25 May 2012 20 Comments
So I got to thinking the other day. Which never bodes well for anyone. But it occurred to me in a moment of pure debauchery walking through the casino floor at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, having just had yet another blockbuster meal while clad in nothing but the best that what in hell was a blog strictly about indulgence doing without a Las Vegas entry? It’s ridiculous and irresponsible of me, really. Because Las Vegas is the epitome, the epicentre, the birth place and shrine to all that is indulgent. It’s Satan’s playground. Which makes it one of the greatest places on earth for me, Satan’s best pal.
I know what you’re saying: “So on top of everything else she’s got a gambling problem?” Not true. I’m actually a nervous wreck when it comes to throwing away money. Serious. I sure as hell love spending it, but at the end of the day I’d rather a guarantee I’m going to be able to show something for it than just a handful of shit-all. So Vegas for me means something entirely different. It’s all about the shows, the shopping, the excessive glitz and glamour, the celebration of all that is unnecessarily over-the-top fabulous… And the food.
Back in my parents’ heyday when my mom still wore tinted glasses indoors and considered papasan chairs real furniture (Dad hasn’t changed. Like, at all.), Vegas’s culinary side was all about the all-you-can-eat buffet and the cheapest steak and eggs known to man served 24 hours a day. Not the site for a foodie tour, exactly. But things have changed. Las Vegas has become a glorious celebrity chef pissing contest, the Strip adorned with five star restaurants trying to outdo the other in a culinary showdown of just who’s boss of Sin City. I’ve had some of the best meals of my life in that town, ravioli that I’ve seen singlehandedly bring a man to tears, tasting menus that will remain forever emblazoned in my memory, and dishes that have inspired me to write this very blog. It’s time I paid homage with my top five not-to-miss restaurants in the true city that never sleeps. Pardon the lack of pictures to document, as we’ve all come to vehemently understand that What Happens in Vegas is most definitely meant to Stay in Vegas. (Know that whole “made a deal with the devil” thing? After one particular trip, that’s how Satan and I got to know each other.) Here goes:
#5 Wing Lei
One of my favorite things to eat, especially when it’s a Sunday in Vegas and all I want is something rich and fatty to soak up three days of bottle service, is Chinese food. And Wing Lei at the Wynn Resort is some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had. It’s got all your favorite things like deep fried prawns with walnuts in honey cream sauce, sweet and sour pork, mongolian beef, lemon chicken, etc. but it’s your old favorites gussied up in diamonds and ready for the red carpet. Everything here is special, and in true Vegas fashion, it’s all about going big or going home. One of the best meals I had here was a five-course duck tasting menu, and let me tell you, it was as greasy-lip-smackingly good as it sounds. Duck soup, traditional Peking duck carved table side served with little pancakes for wrapping and hoisin sauce, steamed buns stuffed with duck, duck fried rice… Duck, duck, and more heavenly duck, until we were bursting at the fowl-filled seams. Sure, my hair smelled like duck the next day, but hey: it made me all the more irresistible. To dogs. Wing Lei’s decor is a gold and red dimly lit masterpiece fit for an emperor, too, just to match your new Louboutins that slot machine paid for. Or that high roller paid for. Whatever. If all that doesn’t sell you, it’s the only Asian restaurant in North America to be granted a Michelin star. Need any more convincing?
Fresh sushi is probably not what you’d expect in Vegas, but don’t be dumb: I’ve had one of the top three sushi meals of my entire life in Sin City. In the competitive race to keep up with the culinary Joneses, Las Vegas’ seafood restaurants can’t afford to spare any expense when it comes to their fresh fish, so a lot of money is spent flying in the best money can buy to ensure top quality. Mizumi’s sushi and seafood is going to be on par with anything each coast can offer, and besides that, you can have your meal in what I think is the most beautiful and romantic setting in town. Make sure to call well ahead and book the table situated by Wynn’s man-made spectacular waterfall, accessed only by a walkway across the water. Surrounded in lush tropical flowers and lit up like a technicolor dream at night, it’s kind of impossible not to fall in love with the food or the lucky paramour fortunate enough to dine with your gorgeous self. (Seriously, that lighting looks good on everyone.) If you don’t do sushi, they’ve got one hell of a robata menu and things like 72-hour braised Wagyu short ribs, seared foie gras (calm down) with pickled lychee, and organic Jidori chicken. But my best advice is to do omakase and have the chef create a meal to surprise you. You’ll pay for it, yes. But you’ll be dazzled. Broke and dazzled.
