag packages. And it took at least a half an hour from the re-order to delivery, and at that it only arrived after I asked the waiter for an ETA on the meal. The meal also started with a crudité bucket with a nice mustard vinaigrette, but some the vegetables were obviously not fresh and had been cut hours, if not a full day, prior to serving. I imagine once upon a time this was a great restaurant, but the food world has passed it by.
Last spot worth mentioning was Café Gelato in Belagio, where you can get a “small” gelato (bigger than my fist) for $4.75. I went with dulce de leche and chocolate; it was about average, a solid 50, but no better. The gelato was smooth but a little heavy and absolutely not traditional; the chocolate had a good, dark cocoa flavor but the dulce de leche was a little weak.