As we descended into the glitz and glamour that is known as Sin City, our flight attendant
reminded us to raise our seat backs and tray tables for the final descent to the 9th Hawaiian
Island also known as Las Vegas. Lost wages? “Come on! Gotta be a little more optimistic than
that!” Well… I have a greater chance of being hit by lightning than lining up the three eagles
on the Megabucks machine – I’m actually 200 times more likely to be struck by lightning. So
Las Vegas usually does equate to Lost Wages. However, I’m not here to seek instant fortune at
the slots but rather to hit the culinary jackpot in the other City That Never Sleeps.
So Many Restaurants, So Little Time
What other city offers the cuisine of Boulud, Maccioni and Flay of New York, Palmer and
Bayless of Chicago, Puck, Feniger & Milliken, Splichal, Keller and Ogden of California, Josselin of
Hawaii and Emeril along with countless other specialty cafes and brasseries within a space of 3
miles along the Strip?
We started with dinner at Bouchon in The Venetian. Since Bay Area denizens can partake of
Thomas Keller’s sister restaurant in Yountville with virtually the same menu, I won’t bore you
with details. Suffice to say that the homemade terrine of duck foie gras was wonderful, the
roasted leg of lamb divine and the roasted chicken was the first poultry dish I’ve had that melted
in my mouth.
We next had lunch at Todd English’s Olives at the Bellagio (since most of Chef English’s other
restaurants are based on the East Coast, you might consider Olives at your next Vegas getaway).
Aside from the couple of dinners we had, I always recommend dining during the lunch hours as
the menu is almost the same albeit with a smaller price tag. The last thing you want to do in
Vegas is gorge on a heavy dinner just to exit the restaurant to 90 degree heat. As usual, Olives
was excellent (it was my 4th visit) – they did remodel to mimic a Pottery Barn store. Their beef
carpaccio is probably the best I’ve ever had served over mixed salad greens on top of a Roquefort
polenta cake and drizzled with aioli and pesto. Both the Seared Sea Bass (substituted for halibut)
and the Grilled Swordfish were excellent though the lentil and Dungeness crab salad served below
the swordfish was off the mark (mainly because of the raw bean sprout (?) which is one of the
few flavor sensations I don’t relish). The Ricotta Gnocchi were flavorful and chewy without
being too doughy and the Shrimp Panzanella salad was the perfect answer to a light lunch in the
scorching Vegas heat.
What to Do Between Meals?
We did take in the Cirque du Soleil Ka show at the MGM Grand. If you’ve never experienced a
live Cirque du Soleil show, I highly recommend it. The Bravo cable station occasionally has
Cirque marathons but live is like riding in a Ferrari going 200 miles per hour versus simply
watching one on television. There currently are 4 Cirque shows performing in Vegas; the Mystere
show at Treasure Island (75-125$), the water O show at the Bellagio (99-150$), the fire Ka show
at the MGM Grand (99-150$) and the adult Zumanity show at New York, New York (65-125$).
Though the tickets are a little pricey, I highly recommend them and I think they’ll entertain
you legions above tigers or magicians.
Getting Back to Food
Our next culinary venture was Joe’s Stone Crabs in the Caesar’s Palace Forum Shops. I had always
wanted to try Florida Stone crabs – legendary among crab aficionados. On a sad note, Florida
stone crabs are good at Joe’s, served fresh with a simple mustard, mayonnaise sauce (I also feel
that mayonnaise based sauces are better for crab than butter) but that they fall below a fresh
Dungeness or Samoan or Blue crab in flavor. However Joe’s serves an excellent Crab Louie Salad
(tastes like Blue crab) and also serve excellent steaks and chops. Their prime steaks are about the
best I’ve tried – above Morton’s, Ruth Chris’ and Hy’s. The rib eye literally dissolved in your
mouth like medium rare hamburger but with all of the flavor of prime rib and the tenderloin –
while fork tender as expected – also had a delectable beef flavor often missing in lesser grades of
tenderloin. Another surprise was the pork loin; it was simply seared in a sweetened herb crust but
roasted perfectly light pink and of so juicy! We tried their famous Key Lime pie for dessert –
almost like lime custard on a crust!
Finally for the piece de resistance, we had dinner at Bradley Ogden’s in Caesar’s Palace. I know
that your first thought is: the Bay Area has several of Chef Ogden’s establishments. Why should
I travel to Las Vegas do dine? Read on. For one, though Bradley Ogden is known for “Regional”
American cuisine using the freshest traditional American products, at Bradley Ogden in Las
Vegas he – borrowing a phrase from Emeril – kicks it up a notch! Kobe beef, Hawaiian Onaga
and Ahi. I thought I was transported back home to Hawaiian Regional Cuisine! I was happy just
knowing that Hawaii finally had been incorporated into America! And the taste! His Ahi roll
with citrus gel lee would stand above some of Hawaii’s own interpretations. The Kobe beef
tataki was the perfect balance between a nicely seared steak and steak tartare. The last time I had
beef interpreted in this manner was at Reed Hearon’s defunct Black Cat in North Beach, San
Francisco. The oysters with herb “foam” were touched with just enough heat to plump them up
but still had the flavor of freshly shucked morsels on the half shell. And these were just the
appetizers! The seared bison steak was as flavorful as any rich cut of beef without most of the
saturated fat found in beef, the scallops perfectly crusted and the Eden Farms pork tenderloin
was as succulent and tender as any pork I’ve tried. The sauces served with these dishes also
complimented each dish with a balance of sweet, sour, salt and bitter so that the focus was on
the bison or scallop or pork but with complementary flavor sensations in the sauces that didn’t
overwhelm the main course. Move aside Bobby, I think Chef Ogden should be the next Iron
Chef American! After the entrees, we could barely squeeze in a cheese course though we did
sample the deconstructed “Doughnuts and Coffee” with airy “doughnut” holes served with an
Should I Have Played the Crap Tables Instead?
Once again, pleasure is judged in the eyes of the beholder (or glutton in this case). These meals
did not come cheap. There are no $3.99 all-you-can-eat buffets at Bradley Ogden’s or Emeril
Lagasse’s or Charlie Palmer’s. What I didn’t gamble away was probably spent for these luxurious
meals. However, I believe that I’ll relish the memories of Beef Carpaccio with Roquefort Polenta
or Ahi Roll with Citrus Gel lee longer than I will of almost hitting Megabucks or almost getting
the double zero on the roulette wheel... And lastly, since I was on vacation the calories and
cholesterol didn’t count!
The Allure of Lost Wages