#3 Michael Mina
I know I’ve ranted about this before. But I’m going to do it again. This restaurant, situated in the Bellagio, is responsible for the single best thing I put in my lippy little mouth in a long, long while. So for that reason alone, it belongs on this list and as long as Michael Mina keeps serving it, it always will belong on this list. Plus, I just had it again three days ago and, like a long lost love who just keeps getting more beautiful with age (except less frustrating), it’s just as good if not better than I remember. It’s an individual lobster pot pie with brandied cream sauce, succulent pieces of fresh lobster and sautéed summer vegetables encased in the butteriest of pastry crusts known to all that is holy. Listen, I know I have a tendency to, but I’m not exaggerating. It’s that good. First-world problem is that you can only get it on the Chef’s Tasting Menu, which you owe to yourself to order anyway, because it’s a great way to sample all that Michael Mina has to offer. And it has a lot to offer. Perfect ancho chili tuna tartare, veal loin with sweetbreads and truffle sauce, a whole roasted foie gras for sharing (yeah, I’m evil, shut up), and caviar, caviar, caviar. Oh yeah, and a gourmet root beer float served with warm chocolate chip pecan cookies for dessert. Service is stellar, and the sommeliers are easy on the eyes and only too happy to suggest something spectacular to go with your meal, or serve pairings with the whole thing if you so care to partake. Partake, friends. Par. Take.
Granted I worship many a chef in the world, and have been known to get tongue-tied only while faced with the likes of one of them and Channing Tatum, there are two in particular I deem culinary gods. One is Joel Robuchon (more on him later), and the other is Thomas Keller. Chef Keller is known in the foodie world as the mack daddy of French-American cooking, a man so obsessed with perfection that rumour has it he’s installed cameras in all of his restaurants and watches the feed to make sure his staff are executing his food to his particular liking. My kinda obsessive-compulsive. His french fries have made Anthony Bourdain shake with jealousy, he’s been awarded a flipping galaxy worth of Michelin stars, and his eighteen year old restaurant The French Laundry in Napa Valley still has a two month waiting list for reservations. Bouchon has an excellent French bistro-style menu with things like pan-roasted trout, traditional Boudin Blanc (sausage and stuff), and a ridiculous macaroni gratin, but the meal I love having here, and absolutely have to have while in Vegas, is brunch. There’s something about sitting in Bouchon’s bustling atmosphere on a weekend morning with the sun streaming in the windows while sipping on the perfect bloody mary that just sets you right again. And that brunch is going to set you swooning. Start it off with a selection of fresh from the oven pastries with the restaurant’s daily jam (always changing, always stupid good), maybe a selection from the oyster bar, and then have at it with an incredible croque monsieur, brioche french toast with apples and custard, roast chicken with bacon and chive waffles, or whatever glorious omelette du jour freakshow-talented chef has decided to whip up that day. They don’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait. But I’m told there’s a small wait at the pearly gates, too. Not that Satan or I would know.
#1 Joel Robuchon and L’Atelier Robuchon
I’ll spare you yet another soliloquy on Chef Joel Robuchon, especially since I already wrote about him when I was in Paris here. Just suffice it to say that if Thomas Keller is Jesus, Joel Robuchon might just be Jesus’s daddy. I have never been stunned by a meal like I have by Chef Robuchon, and I can truly say he hasn’t been outdone by another chef in my life since. His restaurants in Vegas, like his restaurants in Paris, do not disappoint, and they are a complete must when it comes to experiencing fine dining during your visit. Restaurant Joel Robuchon is one of those once-in-a-lifetime places with an extremely hefty price tag and a very special occasion atmosphere, like when you’re ready to put a ring on it or you’ve got three weeks to live or you just won the lottery. Or if you’re just a food whore like me. Bathed in soft light and richly accented with plush royal purple and ruby red velvet, it’s a total dream of a room. The ala carte menu is a stunner with luxuries like beef rib eye cooked on rock salt, truffle langoustine ravioli, and breaded and deep fried soft boiled eggs served with caviar. But the true way to experience Joel Robuchon is the Menu Degustation, a 16 course (yes, I said six fucking teen) meal of epic proportions, complete with gourmet bread cart to start where you pick your own bread that is at once whisked off to the kitchen to be warmed, and a bonus 17th course candy cart stacked high with fresh in-house made chocolates, bonbons, and cookies. If you can get through the entirety (don’t be an idiot like me and take your pumps off halfway through under the table, because good luck getting them back on again), there’s an individual loaf of orange peel breakfast bread wrapped in cellophane waiting for you at the door as a thank you/nail in your coffin/see ya sucker gift to enjoy the next morning. But if you don’t feel like rolling around all night while having weird purple carnival dreams where all the clowns are made of candy but smell like meat, go next door to L’Atelier, which is just as great. Set in a more casual setting with an open kitchen and high-top tables or (even better) bar seating to see all the action, L’Atelier has a fantastic menu full tapas-style eats like Iberico ham with toasted tomato bread, onion and smoked bacon tarts, and (my fave) foie stuffed quail. They’ve also got a much cheaper degustation menu that’ll knock you off your bar stool and won’t leave you cursing Monsieur Robuchon or me the next day. It’s going to be incredibly special, either way. Live a little.
It’s pretty fair to say this list is going to change rather often with every trip back to my favorite little haven of heathens, but I’d say these five are a pretty good start. Just remember: there are things that aren’t allowed in Vegas. Things like guilt. And maybe flats. Vacations are meant for being a little more indulgent than usual, so have fun, get dressed up, enjoy life, and eat your face off.
Oh, and bet on red. (Satan’s words. Not mine, I swear.)