Sunday, February 7, 2010

Eating Las Vegas

This was going to be a top 10 list of favorite tastes from my recent culinary tour of Las Vegas, but as I started going through the over 700 photos I took, I realized there was no way I could pick just 10.

I lost count on day two, but I estimate we sampled about 130 separate dishes – and don't even get me started on the drinks! You really have to go there to truly appreciate it, but the staggering array of world-class food, eye-popping restaurant design, and army of star chefs, all in such close proximity makes Las Vegas foodie heaven on earth.

The dining scene in Vegas has become so grand that you almost forget about the sex, gambling, and other more established forms of debauchery...almost. It's still Sin City, but the sins are less about morality, and much more dietary in nature. Go ahead – have a second slice of foie gras, who's going to know?

As I washed my hands in the restroom next to Mon Ami Gabi at Paris Las Vegas, I listened to a French language lesson over the PA. I learned that, "Est-ce que c'est un éclair dans votre poche, ou êtes-vous simplement heureux de me voir?" means, "Is that an éclair in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?" That, as the kids say these days, is so Las Vegas 2010.

So without further ado, here are my favorite food moments from the trip. Enjoy!

I love seeing and tasting new things, and this butter/olive oil spread really tickled me. What a great idea. Shallow wells pressed into a dish of butter, filled with olive oil, then garnished with peppers, herbs, coarse-ground black pepper and flaky sea salt. I shall try to hide my disappointment the next time I'm served plain butter, or just olive oil. Why can't I have both?

This was enjoyed at a great luncheon hosted by Vegas Uncork'd at Vintner Grill.

Passed hors d'oeuvres before a big meal are supposed to serve two purposes. First, provide a little bump in blood sugar so you can effectively keep up with that, "Are short ribs the baby arugula of meat?" cocktail conversation. Second, to tease your taste buds and stimulate your appetite without filling you up. This crab salad on apple chips, also from the Vintner Grill, was perfect.

So that I could feign at least a small amount of journalistic integrity, I was really hoping this limoncello sorbet-topped oyster would be as terrible as it sounded. Sorry, but it totally worked. I'll admit, I did only use about half the amount scooped on top, but the icy lemon slush on the wet, briny oyster was delicious. I had three, but could have easily eaten a dozen. This was served at Aureole in the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino.

If you're going to do a tartare these days, it better be great. This exquisitely presented Waygu beef tartare was. Some wondered whether the fattier beef would work in a raw presentation. It did. Garnished with a perfectly poached egg yolk, pickled mustard seeds, and crispy chocolate wafer, this offering from Chef Shawn McClain at Sage in the Aria Resort, was an easy choice for this list.

From the same meal at Sage, this magnificent plate of smoked sturgeon, honey crisp apple, bacon chips, and fromage blanc proves once and for all that people who say fish and cheese can never be served together are idiots.

I was really hoping I would run into Bobby Flay at Mesa Grill in Caesar's Palace. I felt that given the opportunity I should probably apologize for all those chipotle jokes I've done over the years at his expense. All kidding aside, this blue corn pancake filled with barbecued duck, garnished with habanero chile-star anise sauce was inspired. In the true test of a great first course, every bite was as good as the first.

Before a memorable lunch at the Fiamma Trattoria & Bar in the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, master pasta maker and chef Carlos Buscaglia gave our group a hands-on pasta making class. He demo'd how to make gnocchi, angelotti, and ravioli, and said after we were done, they'd cook what we had made, so we could enjoy eating the fruits of our labor. Not to disparage the pasta making skills of my fellow food writers, but thankfully he was kidding. This pasta trio of lobster and truffle gnocchi, butternut squash angelotti, and short rib ravioli was otherworldly.

As some of you may know, I used to teach in the Le Cordon Blue program at the California Culinary Academy, so I was excited when I found out we were going to get a tour of the LCB Las Vegas. After our tour we had a great scallop dish created by Chef Jason Labahn, who used a locally grown squash in three ways; fried, pureed, and as a foam. How good was it? When was the last time I featured something with a foam on this blog?

Super chef Hubert Keller, co-owner of Fleur de Lys Restaurant at Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, served a truffled onion soup that was beyond delicious. I tried to sip as slowly as humanly possible, and when it was gone I was actually sad.

This extremely slow-brasied beef short rib with bacon and mushrooms, from Chef Sean Griffin of Prime in the Bellagio, is the least creative thing to make the list. By the way, that's no insult, in fact, I think it's quite a compliment. It was just a beautifully cooked piece of meat – perfectly seasoned, perfectly sauced, and paired with a bright green chive spaetzle. Contrary to popular belief, less is rarely more, but in this case it was.

