I was in Vegas with the family for a good friend’s 40th birthday weekend (or, as we chose to put it, her 39.99999….th birthday), and managed to sneak in two meals at places I can recommend.
Border Grill, located in Mandalay Bay near the hotel’s aquarium, first came to my attention via Top Chef Masters, where Mary Sue Milliken, one of the restaurant’s two founding chefs, won one of season three’s least ridiculous challenges (the fast-food challenge) with a recipe for quinoa fritters that I’ve made probably a dozen times at home since the show first aired. As it turns out, the Border Grill added quinoa fritters to the menu, which was enough to get us to try the restaurant since it’s the rare food item all three of us love.
Those fritters were excellent, larger than I expected and much softer inside without losing any of the crisp exterior – clearly I need to cook my quinoa a little longer, or with more liquid, before cooling it to make the fritters. They’re served with a mildly spicy aji amarillo aioli (although I find they work even better with a homemade chipotle mayonnaise, since the fritters themselves are so mild in flavor). We ended up ordering only smaller plates because the fritters can be so filling – two plates of fritters, one of green corn tamales, and a ceviche duo. The tamales were very sweet with a soft, rustic texture, rather than the mealy masa texture of most of the tamales I’ve ever had. The ceviche duo was half successful; the Peruvian style ceviche, with garlic and ginger, served on a tortilla chip, was phenomenal, but the baja ceviche was overwhelmed by one ingredient – I think it was mustard – and the fish just disappeared under the sauce. I like raw fish preparations that highlight the freshness of the fish itself, but between that heavy sauce and the fine dice of the fish, I couldn’t even tell what the fish was, while the Peruvian version was much more balanced (aside from perhaps a little too much red onion). My daughter also had a quesadilla that was clearly made with a fresh homemade tortilla; I’d offer her opinion, but I don’t think she’s ever met a quesadilla she didn’t like.
The dessert special of the day was mango upside-down cake, served with a quenelle of mango sorbet, and I don’t see why that isn’t a regular menu item printed in large bold letters; the cake was a little sticky-sweet on its own, but if you could get the sorbet and cake all together in one bite, the tanginess of the sorbet (from orange juice, I think) balanced out that sweetness so that the predominant flavor was mango rather than sugar and butter. I happen to love mangos for their complexity – they’re sweet, but with a savory component that reminds me of carrots, so you don’t find yourself beaten over the head with sweetness – and this cake highlighted the fruit perfectly.
I also took the family to Cafe Bouchon, located in the Venetian, for Sunday brunch and ordered something I hadn’t tried before, Bouchon’s take on chicken and waffles, not exactly authentic but one of the most memorable breakfast items I’ve ever had. The chicken is roasted rather than fried, a half bird, the breast still moist, the skin a rich brown and well seasoned, with a hunter’s sauce (a brown sauce made from red wine and mushrooms) on the side. The waffles contained bacon and chives and were airy and crispy and probably contained about a pound of butter, but really, waffles are supposed to have too much fat for any reasonable diet, because that’s what makes them awesome. Bouchon also had a special beignet of the day, filled with raspberry filling that tasted not of sugar but of fresh raspberries, the type of detail I’d expect from a restaurant founded by a chef known for his meticulous approach to cooking. We overordered a little bit, in part because my daughter came down with a cold and we just wanted to ensure there would be something on the table she’d like, but there was nothing on the table – not even the apricot jam or the fresh epi-shaped country bread – that was less than perfect. One caution: It ain’t cheap, but it is decadent.