Why in the world haven't I done a chimichurri sauce video yet? It's such a great accompaniment for grilled meats, and was stellar on this huge, dry-aged, bone-in filet of beef at Botero, a truly gorgeous restaurant in the equally impressive Encore at Wynn Las Vegas. The little tart of caramelized onions was a perfect foil to the tangy, herbaceous sauce. My only regret is this wasn't the kind of dinning room where you can just grab the bone and gnaw off the last scraps of succulent meat. Oh well, life is a compromise after all.

If you're keeping score at home, this is the third offering from the Vintner Grill. This braised wild boar tagliatelli was so mind-blowingly good that had one of the servers spilled an entire pot of boiling hot coffee in my lap, I would have finished the plate before going to the hospital. Simply the best wild boar preparation I've ever had.

I'm not a huge fan of savory ingredients in sweets. I always feel like the chef is trying too hard when I see things like bacon and smoked paprika on a dessert menu. But no one could argue the perfect logic behind this combination of pear tart, black pepper crisp, and blue cheese ice cream. This was also from Sage in the Aria Resort.

Finally, what better way to end my list than with this chocolate-dipped vanilla ice cream, served in a wooden naked lady lollipop holder? This very happy ending is modeled after the huge fertility goddess sculpture by Columbian artist Fernando Botero, which is the centerpiece of the restaurant. When I move to Vegas to start my food-based religious cult, this will be one of the first idols we worship.

So there you have it. My woefully inadequate, yet earnest attempt to recap an amazing week in Las Vegas food. I want to thank my very gracious and generous hosts, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, for sponsoring a trip I won't soon forget. I also want to thank all the restaurants and hotels (especially Palms Place, which rocked) mentioned in this piece for providing me with such excellent food and service.

Last, but not least, a heartfelt thanks to all the other culinary journalists (real
journalists, not bloggers like me) who provided such great company; and the talented professionals from R&R Partners, Aerial, and Rooster for their expert guidance, and endless patience and grace. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

Thought the lady was chocolate ^^.

Anway, looks so good!

Unknown said...

Lovely review. I am sure your hosts appreciate your gratitude and your ability to showcase your visit. I've not been there, wouldn't know how to pronounce most of what you ate, and not sure my palette is mature enough to appreciate any of it, but nonetheless, envious of you on all counts. Nice job!

ChrisNY2 said...

Hi Chef John!
Fantastic pictures!
I was wondering if you have a recipe for restaurant-quality baby back ribs..using an oven and not a grill. thanks!

Wendy B. said...

I'm so filled with envy that I can't even breathe right now. I have to go lie down....

Anonymous said...

Everything was presented so that I was jealous of you and Michele savoring all these wonderful dishes. The onion truffle soup, will you be doing a video of that?

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

John, if you want us to know that there's good food in Vegas, you should just come out and say it, without all this beating around the bush.

Chef John said...

Ha! Maybe for our battle royal, instead of arguing against shells in chowder, you could take the side of Vegas is no fun and the food mediocre. ;-) Good luck with that.

tut said...

k foodwish Chef John ,Lobster an truffle gnochi an onion truffle soup k take pity on us its cold an snow storm coming we all going to freeze an thats what i call true soul food :)i be goods to k

Luatica said...

Short rib ravioli, that just sounds awesome. So does the rest, but special mention from my side :p

Critique Tics said...

This was a very professional review. No bushes injured or encircled. I'm sure the people that invited Chef John to Las Vegas appreciate his fine observational and writing skills. I appreciate that my time reading this blog isn't wasted deciphering someones poor use of language, or overloaded with gibberish just to fill content. Chef John's posts are informative, entertaining, and educational. That we can enjoy all of it for free is a huge bonus, for which I am most thankful.

PukaDog said...

I'm ready to join the cult right now!

Diek said...

I'm fortunate that my Vegas trip came right after yours. I'm writing this on the phone in Fleur de lys... and the truffled onion soup is as advertised...unbelievable. I would love it if you made a video of a similar recipe! Thanks for the tip...

Jen said...

Yay! Fantastic post, chef! Looks like you had a wonderful time. Looking forward to seeing you at Vegas Uncork'd!

Chef John said...

Thanks J! (i couldn't have done it without ya)

Anonymous said...

Ah, This is great! Dispells
some misnomers I've seen

Anonymous said...

thank you for sharing those magnificient plates. they inspire a lot!!

Anonymous said...

oh plllllllease do the truffled onion soup for us!!!!

Anonymous said...

i would love to see you trying to recreate the truffled onion soup as well ;-)


Anonymous said...

Dear Chef John,

Is there any way we can make you make the truffled onion soup for us :)?

Thanks so much.